Read Part 10 HERE
For the time being, things went on as normal however with Detachment K providing airborne support for a presidential Special Forces capabilities demonstration. On October 26th of 1979, President Park and KCIA director Kim were having dinner at the Blue House when a heated political discussion broke out about the protests and how greater levels of repression were required. Whether Kim had a psychotic break, buckled under pressure, or executed a pre-meditated plan remains unknown but excusing himself from the table, the KCIA director returned with a Walther PPK pistol and assassinated President Park and his chief bodyguard. This triggered a series of events that threatened to bring Korea to the brink. Fearing that the north would exploit the ensuing chaos, the United States deployed AWACs aircraft to monitor North Korean troop movements (Young, 58).
As stipulated by the Korean constitution, Prime Minister Choi Kyu Ha became the acting president but, “it was obvious to even the most unsophisticated observer that the focus of power in South Korea remained with the military,” (Young, 60). The US State Department declined to build stronger relations with South Korean military officers, feeling it appropriate as they should only engage with the civilian government, regardless of the pragmatic political reality of who was really in charge. This proved to be a mistake when the former 1st Special Forces Brigade commander General Chung Doo Hwan launched a military coup on December 12th, later to be known as the 12/12 incident.
In between the assassination and the 12/12 incident was that year’s Foal Eagle exercise, which again went hot when North Korean infiltrators were detected on the Anymyon-do Peninsula. Det K member Horace Boner helped several South Korean Special Forces teams infiltrate the area of operations with US Army CH-47 helicopters. They mopped up the North Koreans, killing at least three of them and recovering their infiltration equipment (Det K, 80).
On December 12th, Det K’s commander at that time was Chuck Randall, who was enjoying cultural entertainment at a local Korean establishment. Knocking back a couple of beers, several South Korean Special Forces soldiers suddenly barged in and made a beeline straight for Randall. They informed him in no uncertain terms that he would be coming with them. Randall was then placed on a de facto house arrest for four days while the military coup continued to unfold.
“We want to get this message to your president,” one of the Korean Special Forces men told him. They then began using the Green Beret as an intermediary to speak to the US government. At that time, those participating in the coup had no trust in the rest of the US military and had little trust in US ambassador Gleysteen. For a time, the Det K commander became the only source of communication between the new Korean government and the US government. At one point, they even-handed Randall a copy of their new constitution and asked for his notes. There are a lot of things that a Green Beret can do, but Randall had to decline looking at the document as it would have been inappropriate for him to offer his comments.
Suffice to say, it was quite challenging for Randall to retain rapport with the Korean Special Forces men and also remain loyal to his own country and not speak out of turn on behalf of his government. “Talk about walking the tight rope. You have to have your loyalty to both sides,” Randall explained. The balancing act continued for several days and the entire event demonstrates the importance of US Special Forces developing long-term relationships with their host-nation counterparts. “We were the only [Americans] granted access to the Korean military installations for a long period of time,” Det K member Horace Boner said. The rest of Det K was on alert, but was told that they were not to go out with the Korean brigades that they were assigned to liaison with.
The United States had been caught off guard by both the Park assassination and the 12/12 coup, but in retrospect should have identified the warning the signs, particularly from a younger generation of upstart Korean officers from Korean Military Academy (KMA) classes 11 and 12 who were fed up with the old guard. General Chun purged the Army on December 14th, bringing KMA class 11 and 12 graduates to the forefront in key staff positions (Young, 80). The situation began to settle down, although several counter-coup plots circulated but never got off the ground.
(Featured image courtesy of Stripes)