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SOUTH KOREA: The Army Rears Up

4 minute read

The arrest of a top general reveals afresh power struggle

Motorists heading home from work in Seoul one evening last week were abruptly confronted by a battery of agitated army troops wildly swinging their guns and bringing cars to a halt. A few moments later a convoy of army vehicles wormed through the snarled traffic and wheeled into the fashionable Hannam-Dong residential district. Suddenly, from a nearby compound housing military and government officials, came the loud staccato of automatic gunfire. After dark, tanks and armored cars were seen taking up positions in the capital, and around 3 a.m. came the finale: the reverberating sounds of another gun battle near the Defense Ministry itself.

Next morning Seoul’s residents, still jittery over the assassination of President Park Chung Hee last October, learned that the sudden military maneuvering was not only an unexpected new twist to the Park case, but the opening of an ominous power struggle among top generals that could further jeopardize the country’s uncertain political future. A terse announcement over government radio stated that Army Chief of Staff General Chung Seung Hwa, 53—effectively the country’s senior officer in his capacity as martial law commander—had been arrested “in connection with the plot” against Park. Ten other generals were also arrested; they were reported to include the Third Army commander and the Provost Marshal.

At first it seemed to be a case of delayed judicial prosecution. General Chung, a political moderate with an impeccable military record, was long rumored to have been involved in plans against Park’s authoritarian rule. As dis closed by confidential sources to TIME five weeks ago, Chung was alleged to have supported the plot against Park hatched by Korean Central Intelligence Agency Chief Kim Jae Kyu—but he had not bargained on assassination (TIME, Nov. 12).

Last week, in closed sessions of his trial, Kim apparently implicated Chung before the military tribunal.

That gave Chung’s opponents their chance. Kim’s testimony provided an all too convenient opportunity for a calibrated power grab by a younger generation of hard-line generals. Chung’s arrest was personally carried out by Major General Chun Du Hwan, 48, head of the army security command, who is responsible for the assassination inquiry. Now his role suggested he was emerging as the country’s possible new military strongman.

Had the gradual political development mapped out by President Choi Kyu Hah gone too far to suit the young generals? Probably. One ranking government official in Seoul noted last week that the young generals had been “furious about the way democratization had been moving ahead.” TIME learned last week that General Chun had first secretly consulted a handful of young fellow generals in sympathy with his aim. He discreetly assembled portions of at least two divisions for the arrest. Some units even seem to have left front-line positions on the demilitarized zone to come 30 miles to the fringes of Seoul. The action was designed to counter possible stiff resistance from units loyal to General Chung.

At the housing compound, it turned out, Chung units offered only moderate resistance, which Chun’s forces easily contained. Then Chun and his units moved on to the Defense Ministry. After that second clash with units loyal to the other detained generals, Chun successfully emerged with Defense Minister Ro Jae Hyun’s own signature on the dismissal and arrest papers for General Chung.

Seoul’s 600,000-man armed forces were promptly placed on full alert, and tanks took up positions at major government buildings. The Carter Administration expressed alarm over the developments. “It’s a power play, the three stars against the four stars,” said a high official. U.S. Ambassador William Gleysteen Jr. was ordered to convey a tough message to the Korean brass: Keep your hands off politics or risk a grave rupture in U.S. relations. For the time being, at least, that warning held. President Choi, for his part, sought to show that his political timetable was unchanged. Late Friday, a full day ahead of schedule, he announced the lineup of his new Cabinet. While it bore a strong military stamp, with generals named to the Defense and Home ministries, officials in Washington were nonetheless heartened that the Cabinet remained basically civilian.

State Department specialists caution that it is too early to judge what kind of relationship will be struck between military and civilian forces. “The ominous factor is the sudden politicization of the army,” explains a worried diplomat. “We had seen an orderly movement to a democratic system, but the use of military strength to change the personalities in charge could be traumatic.”

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