116. Letter From the Ambassador to Korea (Brown) to the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (Bundy)1

Dear Bill:

With the presidential election due to take place on Wednesday,2 I thought I would pass on to you some election eve thoughts about the presidential campaign, its significance and its meaning for the democratic process in Korea. Our forecasts and predictions about the outcome of the election you will have received in our daily reporting and you will know the results by the time you receive this letter.3

I believe that time will show that political scientists will view the 1967 campaign as a landmark in the developing political process of this country. It has not been an inspired or very exciting campaign. In fact in many ways it has been rather dull. This is part of its significance. It has been a struggle between the presidential candidates of two parties who by and large have gone before the people of the country, to state their case in terms of the issues of the day.

The campaign has been a policy contest, for the most part, with both sides stating their position, with each candidate strongly criticizing the views of his opponent, with people in a position to hear and evaluate the promises of the candidates. Pak has chosen to rest his case on his past performance and to seek a mandate to continue along these lines. His theme has been modernization of the country and the prestige and position of Korea. Yun on the other hand has argued that the Pak administration’s economic policies have benefited only a few of the chosen and has proposed alternative economic policies which he claims will benefit the masses, particularly the farmers.

Another major theme of the opposition has been to call for a peaceful transfer of power to demonstrate to the world that Korea is a democracy. Salting all the opposition campaign speeches have been the traditional charges of corruption, military dictatorial rule, police and intelligence agency politics, privileged power and sell-out to foreigners diplomacy.

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The campaign was hardly under way when the NDP was loudly voicing its charges of illegal campaigning by the DRP, and the DRP lost no time in responding in kind. To its charges, the NDP soon added its fear and concerns that election rigging and other illegal election activity would occur. These fears and concerns were rapidly replaced with more positive statements that they knew of DRP/Pak administration plans to engage in such nefarious deeds.

During the campaign Yun Po-sun, Yu Chin-o and others of the NDP went at their tasks in a most strenuous manner with the aged Yun and other NDP stumping teams covering the countryside and the cities in a highly effective manner. Considering the newness of their organization and their comparatively limited funds, the NDP conducted quite an intensive campaign. The crowds they gathered, particularly in the cities, were of respectable size and reflected the deep election interest of the people, though most observers reported the crowds as being relatively quiet and unresponsive.

The opposition coalition was not as solid as it looked. A number of old respected figures stayed out of the campaign or made only a perfunctory effort on behalf of Yun. George Paek took a trip to Geneva and was away during most of the campaign. Madam Pak entered the fray in the closing days and made only a few speeches. Others such as Yi Pom-sok and Yu Chin-san could never be accused of undue exertion on behalf of Yun. Nevertheless the NDP kept its cohesion and campaigned without any overt rifts.

The DRP followed a different strategy in its campaigning, a strategy in part shaped by their analysis of American election campaigns. The brunt of the battle in the first half of the campaign was carried by KCP aided by selected party faithful. Their efforts were mainly concentrated in the rural areas and the small towns where the significance of the size of the crowds they drew is hard to determine.

The big gun was unlimbered in the last two weeks of the campaign when President Pak officially began his electioneering. (Prior to then his public appearances were claimed to be part of his normal ceremonial duties as President, though I suspect Pak’s rate of ribbon cutting hit an all-time weekly high over the past months.) Pak concentrated his efforts in the urban areas and, even by conservative estimates, he attracted (or the DRP arranged for) rather massive attendance. He clearly outdrew Yun whenever the two spoke in the same city. The opposition, of course, claimed that Pak’s huge crowds were mobilized by illegal activities of the DRP and Government, and this belief is probably shared by most Koreans.

There is ample evidence that the DRP machine with its substantial resources did help considerably to increase the crowd sizes, but the predisposition to attend, sheer curiosity about or interest in the President [Page 246] was probably present in the first instance. The DRP crowds were generally cheerful and well behaved, and showed little overt evidence of regimentation. There is no evidence that coercive measures were used to create crowds for Pak. In addressing his audience, Pak had no better luck than Yun in developing any responsiveness or a real fervor for the cause. Many observers attribute this to his style and to his speeches which were coldly logical, factual and full of dull statistics.

