1980: Kim Jaegyu, intelligence chief

On this date in 1980, the former intelligence chief of South Korea was hanged for assassinating President Park Chung-hee.*

In this surreal affair — known after its date as the “10.26 incident” in South Korea — the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency popped the autocratic head of state during a private dinner party at a secret KCIA compound.

He then returned to another dinner party at the compound and, without disclosing what he had done, reported an “accident” and started dropping suggestions to a general that this might be an opportune moment to arrange martial law. Instead, the two repaired to a bunker. There, several hours’ confused wind-gauging by a hastily assembled cross-section of the country’s power brokers (not knowing their own chief spook had pulled the trigger) gave illustration to the Ovid maxim that “treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? If it prosper, none dare call it treason.”

Only two participants, Kim Chae Kyu and Kim Kye Won, had witnessed the assassination, and neither disclosed the killer … Without an explanation from these two, the others present were left to speculate whether the killings were truly accidental, organized by North Koreans, or perpetrated as part of a South Korean conspiracy, large or small. They could not rule out the possibility that some among them … were part of a plot. Without knowing the balance of power, both civilian ministers and military officers worried about making a wrong move … (Source)

The truth, eventually, would out. But the reason for this shocking internecine turn by a supposed confidante of the president? The murder was too well-planned to square with initial reports of an argument gone out of control. It seems a coup, but if so, our assassin disastrously — almost delusionally — miscalculated the post-Park lay of the land. Maybe we have to entertain the defendant’s own far-out claim to have struck against the authoritarian concentration of presidential power.

I shot the heart of Yusin Constitution like a beast. I did that for democracy of this country. Nothing more nothing less.

The controversial 2005 flick The President’s Last Bang offers a darkly comic look at the twisted mise en scene in the intelligence compound that fateful 10.26 … and doesn’t find a lot of participants worth admiring.

Whatever its cause, South Korea’s unanticipated transition was a wobbly one. Even as the spymaster who had set it in motion was hanged this date with some of his conspiring security men, successor dictator Chun Dwoo-hwan was crushing a student uprising in Gwangju.**

* Park had survived previous assassination attempts, often authored by North Korea — including one that slew his wife in 1974.

** This uprising resulted in a death sentence against future South Korean president Kim Dae-jung — obviously not carried out. Under Kim’s administration years later, Chun was himself condemned to die for the massacre; Kim returned the gesture of clemency.