For many years the military dictator Park Chung-hee, self-proclaimed “president for life” feared assassination, particularly by communists or North Korean agents. His wife was killed in 1974 by an assassin gunning for her husband. Ironically, the deed was finally done by Park’s own head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, Kim Kae-won, who was angry at his declining influence over Park and fearful of losing his job. He invited Park to dinner at KCIA headquarters, killed Park and Cha Ji Chui and had his five KCIA henchmen finish off the remaining bodyguards. Almost immediately, all of the culprits were arrested and questioned. The “Friday night massacre” was reportedly plotted and led by Kim alone and was not part of a coup. The assassination was the subject of the controversial black comedy The President’s Last Bang (2005).
The following conversation with my friend Frank took place in 2007.
When I came here in 1970, there was all kinds of martial law stuff going on and police stuff. Korean police were like stopping Korean boys with long hair and dragging them off and cutting out hunks of their hair [like just on one side so they’d have to go to a barber to get a haircut to even it out]. They were arresting people for long hair and so forth. Of course, I had come through the Boston sort of hippie era, and I was outraged by it. Now I had a job at The Korea Herald, proofreading and writing headlines. I worked with these two older foreigners. One of them was an ex-military guy, and the other had left the priesthood and gotten married. They were both nice enough guys, but I was having these big arguments with them at work. “They’d say, “Aw, Frank, these are Korean kids. They don’t need long hair.” I’m pretty sure that even in the ‘70s and even in the ‘80s there were street thugs and scummy sorts of people that were attached to the police.
I had a beard when I was a professor in Tokyo. I came here with a Japanese-American who had really long, straight, jet-black hair. We were traveling around the country, hitch-hiking out in the middle of nowhere. This black military jeep came along, slammed on the brakes, and these two thugs in leather jackets—they were obviously official sort of guys—jumped out of the jeep and started manhandling my friend, grabbing him and yelling at him. I couldn’t understand the Korean, but I was trying to get between them. I said, “He’s an American. He’s an American.” Finally I got through.
The main attacker stepped back and said “American?”
I said, “Show him your passport.”
So Rod pulled out an American passport, and these guys started laughing and apologized. They said, “Where are you going? We’re going this way.” With a little bit of trepidation I got into the jeep.
Those were crazy times. I think people were just really afraid to talk. South Korea was a real police state. For example, at the U.S. Osan Air Base [located near Songtan, Korea], there was a Korean guy who worked at the education center as an administrator. He’d go to the public bath over the weekend. Apparently—or the story was that he had said—while bathing—that Pres. Park should step down. He was locked up for a couple of months for making a comment like that. I used to watch out in restaurants and bars when people would start saying “Taehan Minguk” [Daehanminguk in the revised romanization, the ethnic-nationalistic slogan for Korean land and people]. It was always some drunk right-winger I wanted to steer clear of.
One of my in-laws worked in the legal system. Sometimes I would make critical comments about Park, but even within the family he would never say anything critical. But at a family gathering after Park was shot, I said, “After all Park’s done for the [economic development of the] country, it was a shame he was shot down like a dog.” This in-law said, “How many people did he kill?” It was a complete 180-degree turnaround.
Every office had a picture of Park on the wall. A priest I knew, a foreigner, used to get drunk and go into the police box when he was drunk and point to the picture of Pres. Park and call him an asshole and saying what a jerk he was and the police would just laugh and say, “Go home. Go to bed. You’re drunk.”
It’s amazing today. I don’t know if you ever noticed, but out near out near Songnam, before Bundang, there’s a Korean air base—Seoul Air Base. The U.S. Army has helicopters out there, too, but the bases are kind of separated. I’m out there sometimes. That’s where the Korean presidents and dignitaries fly in, as well as Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush. Whenever an important person is coming in, there is a Korean Secret Service guy and a policeman at every street or alleyway, any road that would have access to the road that the motorcade is going to be on. This is for miles and miles. They have police downtown, right through the tunnel, down across the bridge route, blocking traffic for two or three minutes before the dignitary arrives. They time all the lights so that the traffic never stops. The driver can just drive straight through, and it’s so well timed with the police in walkie-talkie communication along the way blocking off the traffic. So the traffic hardly changes from its usual routine.