Both parties and the press have paid tremendous attention—perhaps too much—to the size of the crowd a stumping team would gather. The size of the gatherings was used by both sides as a barometer for election success and a sign of public support. Because of this, the charges and countercharges relating to efforts to mobilize attendance at rallies have been numerous and vehement. Both sides, needless to say, have been guilty with the DRP excesses outnumbering the NDP efforts. This is not because the NDP by nature is purer in soul than the DRP, but is simply a reflection of the fact that DRP organizational capabilities, funds and other resources were far greater than those of the NDP. Nevertheless in the public exchange, the NDP probably did succeed in leaving the impression with most Korean voters that the DRP used illegal means to gather huge crowds to its rallies.

The press had great fun and games in estimating crowd sizes, as did the parties. The formulas used by various reporters and other estimators became the subject of considerable examination and discussion. The officials of both parties believed press figures consistently underestimated their rally gatherings and the NDP charged that the Government forced the papers to underestimate their crowd size. Most impartial observers felt both sides overestimated the numbers at the rallies, as did the police and [K]CIA in their reporting. Nevertheless the general feeling is that the crowds exceeded those of 1963 and that Pak did outdraw Yun in the urban areas where they both spoke. Pak’s margin, however, cannot be accounted for solely on the basis of superior DRP legal and illegal efforts at crowd gathering.

The role of the splinter parties in the campaign was interesting, in that it simply was not a factor. None of the five made any serious effort to campaign and when they did they drew little public attention. Only random mention was made of their activities in the press and the general impression was that they would have little effect on the outcome. The withdrawal of So Min-ho, the candidate of one of the more significant splinter parties, from the presidential race is, of course, a good indication of the little influence the splinter parties expect to have on the outcome. So’s withdrawal probably will add votes to Yun’s total and he doubtlessly was able to extract a price for his action.

It is interesting to note how with the passage of time the number of splinter parties involved in Korean elections have decreased. While [Page 247] a few of these parties revolve around particular individuals who expound a specific political philosophy, most of them are organized around political opportunists. These latter groups are centered around individuals who have usually been frustrated in their efforts to gain position and prominence in one or the other of the major parties. They then organize a splinter party because they see an opportunity for personal financial gain by securing political funds from one of the major parties who provide the funds in the belief that divide and conquer is a good tactic, or because they feel that there is a chance for political blackmail, at a crucial time a deal can be made with a major party to give the splinter group a piece of the political trade.

The first group of splinter parties will no doubt continue to be present in the Korean political scene permanently, just as we have our Prohibition Party and others. The second group is beginning to disappear from the scene as the political party system has matured and become more institutionalized, a process which I feel is well under way and is being given a strong push by this Presidential election. This process is being helped along by time as well, as it takes its toll of the various aged political personalities who have dominated the political scene in this country since 1948 and who gathered followers on the basis of personal allegiances rather than fellow political believers.

Another interesting aspect of the campaign has been the role of the press and government influence over it. The NDP has been most outspoken on this point and, as always, where there is smoke there is some fire. Rather foolishly, the government through the [K]CIA did seek to intensify its influence on the press. This is not new, for even in non-election time the [K]CIA has special teams that cover the newspaper offices leaving word what to print and what not to print. The tempo, however, has been stepped up in the sense that [K]CIA agents make their visits more often and for longer periods of time.

Nevertheless, setting aside the several outspokenly pro-government and pro-opposition papers, the press treatment of DRP and NDP activities was balanced, arithmetically so well balanced in terms of inches of news space as to make some of us feel that the press had been instructed to hit this balance. Our reading of the press did not lead us to conclude that there was any real substance to the NDP charges. Certainly the press coverage we have observed does not justify the appellation of “controlled press” being applied here. In many ways, it was a mature and responsible coverage. Possibly the fact that the press did not automatically side with the NDP, picking up and expanding on its many unsubstantial accusations, so frustrated and disappointed the NDP that they could only conclude the government was controlling and suppressing the press. The DRP and the Government supporters did many things such as buying up advertising space, more favorable [Page 248] placing of stories about the Pak and the DRP on the front page and other foolish stunts, that warrant a charge of “dirty pool” but hardly can be considered to involve an effort to suborn the freedom of expression. At any rate it is hard to see this type of political gimmickry really affecting voter attitudes.

The press played an unusual role in the early part of the campaign that had far reaching effect. Both parties had started off on a tactic of heavy personal abuse of the opposition candidate. The audiences and the press reacted negatively, with the press particularly criticizing both parties for resorting to the personal abuse theme and strongly urging that campaign speakers stick to the issues. Thereafter personal attacks diminished considerably and substantive issues were the heart of most speeches.

