Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Breaking into the US Ambassador's residence

A few weeks ago, 19 students broke into the compound where US Ambassador Harry Harris lives and displayed banners decrying President Trump's attempts to make Korea pay more for the US military presence and calling on Harris to leave Korea. Police requested arrest warrants for nine students; four were ultimately arrested. Another break in took place last year, but a more well-known and much earlier incident occurred on October 13, 1989, when six students broke into the US Ambassador's residence shortly after Donald Gregg took up his post as ambassador. As he told the story in his memoir Pot Shards, on that day
at about 6 a.m., Meg and I were awakened by a loud “bang!” outside our embassy residence. The residence guards immediately called us and shouted, “Students, students!”

My first thought was: ‘Oh shit, I hope they’re not armed.’

Six Korean college students had driven up from the southern port city of Pusan and had used their car as a sort of vaulting horse to get over the low wall surrounding the residence grounds. They threw some sort of large firecracker at the unarmed residence guards and were quickly able to break a window and enter our house.

I called the security officer and told him to get the Korean police on the scene. Almost immediately, I had a reassuring call from the Marine Security Guard at the Embassy, saying he and his men would “take care of things” if I needed help. I told them to stand by, as one of the first things I’d been taught at “Charm School” (ambassadorial training) was to never turn the Marines loose on unruly local civilians unless a truly mortal threat was involved.

Sounds from outside our bedroom indicated clearly to me that we were dealing not with a trained group of assassins but with young men surprised at how easily they had gotten into the house and unsure what to do next. They gently tried to open our stout bedroom door, then retreated down the hall when they found it locked. I could hear the smashing of lamps and crockery from the front of the house. We slipped out a back window and went to another embassy house on the compound.

The Korean police eventually arrived, and the students were hauled off to jail. Their main motive had been to protest U.S. pressure on the beef quota issue. I called the protocol office at Blue House and urged that the students not be treated too severely. I gather that they served up to two years in jail.

I immediately went into my embassy office, about a mile away, to discuss how to respond to the torrent of questions coming in from both local Korean, and international media. A hurried press conference was held at the Embassy, and both Meg and I appeared on television to thank the Korean police for their help and to say that we were aware of the sensitivity of the beef issue. Meg was gracious and stressed how glad we were to be in Seoul. We heard from many sources that her TV performance had truly moved the Korean people who saw it.

I have since met four of the six students who “visited” us that early October morning in 1989. Two are now rising young stars in the National Assembly; one of the others owns an Italian restaurant, and one works for a French trading company. During a December 2006 visit to Seoul, I was visited in my hotel by three of the former students, all of whom apologized. They were accompanied by the press in large numbers, and a good deal of publicity resulted, all of which I considered positive.
One of those politicians is Jeong Cheong-rae.

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