(580) Secret emissary from North
By Andrei Lankov
In the early hours of the morning on May 16 1961 ― to be precise, at 5:30 a.m. ― troops under the command of Major General Park Chung-hee entered Seoul. In the following hours they took over control over Army Headquarters, Central Government offices and the Seoul Central Broadcasting. The military coup met with little in the way of resistance and a new era in South Korean history began.
The early 1960s were a golden age for military juntas across the world. They came in many different ideological guises and therefore, for a brief while, it was unclear what political direction the coup in South Korea was going to take.
The biography of the new leader left much space for doubt. Nowadays, Park is usually seen as a former pro-Japanese collaborator (indeed, he was once an officer in the Japanese army), but back in the 1960s, he was often seen, first and foremost, as an ex-communist.
In the late 1940s, Park was briefly a member of the South Korean Communist Party and was even condemned to death for his activities. He was saved however by fellow officers who admired his integrity and bravery. But it was still the object of suspicion for the rest of his military career. Therefore, it is no surprise that General Park’s sudden assent to power produced some unease in Washington and some hopes in Pyongyang.
Indeed, some of North Korea’s senior officials at the time still had firsthand memory of Park Chung-hee as the brave communist organizer. Others remembered his brother, a communist activist, who was killed by the rightists in 1946.
Therefore one should not be too surprised that in early summer 1961, the North Korean leadership decided to establish a direct channel of clandestine communication with Park Chung-hee. It is doubtful that Pyongyang leaders saw him as a closet communist but they clearly had some hope that General Park may have been far more friendly to Pyongyang than his predecessors.
Such hopes were encouraged by a few rounds of top secret talks between Seoul and Pyongyang ― the first of such contacts since the end of the Korean War. These talks were initiated by the South Korean side and were conducted amidst the greatest secrecy in the summer of 1961 (South and North Korean officers met at a remote island).
In this situation the North Koreans decided to send a secret emissary to Seoul. This role was to be taken by the deputy trade minister, Hwang Tae-song. The choice might appear to be strange, but there was some logic behind it ― once upon a time, Hwang and General Park had been close friends.
Hwang, a high-level bureaucrat in his mid-50s, was no James Bond. But he was smart and had good connections in the South. He arrived in Seoul on Sept. 1 1961 and began to work hard to find ways to secretly approach Park. First he contacted a young university lecturer, whose family lived in the North. Then he approached some other intellectuals, who combined leftist backgrounds with government connections.
Hwang checked into the Pando Hotel, then the best and largest accommodation in the city (located on the site of the present-day Lotte Hotel). There, in the room of his 8th floor suite, he met with Kim Jong-pil, a powerful politician and one of the closest associates of Park. The political proposals were largely about a possible summit between Kim Il-sung and Park Chung-hee, as well as about a general relaxation of inter-Korean tensions.
There are also rumors that Hwang met General Park himself, but these rumors have remained unsubstantiated and are likely unfounded.
However, things did not work out well. In spite of his earlier infatuation with communism, Park did not trust Kim Il-sung and his regime; also understanding that contacts with the North were likely to damage his country’s relations with the United States.
Park and his entourage decided, with these considerations in mind, to deal with the problem dramatically. In October 1961, Hwang was arrested as a North Korean spy. Soon, he would stand a much publicized trial and was sentenced to death. After being sentenced, Hwang said that it is not customary under international law to shoot the messenger of a hostile state, however much you do not care for the state itself.
Hwang was shot at a military base near Seoul. The first attempt to start inter-Korean dialogue ended badly, not to be repeated for another decade or so. Park Chung-hee obviously decided that the risk was not worth taking. He wanted U.S. aid and therefore had to dispel lingering suspicions about his own communist past. Hwang fell victim to these calculations. Whether they were right or wrong we will probably never know for sure.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. You can reach him at email@example.com.