The press did give its readers in roughly equal proportion the basic facts on what the candidates were saying. It did not grossly or irresponsibly distort the arguments or claims of either side. It did give the readers the papers criticism and commentary on the issues and the pledges of the candidates. The restrictions and inhibitions on the press caused by the Government were in large measure foolish, consequently damaging to its cause, and reminiscent of an era which the country has outgrown but is simply experiencing a cultural lag.

The major campaign issues were those relating to the economy. Domestic political issues of corruption, maladministration, civil service wage scales, length of military service were not lively ones and such foreign policy subjects as the Vietnam troop dispatch or the Japanese normalization treaty in terms of public interest hardly qualified as election issues.

Both sides presented their views on the economic issues extensively. There were not only speeches but numerous newspaper articles, radio and TV programs where DRP and NDP spokesmen were provided an opportunity to present their case on a particular subject. An interested voter had available to him many ways to determine party views on specific issues of interest to him.

Agricultural policy was probably the most important substantive issue and very likely the most significant when it came to swaying votes. Yun and the NDP went at this issue heavily, playing to the predominant rural voter and promising him high rice prices and low fertilizer costs. The “rich get richer and the poor get poorer” theme was for the farmers’ benefit. Contrasts were drawn between the plight of the farmer and the gains of the urban population. To this was added the promise of lower taxes and the dangers of continuing present government policies which were bringing higher prices and saddling the nation with foreign loans that would keep the nation in debt to foreigners for many years to come.

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Pak and the DRP sought to counter these arguments by pointing to the progress of the past, promising a faster rate of economic progress in the future and logically analyzing the opposition claims and promises to demonstrate their lack of realism, irrationality and weakness. They sought to make their case on the need for a balanced development between agriculture and industry—a rather sophisticated economic argument to make stick in a country with a predominantly rural/farming voting population. The DRP is worried about the psychological effect on the rural voters of the NDP campaign promises.

The other issues in the campaign are not likely to have much effect on the voter. Corruption as an issue has become standard in Korean electioneering and does not seem to have had any impact on the voters. To be meaningful it needed a hot, specific scandal at this time to stir up emotions. The Samsong scandal was six months too soon. Furthermore Pak admitted the existence of some corruption in his administration and promised to continue his efforts to eradicate it if elected. Lastly, the Korean voter has always lived with corruption and only gets excited about it if it exceeds the bounds of his standards of propriety. This has not been the case.

Probably one of the most fascinating features of the past weeks has been that of the charges and countercharges of illegal activities. First, let me say that under Korean election laws, it is virtually impossible to run a modern election campaign without violating the law. The detailed restrictions and limitations that were enacted after the military revolution to control political election activity border on the absurd. Campaign activities which are proscribed by the election laws were engaged in by both sides, but at home we would consider most of such activities as part of practicing the “art of politics” and not illegal. Many of the violations were undoubtedly committed in sheer ignorance of the administrative red tape involved. At the same time there was no doubt considerable deliberate violation for the simple reason that present legal restrictions severely handicap modern day campaigning.

In spite of NDP charges, Pak has consistently called for honest and fair elections. Where there have been transgressions so far, we do not see these as deliberate, planned efforts by Pak or the senior DRP hierarchy. Most of them stem from overzealous subordinates and local officials. There is no evidence to show that there was any massive interference by the police or the government machinery during the campaign. Local incidents did, of course, occur and were duly reported by us. These, however, were not of sufficient magnitude or frequency to appear to have any significant impact on the electoral process.

As of election eve, we have no evidence to support charges of election-rigging, ballot box stuffing, etc. There will be some hanky-panky in some of the voting districts without question but then I doubt [Page 250] if there has ever been a free election anyplace in the world that did not involve some of them. The sound and fury here of illegal activities and election rigging far exceeds the realities of the situation. Such tactics are part of the Korean political scene because it has been true in the past; it prepares the ground and provides the alibi for the loser; it also places the loser in a good position to call for a recount if the margin of victory is narrow. From what we have seen and heard from impartial observers, this will be as honest and fair an election as you will find at home or in Britain or any other generally accepted politically mature democracy.

If our forecast is right, the final results should show Pak as the winner. This is based on our soundings, which show that most Koreans feel that Pak has made a reasonably successful effort to modernize the country and to improve the lot of the people as a whole. It is also based on the recognition that the DRP organization can effectively deliver the vote. If Yun should win, it will be not because the people have faith in him, in his leadership or in his policies. It will be, rather, a vote of protest against Pak. We have seen no signs of an “opposition boom” and it would surprise everyone if a protest vote carried Yun into the Blue House.

