98. Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Robertson) to the Under Secretary of State (Hoover)1


  • President Rhee

You requested comments on the situation in Korea in the light of several recent reports.

In your pencilled memorandum to Bob Murphy2 you state, “At present we have the ROK Army with us, but for how long?” As you know, the present leaders of the Army are friendly to us and it is our belief that they will not act against our interests even under orders from Rhee. The chief significance of the most recent report on Rhee’s demand for military plans for a move north is that it was brought to us by General Yi Hyung-keun. We have thought him to be unreliable in the past, but he has been moving closer to us lately—perhaps with his eye on General Chung’s position as Chief of Staff of the ROK Army, which becomes vacant by rotation in February.
President Rhee’s age is beginning to tell and at times he appears irrational and irresponsible. There is a possibility that as their terms expire he might gradually replace the present military leaders with men who are willing to do his bidding and then take some rash action. There is no evidence, however, that he is preparing to do so. In my opinion, Rhee is fully aware of his complete dependence upon the United States, economically and militarily, and that despite his sword rattling from time to time he will not risk losing our support by unilateral action of a serious nature. This has been my conviction since my talks with him in June–July, 1953. During one of his most belligerent periods, the Secretary protested what seemed to us to be a particularly rash statement. Rhee replied, with an enigmatic smile, “We can’t let the enemy be too sure of us.”
So far as the possibility of military action by Rhee is concerned, I think it is clear that he cannot act over the objections of his commanders and that his present commanders will continue to refuse. With respect to the possibility of fabricating an incident as justification for a military move, the ROK military is probably in position to prevent this, and our Eighth Army is very much on top of the situation. However, there can be no absolute guarantee that [Page 181] President Rhee could not succeed in fabricating an incident if he is determined to do so.
General Chung’s despondency (Seoul Embtel 512, Tab B attached)3 raises the question whether something might soon happen which would cause him to conclude, along with others, that it was necessary to remove the President from active office. This would be contrary to Chung’s expressed belief in constitutional processes but could conceivably come about because the President created a military incident or threatened to do so, because his interference in Army matters became unacceptable, because the President threatened to remove his present commanders from power, or because of a general conviction that the President had ceased to be able to govern effectively. Any such action by General Chung would probably not be with the design of setting himself up as the ruler in Korea but in concert with Yi Ki-pung as the civilian leader. [7–½ lines of source text not declassified]

In sum, I think that we have to continue to live with Rhee until something happens, and while this entails risks and inconvenience, that it is the most sensible course open to us.

I attach as Tab A a brief summary of the recent reports.4

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 795B.00/11–955. Top Secret. Drafted by Hemmendinger and Robertson and sent through Murphy.
  2. Not found in Department of State files.
  3. Not found attached. Telegram 512 from Seoul, October 21, contained a report of a conversation between South Korean Chief of Staff General Chung Il-kwon and First Secretary Turner C. Cameron. Chung told Cameron that he and President Rhee had had a “dreadful fight” over the lines of authority in the South Korean Army and that Rhee had again complained of the Army’s unwillingness to drive North Korean forces from the Kaesong–Ongjin area. Chung was discouraged by his exchange with Rhee, and he repeated that the United States could always count on the loyalty of the Republic of Korea military establishment. (Department of State, Central Files, 795B.00/ 11–955)
  4. Not printed. The summary dealt with Cameron’s conversation with Chung, summarized in footnote 3 above, and with a report that General Yi Hyung-keun, Chairman of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, had told President Rhee again that the use of force to retake the remaining area south of the 38th parallel was impossible.