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Delivering the Mail and Avoiding Martial Law in South Korea, 1987

Chun Doo-hwan, president of South Korea from 1980 to 1988, seized power in 1979 and crushed many democratization movements during his controversial rule. According to the South Korean constitution, Chun was limited to seven years in power, but as the end of his term approached, it was not clear that he would step down.  By late June, it seemed likely that Chun would declare martial law and use the Army to stay in power.  This decision would have the potential to bring about a civil war in South Korea, and the U.S. Embassy had only hours to deliver a letter from President Reagan and attempt to change Chun’s mind before the announcement planned for June 19 — a letter the government did not want to accept. Thomas Dunlop (Political Counselor in Seoul, 1983-1987) discusses the incident here in an interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy, conducted in July of 1996.

Read more about the Kwangju Massacre and other Moments on Korea.


The Letter from Reagan — “Your President cannot refuse to see my Ambassador!”


OP:  Every spring, if you will, there were riots to commemorate the Kwangju incident in 1980, when government soldiers killed a couple of hundred protesters. That incident took place at the end of May, 1980, so from then on the end of May and June was always a time when students would riot to commemorate the Kwangju incident (pictured).…

Although there may have been some sympathy among the broader population, usually the students would wear out their welcome after a few days of rioting. The shopkeepers didn’t want to keep their shops boarded up, and vendors didn’t want to have to stop selling their merchandise. So the students never really got much beyond the point of rioting.

It was a different situation in June, 1987. Not only were the students in full cry, but there was evidence that doubts about Chun’s departure were beginning to be reflected in a political way in public support for the students. The demonstrations lasted much longer than they usually did, and they became increasingly widespread. As I said, they extended beyond Seoul to Pusan, Taegu, and other places, such as Kwangju itself.

The point was reached when it became very worrisome to us in the Embassy that this was the kind of situation that would give Chun the excuse for proclaiming martial law. If he declared martial law and sent the troops out into the streets, it would be a sign that he was going to stay in power and was going to use the Army to make this possible. This would have been a disaster for the political future of South Korea. It could even have meant civil war, because it wasn’t at all clear that all of the soldiers would follow Chun. Certainly, there would be a lot of terrible things happening in Seoul, including the effect on the summer Olympic Games, which were due to be held in Seoul next year. This had been regarded as a time when Chun could step aside and let something different begin to happen on the political scene. It looked as if all of this might come unglued.

The embassy, of course, was in touch with Washington. Our Ambassador at the time was Jim Lilley, who was on the secure phone to Washington a number of times in this connection.…Washington finally told us that President Reagan was going to write a letter to Chun. It would be a strongly worded letter urging Chun to keep his promise to step down as President of South Korea and do nothing so rash and foolish as declaring martial law and canceling the elections of 1987.

We knew that this letter from President Reagan to President Chun was coming to us. We didn’t know when it would be received. The bureaucracy takes a little time to get out a message like this. On Wednesday night, June 17, 1987, I received a call from Washington that the letter had finally been cleared by the White House. The cabled text would be received by the Embassy in a couple of hours, some time on Wednesday night, our time. I remember the date because Friday was June 19, 1987. Ambassador Lilley had taken a trip to visit some of our cultural offices out in the countryside […] [so he] was not physically in Seoul. I was Acting DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] and, in effect, was in charge of the Embassy.

I contacted Ambassador Lilley and told him that the letter from President Reagan to President Chun was on the way and … I would make an appointment for Ambassador Lilley to call on President Chun on the afternoon of Thursday, June 18. I knew that it would take Ambassador Lilley a few hours to get back to Seoul and that he would like to read the letter from President Reagan before delivering it.

I suggested making the appointment for any time after 2:00 PM on June 18. Ambassador Lilley said, “OK.” I started calling right away to make the appointment. All that I could do, given the time of day, was to leave a message that an appointment with President Chun was urgently needed and that Ambassador Lilley was coming back to Seoul to pick up the letter from President Reagan which he wanted to deliver personally to President Chun.

On the next morning, June 18, I called the Foreign Ministry and was told that President Chun would not receive Ambassador Lilley. At this time Ambassador Jim Lilley was driving back to Seoul, while I was sitting in my office talking to this nice man from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who was telling me that President Chun would not receive Ambassador Lilley.

I said, “But that cannot be! This is a personal letter from my President to your President, to be delivered by my President’s personal representative, who is also under instructions to have a few additional words to say.” I said, “Your President simply cannot refuse to see my Ambassador in this connection.” The Ministry representative said, “Oh, yes, he can refuse to receive the Ambassador.” I then escalated the level of my representations to the Ministry a little bit, as I was effectively in charge of the Embassy. I couldn’t go too far up, as I was just Acting DCM.

“I don’t believe that President Chun has made this decision.  I don’t think that he would be that stupid to make it!”

I had a horrible feeling that President Chun had already made up his mind and that he didn’t want to receive the letter in person. I was told, “You can just drop the letter in the mail or slip it under the door. We’ll see that President Chun gets it.”

Well, I think that this was the only time that I really lost my temper in dealing with an official of a foreign government. I was sitting in the office. A lot of my Political Officers were running in and out. This was a terribly busy time. We had gas masks in the office. The Political Officers would take them with them when they went out into the streets. It was just a very hectic time. We also had a portable radio there because we were listening to the military security people, who also were concerned about where the demonstrations were taking place. Usually, nobody paid any attention to me. Who was I, just there on the phone. All of a sudden, the whole room went quiet, and everybody was looking at me.

