China Hands by James Lilley
China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage, and Diplomacy in Asia
by James Lilley with Jeffrey Lilley
Chun Doo Hwan, a South Korean army general who had seized power in 1979 in a coup d'etat, was ruling in draconian fashion, massacring hundreds of students in the southern city of Kwangju and imprisoning the dissident leader Kim Dae Jung. In 1987, shortly after Lilley presented his credentials in Seoul, Chun's term in office was scheduled to draw to a close. Yet the military strongman was maneuvering to stay on, provoking hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators to gather in the streets of the capital. Similar protests began to unfold throughout the peninsula; the demonstrators were no longer students, as in Kwangju, but a cross-section of the emerging middle class. The question on everyone's mind was: would Chun declare martial law and follow it with an even bloodier repetition of 1979?
In the middle of these dramatic events, the Reagan administration stepped in. Reagan had been an unapologetic supporter of Chun's regime as a bulwark against the aggressive Communist North, and Chun had been among the first foreign leaders invited to the White House following his election in 1980. Lilley himself courted Chun assiduously, opting controversially to attend a convention of the ruling Democratic Justice party that 60 other ambassadors were boycotting.
But when push came to shove, it was precisely this willingness to dirty his hands by embracing a friendly dictator that gave Lilley the necessary modicum of influence. As Chun clung to power, a letter from Reagan, hand-delivered by Lilley and accompanied by an unambiguous articulation of the U.S. position, had the desired effect. That very afternoon, Chun announced he would not impose martial law. Less than two weeks later, he astonished the world by accepting all of the opposition's demands, including direct election of the president and the release of Kim Dae Jung. With the U.S. serving as midwife, South Korean democracy, stable and today functioning smoothly for two decades, was born.