Who was Pak Jong-gyu?
Having just overthrown the government on May 16, 1961, Major Pak Jong-gyu and Major General Park Chung-hee stand in front of Seoul City Hall (left). Pak Jong-gyu in his role as chief of the Presidential Security Service ( 경호실장 ) in the early 1970s (top right). Pak giving a press conference as Chairman of the Organizing Committee for the 42nd World Shooting Championships in 1978 (bottom right).
Pak Jong-gyu ( 박종규 / 朴鐘圭 ) (b. May 28, 1930, d. December 3, 1985)
Pak Jong-gyu was a key insider of the Park Chung-hee regime and an important, original member that had participated in the 1961 military coup that overthrew South Korea’s Second Republic. As members of the senior generation of the military junta, Pak Jong-gyu and his associates are sometimes looked on today in South Korea as a collection of somewhat unsophisticated and semi-educated japanophile bullies from the army who muscled their way into the highest positions of government.
In a more charitable view, Pak Jong-gyu was certainly no different than most other striving young Korean men of his generation whose lot in life was to be relegated to obscurity by the stifling power structures of privileged Confucian and aristocratic hierarchies that prevailed in Korean society. An ambitious man thrown on nothing but his own resources, Pak survived and dominated by cultivating extraordinary willpower, ruthless determination, and physical prowess. Just as important were his personal connections to other insurrection-minded comrades in the South Korean Army; and in this area, he made out incredibly well with his close connection to Major General Park Chung-hee.
Like all of the key men that President Park brought into his inner circle, Pak Jong-gyu’s family was from the Gyeongsang provinces of southeastern Korea. As a boy, his family moved to Kyoto, Japan, where the teenage Pak received a brief Japanese military education; another ostensible requirement for those close to President Park. Starting as a Sargeant in the South Korean Army, he was commissioned as an officer during the Korean War, and was a veteran of the conflict. But Pak Jong-gyu's rise to prominence only came from his participation in the 1961 coup d'etat, in which he acquitted himself well in hunting down the deposed head of state, Prime Minister Chang Myon, as well as serving as General Park's bodyguard.
For his efforts, Pak gained two rapid rank advancements, from Major to Colonel, before Park Chung-hee finally appointed him to head the powerful Presidential Security Service (PSS) in May 1964. It would be a position he would hold for the next ten years, longer than any other head of presidential security in South Korea's history.
Pak Jong-gyu accompanied the newly-elected President Park Chung-hee to the United States in late November 1963 to attend President Kennedy's funeral. They are pictured here during the flag-folding ceremony at the burial site.
The available narratives that detail Pak Jong-gyu’s behavior as President Park’s security chief seem to describe a character straight out of I, Claudius or Peaky Blinders central casting: His hawk-like countenance and wiry, athletic build combined to great effect with his fiery, irascible personality and a willingness to “throw down” at the drop of a hat. These qualities had made a strong impression on his army buddies, who gave him the nickname “G.D. (Giant Dynamite)”. As PSS chief, he was more commonly known as “Pistol Pak.” He earned that name after going out armed to the teeth into the center of downtown Seoul during the June 1964 demonstrations protesting the normalization talks with Japan in order to “convince” President Park’s only real political rival at the time, Kim Jong-pil, to retire from politics. Although even the army and intelligence services were after him, Kim Jong-pil’s real worry was the relentless Pak Jong-gyu, who personally hunted his quarry in the streets in broad daylight with his trademark pistols, one in each hand.
Pak was extremely protective of his boss, and was an excellent marksman with those pistols, so it seems as if President Park could not have gone wrong with Pak as chief of the PSS. In reality, Park Chung-hee chose men like Pak Jong-gyu to lead certain vital agencies of his government not just for their abilities, but also because they were incapable of posing a threat for succession to the presidency. Two other key players that Park utilized in this way were Kim Hyeong-uk (Korean Central Intelligence Agency [KCIA] Director, 1963-1969) and Yi Hu-rak (KCIA Director, 1970-1973). The fate of all three men depended entirely upon President Park, wedding them completely to the president's fortunes and effectively making them the watchdogs of the Park Chung-hee presidency. Although he shared a common interest with the other two men, Pak Jong-gyu’s battles with them are legendary. The source of the strife began early on.
