Washington Backed a Coup Against South Korean Democracy

A film that depicts South Korea’s 1979 US-backed coup has become a box-office sensation. 12.12: The Day is now available to international audiences as a gripping depiction of right-wing maneuvers against democracy that has strong contemporary resonances.

President Ronald Reagan stands behind South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan as the latter speaks at the White House on April 26, 1985. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

Toward the end of last year, a South Korean military strongman achieved a rare posthumous feat. Chun Doo-hwan, who ruled the country with an iron fist for much of the 1980s, saw off the challenge of Napoleon Bonaparte at the Korean box office. After its November release, the film 12.12: The Day, which depicts a period of nine hours on December 12, 1979, during the first of Chun’s two coups, comfortably outperformed Ridley Scott’s mediocre yet world-conquering epic.

By Christmas, the gripping political thriller had sold more than ten million tickets in a country of 51.7 million people. The success of the film was partly driven by fears about South Korea’s current president Yoon Suk-yeol, the former prosecutor general who ascended to the presidency in 2022.

Yoon has been using a cabal of prosecutors to chip away at democracy and solidify his hard-right rule in ways that are reminiscent of Chun’s rule. Chun mobilized a clique of officers in a rolling coup that first seized control of the military hierarchy and then took over the government after massacring hundreds of young protesters in the city of Gwangju.

The movie is now available on global streaming platforms. 12.12: The Day deserves to reach a wide audience as an hour-by-hour depiction of how right-wing, antidemocratic putsches can succeed.

Rival Warlords

In December 1979, much of South Korea was anticipating a “Seoul spring” when they would finally elect their own president under a new democratic constitution. Two months earlier, the military dictator Park Chung-hee was assassinated by his own intelligence chief.

Park had ruled the country for eighteen years after ousting its first democratically elected government in a coup in 1961. Kim Jae-kyu, his righthand man and director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), acted out of fear that Park would unleash brute military force to suppress emerging mass campaigns aimed at unseating the authoritarian regime.

While increasingly resorting to repressive measures to maintain control over the country, Park often shrewdly pitted members of his inner circles against each other. He fostered competition among the bureaucracy and the military, inducing officials and generals to vie for his favor in exchange for loyalty.

Such pent-up rivalry ultimately contributed to Park’s assassination. Kim’s sense of humiliation at being outcompeted by a rival who served as the presidential security chief also played a part in his decision to pull the trigger.

Park groomed Chun and his clique of young officers, who were fluent in English and modern warfare and served alongside the US military in Vietnam, to counter the military old guard of those who were educated during the Japanese colonial era and recruited to the officer corps during the Korean war of 1950–53. Chun’s clique coalesced around Hana hoe (“Society 1”), a group founded by Chun and his fellow inaugural graduates of the country’s first four-year military academy during the latter days of the war.

Their pride in having completed four years of West Point–style education and stints of training in the United States meant that these young generals often looked down upon their older counterparts as an ignorant, underqualified bunch. Chun embodied such arrogance and ambition. Two days after Park’s coup in May 1961, Chun, who was then a lieutenant, brought out military academy cadets to march through downtown Seoul in support of the coup. Two years later, in 1963, he almost staged what could have been his first coup to eliminate Park’s rivals.

In the wake of Park’s assassination and the subsequent proclamation of martial law, long-smoldering tensions burst into the open over control of the military and even the country. Chun had the upper hand thanks to his well-organized, highly motivated clique, as well as his control of investigative powers and intelligence gathering under martial law as commander of the all-powerful Defense Security Command.

The director Kim Sung-su has a cult following outside South Korea for his 2016 noir, Asura: The City of Madness. In 12.12: The Day, he deftly gives expression to the tensions, overblown egos, and bureaucratic opportunism that enabled Chun to circumvent command structures and shoot or arrest his superiors to seize control of the military.

However, Kim’s depiction of Chun’s clique and his old-guard rivals is often too simplistic, relying on a good guys vs. bad guys dichotomy, to do justice to the character of the South Korean top brass at that time. Despite their intense rivalry, both factions shared the common conviction that the military was entitled to a final say in civilian affairs.

