166. Letter From the Ambassador in Korea (Dowling) to the Director of the Office of Northeast Asian Affairs (Hemmendinger)1

Dear Noel: Enclosed herewith are copies of memoranda of conversations which Bill Jones held with Vice President Chang Myon on August 282 and on September 1, 1956.3 Some two weeks before the inauguration Bill was asked by Dr. Chang if he would be his contact with the Embassy.

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As you will find on reading the memoranda, the Vice President is quite concerned for his personal safety. He feels that the Liberal Party is determined to remove him from the scene. The Vice President attributes no small part of his difficulty to an unfortunate article which appeared on August 16 and was based on an exclusive interview which Jack Boyer of United Press had with the Vice President. (Our Despatch No. 66 of August 30 deals with this article as well as with the Vice President’s inaugural statement.)4 The Vice President has asked for our assurances that we would provide him sanctuary within American installations if things became worse and he felt he was in imminent danger of assassination. This request, as the Vice President himself recognized, posed a difficult problem for us. To provide him sanctuary, even if this were possible, would lead to the most obvious interpretations or mis-interpretations by the President and Liberal Party leaders.

While we in the Embassy could not say categorically that the Vice President is in no danger, we do believe that it is quite unlikely that an organized attempt would be made to assassinate him at least as long as there are other and legal means of preventing his succession to the presidency. The amendment to the Constitution certainly remains a distinct possibility. Accordingly, I asked Bill to make the statement to the Vice President contained in the first paragraph of the Memorandum of Conversation held on September 1, 1956. This seems to me to be the best procedure at present, and I believe the Vice President fully appreciates our problem although he undoubtedly would like a more positive solution.

If the Department has objections to this course of action or has alternative courses of action to suggest, I would appreciate your sending them on to me as soon as possible.5

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Sincerely yours.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 795b.12/9–356. Secret; Official–Informal.
  2. Not printed. According to the memorandum for the record, drafted by First Secretary Jones on September 1, Vice President Chang Myon told Jones on August 28 that he feared that Liberal Party leaders were planning to “eliminate him from the scene.” This might be done, Chang felt, by amending the Constitution to deprive him of his right to succeed to the presidency, by organizing demonstrations to build up public antipathy toward him, or, if necessary, by assassinating him. Chang asked whether he could count on sanctuary in U.S. installations if the threat to his life increased.
  3. Not printed. In another memorandum for the record dated September 1, Jones reported he saw Chang again on September 1 to respond to his question about possible sanctuary. Jones told Chang that Ambassador Dowling, while sympathetic, did not believe that Chang’s life was presently in danger. Dowling also felt, Jones told Chang, that Chang’s political career would be irreparably damaged by an attempt to seek refuge in an American installation, and that the position of the United States in Korea would also be damaged. Jones assured the Vice President, however, that if a genuine threat to his life developed, the United States would not be indifferent and would exert influence to try to prevent such a development.
  4. In despatch 66 from Seoul, the Embassy reported on Chang Myon’s inauguration statements of August 15. Chang was not given an opportunity to deliver his address at the inauguration ceremony so he released it through the Office of Public Information. The statement was critical of the South Korean domestic situation but emphasized a desire for cooperation in the national interest. Chang expanded upon his inaugural statement in an interview the same day with Jack Boyer of United Press. According to Boyer’s report, Chang planned to “speak out” in his drive to make the Republic of Korea more democratic, to act independently of President Rhee on domestic matters, to seek normalization of relations with Japan, to “keep a sharp eye” on inefficiency in government, and, in his role as “spokesman of the people,” to apprise the President of “the true state of affairs” and to offer “constructive suggestions” as needed. The Boyer article appeared in the Seoul press on August 17, and the Embassy reported that it prompted fierce denunciation of the Vice President in the National Assembly and in pro-government newspapers. (Department of State, Central Files, 795B.12/8–3056)
  5. Assistant Secretary Robertson responded, in a letter to Dowling on September 20, that the line taken by Dowling in response to Chang’s request was “exactly right.” Robertson had no additional guidance to offer beyond recognizing that, if things took a serious turn, the Ambassador might have to make decisions which could not be reported in advance. (Ibid., 795B.12/9–356) On September 28, an attempt was made to assassinate Vice President Chang Myon in Seoul. Chang was shot in the hand. The Embassy was not drawn into the incident. (Telegram 321 from Seoul, September 28; ibid., 795b.12/9–2856)