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Declassified document reveals Chun Doo-hwan enlisted US’ help after military coup

Former President Chun Doo-hwan (left)and his wife Lee Soon-ja get in their car to head to the Gwangju District Court on Apr. 27. (Yonhap)
Former President Chun Doo-hwan (left)and his wife Lee Soon-ja get in their car to head to the Gwangju District Court on Apr. 27. (Yonhap)

A host of declassified US documents revealed former president Chun Doo-hwan reached out to the US in the aftermath of staging a military coup in 1979, that later put him into power. 

In about 140 pages of State Department documents released by the Seoul’s Foreign Ministry on Friday, the full text report of the meeting between then US Ambassador to Korea William Gleysteen and Chun on Dec. 15, 1979, three days after the coup, was revealed. 

Chun told Gleysteen that he staged a coup and ordered the arrest of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Jeong Seung-hwa, in an attempt to complete the investigation of assassination of President Park Chung-hee on Oct. 26 that year, and not out of his “personal ambition.” After the assassination of Park, Jeong was quickly appointed as martial law commander, holding the real power at the time. 

While justifying his move, Chun had enlisted US support, raising concern on the instability within the military. 

“He warned that while there was a surface calm, he feared large numbers of Jeong supporters in the army might seek to redress the situation over the next few weeks,” Gleysteen reported. “Obviously Chun and his colleagues would like to enlist our help in containing military counter action. While we can easily stress the importance of unity in the military, we may conceivably be faced with some extremely tricky choices in the weeks and months ahead."
 
The ambassador had expressed disappointment and concern, and warned that the US position for Korea is to maintain a “civilian government” and that Chun’s action had raised great concern on the stability within the military and “run great risks in light of the North Korean threat.”

In response, Chun had said he has no political ambition, and that he supports then President Choi Kyu-hah’s liberalization movement, who was later outsted as a result of Chun’s military coup. 

The report also show Gleysteen’s concern before meeting Chun, as his visit could legitimize Chun. 

“My contact with Chun ran the risk that he will seek to use it as an indication that we accept the legitimacy of his group’s seizure of power,” he said. 

Immediately after the military coup, Gleysteen has characterized the coup as “carefully planned takeover of the military power positions by a group of “young turk” officers, and identified Chun as the most important figure of the coup. 

The military coup gave Chun grip of the country, that led to democratic uprising involving students across the country. On May 18, hundreds of citizens were killed in a deadly military crackdown on the protesters in the city of Gwangju.

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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