With armored vehicles and commandos deployed against civil protesters, central Seoul could have been the scene of a bloodbath.
South Korea’s political-military nexus is under strain following revelations that a shadowy internal defense and counter-espionage unit drew up plans to suppress mass anti-government demonstrations in 2017 with infantry, tanks and special forces.
Thankfully, those plans were never implemented, but there has been pushback within the unit against a probe personally ordered by President Moon Jae-in.
The revelations about the so-called “counter-coup” plot, and the ongoing investigation, have jolted South Korea, reminding the public of a dark past that many thought was long over. In a young democracy where the military is not considered a benign force, the generals still cast a long, dark shadow.
Martial law, redux?
In June, a non-government group revealed that the Defense Security Command (DSC), the military’s powerful internal oversight and counter-espionage unit, had drawn up plans to suppress anti-government demonstrations in the event that the Constitutional Court overturned an impeachment motion against then-President Park Geun-hye.
In late 2016, central Seoul was flooded with millions of peaceful demonstrators, demanding that Park step down. The former president was accused of handing political powers to a dubious crony, Choi Soon-sil – who, lurid rumors alleged, was a witch who had established some kind of mind control over Park – and of engaging in a series of corrupt acts.
In early 2017, Korea held its breath as the Constitutional Court passed judgment on a parliamentary impeachment motion. In the event, the court upheld Park’s impeachment. With their “candle-light revolution” having achieved its aims, demonstrators stood down, and there was a peaceful election and transition of power to the current Moon administration.
As a result, the DSC secret plans were never executed. They had been formulated to stamp down on civil disobedience if the court had overturned the impeachment – a move that, it was apparently feared, could cause the peaceful protests to become a huge enraged mob.
The plans were revealed in a press conference on July 6 at the Lee Han-yeol Memorial Hall – a site named after a student demonstrator killed in anti-government protests in 1987. The NGO, the Center for Military Human Rights, Korea (MHRCK) presented a DSC document it had obtained entitled “Wartime Martial Law and Joint Action Plan.”
The plans called for the deployment of some 4,800 infantry, together with some 200 tanks and 550 other armored vehicles on the streets of Seoul, notably in downtown areas where the protesters had massed. Special forces, including the top-tier 707th Battalion – roughly equivalent to the US Delta Force or the UK’s SAS – were to be on standby. The plan also included provisions for the army to control media outlets.
Further details soon emerged. The DSC’s full martial law plan included provisions for controlling the National Assembly, according to documents released by the Blue House.
President Moon Jae-in ordered an investigation into the case soon after the civic group’s allegations were raised. Defense Minister Song Young-moo launched an independent probe into the DSC headed by an Air Force general. On June 25, the probe team raided the offices of the DSC outside Seoul, questioning two generals.
Last Friday, Moon called the DSC’s actions “illegal.”
But the unit has not taken this all lying down. DSC officers told a parliamentary committee that the defense minister had been briefed on the plans. Song angrily denied it.
What is not yet clear is how far these plans deviated from conventional martial law plans, which are reportedly updated every two years. Nor it is clear who ordered the document: figures within the DSC? Members of the now-ousted Park government? And it is not known how far the DSC might have pushed all elements of the scenario plan, had it actually been implemented.
A final report by investigators is expected in early August.
The bad old days
The DSC has long had a dubious reputation. In November 2017, reports surfaced that DSC officers, in a club called “Sparta,” had posted online comments supporting the former government of conservative Lee Myung-bak (currently in jail awaiting trial on corruption charges), raising questions over the unit’s political neutrality. But the plans for demonstration suppression hark back to a past that South Koreans could reasonably have thought was far behind them.
The country was led from 1961 to 1987 by two generals, Park Chung-hee – the father of the disgraced Park Geun-hye – and Chun Do-hwan. Both seized power in coups. The stated reason for both sounds eerily familiar to the 2017 situation: To prevent anarchy in the streets.
While Korea’s decades of authoritarian rule saw stellar economic growth as the nation rapidly industrialized, they was also a period of political repression, particularly in the 1980s, when Seoul and other Korean cities became battlegrounds between pro-democracy protesters and government security forces.
Raising the emotive temperature further, the DSC was the unit headed by Chun, the general who seized power in a creeping coup after his predecessor Park was assassinated by the chief of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency in 1979.
