With heads bowed and tears flowing, mourners pay respect to the late former President Park Chung-hee in this 1979 file photo. After 18 years in power, Park was assassinated by his Korean CIA director, Kim Jae-kyu, on Oct. 26, 1979, at the then-KCIA annex in the Cheong Wa Dae compound.
/ Korea Times
By Michael Breen
In the early evening of Oct. 26, 1979, the Korean President Park Chung-hee sat down to dinner for the last time. The subject on his
mind was the eruption of civil unrest after the expulsion of the opposition leader Kim Young-sam from the National Assembly for continuing to criticize Park?’s repressive policies.
His choice of dinner companions reflected his concerns, the Korean CIA director, Kim Jae-kyu, chief bodyguard Cha Ji-chul, who had become increasingly powerful, and chief Blue House secretary, the former KCIA director Kim Gae-won.
The four men had known each other for many years. All had been military officers and had participated in the military coup which had put Park in power 18 years earlier. They dined in a restaurant in the KCIA annex in the Blue House compound.
In the custom of the day for the elite, two young ladies were present to entertain them, the singer Shim Soo-bong, 24, who had performed for Park at earlier dinners, and Shin Jae-soon, 22, a Hanyang University drama student, who had been scouted by a KCIA official for this purpose.
The group began their meal shortly after 6pm. The two ladies sat on either side of Park.
Park asked Shim Soo-bong to sing. In a 2005 movie, "The President’s Last Bang," the actress playing Shim sings enka, the Japanese singing genre which Park was believed to like, but Shim herself insists she sang just one Korean song, "That Person Back Then," a song which since has become inextricably associated with the events that were to unfold that evening.
Park was a small and compact man. He was 1.63m (5 ft. 4 in.) and kept himself in shape. A moderate drinker, he was considered austere and humorless. A previous American ambassador described him as "’aloof, authoritarian and disdainful," saying he "demanded respect, not popularity." He had become even more inward-looking in the five years since his wife Yook Young-soo was killed during an assassination attempt on his own life.
According to the later report by investigators, Park was upset that the KCIA had not anticipated the anti-government demonstrations and not subdued them. At about 7p.m., he asked Kim if the reason the protests had happened was because his agents had obtained no prior knowledge.
Kim later told investigators that he briefed Park that contrary to what he previously thought, the rioters were angry citizens, not the "impure elements" that the dictatorship used to blame for protests and who lacked popular support. Of 160 arrested, only 16 were students, he said. He feared the discontent would spread into nationwide revolt.
Park, he claimed, then had a "tantrum," saying that if the situation worsened, he would give the order to shoot demonstrators in order to maintain control. Park allegedly said that, even though those responsible for giving the shoot-to-kill order against student demonstrators in 1960 were executed, that no one could execute him as he was the president.
Kim claimed Cha picked up the theme and said that, just as the Cambodian government had killed five million and was still in power, it would ?’not make any difference?if one or two million Koreans were killed.
Whether this was an exaggeration to portray himself as a savior, it is clear that the intervention of Cha in this heated exchange triggered Kim’s rage. Cha had become the president?’s closest advisor and was not above physically assaulting senior officials who upset him.
It was now around 7: 40 p.m. Kim Jae-kyu stormed out. He told his own security detail to shoot Park’s guards if they heard shots. He returned to the room with a .32 caliber handgun in his waistband and sat down. Then he suddenly stood up, pointed the gun at Cha.
He shouted at Park, "How can you have such a miserable worm as your adviser?" and shot at Cha, hitting him in the wrist of his right hand. He then shot Park in the chest. Cha scrambled to the safety of the bathroom. Kim Gye-won, the Blue House secretary, ran out of the room. Kim's weapon jammed and he left the room. The two women, meanwhile, tended to the wounded president. Outside, Kim’s KCIA guards shot four of Park's presidential security detail, killing three.
Kim returned with a .38 caliber gun and killed Cha with a shot to the stomach. The singer Shim Soo-bong ran out of the room. Kim then went over to Park who was lying on the floor. As he lifted the gun to Park?’s head, the student Shin ran away. Kim shot Park behind his right ear.
In a few moments, the author of the most remarkable and unlikely development story in the world was dead. It was the end of an era for Koreans. Two decades earlier, their country was one of the poorest in the world. Now, it was already being touted as an economic miracle.
Kim was arrested four hours later after murdering Park.
His bumbling escape: he had hailed a cab outside the Blue House and failure to kill the three witnesses convinced investigators that the murders were an act of spontaneous passion rather than part of a premeditated coup attempt by the KCIA. Kim was hanged on May 24 the following year, along with the head of security at the KCIA facility, two agents and a driver. One agent was executed by firing squad on March 6. Another, Seo Young-jun, was jailed and later released in 1982.
Chief Secretary Kim Gye-won also aroused suspicion. As Kim Jae-gyu's best friend, it was believed he knew Kim's emotional state and could have prevented what happened. His flight from the scene and failure to immediately reveal who pulled the trigger suggested that he was a conspirator. He was given the death penalty, but the court later ruled he was more irresponsible than guilty and commuted the sentence. He was also released in 1982.
The singer Shim Sang-boo was not able to appear on TV until the mid-1980s. But she went on to release several albums. The drama student Shin Jae-soon wrote a book of her experience, "Geugosei Geunyoga Isonei" The Woman Who Was There?. She now lives in L.A.