Following Park’s assassination, Jeong Seung-hwa (depicted as Jeong Sang-ho in the movie), the martial law commander abducted by Chun’s henchmen, often hinted at a coup of his own when publicly declaring that he and his generals would “veto” a presidency of Kim Dae-jung. Kim, an opposition leader and future Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was emerging as a presidential hopeful.

What unfolded on the night of December 12, 1979, was more than a coup. It was a feud between two rival warlords, as illustrated in several short scenes in the movie. Many of the old generals treated Chun’s provocations more as a turf war than an act of treason.

The US Connection

One thing starkly absent from 12.12: The Day is a portrayal of Washington’s multiple roles in bolstering Chun after his coup, although there is a brief scene of the defense minister taking flight to an underground bunker of the US Forces in Korea (USFK).

On that fateful night, when he violated the command structure of his own military, Chun mobilized infantry units from the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) with North Korea, infringing upon the authority of USFK commander John A. Wickham Jr. The US Army general had operational control of the entire South Korean military, with the exception of paratroopers and the Seoul garrison division. In spite of General Wickham’s strong opposition, the US ambassador William H. Gleysteen invited Chun to a meeting at his residence two days after the coup, facilitated by the CIA’s Seoul station chief, Robert Brewster.

Meeting Chun face-to-face within forty-eight hours of the coup at his own residence was a blatant breach of a US ambassador’s protocol in every possible sense. However, Gleysteen even went further, reiterating Chun’s reasoning and retracting his earlier depiction of the “12.12 incident” as “a coup in all but name” on the grounds that “the government structure remained intact.” He requested the State Department to stop labeling the incident as a coup.

Chun, who had been educated in psychological warfare at Fort Bragg in North Carolina in 1959, maximized his gains from the meeting. He arrived at the gate of the US ambassador’s residence in military fatigues, accompanied by a large group of armed bodyguards. Such high visibility in central Seoul helped accelerate the quiet dissemination of news about his supposedly confidential meeting with Gleysteen, especially among the South Korean elite.

In his memoir, James V. Young, a military attaché and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) station chief at the time, recalled many South Koreans asked him from December 14 onward if the United States now supported Chun. If it did not, they wondered, why did he and Gleysteen have such a “cozy” meeting? Whether it was his intention or not, Washington’s man on the ground in Seoul helped prompt the upper echelons of the South Korean bureaucracy and elite to line up with Chun, with varying degrees of opportunism and acquiescence.

CIA station director Brewster’s ties with Chun appears to have long predated the 12.12 coup, although many of his cables to Langley remain classified. Brewster, who died of cancer in 1981, often told General Wickham that Chun was “the only horse in town” and that the United States would need to work with him “even if at arm’s length.”

Chun also attempted to get around Wickham’s authority by sending letters or personal emissaries to former USFK generals in the United States, directly beseeching them for support. Among the recipients was John William Vessey Jr, the vice chief of staff of the US Army. Vessey had become acquainted with Chun during his tenure as USFK commander in the late 1970s, when the South Korean general’s infantry division discovered a secret tunnel dug by North Korea for a large-scale surprise attack.

Vessey was among the fifteen high-ranking policymakers who attended the White House policy review meeting on May 22, 1980, following the mass shootings in Gwangju by paratroopers of unarmed protesters who rose up in defiance of Chun’s coup. It remains unknown how or whether Vessey, the only person in attendance who had befriended Chun, spoke for the mastermind of the Gwangju massacre at the meeting that effectively decided to support his violent crackdown. According to Chun’s own memoir, Vessey introduced him and his staff to Richard Allen, Ronald Reagan’s security advisor, who gave Reagan’s first-ever summit as president in Washington to Chun.

The End of Military Rule

Despite their incompetence and political myopia, Gleysteen and Brewster greatly helped shape the situation in favor of Chun, who performed his own political acrobatics to court US support. This was because Washington did not appear to have a contingency plan for a post-Park regime, despite the brewing political crisis in South Korea.

