The Chargé in Korea (Drumright) to the Secretary of State

No. 435

Subject: Reaction to the Secretary’s Aide-Mémoire

The Secretary of State’s aide-mémoire to the Korean Ambassador1 was, after President Rhee caused it to be translated and distributed to the National Assembly, received here as the stern warning which it was intended to be. There was some immediate resentment, outstanding [Page 53]among which was that of Assembly Vice Speaker Yoon Ch’i Yung, who charged that there was no Korean intention of violating the principles of democracy by delaying elections; Yoon further went on to direct remarks against Dr. Arthur C. Bunce, chief of the Economic Cooperation Administration Mission to Korea, described in a separate report to Washington by Dr. Bunce in Toeca A–25, April 12, 1950.2 Unofficial censorship kept the contents of the aide-mémoire out of the Korean press until press association despatches carried the gist, from Washington, on April 9.3 Editorial reaction was generally thoughtful, although there was some comment that the tone of the aide-mémoire and letter of Economic Cooperation Administrator Paul C. Hoffman to the Korean Prime Minister, of March 23, 19504 was sterner than Korea deserved. In this, the press betrayed much the same complacency regarding the seriousness of the situation as was evident in Korean Government circles prior to receipt of the aide-mémoire and Hoffman letter. Radio Pyongyang characterized the aide-mémoire as “interference of American imperialism” in Korean affairs, although the Communists apparently worked from the confused premise that May elections to provide continuous existence of Parliamentary government in Korea were evil in themselves as well as a scheme of President Rhee to perpetuate himself in power. There was little, if any, comment in newspapers outside the city of Seoul, and after initial editorials in the Seoul papers, the aide-mémoire disappeared as a topic of press comment, being overshadowed by the coming election campaign. Anti-administration forces may make use of it in the campaign, however.

Events subsequent to delivery of the aide-mémoire. After delivery of the text of the aide-mémoire to the President, as described in Embtel 453 of April 4, an officer of the Embassy called on Kim Sung Soo, head of the Democratic Nationalist Party, at present the strongest organized political group in opposition to the President. The conversation, in which other members of the DNP also participated, is described in Enclosure No. 1.2 The two main points of the aide-mémoire were made known to the DNP leaders, and they indicated that they had come to the same conclusions concerning the necessity of passing a balanced budget and holding May elections as scheduled. They were in doubt, however, as to the President’s intentions.

It is the Embassy’s opinion that the President came to the conclusion the following day, April 5 (which was a Korean holiday, Arbor Day), that he must support May elections, and it is understood that [Page 54]he ordered translations of the aide-mémoire and parts of the Hoffman letter to the Prime Minister made for intended distribution in the National Assembly the next day, when a vote on the vetoed Election Bill was scheduled. This bill, vetoed April 3 by the President, had provided for elections within the last 20 clays of May. On that same day, April 5, the President also was visited by the senior Vice Speaker (and Acting Speaker) of the Assembly, Kim Tong Wun, a DNP. According to Kim, the President offered to appear in the Assembly the next day, when the vote on overriding was scheduled. The President, however, did not appear, and by failure of the Office of Administration to deliver the material to the Assembly secretariat in time, translations of the aide-mémoire and the Hoffman letter were not distributed in the Assembly that day. Despite reference by some Assemblymen to Government receipt of a strong warning from the United States, the Assembly failed to override the veto. As in the Constitutional amendment voting, abstentions largely by the generally pro-Administration Taehan (Great Korea) Nationalist Party resulted in failure of the measure to obtain the necessary two-thirds affirmative votes.

National Assembly reaction. Translations of the Secretary’s aide-mémoire and parts of the Hoffman letter were distributed in the Assembly shortly after it convened the day following the vote on the vetoed Election Law, April 7. The President himself also made an unscheduled appearance, during which he discussed the possibility of loss or reduction of American aid, suggesting that if Assemblymen had any doubts about Government receipt of United States warnings they “might ask either the ECA or the American Ambassador.” After blaming much of the criticism of the Republic of Korea on Owen Lattimore5 and unspecified Koreans in the United States, the President urged passage of the FY 1950/51 budget6 and necessary revenue measures without regard to “personal” considerations. He then promised elections sometime between May 25 and 30, excusing his own previous requests for election postponement on the grounds that he had wanted “to enable you (Assemblymen), in leisure, to pass the important bills with an easy mind.” Enclosure No. 27 summarizes Assembly proceedings for that day.

