There is a great deal of controversy surrounding Kim's motives, as it remains uncertain whether the act was part of a planned coup d'état or was merely impulsive. The chief investigator Yi Hak-bong famously concluded that the assassination was "too careless for a deliberate act and yet too elaborate for an impulsive act."
By the time of his assassination, President Park had exercised dictatorial power over South Korea for nearly 18 years.
The Korean Central Intelligence Agency was created in 1961 to coordinate both international and domestic intelligence activities, including those of the military. Almost immediately following its creation, the KCIA was used to suppress any domestic opposition to Park's regime: wiretapping, arresting, and torturing without court order. The KCIA was heavily involved in many behind-the-scenes political maneuvers aimed at weakening the opposition parties through bribing, blackmailing, threatening, or arresting opposing lawmakers. Nevertheless, President Park nearly lost the 1971 presidential election to Kim Dae-jung, despite spending ten percent of the national budget on his election campaign. Park therefore established the Yushin Constitution in 1972 to ensure his perpetual dictatorship. The new constitution replaced direct voting in presidential elections with an indirect voting system involving delegates; allotted one third of the National Assembly seats to the president; repealed presidential term limits; and gave the president the authority to suspend the constitution and issue emergency decrees, appoint all judges, and dismiss the National Assembly. When opposition to the Yushin Constitution arose, Park issued a number of emergency decrees, the first of which made any act of opposition or denial of the Yushin Constitution punishable by imprisonment for up to 15 years.
In September 1979, the courts nullified Kim's chairmanship of the NDP, and Park's Democratic Republican Party (DRP) expelled Kim from the National Assembly in a secret session on October 5, which led all 66 NDP lawmakers to submit their resignations to the National Assembly in protest. The Carter administration in the U.S. recalled its ambassador from Seoul in protest as well. On October 16, when it became known that the government was planning to accept the resignations selectively, uprisings broke out in Kim's hometown of Busan, the second largest city in South Korea, the uprisings resulting in arson attacks on 30 police stations over several days. The demonstrations, the largest since the days of President Syngman Rhee, spread to nearby Masan and other cities on October 19, with students and citizens calling for repeal of the Yushin Constitution. The KCIA director, Kim Jae-gyu, went to Busan to investigate the situation and found that the demonstrations were not riots by some college students, but more like a "popular uprising joined by regular citizens" to resist the regime. He warned President Park that the uprisings would spread to five other large cities, including Seoul. Park said that he himself would give direct orders to the security forces to fire upon demonstrators if the situation got worse. Less than a week later, he was assassinated by his own security chief.
Rivalry between Kim Jae-gyu and Cha Ji-chul
While President Park faced an increasing opposition to his dictatorship outside Blue House, another kind of conflict was intensifying inside Blue House, between Kim Jae-gyu, who was appointed to directorship of KCIA in December 1976, and Chief Bodyguard Cha Ji-chul, who was appointed to his position in 1974 after Park's wife Yuk Young-soo was killed in an assassination by Moon Se-gwang, an ethnic Korean from Japan.
The rivalry stemmed largely from Cha's increasing encroachment onto KCIA turf and Cha's belittlement of Kim in public. Almost universally disliked yet feared, Cha served Park in close proximity and became the president's favorite and most trusted advisor. Cha appropriated tanks, helicopters, and troops from the army, so that the presidential security apparatus essentially had a division under Cha's direct command.
The rivalry between Cha and Kim, whose KCIA was until then the most feared government apparatus, was heightened further by a series of political crises in late 1979, as the two rivals clashed over how to deal with growing opposition to the regime. In the NDP's election of its chairman in 1979, KCIA backed Yi Chul-seung to prevent the election of hardliner Kim Young Sam, but Cha Ji-chul interfered in KCIA's political sabotage with its own behind-scene maneuverings. When Kim Young Sam was elected as the NDP chairman, Cha laid the blame on the KCIA, which infuriated Director Kim.
