118. Intelligence Note Prepared in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research1
Republic of Korea: Park Increases His Power to Counter “Emergency Situation”
For the third time in three months, President Park Chung Hee has tightened his controls over South Korea, this time citing an “emergency situation” requiring extraordinary measures in the interest of national security. Although there is little prospect that Park will willingly [Page 300]reverse the movement toward greater presidential control, he will be sensitive to both domestic and foreign reactions.
Park Tightens Controls Again. Deploring the fact that partisan politicians and “self-styled intellectuals” were “bewildering” the population “in the name of freedom of expression,” Park announced on December 6 that the government would shift priorities from developing the economy to improving defense capabilities, would limit press and public discussion of security issues, and, if necessary, would curtail civil liberties.2 Although the North Korean threat was cited in the emergency declaration and is an ever-present concern of the South Korean leadership, Park’s move is related much more directly to the internal situation, where he sees stability threatened by a combination of factors including the problem of the presidential succession; the loss of cohesion as the nation’s fear of North Korean hostility and hence its strong anti-communist ideology diminishes; declining US support; and potential economic problems.
The announcement was Park’s third effort in the past three months to tighten his control. In October when National Assembly members from the ruling party joined with the opposition to censure the Home Minister, Park had several of them arrested, beaten by the ROK CIA, and then expelled from the party. In November, in response to student demonstrations, university campuses in Seoul were occupied by the military, students were arrested throughout the country, and a senior editor of the nation’s major newspaper was arrested for “exaggerated reporting” of the campus crackdown.
The warnings implied in these actions have now been made more explicit by the emergency announcement itself and by proposed legislation penalizing discussions or publication of “military information,” broadly defined, and increasing military authority to requisition private property. Reports that CIA Chief Yi Hu Rak is the principal architect of the December 6 measures and that the army is to be strengthened suggest that the President has decided to rely on the Army and CIA while sharply reining in most other elements of the society.
Internal Weaknesses Real. While Park’s evident interest in strengthening his control may well stem in part from his own ambitions and his possible desire to succeed himself in power once more, his concern with internal instability is a genuine one. Though in theory a parliamentary democracy, the political system has always revolved around an authoritarian President—first Syngman Rhee and now Park—and his network of personal followers. The military establishment—Park’s principal source of strength—is the only other cohesive institution in [Page 301]the society; the National Assembly, the bureaucracy, the political parties, and the commercial-industrial establishment, although slowly developing, are still weak, while the press and academic establishments have little real power or public support. Thus the presidency has had great importance as a means of holding the nation together and giving it direction, and Park, like his predecessor, has tended to feel that it would be extremely dangerous to permit the position to pass to other hands. However, the elections this spring indicated strong public opposition to the prospect that Park might indefinitely occupy the presidency; and he may well fear that the struggle over the presidential prize, which is already under way, will inevitably create great instability. Some of his closest advisers (probably including the powerful CIA chief) encourage such fears, as their own power derives from their personal relationship to Park.
External Changes Likely To Weaken Internal Cohesion. US troop withdrawals, past and prospective, compounded now by congressional hesitation over military aid appropriations, have been the most unsettling aspect of the changing external situation. A changing economic relationship with the US is also registering its effect through the surcharge, restrictions on textile imports, and declining Vietnam procurement, thus adding to factors threatening the economic success that Park regards as his major accomplishment.
In addition, the easing of great-power tensions and the softening of cold-war rhetoric with its clear distinctions between “communist” and “free” worlds threaten to weaken the ideological glue that has long served as a partial substitute for cohesive social institutions. Moreover, the prospect of widening contacts with North Korea raises questions about the extent of the threat from across the DMZ that has long served to justify strict government control and national sacrifice. Although Park himself has publicly welcomed the improvement in US–PRC relations and has tried to adapt to it with a more flexible foreign policy, he is not confident he can maintain discipline without an appeal to the threat from the North. North Korea’s prompt reply that it “can not and will not attack” is likely to help confirm the ROK’s fear that Pyongyang, with its more highly regimented society, believes that relaxation of tensions will make the South an easier prey.
How Far Will Park Go? It is too soon to predict how far Park will go in suppressing opposition, though rumors in Seoul claim the President has been favorably impressed by governmental reorganizations in Cambodia and Thailand. So far he seems to be planning each move carefully, apparently aware of the danger that some government action could provide a cause around which diverse opposition elements—the press, students, academic leaders, the opposition party, the dissidents within his own party—could unite and rally popular support. In the past he has [Page 302]been sensitive to history—the way in which escalating repression and resistance capped by the death of a student protestor sparked the massive popular demonstratrions that precipitated Rhee’s fall.
Park will also be sensitive to US reactions, as well as the broader effects of Korea’s international image, but at present there seems little prospect that he will willingly reverse the movement toward greater presidential control.