The President’s remarks, and the aide-mémoire, produced one immediate, violent reaction, from Assembly Vice Speaker Yoon, leader of the Taehan (Great Korea) Nationalist Party. Yoon, by inference, charged interference in Korean internal affairs, criticizing not only the [Page 55] aide-mémoire but previous communication with the Assembly by Dr. Bunce, and likened the situation to a communication written by former Japanese Ambassador to Washington Hanihara during Congressional discussion of Japanese exclusion in the 1920’s.8 “We must be sure,” Yoon said in a speech more agitated in manner of delivery than in actual words, “that we do not receive such letters from foreigners again.… I am not criticizing our American friends here but I am merely saying it for the preservation of the prestige of (this) civil law country.” Speaker Yoon’s remarks, translated from the official stenographic record of the Assembly session, are also contained in Enclosure No. 2.

As indicated by Enclosure No. 3,9 giving details of a later conversation between Yoon and an Embassy officer, Yoon recognized “as did all members of the Assembly, that although Korea was nominally an independent country it was actually dependent upon the United States for its very existence” and that “the question was not one of conforming to United States desires but of saving face as a supposedly independent legislative body of an independent country.” A point was made by Yoon that he regretted that the aide-mémoire and Mr. Hoffman’s letter had been published by the United States Government, and in this connection it may be pointed out that the Korean press did not carry the text of the aide-mémoire, although there were newspaper stories describing the President’s appearance in the Assembly and his reference to the aide-mémoire and Hoffman letter, and Washington despatches later supplied further details.

After Yoon’s speech, no other Assemblyman spoke on the subject. Even those who had professed themselves as hoping for a sterner attitude on the part of the United States confessed that they were startled when the warnings actually were delivered and read. Remarks to this effect were made privately by the Independent Assemblyman Cho Heun Yung, a former DNP member, who throughout the last Assembly session has been a consistent spokesman for common sense and attention to the main business of passing necessary fiscal legislation. When Cho, incidentally, on April 11 drew parallels between Greece and Korea in urging Assembly action on tax matters, it drew from Hong Sung Ha, DNP chairman of the Committee on Finance and Economy, a retort that “one talks about foreign aid in private conversation but it is very unpleasant to hear some talking of foreign aid on the rostrum of the National Assembly.”

Newspaper comment. The leading Seoul newspapers carried comment on the warnings (without the texts themselves) in which the [Page 56]attitude was one of admitting the faults charged, reservations, and then of counselling determination to make reforms to insure further United States aid. The Yunhap Shinmoon, however, which often speaks for the President, commented that it was “sorry that the tone of the note (aide-mémoire) was rather severe” and went on to protest that although “our economic system is in bad shape” it was not “so bad as to call for a curtailment of United States aid.” The editorial asked that the United States render assistance to small and weak nations by handing out more aid. Enclosure No. 410 summarizes the Yunhap editorial.

The Seoul Shinmoon, reorganized last year under Government direction, suggested that Korea was not the only nation aided by the United States in which inflation was a problem—the Seoul pointed to the Philippines—but ended by recognizing the “cold reality” of the situation, advocating doing “our utmost so that our house can be put in order.” Enclosure No. 510 summarizes the editorial.

The Kyunghyang Shinmoon, representing Catholic interests, chided the Administration and the Assembly equally for trying “to pass the buck to each other”, and said that “all of us must join hands in assuming responsibility and correcting the defects.” The editorial, given in Enclosure No. 6,10 continued: “We must continually bear in mind the import of Acheson’s warning that United States aid to Korea is based on the existence and development of democratic institutions in our country. Days of lip-service … are gone.”