Later, when NDP chief Kim Young Sam called on the U.S. to stop supporting Park's regime, in an interview with New York Times reporter Henry Stokes, Cha pushed for Kim's expulsion from the National Assembly, which Director Kim feared to be a disastrous development, (as it turned out to be true when it led to uprisings in Busan and Masan). Cha easily bested his opponent as his hardline approach was favored by Park, and he blamed worsening developments on Director Kim's weak leadership of the KCIA at every opportunity. As Cha came to control the scheduling of President Park's meetings and briefings and thus access to the president, KCIA briefings, which were usually the first business in the morning, were pushed back to afternoons. By October, there were widespread rumors that Kim would soon be replaced as KCIA director.
On the day of the assassination, Park and his entourage attended ribbon-cutting ceremonies for a dam in Sap-gyeo-cheon and a KBS TV transmitting station in Dang-jin. KCIA Director Kim was expected to accompany him since the TV station was under KCIA jurisdiction, but after Chief Bodyguard Cha blocked him from riding in the same helicopter as President Park, Director Kim angrily excused himself from the trip.
After the trip, according to KCIA Chief Agent Park Seon-ho, one of the assassination conspirators, President Park instructed the KCIA to prepare for one of his numerous banquets, which were held, on average, ten times per month. The banquet was held at a KCIA safehouse inside the Blue House presidential compound, Seoul, South Korea.
The banquet was to be attended by President Park, KCIA Director Kim, Chief Bodyguard Cha, Chief Secretary Kim Gye-won, and two young women – rising singer Shim Soo-bong and a college student named Shin Jae-soon. After Director Kim was notified of the banquet, he called South Korean Army Chief of Staff Jeong Seung-hwa 15 minutes later to invite him to the KCIA safehouse and arranged to have him dine with KCIA Deputy Director Kim Jeong-seop in a nearby KCIA building in the same compound.
Just before the dinner, Director Kim told Chief Secretary Kim Gye-won that he would get rid of Chief Bodyguard Cha. It is not clear whether Kim Gye-won misheard or misunderstood Director Kim or he ignored Kim's words.
During the dinner, volatile political issues, including demonstrations in Busan and the opposition leader Kim Young Sam, were discussed, with President Park and Chief Bodyguard Cha taking a hardline, Director Kim calling for moderate measures, while Chief Secretary Kim was trying to steer the topic of the discussion to small talk.
President Park rebuked Director Kim for not being repressive enough in dealing with protesters and Kim Young Sam, whom Park wanted to have arrested. Each time discussion drifted to other subjects, Cha continued to bring up the inability of KCIA to end the crisis and suggested that demonstrators and opposition lawmakers should be "mowed down with tanks".
The rebukes from Park, and especially Cha, riled Kim, who left the dining room to meet with his closest subordinate: former Marine colonel and KCIA Chief Agent Park Seon-ho and Army colonel, and Director Kim's secretary, Park Heung-ju (no relations to the president). Kim said to them: "Chief of Staff and Deputy Director are here as well. Today is the day."
Kim reentered the meeting room with a semi-automatic Walther PPK pistol and opened fire, shooting Chief Bodyguard Cha in the arm and President Park in the left chest before the PPK jammed as he attempted to kill Cha, who fled to a bathroom adjacent to the dining room. Kim came back with his subordinate Park Sun-ho's Smith & Wesson Model 36 Chief Special revolver and killed Cha with a shot to the abdomen before speaking to Park and shooting him in the head execution-style.
Upon hearing the initial shots, Park Seon-ho held two bodyguards in the waiting room at gunpoint and ordered them to put their hands up, in hope of preventing further bloodshed, especially since he was a friend of one of the bodyguards. When the other bodyguard attempted to reach for a gun, Park shot them dead as Colonel Park Heung-ju and two other KCIA agents stormed the kitchen area and killed the remaining bodyguard.
In all, six people were killed: President Park, Chief Bodyguard Cha, and three presidential bodyguards in the safe house, as well as a presidential chauffeur outside.
After killing President Park, KCIA Director Kim asked Chief Secretary Kim to secure the safe house and ran to the nearby KCIA building, where Army Chief of Staff Jeong Seung-hwa was waiting. Jeong had heard the shootings and was discussing them with KCIA Deputy Director Kim Jeong-seop when Director Kim came in to tell them that an emergency situation had arisen.
