35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

How Do You Solve a Problem like (South) Korea?

Published: Jun 1, 2017
Briefing Book #595

Edited by Robert A. Wampler, PhD

For more information contact: Robert A. Wampler, 202/994-7000 or wampler@gwu.edu

U.S.-ROK Relations during the Carter Years Faltered over Troop Withdrawals, Human Rights, an Assassination, and a Coup

Carter Faced Pushback from South Korean Leaders and His Own Top Advisers

Washington, D.C., June 1, 2017 – President Jimmy Carter entered office in 1977 determined to draw down U.S. forces in South Korea and to address that nation’s stark human rights conditions, but he met surprising pushback on these and related issues from both South Korean President Park Chung Hee and his own top American advisers, as described in declassified records published today by the National Security Archive at The George Washington University.

Carter made no secret of his deep misgivings about Park’s suppression of his political opposition. When the two met for a summit in June 1979, Park attempted to turn the tables, lecturing Carter rhetorically: “If dozens of Soviet divisions were deployed in Baltimore, the U.S. Government could not permit its people to enjoy the same freedoms they do now.”

At the same time, senior U.S. officials including Cabinet officers tried to put the brakes on U.S. troop withdrawals and other policy initiatives such as holding tripartite talks with the two Koreas. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael H. Armacost complained to Defense Secretary Harold Brown before the summit that the latter was a “lousy idea,” a “loser” and “gimmicky.” The president faced similar resistance from a range of American officials on the ground in South Korea.

Carter was forced to postpone troop reductions for a time while continuing to press for political liberalization. But his challenge grew appreciably greater after Park’s October 1979 assassination by of the head of the Korean CIA, and a subsequent coup in December of that year by strongman General Chun Doo Hwan.

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How Do You Solve a Problem like (South) Korea? The Carter Years

By Robert A. Wampler, Ph.D.


It should be no surprise that events on the Korean peninsula have presented early challenges for the Trump administration.[1] History shows that the combination of North Korean provocations and South Korean political crises has repeatedly confronted the U.S. with difficult policy choices. Previous electronic briefing books posted by the National Security Archive have addressed the limits of military options against North Korea [see EBB 322], the difficulties in understanding Pyongyang’s actions and goals [see EBB 421], and U.S. efforts to rein in South Korea’s nuclear weapons program [see EBB582 and EBB584].

For the Carter administration, the rocky course of Korean relations moved from the deep divide between Seoul and Washington created by Carter’s determination to withdraw U.S. forces and his criticism of Park Chung Hee’s human and political rights abuses, to the assassination of Park and subsequent military coup, followed by the rise of coup leader Chun Doo Hwan to the presidency and U.S. concerns over his authoritarian regime centering on the looming execution of South Korean political dissident Kim Dae Jung.

The historical backdrop to the documents posted here today can be sketched quickly.[2] President Carter entered office in 1977 determined to draw down U.S. forces in South Korea, and deeply concerned about Park Chung Hee’s suppression of political opposition. Both of these issues imposed immense strains on the alliance during Carter’s term in office. Carter faced significant push-back on the troop withdrawal issue not only from Park, but also from his senior advisors, particularly his secretaries of state and defense, as well as senior U.S. military officers in Seoul, who seized upon new intelligence estimates that showed a much stronger North Korean military capability to argue against thewithdrawals.[3]

Following a tense and contentious summit meeting with Park in June 1979, the U.S. announced that further withdrawals would be put on hold until 1981. For his part, Park agreed to pursue increased military spending and to take steps to release political prisoners, though he continued to press the U.S. not to criticize publicly his actions against the political opposition, arguing that if given sufficient “running room” he would try to avoid “extreme” actions. (See Document 10)

Park would have little time to take any steps to address U.S. concerns, however, for on October 26, 1979, the director of the South Korean CIA would assassinate him during a dinner which was marked by intense and bitter arguments over Park’s handling of political discontent. In the aftermath of the assassination, once the identity of the assassin was determined, U.S. concerns centered on ensuring that this shock to the Korean political system did not result in political instability that could undermine democracy or tempt North Korea to further shake up conditions on the peninsula.

Hopes for an orderly political transition were dashed, however, when a group of “Young Turk” South Korean political officers, led by ambitious Korean Army general Chun Doo Hwan, staged a coup on December 12. In its aftermath, the limits on U.S. ability to influence political events in South Korea become ever more evident, as Chun, using his authority under martial law, imposed his own crackdown on political dissent, including the arrest of Kim Dae Jung, which was the spark that set off the May 1980 Kwangju uprising. The Chun regime brutally put down this uprising, and many South Koreans still see the U.S. as complicit in the crackdown because of claims made by the Chun government of U.S. support. Kim Dae Jung would be sentenced to death for his alleged role in fomenting the Kwangju uprising, and U.S. efforts to secure leniency for Kim would drive much of U.S. diplomacy with the Chun government (Chun, despite denials of political ambition, would be elected president in August 1980) until the end of the Carter presidency. It would be left to the incoming Reagan administration, which entered office determined to restore the alliance relationship, to finally secure commutation of Kim’s sentence.[4]

The documents posted here today come primarily from the Pentagon records of Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, and are supplemented by documents from the Digital National Security Archive collections on U.S.-Korean relations, as well as files obtained from the U.S. National Archives. As secretary of defense, Brown had the unenviable task of being Carter’s point man on defense issues in dealing with Park and then Chun. His role was to advance U.S. policy goals that were less than attractive to the South Korean leadership, as well as to advise President Carter on policy options that the president would find less than ideal.