There is a question, however, that many people are asking themselves—what will happen if by some chance Yun should win; will Pak turn over the government? Our reaction is that he would and would ask the people to rally behind the new government. This would not be the end, however. We suspect that the military would accept this change but watch it very closely. If Yun could not maintain political stability in the country, continue the pace of economic growth and development, and preserve Korea’s international position and prestige, we believe they would move against him. The military would give Yun at least a six month trial period but we doubt whether they would permit him to stay in power if his administration started to lose the gains achieved since the 1961 military revolution.

As I mentioned in the beginning, I see this election and its campaign as being most significant. It has been more a confrontation of policy issues and public pledges between two major political parties than a battle between personalities seeking to attract adherents by virtue of personal magnetism and charisma. The audiences at rallies were quiet, but their magnitude evidenced a high level of interest in the election. The strong adverse reaction to the early phases of the campaign, when speeches were peppered with personal abuse of the opposing candidate and his functionaries, revealed the seriousness with which the voter approached his civic responsibility. Both sides promptly turned to stuffing the voter with their views on substantive issues and they paid close attention to voter reaction.

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The debates over issues affected party strategy as the campaign moved along. Yun’s and NDP efforts to stir up the people in terms of their dissatisfaction with the circumstances in which they lived had its effect. In the closing days the sensitivities of the DRP to the possible inroads being made by the NDP on the farmers sent the DRP stumping teams scurrying into the countryside, particularly in the Chollas. Pak, in the meantime, continued his efforts in the cities in an effort to capture the urban areas which were his weakness in 1963.

The campaign and the elections are significant in another sense for they involved as candidates the leaders of two different political generations. In Yun, we had the type of political figure who dominated Korean politics from 1948 to 1961—the individual who gathered followers on a personal but very fluid basis; who spent most of his life fighting against the institution of government, which was an alien power; whose life was mostly shaped by traditional and ancient Korean thought, values and mores, with little exposure to the outside world and its ways.

In Pak, we have the prototype of the new political figure in Korea. He is an organization man, not an individual; a manager of a political party, not a leader of a personal cult. He spent his mature life (his 30’s and 40’s) in a free Korea and not under an alien regime. He has been heavily exposed to the ways and ideas of the outside world. He has seen and experienced the implications of modern science and technology and has recognized that these must be appropriately introduced into Korean life if Korea is to survive.

We have, in brief, in this election a conflict of generations. If Yun loses, as we believe he will, it will mean the demise of that generation politically. This demise will have its greatest meaning for the opposition. Will the current opposition coalition shatter into numerous pieces or will it stay substantially together with only chipping away of bits and pieces? We are inclined to think that the latter will be the case. The opposition will keep itself largely intact with small groups breaking off to start their own party. There are too many younger men in the opposition today who can see a successful political future for themselves only if they remain united. They have not yet been possessed by the type of egotism, vanity and self-assurance that make them feel that the party needs them more than they need the party.

To summarize: the campaign itself was heavily spotted with illegal practices by both sides. But what was involved were minor actions designed to lure, entice and convince the voter to support a particular candidate, which violated an impractically strict election law. There was no evidence of efforts to manipulate the actual vote or impair or frustrate the individual’s right of free choice in the polling booth. The atmosphere of military government which prevailed in 1963 was gone. Freedom of political discussion was prevalent. There were no concerns [Page 252] about the police, [K]CIA or military would haul off to jail anyone who talked against Pak. The people took the election and its issues seriously though unemotionally. Violence and extremism were notable by their absence. The 1967 campaign was a mature and responsible one; the Korean people and its emerging party system can be proud of it.

It will be interesting to see whether tomorrow and time bear out these thoughts.

Sincerely yours,

Winthrop G. Brown 4
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Korea, Vol. IV. Secret. Attached to a memorandum from Rostow to the President, May 8, in which Rostow noted that the campaign showed “much progress between 1963 and 1967 in a working democracy.” The memorandum indicates that the President saw it.
  2. May 3.
  3. Analysis of the campaign and its results were transmitted in telegram 6166 from Seoul, May 16, and airgram A–546 from Seoul, May 31. (Both in National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 14 KOR S)
  4. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.