Later, in a car with Jeong Seung-hwa, Kim notified Jeong that President Park had died, but without explaining how. Kim hoped that Jeong and Chief Secretary Kim would support him in the coup, as both had been appointed to their positions on his recommendation, and Chief Secretary Kim was especially close to him. The car initially headed to KCIA Headquarters, in Namsan district, but eventually went to army headquarters, in Yongsan district, since the army would have to be involved in declaring emergency martial law.
Many historians believe that Kim made a critical mistake in not going to KCIA headquarters, where he would be in control; however, his failure to gain Jeong's support sealed the fate of the conspirators.
Meanwhile, Chief Secretary Kim took President Park's body to the Army hospital and ordered doctors to save him at all costs (without revealing Park's identity). He then went to Prime Minister Choi Kyu-ha to reveal what happened that night.
When Chief of Staff Jeong learned of what happened from Chief Secretary Kim, he ordered Major General Chun Doo-hwan, commander of Security Command, to take Director Kim into custody and investigate the incident.
Director Kim was arrested after he was lured to a secluded area outside army headquarters on the pretext of meeting with the Army Chief of Staff. Eventually, everyone involved in the assassination was arrested, tortured, and later executed. In the process, Chun Doo-hwan emerged as a new political force by investigating and subordinating KCIA, the most feared government agency until then, under his Security Command and later by arresting Jeong Seung-hwa, who had become the chief martial law administrator, and Chief Secretary Kim on suspicion of conspiring with Director Kim. Both were eventually released after Chun Doo-hwan seized power in a military coup in December 1979.
Kim Jae-kgyu's motive in killing his long-time benefactor President Park has been controversial and the subject of much discussion. There are many theories on Kim's true motive of killing Park. The following are just some of these theories.
On the killing being unplanned
It was an unplanned, impulsive act.
Kim did not hide the gun in the second floor study of the same building but had to go to another building to get a gun.
Kim had virtually no plan for the aftermath of Park's assassination.
Kim went to Army HQ instead of KCIA HQ.
Kim notified his closest subordinates of the assassination plan just before its execution. (Park Seun-ho's only regret regarding Kim was that Kim did not give him enough explanation or instruction to handle the aftermath more effectively at KCIA.)
Kim was severely rebuked by Cha and President Park for incompetence during the dinner. For several months, he had been under extreme pressure from a series of political crises, Cha's aggressive encroachment onto KCIA turf, President Park turning a deaf ear to his urgent warnings and always siding with Cha, and failing health.
On the killing being deliberate
Kim deliberately planned the assassination of President Park.
Kim invited the Army Chief of Staff to a dinner at 4:15 pm, after learning that he would have a dinner with President Park at 4:00 pm. Kim appears to have decided on the assassination at 4:15 pm at the latest.
It was not customary for Kim to carry a gun to dinner with President Park.
Kim claimed that he had been planning to end Park's dictatorship for seven years (The Yushin Constitution of 1972 had been ratified seven years before). He claimed that he attempted to assassinate Park three times: in 1974 and twice in 1979. There are some pieces of evidence that partially corroborate these statements.
In April 1979, Kim invited the three Chiefs of Staff of the Army, Navy, and Air Force to a dinner in a manner similar to that on the day of assassination. Kim, however, called off that assassination plan.
Shortly before the dinner banquet, Kim told Chief Secretary Kim Gye-won that he would get rid of Chief Bodyguard Cha Ji-chul.
Kim was not entirely misguided in trusting Chief Secretary Kim, Army Chief of Staff Jeong Seung-hwa, and the mood of the military, which was under pressure to crack down on demonstrations in Busan and Masan. Jeong largely followed Kim's lead until Chief Secretary Kim Gye-won revealed the truth of the situation to Jeong. Furthermore, during Kim's trial, Jeong said that Park's assassination was not a tragedy for the country and that Park's regime acted wrongly in some cases. He even quoted Kim's statements word-for-word to make his point and appeared to defend Kim's actions. Chief Secretary Kim was a close friend of Director Kim, ever since the former saved the latter in a car accident. Both were recommended for their positions by Director Kim. After Park's assassination, 50 out of 52 generals in the military voted to repeal the Yushin Constitution, which was a significant rebuke of Park's regime. Although the military dictatorship continued under Chun Doo-hwan, the Yushin Constitution was repealed a year later, on October 27, 1980.
