The United States detected movements for a “counter coup d’etat” to oust Chun Doo-hwan inside the South Korean military after the coup d’etat on December 12, but opposed the second coup believing that an attempt to return things back to before December 12 would result in disaster. Such facts were confirmed for the first time in U.S. diplomatic documents.
In declassified U.S. government documents on the May 18 Democratic Uprising, which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently received from the Jimmy Carter Library, there is a document from the U.S. Embassy in South Korea to the U.S. State Department dated February 1, 1980, reporting on an anti-Chun Doo-hwan scheme inside the South Korean military. It also cites the real name of the person who gave the U.S. this information as General Rhee Bomb June for the first time. General Rhee is thought to be the deputy minister of defense industry in the defense ministry at the time, who was an older graduate (8th class graduate) of the Korean Military Academy than Chun Doo-hwan (11th class graduate).
In the report, the U.S. Embassy stresses the need to clearly state the U.S. administration’s position to both Chun Doo-hwan and his opposing forces in connection to the tip from Rhee. The U.S. Embassy further mentions that the U.S. should clearly inform all parties that a group inside the military trying to return things to before the December 12 coup and another group (new military regime) trying to further strengthen its position and completely dominate the government would potentially bring disaster to South Korea.
The U.S. had negative views on the new military force’s attempt to seize power, but at the same time preferred to maintain the status quo. Thus, it appears the U.S. actually blocked an anti-Chun Doo-hwan movement inside the military. The Embassy further states that if they failed to reply to General Rhee, the silence could be interpreted as the U.S. turning a blind eye on the counter coup. The U.S. Embassy sought the approval of the State Department to deliver its position to General Rhee, telling him that the U.S. government would fiercely oppose any attempt by the commanders who seized power through the December 12 coup d’etat to further strengthen their position and try to dominate the civilian government. The U.S. administration also believed that other officers trying to return things back to before the December 12 coup would be just as dangerous.
The U.S. Embassy also asked the State Department for instructions to share the fact that the U.S. firmly warned Chun Doo-hwan and his opposing forces to President Choi Kyu-hah. The report also described General Rhee’s tip stating that the details were reliable, but that they could have been distorted when conveyed.
The documents that the Jimmy Carter Library provided (206 pages) included a memorandum from the White House National Security Council (NSC) on May 8, 1980 stating that a serious clash between students and the government was expected on May 15, 1980 in Seoul and that Chun Doo-hwan had already relocated 2-3 airborne brigades. The document named Chun Doo-hwan as the actual person who gave orders to move the airborne units, suggesting that the U.S. may have concluded that Chun Doo-hwan had complete command over the military.
The public can see the declassified documents at the May 18 Democratic Uprising Archives website.
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