I was shouting into the phone and saying, “I want the name of the South Korean official who has taken it on himself to make this decision. I don’t believe that President Chun has made this decision. I will not accept that your President has made it. I don’t think that he would be that stupid to make it! He couldn’t have made it. God damn it, I want to know the name of the person who made that decision right now!” And so on and so forth.

The South Korean official to whom I was talking said, “Harry, quiet down, quiet down.” Well, I was desperate. Anyway, Ambassador Lilley came in about an hour later. I said, “Jim, you’re going to have to take it from here. I’ve done everything that I can.” Then the phone rang. It was the Foreign Minister speaking on behalf of President Chun. He said, “The President can’t see Ambassador Lilley today, June 18. Would tomorrow, June 19 be all right?”

Little did we know that tomorrow would be almost too late, because right about this time President Chun had decided to declare martial law. As we learned later, that Thursday night was a terrible night of rioting. A South Korean soldier was killed.…Our Consul in Pusan talked to the Pusan Police chief that night. The Police chief said that his police were too tired to go on. He said that he needed soldiers to help maintain order. He said that he had called Seoul to ask for some soldiers. This was not martial law. He said he just needed some soldiers. So, probably late on Thursday night, June 18, President Chun made the decision to proclaim martial law.

The appointment for Ambassador Lilley was set for 2:00 PM on the afternoon of Friday, June 19. Ambassador Lilley had the letter and went over to call on President Chun. At about noon on June 19, just an hour or two before he went in to see President Chun, there was an announcement over the radio that the Prime Minister would address the nation at midnight on that day. This seemed like an ominous time to do things, but this was the announcement. I thought “My God, this means that martial law is about to be declared.” We did not get good, advance intelligence on this decision. Our military and our CIA people couldn’t tell us what was going on in President Chun’s mind or what he was discussing with his top lieutenants.

Later on, we learned a lot about what had gone on that day. By that time we had President Reagan’s letter, and a great deal of rioting was going on. Ken Quinones, our Consul in Pusan, had called us with this story to which I have referred about the Police Chief in Pusan who had called for military help from the central government in Seoul to maintain order. We were really worried and concerned about the situation. The more we thought about it the more concerned we were about the possible consequences of martial law and the more disastrous it sounded to us. Then there was this ominous announcement of a midnight speech to the nation by the Prime Minister.

The Meeting of Ambassador Lilley and President Chun


way, Ambassador Lilley went over to call on President Chun on the afternoon of June 19. I did not go with him. No American went with him. President Chun still kept to his practice of seeing the American ambassador alone. Ambassador Lilley spent two hours over at the Presidential Palace [Blue House], where both the office and residence of the President of South Korea were located.

The Ambassador came back to the Embassy at 4:40 p.m. He sat down at his desk and described what had happened to all of us, who were standing there, breathless with anticipation. We knew what was in the letter from President Reagan, which was strongly worded. The letter had told President Chun that he, President Reagan, had been President of the U.S. for seven years in difficult times and knew what the stresses of making decisions were, but that there were a few times which were “defining moments,” and so forth. This was one of them, and President Reagan wanted [Chun] to know that the Korean-American alliance would be under severe strain if the political process broke down and if the presidential elections were canceled….

Chun usually liked to dominate the conversation. He would read the letter, if that were involved, and then talk about it. This time Chun did most of the listening. Ambassador Lilley said “I couldn’t have been more explicit about what our concerns were. I asked him about the Prime Minister’s speech. I told him that if the Prime Minister announced that martial law was about to be proclaimed, it would be a disaster for South Korea and for our relationship. We hoped that this would not be the case.”

Some time around 5:30 or 6:30 p.m. it was announced on the radio that the Prime Minister’s speech had been canceled. Later on we learned that it had been late in the evening of the Thursday or early on Friday morning that President Chun, who had long been toying with the idea of declaring martial law, had decided to do it. He told the Prime Minister to prepare a declaration of martial law for delivery over the radio at midnight on June 19.

Then President Chun had reluctantly decided to receive the American Ambassador. We also learned that there were a lot of people, including some of his top military leaders, who were telling President Chun the same thing that Ambassador Lilley told him. So I am not trying to portray this as an intervention by Washington that suddenly turned things around. We will never know for sure–my best estimate is that most of the pressures on Chun were to reverse his decision, including ours, and that added up to more than he could withstand.

Chun was not a stupid man. He was a very intelligent man. I think that he would not have made the decision to declare martial law lightly, under any circumstances. It would not have been based on an “impulse” on his part. After the Rangoon and other incidents we had often seen how Chun held up well under stress. However, he appears to have made a clear decision to cancel the elections of 1987, blaming it on the opposition for reckless violence and emphasizing that security must be maintained. In fact, Chun was not losing control of the country. There was no justification for canceling the elections.…Chun shouldn’t have made this martial law decision.

Ultimately, he decided not to declare martial law and cancel the elections of 1987. Well, we’ll never know, unless President Chun writes his memoirs and we can believe them, what combination of circumstances led him to change his mind. Surely, Ambassador Lilley’s intervention with the Reagan letter played a role. I think that if there is anything in my career which I can look back on and say that it might have had an impact of historical significance, my part in that incident, little that it was, including losing my temper on the telephone, might have been such an event.