The main proponents of the theory that the assassination was unplanned were Kim Gye-won and Jeong Seung-hwa, who had a vested interest in portraying the event as an impulsive act, as they were both suspected[by whom?] of being co-conspirators.
Jealousy as motive
Kim assassinated Park out of jealousy toward Chief Bodyguard Cha, when he was losing his status and power as No. 2 in Park's regime.
Kim had been a loyal henchman of President Park throughout his career, which placed him in the innermost sanctum of power. As KCIA Director, he was virtually No.2 in the regime and was responsible for all that KCIA perpetrated as the regime's weapon of repression, including tortures, unlawful imprisonments, and murders, such as the brutal arrest of female factory workers in September 1979 and the infamous assassination of former KCIA director Kim Hyong-uk in Paris in October 1979. The KCIA's very function was to defend the Yushin Constitution and suppress internal enemies of Park's regime, which included the opposition parties, democracy activists, leftist students, and intellectuals. His role as the KCIA director, whose chief job was to maintain Park's dictatorship, makes it hard to believe that he was indeed a believer in democracy. (However, it is also possible that Kim sought to become a mitigating influence on Park and KCIA, and he pursued moderate measures and preferred compromise over brute force.)
When Kim shot Park, his rallying cry was not about democracy but rather reflected his resentment of Chief Bodyguard Cha.
Kim worked tirelessly to sabotage the opposition party's election and prevent Kim Young Sam's chairmanship of it.
As Kim testified in his trial, his relationship with Park was that of real brothers. They came from the same hometown and were classmates at the South Korean Army Academy.
Restoring democracy as motive
Kim assassinated Park for democracy.
Kim said in court: "I shot the heart of Yushin in the heart of [the] beast. I did that for [the] democracy of this country. There [was] no ambition and greed."
He gave five motives for assassinating Park in his last statement at the trial: "firstly, to restore free democracy; secondly, to prevent further bloodshed of Korean people; thirdly, to prevent North Korean aggression; fourthly, to completely restore the close relationship with our strong ally the United States, which fell to the worst point since the founding of South Korea, and advance our national interest through closer cooperation in defense, diplomacy, and economy; and fifthly, to restore [South] Korea's honor in the international community by cleansing the bad image of [South] Korea as a dictatorship country."
According to people close to Kim, in the 1971 presidential election, at Kim's suggestion, President Park promised voters that it would be his last term. Kim was very disappointed when Park broke his promise and ratified the Yushin Constitution, which guaranteed Park's dictatorship for life.
According to Kim's subordinates when he was the commander of Third Army Group in 1972, Kim was very disturbed by the Yushin Constitution. Kim claimed that he planned to arrest Park and force his resignation if Park were to visit his base during a tour of military bases. The wire fence of a small house on the base, that would be used to detain Park, was indeed modified to prevent exit from within rather than entry from without.
Declassified U.S. diplomatic cables revealed that Kim was thought of as an unusual KCIA director who often spoke of democracy and as a more approachable figures who often carried Washington's messages on human rights to President Park.
Kim maintained contacts with opposition leaders, which was revealed long after his death. According to the eldest son of the widely respected opposition leader Jang Jun-ha, Jang told him that Kim was a patriotic soldier who would one day work with them for democracy. Kahm, Myung-guk (Nov 6, 2005). "Secret Promise between Jang Jun-ha and Kim Jae-kyu". Sunday Journal. They pretended to run into each other accidentally when they met, according to Jang's son. Kim claimed to his lawyer that his first attempt to assassinate Park was in September 14, 1974, when he was appointed to be Minister of Construction. A newsreel of this event does show something protruding out of Kim's pocket when he shook hands with Park. According to Rev. Yi Hae-hak, a cellmate of Jang Jun-ha when Jang was serving fifteen years for a petition campaign against the Yushin Constitution, Jang knew of Kim's plan to assassinate Park and was very disappointed that it did not take place. (In 1975, Jang died under suspicious circumstance while climbing a mountain. According to Jang's son, Kim secretly helped Jang's family financially. When Kim later became KCIA director, he met Jang's son to tell him with deep regret that Jang's death was not accidental but that the regime was involved.
