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Posted at 4:15 PM ET, 06/ 2/2010

CIA documents detail false predictions on Korea

By Jeff Stein

Declassified CIA documents on South Korea show that the spy agency was surprised by the 1979 assassination of its dictatorial president by his intelligence chief, did not anticipate the military coup d'etat that ensued, and dismissed the strength of growing unrest that eventually erupted in near-civil war.

Following the coup, in May 1980, protest and civil unrest in the southern city of Kwangju plunged the country into near anarchy. President Jimmy Carter, upon the advice of the U.S. State Department and the CIA, and fearing North Korea might take advantage of the instability, authorized U.S.-led South Korean troops to put down the Kwangju “uprising,” resulting in the deaths of hundreds of protesters.

The documents were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Tim Shorrock, a Washington-based journalist and longtime human rights activist, who published them Tuesday on the Web site of Foreign Policy in Focus, a project of the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies.

Shorrock reports that “months before” the uprising, “in an analysis entitled ‘The Outlook for President Pak [Chung Hee] and South Korea's Dissidents,’ the CIA dismissed the worker and student resistance, as well as the political opposition, as unorganized and ineffectual and unable to muster public sympathy for its demands for greater democracy and worker rights.”

The CIA’s June 1979 analysis read:

“The failure of the underlying malaise to disrupt domestic tranquility in South Korea so far reflects inherent weaknesses of the dissident movement, including the inability of Pak’s critics to articulate goals with broad appeal in Korea. Beyond this, the massive precautions taken by government security forces to head off disturbances and the positive economic and political initiatives the Pak government has taken to strengthen key bases of support…have been especially important …”

Less than four months later, Park was assassinated by his intelligence chief. Protest spread.

The CIA estimated that chances of the opposition coalescing were “’small” because South Korea's active dissenters’ numbered from “the hundreds to perhaps a few thousand,” in a country of 37 million. Moreover, “the average Korean wage earner” saw student protest as a “reflection of immaturity and lack of real responsibilities” and was unlikely to participate in dissident politics.

Shorrock adds:

“This analysis turned out to be a colossal mistake. In October 1979, tens of thousands of students and workers joined in anti-Pak demonstrations in the industrial city of Pusan. The next year in Seoul and other cities, thousands more workers organized wildcat strikes and joined students in daily demonstrations against Park's successors. And in Kwangju in May 1980, nearly half a million people, from students to factory workers to cab drivers, took part in the armed rebellion.”

Much of the same ground has been covered elsewhere, notably in a memoir, ”Korea on the Brink: From the ‘12/12 Incident’ to the Kwangju Uprising, 1979–1980,” by Gen. John A. Wickham, commander of U. S. forces in Seoul at the time.

Wickham somewhat wryly recalls assurances by the CIA station chief, Robert G. Brewster, that he had “developed a close relationship” with Gen. Chun Doo-hwan, who had overthrown the civilian government on Dec. 12, 1979 -- “not close enough to have been warned in advance of Chun’s move on December 12, but close enough that the two frequently consulted on important matters. He offered me that channel if I ever needed it.”

Brewster, Wickham says, told him Chun was the “only horse in town and we have to work with him, even if it has to be at arm’s length.”

“We have to do our best to assure that Chun’s movement toward total control over the political structure, if that’s what Chun intends, is accomplished in legitimate ways and without jeopardizing domestic stability or provoking a North Korean intervention,” Brewster advised, according to Wickham's account. Brewster, who received the CIA's Distinguished Intelligence Medal when he retired, died from cancer in 1981.

Six months after Brewster rendered his advice, Kwangju erupted.

By Jeff Stein  | June 2, 2010; 4:15 PM ET
Categories:  Intelligence  | Tags:  Bob Brewer, Gen. John A. Wickham, Jimmy Carter, Pak Chung Hee, Tim Shorrock  
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