Among the insights provided by these documents are these:

General John Vessey, the senior U.S. military officer in Seoul, described Park Chung Hee to new president Jimmy Carter as “a lonely man” who seemed to be “withdrawing more and more into himself.”  [Document 1]

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael H. Armacost  called Carter’s idea for tripartite U.S.-ROK-North Korea talks a “lousy idea,” a “loser” with “atrocious” timing with little chance of success, possibly “ginned up” by the White House PR staff as a Camp David-style TV “spectacular.” [Document 4]

During their summit meeting, Park lectured Carter on human rights: “If dozens of Soviet divisions were deployed in Baltimore, the U.S. Government could not permit its people to enjoy the same freedoms they do now. If these Soviets dug tunnels and sent  commando units into the District of Columbia, then U.S. freedoms would be more limited.” [Document 9]

Pentagon analysis of the situation immediately following Park’s assassination warned about the challenges facing the U.S. in trying to influence political developments towards greater democracy, arguing that the U.S., through “sensitive and judicious advice,” may be able to affect developments at the margins.  In the short run, Washington needed “to avoid even the appearance of manipulating a puppet.” [Document 11]

South Korean General Lew found it conceivable that a “temporarily deranged” KCIA Director Kim Dae Kyu had decided to kill Park, driven by fears he was going to be replaced because of his “incompetence.” [Document 12]

After the December 12 military coup, Ambassador Gleysteen’s gloomy assessment spoke of how U.S. “missionary work” to guide the new government “seems washed down the drain.” [Document 13]

One Pentagon official referred to coup leader Chun Doo Hwan as the “Pete Dawkins” of the ROK army, a reference to a well known Army officer, who served in Korea in the early 1970s, because of his rapid rise through the ranks and professional achievements. [Document 14]

National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski warned the South Korean ambassador that Chun must avoid letting the Kim Dae Jung case drag out into a “no-win” scenario, noting that this had happened to President Zia in Pakistan when his hand was allegedly forced in the execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto [Document 16]

Defense Secretary Brown gave a grim assessment of his final effort to persuade Chun to spare Kim Dae Jung in December 1980: “We have taken our best shot; I hope it is enough.” [Document 18]


*Thanks to Bill Burr for his assistance, especially for providing copies of documents 1 and 16.



[1] On the impeachment and arrest of Park Geun Hye, see “South Korea Removes President Park Geun-hye” by Choe Sang-Hun March 9, 2017; and “Former South Korean president arrested in corruption probe, 3 weeks after impeachment,” by Anna Fifield, March 30, 2017, The Washington Post. On the election of Moon Jae-in, see “South Koreans elect liberal Moon Jae-in president after months of turmoil,” by Anna Fifield, May 9, 2017, The Washington Post, and “On first day in office, South Korean president talks about going to North,” by Anna Fifield, May 10, 2017, The Washington Post. On Trump and his administration’s response to North Korea missile tests and possible new nuclear tests, see “Trump’s North Korea Standoff Rattles Allies and Adversaries,” by Robbie Gramer and Paul McLeary, April 20, 2017, Foreign Policy. The U.S. is pursuing ballistic missile defense systems as one possible way to respond to North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions in a way that is not dependent on diplomacy or sanctions; see “Missile Defense Test Succeeds, Pentagon Says, Amid Tensions with North Korea,“ Helene Cooper and David E. Sanger, May 30, 2017, The New York Times.

[2] A good narrative history of the troubled course of U.S.-South Korean relations during the Carter years can be found in Don Oberdofer’s The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History (Basic Books, 1997, 2001), in particular Chapter 4: The Carter Chill, and Chapter 5: Assassination and Aftermath. Unless otherwise noted, this summary of the period draws upon Oberdorfer’s account.

[3] In addition to Oberdorfer, Chapter 4, a good overview of the issues surrounding U.S. forces in South Korea can be found in William Stueck, “Ambivalent Occupation: U.S. Armed Forces in Korea, 1953 to the Present,” in Trilateralism and Beyond: Great Power Politics and the Korean Security Dilemma During and After the Cold War, edited by Robert A. Wampler, Kent State University Press, 2012. As this essay shows, other presidents besides Carter have wanted to reduce the number of U.S. troops in South Korea, but political and strategic considerations have conspired to thwart these desires.

[4] On the Reagan administration and the Chun regime, see EBB 306

[5] See “The Secret ‘Swing Strategy’,” TheWashington Post, October 8, 1979.

[6] Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas, p. 119.

[7] Pete Dawkins was a highly decorated U.S. Army officer and business man who was very well known by the late 1970s. He attended West Point, where he won the Heisman Trophy while playing for the Army football team (which he also captained), was president of his class, graduated with high honors and won a Rhodes scholarship, before embarking on a military career. Serving in Vietnam, then holding command positions in the U.S., he rose quickly through the ranks to retire in 1983 as a brigadier general. He also served as a White House Fellow in 1973-74. Following his retirement from military service, Dawkins began a successful business career involving senior positions at financial firms, including Lehman Brothers. In 1988 he made an unsuccessful bid for a Senate seat from New Jersey, running as a Republican; for further details on his career, see “Pete Dawkins,” Wikipedia article, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pete_Dawkins.