The present power holders in Korea like to refer to the turmoil in 2016 as the “candlelight revolution.” President Moon Jae-in and people around him may want to use the word revolution for its strong political appeal, but not many would agree that the monthslong protests in Seoul that eventually brought them to power deserves that title in the bumpy annals of our republic.
Tens of thousands of people gathered at Gwanghwamun Square on weekend evenings with candles in their hands to denounce President Park Geun-hye’s mysterious dependence on her female confidante, Choi Sun-sil, while the media competitively exposed improprieties in her administration. In later stages, a counter force in support of Park also appeared in Seoul Plaza down the street.
Demonstrators grew in number and noise, but the situation was under control. The National Assembly passed Park’s impeachment, the Constitutional Court upheld her dismissal and a snap presidential election was held to elect Moon, the opposition candidate. No definition of “revolution” by Aristotle down to any contemporary political scientist applies here.
The Republic of Korea has witnessed “revolutions” of the common sense, accompanied by varying degrees of bloodshed. There were a student uprising in 1960, a military coup the following year, and the Gwangju uprising in 1980 that was violently suppressed but re-erupted in 1987 to result in the democratic reforms that brought about the system we have now. Martial law was imposed in 1960, 1961 and 1979.
Four decades after we last heard the eerie words “martial law,” controversies have flared up over reports the Defense Security Command worked on a plan to clamp down and declare martial law to deal with public disorder that might occur after the Constitutional Court ruled on Park’s fate in March 2017. The ruling camp says it revealed a military plot to keep Park in power, while their opponents read it as a simple manual for contingencies resulting from Park’s dismissal or retention.
At this moment, I notice significant discrepancy between the present government leaders’ condemnation of emergency measures prepared by the military intelligence apparatus under the previous government and their claim of “revolution” as the source of power. If the nocturnal demonstrations in 2016 through early 2017 were the process of revolution as President Moon asserts, a move by the past government trying to maintain the constitutional order via martial law could be justified.
If the situation was further aggravated with the 150,000-strong National Police being unable to maintain law and order across the country, the armed forces may have been called in. Such a step was unnecessary, as the people and political forces respected constitutional order. In 1987, people power ended authoritarian rule in a peaceful manner. No one has since doubted that the nation has grown beyond the possibility of a military takeover.
The Defense Security Command, created during the Korean War as “the Special Services Corps” with counterintelligence and criminal investigation functions combined, has seen ups and downs in its role and power. The apex was when Chun Doo-hwan, its head in 1979, arrested Central Intelligence Agency chief Kim Jae-kyu for assassinating President Park Chung-hee and eventually grabbed power through a revolt in the military.
As one of multiple pillars of power for dictators, the DSC operated an extensive surveillance network that covered civilian sectors beyond the military community. It has undergone organizational and functional reforms in accordance with democratic changes in recent years, but the DSC leadership working in the new office complex in the suburbs of Seoul must still have had an inclination toward services of certain political nature during the 2016-17 turmoil.
On an order from a higher office or at their own initiatives, DSC officers drafted a plan -- more precisely a scenario -- on what the military should and could do if the situation turned chaotic from the Constitutional Court’s ruling on Park Geun-hye, which could call for the invocation of martial law. The document specified what special forces units should be dispatched to which cities and provinces using how many pieces of armor. But the paper lacked complete details in its meager 10 pages.
In the ongoing partisan tussle, it is strange to see members of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea looking askance at the military in general for preparing emergency measures for martial law during a time of internal disturbances, forgetting that the armed forces and civilian government are inseparable, with common responsibility for national security. We also are sorry for the leaders of the former ruling Liberty Korea Party trying to detach themselves from what the DSC officers did in the spring of 2017.
President Moon emphasizes the revolutionary quality of the current developments in Korea from the need to broaden the scope of reforms to the political, economic and social sectors and expedite shift from the right to the left. The landslide victory in local elections last month boosted the ruling side’s confidence, while they believe they earned a momentum for the process from the on-going denuclearization negotiations with North Korea.
So a close look into the military as an institution must be of great importance at this time of security alert. The discovery of the DSC document on the contemplated state of martial law, presumably in the course of investing the military intelligence outfit’s internet campaign in past general elections, provides an opportunity for the new leadership to take care of the military community directly or indirectly.
Now that President Moon has ordered a probe into the DSC’s martial law plan by a special investigation team, it may be necessary to determine if there was an abuse of official authority by determining who ordered the study of emergency steps in March 2017. However, it needs a great imaginative power to suspect that a military coup d’etat was planned through the command channel of the Defense Security Command. That the supposedly secret paper containing the plan is filed in the official dossier without even being properly classified tells something about how it came into being.
It is noteworthy that the Uriminjokkiri news service that speaks for Pyongyang on inter-Korean affairs termed the DSC study of martial law in 2017 as “a criminal plot that infuriates everyone, even mountains, rivers and plants.” The North’s propaganda outlet commented, “The entire South Korea would have turned into a worst carnage if the coup plot was carried out.”
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He can be reached at email@example.com – Ed.