According to Cardinal Kim Sou-hwan, another leading figure in the democracy movement, Director Kim (then KCIA deputy director) came to see him whenever there was a political crisis and once asked him to talk to President Park to come up with a "third way", to somehow amend the Yushin Constitution in a way that would be acceptable to Park. He was surprised when Kim compared President Park to "a sick patient". Deputy director Kim believed Cardinal Kim, as a Catholic cardinal, was the only person who could speak frankly to Park without repercussion and was disappointed when the talk was fruitless. Kim's association with two key figures of the democracy movement – Jang Jun-ha and Cardinal Kim Sou-hwan – led some to reconsider Kim's motive in assassinating Park.
In 1979, Kim often wrote calligraphy about freedom and democracy, which were found in his house after his arrest. Kim asked a relative, a consul serving in Japan, to draft a "third way" compromise that would allow Park to maintain military power but yield political power to a civilian government.
Possible American Central Intelligence Agency involvement
One theory is that the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was behind the assassination of President Park, to prevent the development of a nuclear weapon by South Korea, which Park was pursuing. Later the United States recognized Chun Doo-hwan's legitimacy on the condition of his abandoning the nuclear weapons program.
Kim claimed that the United States was behind him. The United States Ambassador denied any American involvement in his diplomatic cable to the State Department. Diplomatic cables show that United States Ambassador William Gleysteen worried about the possibility of Kim claiming that he and his predecessor incited Kim to assassinate Park. In any case, it is possible that Kim believed that his coup would have the support of the United States if successful. In 1999, Gleysteen said that the U.S. became unwittingly involved in Park's assassination without explaining further.
Kim had frequent meetings with Robert G. Brewster, CIA chief in Seoul, and other American diplomats. He met with United States Ambassador William Gleysteen on the day of the assassination, just five hours before the shooting.
Kim cited the worsening of American–South Korean diplomatic relations as one of his reasons for assassinating President Park.
Another theory is that Kim was protected by the CIA and was even seen alive after his "alleged" execution. However, this claim is not widely believed.
Kim planned and then assassinated President Park to seize power for himself, which was the official determination of Chun Doo-hwan's investigation.
Kim had momentary insanity from hepatic encephalopathy related to his liver disease. However, his physician Kim Jeong-Ryong claimed that his liver disease was well controlled and not serious enough to affect daily activities.
There was a combination of various factors that led to the assassination – Kim had planned to assassinate Park, but the actual assassination was a more or less impulsive act in connection with Chief Bodyguard Cha.
Only Kim can know the true circumstances of and motive for his assassination of Park. (This appears to be the most widely accepted view, as there are so many contradictions.)
Fate of KCIA conspirators
Park Heung-ju, Kim Jae-gyu's secretary and former aide-de-camp of Kim: Shot dead by a firing squad on March 6, 1980; he was executed first because he was on active military service at the time of the assassination.
Park Seon-ho, senior KCIA agent and pupil of Kim Jae-gyu when the latter was a middle school teacher: Hanged on May 24, 1980.
Yoo Seong-ok, driver in the KCIA safehouse: Hanged on May 24, 1980.
Lee Ki-ju, head of safehouse security service: Hanged on May 24, 1980.
Kim Tae-won, safehouse security agent: Hanged on May 24, 1980. He did not actually kill anyone, but was heavily involved in the planning and fired an automatic rifle on the victim's bodies on Park Seon-ho's orders to disguise the shooting as an attack by North Korean commandos.
Seo Young-jun, safehouse security agent: Released after imprisonment.
Except for Kim Jae-gyu, Park Heung-ju and Park Seon-ho, the co-conspirators followed their superior's order without knowing whom they were shooting and why.