Chun, a Vietnam veteran, leveraged the DSC’s muscle to intimidate the formerly feared KCIA and seize power himself. Chun’s deployment of airborne rangers to suppress pro-democracy protesters in the southwestern city of Gwangju in 1980, created perhaps the rawest scar on the modern South Korean political psyche. Over 200 people were killed.
Steve Tharp, a retired US colonel who spent most of his career in South Korea, and who now authors books on the DMZ, recalled meeting DSC troops during his frontline service.
“Whenever we bumped into those guys, we laughed at them: These DSC guys would be out there, they stood out in uniforms that were too nice, with no names or ranks – they did not look like soldiers,” Tharp said. “Our Korean contacts would come back later and say, ‘Please don’t do that – they don’t like it!’”
According to the DSC’s website, it is based on the US Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, or CIC. Tharp disagrees. “We don’t have something like that in our military – it is more like a communist organization,” he said. “Our CIC is a lot different – they are criminal investigators – but these guys are looking for disloyal people in the ranks.”
Still, Tharp believes that the DSC’s plans to quell civil unrest might rest on a foundation of legitimacy, given the importance of scenario planning in any military.
“We in the US Army don’t do that stuff, but we are not at war with another country either,” he said, referring to the ever-present threat from North Korea. “There are emergency plans for different things, so in the US, martial law would be National Guard and they do have plans for civil unrest.”
He noted the deployment of National Guard units to reinforce police in the city of St Louis in 2017 in the aftermath of a controversial shooting verdict.
A military without respect
South Korea fields a powerful, 618,000-strong military, largely postured toward the North Korean threat over the Demilitarized Zone. But despite its role as national guardian, it is neither loved nor respected among the public.
Korea’s last kingdom, Joseon (1392-1910), was a neo-Confucian polity led by a scholarly elite rather than a military aristocracy. Soldiers were traditionally looked down upon. After the end of colonial rule in 1945, officers for the nascent South Korean armed forces were heavily recruited from those who had served in Imperial Japanese forces. More latterly, the military was impacted by its role in the coups of the 1960s and 80s.
Anti-army, political sentiment may be in synch with the assault on the DSC.
“The idea I find difficult believe, but people would love to believe, is that the South Korean military is capable of some kind of martial law or semi-coup,” said Michael Breen, author of “The New Koreans” who reported on the pro-democracy struggles of the 1980s as a journalist. “That is a little bit far-fetched, I think – but people want to believe the worst of the Park Geun-hye administration.”
Indeed, for the military to seize control of modern, democratic Korea is unthinkable, one pundit stated.
“One of the reasons I do not take this contingency planning seriously is that the officers in that agency must have been really stupid if they thought of staging a coup or something similar in this day and age,” said Ra Jong-yil, a distinguished professor at the Korean National Defence University with a background in diplomacy and intelligence, who noted that today’s Korean officers are much more highly educated than in the past.
“The ability to stage a coup mainly depends upon the control of civil society, so even if the military was successful in getting power, it would not be able to govern or rule,” he said.
Meanwhile, compulsory military service remains deeply unpopular. Politicians’ and conglomerate leader’s sons often manage to wriggle out of it, sparking periodic scandals. Moreover, the military is frequently roiled by allegations of brutality, hazing and sexual abuse of conscripts.
“The fact that people work so hard not to go into the military is indicative of a complete lack of respect for the military,” said Tharp.
Last week, Seoul announced a new defense blueprint, “Defense Reform 2.0.” It slashes the number of service personnel from 618,000 to 500,000 by 2022, while the term of conscription for army draftees will be cut to 18 months from the current 21 months. Moreover, the number of general-level officers – predominantly from the army – will also be slashed.
While the plan will no doubt be welcomed by would-be draftees and their parents, it is not without its critics.
“I think professionalization would help, but the Korean people are not willing to pay the money for a professional army, so they are doing it on the cheap with a conscript army,” Tharp said. “The army is getting weaker and weaker as they keep reducing the terms of service.”
Meanwhile, the DSC investigation – and the broader impact on the army’s image – continues. “The image of the armed forces has been severely tainted by the [Defense Security Command controversy],” the Korea Times newspaper editorialized on Monday. “So it is urgent to restore the people’s trust in the military.”
That might require sacrificing the DSC.
“I don’t think they are necessary today, as the original function of DSC was to spy on the military for political subversion, and it would investigate communists, overlapping with the civilian intelligence agencies,” Breen said. “It was very political, and is anachronistic.”