(26) Inner circle collapses: Kim Jae-gyu and Cha Ji-cheol
By Michael Breen
As director of the Korean CIA in 1979, Kim Jae-gyu was the last man considered a threat to President Park Chung-hee. A longtime friend, Kim’s official job was to monitor and catch enemies of the state. But as the dictator embodied the state, his job in practice was to monitor, manipulate and spy on anyone who threatened Park’s life, rule or reputation, be they North Korean agents, local poets, politicians or priests.
In this role, he was a key figure in the inner circle. Another was Cha Ji-cheol, the head of the Presidential Security Service. A brutish man who controlled the President’s schedule, his maneuvering drove Kim to a furious final outburst during which he killed both Cha and their boss.
Kim came from Gumi, the same town as Park. He was born in 1926 and attended the local Gyeongbuk University. In 1945, he took a job as a school teacher but the next year switched careers to enter the South Joseon Defense Academy, the forerunner of the Korea Military Academy. He was in the same class as Park Chung-hee.
From there Kim went to the Army College, graduating during the Korean War. He was made a regimental commander in 1954 and three years later was appointed vice-president of the Army College.
At the time of Park’s coup in 1961, the revolutionaries detained Kim, believing him to be an opponent. Park intervened and ordered his release. In 1963, Park made Kim the commander of the Sixth Division. His troops were used to put down student protests against the Korean-Japanese normalization. Kim is reported to have opposed the use of the Army for detaining protesters (one of whom was the current president Lee Myung-bak), which he saw as police work.
In 1968, Kim was appointed head of the Defense Security Command, a military intelligence body that spied for the dictator on the military itself.
According to some reports, Kim favored democracy. He is said to have privately criticized the formation of Hanahoe, a fraternity of younger graduates of the military academy which swore loyalty to Park. This group was led by Chun Doo-hwan, who later, as head of the Defense Security Command, would investigate Park’s assassination and go on to stage his own coup. Kim also allegedly opposed the 1972 Yushin Constitution, the measures forced through the parliament to quell dissent and guarantee Park’s position as president for life
Writing in prison after the assassination, Kim claimed that it was Yushin that made him turn against Park. In the courtroom, he further claimed that he had earlier, as commander of the Third Division, intended to detain Park on base and force his resignation. One of his subordinates, who happened to be his own brother-in-law, backed this somewhat far-fetched claim with testimony that Kim had set up a fence around a small building on base to hold Park in.
This never happened. Instead, in 1974, Kim was appointed to the cabinet as minister of construction. His defense lawyer in 1979 said he had first planned to assassinate Park during the appointment ceremony.
Two years later, Park made Kim KCIA director. The American Embassy considered him an untypical intelligence chief for his apparent support for democracy and improvement of human rights.
Twenty-five years after Park’s death, stories of Kim’s connections with the then Roman Catholic Cardinal Kim Sou-hwan and another leading light of the democracy movement, Jang Jun-ha, a journalist and politician, prompted some rethinking of Kim’s reason for killing Park. Kim reportedly asked Cardinal Kim to propose that Park revise the Yushin Constitution. The cardinal was considered the only person in the country who could safely speak his mind to the President. However, the discussions went nowhere.
This view of Kim notwithstanding, it was under his watch that the agency murdered one of his predecessors, Kim Hyeong-wook, for the unforgivable crime of testifying against Park before the U.S. Congress.
In 1978 a narrow win in National Assembly elections by the opposition New Democratic Party took the country in the direction of political confrontation. The opposition started to take a stronger line in the Assembly (even though rules which allowed Park to appoint one third of congressmen meant the opposition still lacked a majority). In 1979, despite clandestine efforts by the KCIA in favor of a rival candidate, Kim Young-sam was elected leader of the opposition party. He declared he would not cooperate with Park until the Yushin Constitution was repealed.
In September 1979, the KCIA persuaded some oppositionists to file a suit against their own chairman. Kim Young-sam’s election was promptly invalidated on a technicality. Kim Young-sam then stoked the fire even more intensely by declaring in an interview with The New York Times that Washington should withdraw its support for Park’s dictatorship. Park expelled him from the National Assembly, a move which KCIA Director Kim counseled against.
The KCIA director summoned Kim Young-sam and warned him that further confrontation would end up being worse for everyone. He asked the opposition party leader to claim that the newspaper had misunderstood his point. Kim Young-sam refused. All opposition lawmakers resigned from the Assembly, the U.S. withdrew its ambassador, and protests erupted in Kim Young-sam’s home base of Busan and Masan.
The KCIA director himself went to Busan expecting to see the usual student protests but instead saw adults participating in what he considered to be a popular uprising.
Cha Ji-cheol, meanwhile, was proving to be an increasing thorn in Kim Jae-gyu’s side. Cha had been appointed as chief bodyguard in 1974 after an assassination attempt on Park in which the first lady, Yook Yeong-su, was shot dead.
With his privileged position, Cha began to use his intimate access to the lonely President to inflate his role. He built up his command to equal that of an army division with its own tanks, helicopters, and troops. On one occasion, after a provincial governor had surprised the President by lighting Park’s cigarette with his lighter accidentally turned to high-flame, Cha stayed behind and physically assaulted the hapless official.
In his last year, Cha began to step more boldly onto Kim’s territory. When he started to control the presidential schedule, he pushed the KCIA briefing, normally the first item on the daily agenda, to the afternoon. Cha allegedly interfered in KCIA attempts to block Kim Young-sam’s election and then blamed Kim Jae-gyu for its failure. Cha also argued for Kim Young-sam’s expulsion from the parliament, the move which the KCIA director opposed and which led to the Busan-Masan uprising. Cha blamed the deterioration of events on Kim Jae-gyu’s weak leadership.
On his final day, Park attended ribbon-cutting ceremonies for a dam and for a new KBS TV transmitting station. Kim was expected to accompany him since the TV station was under KCIA jurisdiction but Cha blocked him from riding in the same helicopter with the President. The KCIA director angrily excused himself from the trip.
When he arrived back in Seoul, the President told the KCIA a dinner at one of its safe houses in Gungjeong-dong in the Jongno district of Seoul. The KCIA director was there, as was Cha, the president’s Chief Secretary Kim Gye-won (who had been head of the Army College when Kim Jae-gyu was the vice-president). The two other participants were singer Sim Soo-bong and a young lady named Shin Jae-soon.
During the dinner, they talked about the protests in Busan. The President and his bodyguard talked tough while the KCIA director proposed a moderate approach. Park criticized him for being soft and Cha weighed in. Kim left the room and came back with a weapon and shot Cha and Park. Outside, KCIA agents shot and killed other presidential bodyguards and the President’s driver.
Kim then ran to the building nearby where Army Chief of Staff Jeong Seung-hwa was waiting with KCIA Deputy Director Kim Jeong-seop. Kim told Jeong the President was dead but did not explain what had happened. Instead of going to the KCIA, they drove to the defense ministry to arrange for emergency martial law.
When the Army chief learned from the President’s chief secretary that Kim was the killer, he ordered the head of the Defense Security Command, General Chun Doo-hwan, to arrest him and investigate. The “investigation’’ meant that Kim and his aides were tortured to make confessions. For good measure, Chun later arrested Army Chief of Staff Jeong and Chief Presidential Secretary Kim.
After a trial in May 1980, Kim Jae-gyu, his driver and three KCIA agents were hanged. His chief aide, who was on military service, was shot by firing squad. Another agent was sentenced to a prison term.
Michael Breen is an author, former foreign correspondent and the chairman of Insight Communications, a public relations consulting company. He can be reached at email@example.com.