PSS versus KCIA
As new agencies of Park Chung-hee’s national security state, the PSS and KCIA engaged in critical tasks that made intelligence work prestigious and politically sensitive. The highly competitive natures of the leaders of these two agencies quickly set them against each other in a “war of information.” Access to the president, control of regime secrets, and the various palace intrigues were the object and the subject, the arena and the residuum, of their power struggle. Operating with considerable power and next to no scrutiny, these two hard-bitten men, Pak Jong-gyu and Kim Hyeong-uk, went after one another without restraint. It was the beginning of an extraordinary internecine conflict inside the Park regime —one that the president curiously tolerated — and a conflict that perhaps had even fostered the environment that made his eventual assassination possible.
Their underlings called the squabble, “The Pistol and Tonkatsu War” (Pistol for ‘Pistol Pak,’ and Tonkatsu for Kim Hyeong-uk, after the name of the Japanese fried pork cutlet, his favorite lunchtime dish). Although the dispute was mostly work-related, it was when it got personal that the sparks really flew. Kim once displaced Pak as the sole importer of U.S. wheat flour; one of the lucrative perks extended to high-level members of the administration. This and other outrages prompted Pak to get physical with Kim, and rumor had it that Pak, a practitioner of judo, hapkido, karate, and taekwondo, once gave Kim a severe thrashing, using him as a punching bag.
Kim Hyeong-uk never backed down. As a part of the 1968 espionage case that involved Koreans living in Germany known as the “East Berlin Incident,” the KCIA arrested one of Pak’s female secretaries, a certain “Miss Kim,” with whom Pak was having an affair. Director Kim intentionally neglected to inform Pak about her arrest. Within minutes of finding out, however, Pak loaded his pistols and headed into the night, straight for the KCIA interrogation center in Namsan. In the ensuing confrontation, Pak pressed his pistol against Kim in a rage and was overheard to have roared at him in warning, “I’m a four-ply ironclad motherfucker! ” (loosely translated from the Korean, “네 배때기엔 철판 깔았느냐 ”). Kim got the message, although Pak’s lover was nonetheless dismissed.
After Kim Hyeong-uk was ousted as KCIA director of his own accord, Park Jong-gyu set his crosshairs on the Agency’s new director, Yi Hu-rak. As presidential chief of staff and then head of the KCIA, Yi had experienced remarkable political successes in helping President Park get re-elected in 1971, and in negotiating the famous Joint Communiqué with North Korea that same year. If incapable of competing with Yi at his level of accomplishment, Pak would at least look for a chance to take Yi and his KCIA down a few notches. He soon came upon a spectacular opportunity to do so.
It began when Pak got a tip from the president of the Seoul daily, the Choson Ilbo, that Yi Hu-rak had once discussed the subject of presidential succession while golfing together with one of his key supporters, the Army Chief of Staff, Yoon Pil-yong, in October 1972. General Yoon supposedly had made some offhand comments about the president’s “old age” and the need for a successor. Even for such well-established men, such talk was hazardous to their positions in the Park regime. Members were known to shrink in fear from the slightest criticism from the president as if they were yangban courtiers of a Korean king. So it must have been with epicaricatic delectation that Pak Jong-gyu immediately informed President Park about the two men’s “disloyalty.” The president’s response did not disappoint Pak: Yoon Pil-yong was court-martialed and jailed in April 1973, and Yi Hu-rak was dismissed as KCIA director that same year.
In the ensuing purges of their close followers, Pak Jong-gyu displayed another aspect of his character that sharply contrasted with his thirst for dominance —he had soft spot for those in need of help. And two of General Yoon’s followers, army officers Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, certainly needed his help. Pak vigorously intervened on their behalf to save their careers, and was successful. His own previous status as an outsider might have been the source of Pak’s sense of compassion for them. Perhaps he also understood that these two were likely successors to President Park if they avoided the purge. In any case, Chun and Roh would return the kindness several years later.
Having overcome his two big rivals from the KCIA, Pak Jong-gyu’s world soon came crashing down on a theater stage; and it had nothing to do with the theatre of secrets, rivalries, or palace intrigues. The end of Pak’s PSS career happened in the blink of an eye during the August 15, 1974 assassination attempt on President Park as he stood behind a podium giving a speech at the National Theater of Korea. The entire event, highlighted by Pak Jong-gyu’s heroic charge straight toward the assassin while everyone else dove for cover, was incredibly caught on film. In the video footage, Pak can be seen as the first to react; he stood up and bolted in a full run toward the sound of the attacker’s gunfire coming from the darkness beyond the stage while simultaneously reaching for his pistol, although he was blinded by the brilliance of the stage lights. Maybe it was sweat on his palms or that sadistic joker, fate, that made Pak lose control of his pistol in the single movement of pulling the weapon out of his waistband. The pistol discharged as it fell between his legs and landed on the stage. Bystanders and PSS agents overwhelmed the attacker at the same moment. It was all over in less than four seconds from the time Pak got up from his chair.
