SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea's president has ordered an investigation into a revelation that the military drew up a plan to mobilize troops if protests last year worsened over the fate of his impeached predecessor, officials said Tuesday.
Military intervention in civilian affairs is an extremely sensitive issue in South Korea, which was ruled by army-backed dictatorships for decades before achieving democracy in the late 1980s. During the harsh rules, authorities occasionally proclaimed martial law and other decrees that allowed them to station combat soldiers, tanks and armored vehicles on streets or at public places like schools to prevent anti-government demonstrations.
The latest controversy over military intervention flared last week when a ruling party lawmaker disclosed a document showing the military planned to use troops to maintain order if rallies either opposing or supporting conservative then-President Park Geun-hye grew violent after a Constitutional Court ruling on her impeachment over a corruption scandal.
The Defense Ministry later confirmed the existence of the document, which was written during the final weeks of Park's presidency by its intelligence arm, called the Defense Security Command.
Current President Moon Jae-in, during a visit to India on Monday night, ordered his defense minister to establish a special team to investigate the document, Moon's spokesman Kim Eui-kyum told reporters in Seoul on Tuesday.
The investigation team won't be supervised by Defense Minister Song Young-moo and will be allowed to operate independently for a fair probe, Kim said. Later Tuesday, Song expressed "deep regret" over the document, saying he'll sternly deal with any act of illegality over the case in line with law.
Before the court ruling in March 2017 that eventually upheld Park's impeachment and formally drove her from office, South Korea was embroiled in its worst political turmoil in decades. Millions had taken to the street to call for Park's ouster in largely peaceful demonstrations, but there had also been vehement protests supporting Park.
Under the document, the Defense Security Command assessed that anti-Park protesters would call for a "revolution" if the court rejected Park's impeachment. Pro-Park forces, for their part, would consider the court's confirmation of Park's impeachment a "rebellion," according to the document provided by the office of lawmaker Lee Cheol-hee.
The document said either group of protesters could fire firebombs in street rallies, set fire on police stations and steal guns there, and try to occupy the Constitutional Court's building and the presidential palace if the court didn't rule to that group's satisfaction. The document said the protests would cause a crisis in national security at a time when North Korea was expected to launch provocations over South Korea's springtime military drills with the United States.
The Constitutional Court's ruling eventually sparked rallies denouncing the verdict. The protests left three of Park's supporters dead and deepened a national divide, but didn't escalate to a level that posed a threat to national security. The military plan wasn't implemented, and Park was later arrested and sentenced to 24 years in prison.
Park is the daughter of late dictator Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea for 18 years following his 1961 coup. He mobilized his military to suppress protests and issued a series of emergency decrees to jail dissidents. After his assassination, Maj. Gen. Chun Doo-hwan seized power via another coup and launched a brutal military crackdown on a pro-democracy uprising in southern South Korea that killed at least 200 people in 1980.
According to the document, the command considered putting troops in public places under the so-called "garrison decree," which was last used in 1979. The decree allows troops to move in but is different from martial law, which puts the entire government under military control. Moon's liberal government plans to abolish the decree.
The command document is triggering a heated political debate in South Korea.
Moon's ruling party and liberal activists said the document virtually targeted anti-Park protesters, who greatly outnumbered the pro-Park camp. Lim Tae-hoon, head of the Military Human Rights Center for Korea, called the document a plot to launch a "self-coup" for Park. The conservative opposition party said Moon is trying to use the document to attack former Park allies.
Lim's organization said Tuesday that it reported two former top command officers to prosecutors over the document.