According to a twenty-page analysis issued on June 9, 1979, the CIA expected Park would stay in power into the 1980s, due to his strong authoritarian grip and the inability of student-activists and dissidents to garner political support from the disfranchised. Within the next four months, that assessment proved to be wrong when confronted with Park’s death. However, it was still true that pro-democracy activists were unable to win wider support, except in Gwangju, where students and ordinary citizens banded together, briefly controlling the city after defeating Chun’s loyalist paratroopers.

By late 1979, officials in Washington appeared to be concluding that they might need another military strongman to eliminate volatility and restore the status quo in South Korea. With much of its military and diplomatic resources entangled in the response to the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Cold War politics meant that the United States could not afford another Iran-style fiasco on the Korean peninsula. Any such unrest would risk provoking communist North Korea into over-running Seoul.

In “North Korean Reactions to Instability in the South,” a report released eight days after the 12.12 coup, the CIA estimated the likelihood of North Korea opting for military action at fifty-fifty. However, even in the agency’s own view, widespread public unrest alone would not be sufficient to prompt a North Korean military option. It would have to be coupled with infighting within the South Korean military.

By May 1980, Chun had indeed proven himself to be “the only horse in town.” He ordered the roundup of several thousand dissidents and brutally put down the Gwangju uprising after driving his rival faction out of the military five months earlier.

Washington’s stopgap maneuvers in 1979–80 stood in noticeable contrast to a strategic shift it began to initiate from 1987 onward in response to the standoff between Chun and the Korean populace over his insistence on staying in power. In a five-page memorandum titled “South Korea: The Time Bomb is Ticking,” the CIA’s East Asian analysis director concluded that the United States would need to play a “more assertive role” in South Korea.

Its goal, according to the memorandum, should be to broker a compromise between some of Chun’s ruling party and the opposition party over a new constitution in order to prevent Chun from ramming through his own version to perpetuate his behind-the-scenes control. Otherwise, the analyst warned, Chun’s attempt at clinging to power would likely provoke “political violence either in the form of a military coup or student/labor-led popular uprisings.”

In the summer of 1987, months of mass protests resulted in constitutional reforms ensuring free and direct presidential elections. These concessions indeed came in the form of a great compromise between the two major parties at the expense of the neglect of a broader left-wing agenda concerning the rights of labor and social minorities.

It has since not been hard to notice the assertiveness of the United States at major political junctures. However, neither Washington nor the South Korean ruling elite could always get their way. What distinguished the two periods of the late 1970s and the late 1980s from one another was the emergence of a people’s movement in South Korea. Nationalist and left-leaning activism among students and workers had become a force to be reckoned with, not just for the military but also for the United States.

Democracy in Decline

In recent years, South Korea’s democracy has rapidly lost the vibrancy it was once known for and developed its own version of US-style bipartisan hegemony for two pro-business parties. A squabbling legislature increasingly fails to reach any meaningful consensus while politicians in power frequently use prosecutorial powers to discredit and eliminate their rivals.

The South Korean prosecution is a rarity in democracies as it is empowered to wield unfettered investigative and prosecutorial powers. Since the country underwent democratization in 1987, it has steadily curtailed the influence of its notorious intelligence agency. In contrast, the influence of the prosecution has grown ever stronger, with a role in almost every government organization from the intelligence agency to major embassies.

The director of 12.12: The Day appears to have framed it with the intention of suggesting parallels with South Korea’s current president Yoon Suk-yeol. In his role as prosecutor-general in 2019–20, Yoon successfully thwarted efforts by the liberal Moon Jae-in government to rein in the prosecution service. Two years ago, he ran for president on the ticket of Moon’s opponents, the conservative People Power Party.

Even for those outside South Korea, watching 12.12: The Day should be a thought-provoking experience, and even an inspiring one. We are living in a world marked by the decline of democracy and the rising of the far right. Its contemporary resonances make 12.12: The Day must-see viewing.