While President Park himself was unharmed (protected by his armoured podium) the First Lady was killed when a bullet struck her in the head. The stray bullet from Pak Jong-gyu’s pistol was later officially determined to have ricocheted off a wall and killed a high school girl sitting in the audience. Others have conjectured that it was Pak’s stray bullet that killed Park Chung-hee’s wife, since the assassin is clearly seen in the footage aiming his pistol straight at the podium, and away from the First Lady in the moment she was hit. With the First Lady and a bystander dead, and the president having narrowly escaped harm, Pak tendered his resignation. It was accepted. Another one of the president’s favorites from the 1961 military coup, Cha Chi-chul, quickly replaced Pak on August 22nd.
In the months after his ouster, Pak Jong-gyu was decidedly persona non grata among former colleagues and acquaintances. But because he had been involved in the government at a high level for so long, he was allowed to fall back on other work in areas of government concern in which he had a hand, such as the economy, foreign policy (especially U.S. relations), sports, and even security duties, albeit indirectly. Still, Pak needed to show discretion, so it was for this reason that in late 1974 he dispatched a colleague in his stead to Bern, Switzerland to compete against Mexico’s Mario Vasquez Rania for the chance for South Korea to host the International Shooting Union’s upcoming 42nd World Shooting Championships. South Korea won the vote against Mexico, which gave Pak the perfect chance to showcase his talents as the chairman of the shooting event’s organizing committee, while also giving him the opportunity to show that South Korea was a country primed for large international sporting events.
In doing so, Pak was setting the stage for grander schemes.
The Olympic Advocate
The 42nd World Shooting Championships held in Seoul in September 1978 were a dazzling success for Pak Jong-gyu, with the tournament garnering rave reviews from the international shooting community, despite a Soviet-bloc boycott. As the event received strong state funding and other supports from the Park regime, Pak Jong-gyu was able to easily outdo previous international shooting championships held in other countries, since they were usually only funded by local shooting clubs. Members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), who had previously shown scant enthusiasm for shooting, also took notice. It was from the success of his shooting championships that Pak approached President Park and Korean IOC member, Kim Taek-soo, to ask that they support a bid for their country to host the upcoming 1988 Summer Olympics. President Park demurred, citing economic reasons, while Kim Taek-soo only had a single vote and not much leverage at the IOC. In the meantime, Pak Jong-gyu bided his time as the director of the Korean Athletic Association and as a member of parliament representing his home district of Masan.
After the assassination of President Park in October 1979 and General Chun Doo-hwan’s subsequent coup, the government made way for the New Order by rounding up its opponents, as well as cronies of the former Park regime. Pak Jong-gyu was arrested on May 18, 1980 on charges of illegally accumulating around 7.7 billion KRW (the 1980 equivalent of over 12 million USD). While the charge was certainly not unfounded, Chun saw to it that Pak was soon released, as Chun remembered how Pak had intervened to save his skin back in 1973. Chun later supported Pak to become South Korea’s IOC representative upon the death of Kim Taek-soo in 1983. It turned out that President Chun's government had been better positioned to more seriously consider Pak’s suggestion to host the Olympics.
Thanks in part to Pak Jong-gyu’s early efforts, South Korea won the IOC vote for the 1988 Summer Olympics in September 1981, and subsequently hosted the 24th Summer Olympic Games with great success. Pak Jong-gyu, however, never got to see his dream become reality. He died after a long battle with liver cancer at the age of 55; almost three years before his country hosted the Olympics. Photographs taken of Pak in the years after he had been relieved as chief of the PSS show that he seemed to have quickly aged. The 1974 assassination incident had evidently cost him something more than just his job. But true to his nature, Pak remained vital and ambitious in his remaining years.
Pak Jong-gyu often claimed that he was destined to live “a short, eventful life (굵고 짧은 인생 ).”
In this, he did not disappoint.