American Stephen Bradner, a former counter-intelligence agent who advised successive US commanders in South Korea, making him an important (if low-volume) voice on US military strategy toward North Korea, died January 17. He was 86.
Bradner, who was well known to many senior South Koreans in government and military circles, passed away in his home state of Rhode Island, where he lived after retiring in 2013. His extraordinary career in Korea spanned six decades.
That career began in 1954 shortly after the Korean War ended. After graduating from Yale, Bradner entered the US Army and was deployed to Korea with the Counter Intelligence Corps. Many North Korean troops were trapped or remained in the South at war’s end. These soldiers, together with local leftists, partisans and infiltrators, attempted to sabotage rebuilding efforts by the Seoul government. Bradner’s role involved questioning captured enemy soldiers, conducting local liaison missions with South Korean military counterparts and analyzing the North Korean power structure.
Given the alien language and culture, the poverty, and general air of drabness of 1950s Korea, most GIs could barely wait to leave. Not Bradner. He went home after completing his military service, but returned in 1957 to Daegu, Korea’s third city, to teach English literature and Western European history at Kyungpook National University.
In 1960, he was an eyewitness to the popular uprising against Syngman Rhee, the authoritarian and deeply corrupt South Korean president.
On 18 April of that year, Bradner shinned up a tree to see what was happening and spotted US military police patrolling in Seoul alongside South Korean military police (MPs). “I was worried that our MPs would be dragged into fighting against Korean student protesters for democracy if any violence broke out,” Bradner told this writer many years later. “So, I went to see the commander of the US intelligence unit on the US Army base in Seoul, and told him of my fears that something was about to happen.”
That officer not only listened to Bradner, but persuaded the military police commander to order his men to return to barracks. The next day, 19 April, was a milestone in Korean history. Thousands of university and high school students swarmed the streets of cities to protest against Rhee. Police opened fire. Bradner was a witness to the tragedy. As police bullets cracked past, he dashed to the British Embassy and heaved himself over its protective wall to escape the fusillade. But dozens of students were killed; many more were wounded. But there was no US military involvement – thanks in part, to Bradner’s counsel. The massacre led to the exile of the disgraced Rhee.
Advisor to senior general
Bradner returned to the US in 1961 to earn a Harvard master’s degree in Asian Studies. He returned to Korea in 1964 to begin a career of nearly 50 years as a civilian employee of the US government. Starting as an intelligence analyst for the US Army, Bradner worked his way up until in 1973 he became deputy special advisor to the US Army 4-star general in command of both UN Command and US Forces in Korea.
As Michael Breen, author of “The New Koreans” later recalled, “When I first met Steve back around 1986, I showed his business card to a politician friend who was running [then-opposition leader] Kim Dae-jung’s camp. He got quite excited, and put on a whispered voice, although there was no need to, and said, ‘He is the most powerful man in Korea!’”
The politician explained to Breen that if opposition politicians had maintained close contact with Bradner, and if then-US Commander General John Wickham had had better counsel during the tumultuous years of 1979-80 events might have turned out more favorably. As it was, General Chun Do-hwan deployed airborne units to crush pro-democracy protests in the city of Gwangju, killing some 200, then engineered a creeping coup that ended with him becoming president. The Gwangju Uprising remains a stain on Korea’s modern conscience, and – due to allegations of US involvement – ignited anti-American sentiment in South Korea.
In 1981, Bradner took over as special advisor from another legendary figure, James Hausman, who retired. Bradner was one of the officials behind US efforts to spare the life of Kim Dae-jung, who had been sentenced to death by a South Korean military court shortly after the Gwangju tragedy. (Kim was eventually elected South Korean president in 1997.)
By the time of his retirement, Bradner had served 14 US commanders in Korea, and risen to a high rank in the US Civil Service, equivalent to a 3-star general in the US Army. The position of special advisor was abolished after Bradner’s departure.
Having a front row seat on the stage of history obviously appealed to him. “I became curious how these things on the Korean peninsula would work out,” Bradner said in an interview with US military newspaper Stars and Stripes on May 25, 2013, the day of his retirement ceremony. “If I hadn’t enjoyed it, I wouldn’t have stayed. Koreans, by-and-large, are a likeable sort of people and they are moving through history at a rapid rate.”
Bradner impressed fellow expatriates for reasons other than professional expertise: He courted and married a noted local beauty, basketball athlete Park Shin-ja.
He was a favorite off-the-record resource for journalists. “I was always impressed by Steve’s accessibility and ability to give solid insights – even over pints at Seoul’s British Embassy Bar,” said Andrew Salmon, a reporter and Korean War history author. “The respect he was held in by ‘old Korea hands’ made clear that here was a man who knew his business, and the fact that he personally advised so many US commanders in Korea spoke volumes.”
‘North Korea like a religious cult-crime family’
Bradner consistently advocated a hard line toward North Korea. In a contribution to “Planning for a Peaceful Korea,” a book edited in 2001 by Henry Sokolski, Bradner wrote: “Kim’s regime was born and bred in absolute hostility to any political authority in the South. Simply, the South is held to be a US colony and Southern officials are viewed as nothing more than lackeys of their colonial masters.”
His characterization of the dynasty in Pyongyang remains quotable. “The regime operates like a combination religious cult-crime family gang,” Bradner wrote. “Resort to violence is common, as are summary executions. The regime’s leaders utilize gangland practices – counterfeiting, drug smuggling, extortion, kidnapping and assassination – as tools of state policy. And as one might expect, they show indifference to the welfare of ordinary citizens.”
To the end, Bradner remained pessimistic about the possibility for a peaceful resolution on the peninsula.
Stephen Bradner is survived by his wife, Shin-ja, two children, Andrew Bradner and Anne Geertman, and four grandchildren.
Hank Morris has been an American expatriate in Korea for nearly 40 years. He first came to Korea in the 1970s with the US Peace Corps. Since the early 1980s his primary career has been in banking, securities and asset management. He also writes for financial publications and is a frequent commentator on the Korean economy and its securities markets.