Pilgrimage to an Assassin’s Grave

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On the southeastern outskirts of Seoul is a modest cemetery where a defaced gravestone stands at the top of a steep slope.

The grave has seen an unusually high number of visitors in the past few months, despite its out-of-the-way location and lack of sign posts. Bouquets of fresh flowers testify to a string of recent visitors.

This is the resting place of Kim Jae-gyu, head of the notorious Korean Central Intelligence Agency when Park Chung-hee, former president Park Geun-hye’s father, ruled the country. By the late ‘70s, the elder Park, who had seized power through a military coup in 1961, was struggling to suppress escalating pro-democracy protests against his authoritarian government. Kim, one of Park’s closest aides, reportedly objected to violent suppression.

Tensions between Kim and Park increased. In October 1979, at a lavish private dinner with Park and his aides, Kim assassinated Park with a revolver.

Kim was subsequently executed by Chun Doo-hwan, who seized power in a military coup shortly after the assassination. Since then, Kim has been framed as a controversial figure in South Korean politics. Some considered him a traitor for stabbing his own master in the back while both hungry for power and threatened by his dwindling influence. Others supported Kim for ending Park’s 18-year dictatorship. 

The memorial monument next to his grave has been vandalized: The words “martyr” and “military general” are carved out. (Image source: dcinside)

But in the aftermath of Park Geun-hye’s impeachment scandal, some are calling for a historical reassessment of Kim Jae-gyu. It was Kim who warned Park Chung-hee in an official report about his daughter’s questionable relationship with Choi Tae-min — the father of Park Geun-hye’s confidante, Choi Soon-sil. Last December, journalist Jeong Hee-sang of SisaIN Magazine crowdfunded himself to investigate Kim and his legacy. In just over a month, Jeong received almost three times his target amount. 

“Kim Jae-gyu’s grave after the constitutional court upheld Park Geun-hye’s impeachment”

For some South Koreans, Kim has suddenly become an unofficial hero. Enthusiasts have begun making pilgrimages to his grave. An anonymous employee at the cemetery told Wikitree in January that the number of visitors has increased dramatically since November, soon after allegations surrounding Park Geun-hye became a huge national scandal.

“In the past, we’d have maybe one group of visitors a year, or fewer. Now, there are two or three every week.” 

Cover image: In front of Kim Jae-gyu’s portrait at his grave, someone has left a newspaper with the headline, “President Park Geun-hye’s Impeachment Passed.” (Image source: Naver blog) 

Jieun Choi wrote this radar report.

Jieun Choi is staff writer at Korea Exposé. She has worked in the art industry and startups in Hong Kong and Australia.