At Osan Air Base, there’s a big overpass that goes to the base. I remember once in the Park Chung-hee era I was driving on the overpass, and suddenly these ajǒssis [middle-aged Korean men] and paramilitary guards stopped me. They were all blowing their whistles and waving their arms. So they pulled me over, “Get out of the car! Down the stairs! Down the stairs! Down the stairs!” Next to the sidewalk on one side of the overpass there was a concrete stairwell. I walked down about halfway down thirty to fifty stairs, and they blew the whistle at me and said, “Come on back up.” So I got up to the top of the stairs, and I said, “Number one?” and held up my index finger. They laughed, and they said, “Number one.” Park had just driven by.
I mean, it took the CIA chief to kill Park Chung-hee. There were only maybe two or three people that were close enough, and even then they had to have some luck. If I remember correctly, a pistol was put in the bathroom, and during a drinking party, the CIA chief went in there to take a whiz and came back with the pistol and shot him.
Korea is still a place for rumors. But back in 1974 when Pres. Park’s wife was shot, there was a rumor that he had her shot, that he was tired of her. [The rumor is not surprising because Park was in the National Theater giving a speech, and the gunman fired several shots from the back row, wounding Park’s wife, Yuk Young-soo, and another person. Park continued to speak while his dying wife was carried off the stage.] After the KCIA chief, Kim Jae-kyu, shot Park, there was a rumor that they’d executed somebody else and that Kim was running a grocery store in Minneapolis. In a police state anything was possible. There was no freedom of information, so any rumor was considered more plausible than a reported account.
Another interesting story was that the martial law commander before Chun Doo-hwan, a general several years older and senior to Chun, was arrested for complicity in the Park assassination. I think probably that was how the coup was staged. As martial law commander, he was up on the side of the Namsan, down in Hannam-dong. There’s a bunker up there in the woods [and buildings where dissidents were tortured]. Soldiers loyal to Chun or Rho Tae-woo went up there and surrounded it. One or two guards were killed. They arrested him, claiming that he had met with the Kim Jae-kyu before Park was shot. They framed him so that Chun could take over as martial law commander, which enabled him to seize power. Later it was shown to be all completely nonsense, and the general was exonerated, his name cleared and so forth.
When he was arrested, my wife was down on the bridge down in Hannam-dong, and she heard the gunshots up on the hillside. All the traffic was paralyzed. She was in a cab, and she got out and walked across the bridge. I guess that would have been directly before. The Kwangju demonstrations were in reaction to Chun’s illegal seizure of power. Chun responded by launching the suppression and massacre down there.
In 1970 there were only one or two bridges over the Han River. There wasn’t one in Hannam-dong, for example. Where the highway now crosses the Hannam Bridge there was just a dirt road down by the river. I remember getting directions to somewhere in Seoul, which is now filled with highrises, and hearing. “You can’t miss it. It’s the only 5-story building around. They didn’t mean it was the smallest. They meant that it was the biggest.
I think it was about ‘73 or ‘74, when the first high-rise apartments went up in Youi-do. A friend of mine moved there to a place along the Han River. We went to a party at his place on the seventh or eighth floor, and we were just amazed. The thousands and thousands of apartment blocks started springing up in the mid to late ‘70s. South of the river was just pear trees. Yangjye [at the southern end of Seoul], which is now one of the biggest real estate areas in Seoul. But back then my wife and I rode a bus out in the countryside, a country bus, all through the rice fields to Yangjye. It was called Malchiguri, that means “horse” something-or-other.” I wanted to live there and commute into Seoul, but she didn’t want to live out there because it smelled of manure and it was just so country. She said, “No way I’m going to live here.”
In ‘79-80 there were a lot of hakwons [usually for-profit cram schools]. In ‘71 or ‘72, I was lost staying in a temple in Incheon. I went down to the waterfront and got lost. A woman took me in for the night. There was a story that she’d been seduced by a priest, gotten pregnant and had a child. She was a little crazy. But she ran an institute for half-Korean kids who wanted to get to the States or be adopted. I taught there for a while, and then later when I was traveling through and I got a job teaching English around Osan.