The Chosun Ilbo, an independent, generally middle-of-the-road newspaper, occasionally critical of the Government, said it was “sorry that such a warning had to be sounded” but advised that Koreans had “better seize the opportunity to reflect on ourselves as to why such a step had been taken by our friend who has shown so far nothing but goodwill, and rendered valuable aid.” The editorial is summarized in Enclosure No. 7.10

The Tong A Ilbo, organ of the anti-Administration, conservative DNP, whose stand had been in favor of early budget action and May elections “rather welcome(d) this warning because it concurs with our contention … that inflation must be curbed and the election be held in May.” Tong A, whose editorial is summarized in Enclosure No. 8,10 gave the United States credit for “thus far avoiding any actions which could be interpreted as United States interference in our domestic affairs” and suggested that it “must have pained” the United States to “administer us a stern thrashing, knowing very well that the Soviets and the puppet group up in the North would seize upon the chance and launch vicious propaganda.” The Tong A warned its readers that [Page 57]the Administration still had to be watched, to make sure it did its part, and concluded on the note that “Acheson’s (aide-mémoire) should be an impetus for a new determination on our part.”

The Embassy regularly watches provincial newspapers and others outside the city of Seoul, including Pusan, but has seen no comment in them on the aide-mémoire. Newspapers outside Seoul did, of course, carry news stories from Washington, as distributed locally from Seoul, with accounts of the United States messages to the Korean Government.

Other Comment. The then Prime Minister, Lee Bum Suk,11 whose letter on the dangers of deflation, rather than inflation, in Korea provoked the Hoffman letter of March 23, commented on the aide-mémoire at a press conference April 10. He termed the aide-mémoire a “friendly advice” and tried to reconcile differences between views in his (Lee’s) letter to the ECA and the aide-mémoire as resulting from a difference in viewpoint: Korea he said, was looking at her own situation alone, whereas the United States, in his view, was basing its remarks on “its world economic policy.” He admitted Korea’s obligation to accept the advice of the aid-giving country. A newspaper account of the interview is contained in Enclosure No. 9.12

Enclosure No. 1012 contains comments by Koreans in Ch’oonchun, capital of Kangwon province, as reported by the Korean manager of the United States Information Service there. In an accompanying note to the director of the USIS in Korea, the USIS branch manager commented that the “memorandum warning the Republic of Korea … has aroused a more or less big sensation among the leading people in this town.” He enclosed specific comment; a newspaper publisher remarked that the aide-mémoire was deserved; a merchant took the same view; a judge dodged the issue although criticizing the Korean Government; a Christian minister said he felt “ashamed” and a candidate for the National Assembly (identified only as a “politician”) termed the memorandum “timely”, but went on to suggest that fundamental solution of Korean economic problems must await elimination of the division of Korea at the 38th parallel.

As mentioned in the Tong A Ilbo editorial above, the North Korean regime did indeed make propaganda use of the aide-mémoire. A Radio Pyongyang broadcast of April 9 is given as Enclosure No. 11.12 The broadcast took the view that President Rhee had intended to hold May elections “with a view to regaining his prestige” but that he had changed his mind several times subsequently, finally taking a position in favor of May elections on receipt of “a United States Department [Page 58]of State … order to Syngman Rhee that the general elections be held in May without fail.” The broadcast pictured the President as unwilling “to announce publicly that orders had been received from Washington” but that the President, having no alternative but to do so gave as his “recommendations of the United States.” According to Radio Pyongyang, these recommendations “were couched in such brazen and shameless words of suppression against the traitors, and of interference of American imperialism in the internal affairs of the Republic of Taehan (Korea) that they could not but evoke the resentment of even the members of the country-ruining National Assembly.” Yoon Ch’i Yung’s remarks were then quoted in part, together with the President’s brief reply to Yoon.

Everett F. Drumright
  1. April 3, p. 43.
  2. Not printed.
  3. The text had been released by the Department of State on April 7; see Department of State Bulletin, April 17, 1950, p. 602.
  4. See telegram Ecato 395, March 27, to Seoul, p. 36.
  5. Not printed.
  6. Director of the Walter Hines Page School of International Relations at Johns Hopkins University and former editor of Pacific Affairs; see footnote 1 to telegram 640, May 5, from Seoul, p. 67.
  7. The National Assembly passed the budget legislation and related revenue measures on April 22.
  8. Not printed.
  9. See Foreign Relations, 1924, vol. ii, pp. 375 383.
  10. Not printed.
  11. Not printed.
  12. Not printed.
  13. Not printed.
  14. Not printed.
  15. Not printed.
  16. Prime Minister Lee Bum Suk resigned on April 3 and was succeeded by Defense Minister Sinn Sung Mo who became Acting Prime Minister on April 22.
  17. Not printed.
  18. Not printed.
  19. Not printed.