“Koreagate” was the name given to an influence-peddling scandal that came to light in 1977 between the South Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) and a number of American congressmen. The United States was committed to protecting the Republic of Korea (ROK), in South Korea, from North Korean aggression after the Korean War (1950-53). By the early 1970s, however, relations between Seoul and Washington, D. C., had begun to sour. In 1971 President Richard M. Nixon announced plans to withdraw one of the two divisions of American troops stationed in South Korea, and in 1972 ROK president Park Chung Hee began instituting authoritarian measures. In 1976, in an effort to relieve these growing tensions, the KCIA spent millions of dollars to fund a scheme they called “Intrepid.” The primary goal was to reverse President Nixon’s decision to withdraw American troops, and secondarily to smooth over general relations between the two countries.
The Intrepid plan involved inviting prominent American journalists to South Korea in order to “convert” them, and then sending them back to the United States to gather intelligence on sensitive high-level policies. At the same time, former ambassador Kim Dong-Jo worked with the flamboyant rice importer, Park Tong Sun, to peddle influence directly to American congressmen. Tong Sun became known for his lavish parties at his Georgetown home, where congressmen receiving anything from free trips and gifts to outright bribes.
The plan backfired when news of the influence peddling broke just before the 1976 election. The new president, James Earl Carter, Jr., had campaigned on a promise to gradually withdraw the remaining division from South Korea, and news of the scandal further solidified that position. As promised, President Carter began withdrawing troops December 13, 1977, though he later suspended the withdrawal on June 29, 1979, after a three-day conference in Seoul with ROK president Park. In 1978 congressional investigations made by the Ethics Committee and the House Subcommittee on International Relation revealed that as many as 115 congressmen were implicated in the scheme, including the Speaker of the House, Thomas P O’Neill, Jr. (D-Mass.). Despite the widespread press coverage, the scandal gradually faded from the public view during Carter’s term.
Carter later revisited the issue of U. S. troop commitments in South Korea, and on June 29, 1979, he suspended the withdrawal. The extent of American support was demonstrated four months later after President Park’s assassination; American troops went on a DEFCON alert, and President Carter sent a powerful naval force into the Korean straits to prevent North Korea from taking any undue advantage of South Korea’s temporary instability.
—Aharon W. Zorea