Gleysteen, William 1926-2002

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GLEYSTEEN, William 1926-2002


Born 1926, in Peking (later Beijing), China; died of leukemia December 26, 2002, in Washington, DC; married; wife's name, Zoë (divorced); married Marilyn Wong; children: (first marriage) Thea Clarke, Guy, Michael; (second marriage) Anna Wong Gleysteen. Education: Yale University, B.A., M.A (international relations).


Career diplomat. Entered U.S. foreign service, 1951; Office of Intelligence and Research for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Washington, DC, director, 1969-71, deputy chief of mission in Taipei, Taiwan, 1971-74, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, 1974-76, 1977-78, ambassador to South Korea, 1978-81. Member, Asia Society, Washington, DC, 1981-83; Japan Society, New York, NY, president, 1983-95; Council on Foreign Relations, New York, NY, director of studies, 1983-95. Military service: U.S. Navy, 1945-51.


American Academy of Diplomacy book award, 2000, for Massive Entanglement, Marginal Influence.


Massive Entanglement, Marginal Influence: Carter and Korea in Crisis, Brookings Institution Press (Washington, DC), 1999.


Born in Peking to missionary parents, William Gleysteen had broad and deep knowledge of Asian affairs. Interned with his family when Imperial Japan took Manchuria, he joined the U.S. Navy at the end of World War II, before joining the U.S. foreign service in 1951. With his fluency in Mandarin Chinese, Gleysteen was soon put to work in the Asian affairs section, rising to the position of deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. In 1978 he was named ambassador to South Korea by President Jimmy Carter, where he served for the next three years. As Gleysteen showed in Massive Entanglement, Marginal Influence: Carter and Korea in Crisis, those turned out to be very dramatic years indeed.

"This is an important book that is interesting and valuable for shedding light on the workings of the U.S. policy during perhaps the most fascinating period of U.S.-Korea relations since the Korean War," explained Political Science Quarterly contributor Balbina Hwang. Gleysteen's assignment was doubly difficult. First, he was supposed to negotiate a withdrawal of U.S. troops, which was virulently opposed by South Korea, and quietly opposed by Gleysteen himself. Second, he was supposed to pressure South Korean President Park Chung Hee on human-rights abuses in his dictatorial regime, pressure even less welcome to the regime than Carter's desire to withdraw the troops. Then, in October 1979, Park was assassinated. What followed was a mutiny by Defense Minister Chun Doo Hwan, a coup in May, 1990, that gave General Chun the presidency, and the brutal suppression of a civil uprising in the city of Kwangju. Chun also made clear his intention of having a prominent dissident, Kim Dae Jung, put to death. Chun subsequently commuted Kim's sentence and received a White House state visit, a move that many considered blackmail. (Kim Dae Jung ultimately became president of South Korea, the first opposition leader to do so, in 1998.) Despite overwhelming U.S. military and economic power, Gleysteen was unable to achieve any of Carter's objectives, except the rescue of Kim Dae Jung. Gleysteen's book is a study of this discrepancy between power and influence, as well as a first-hand account of the dramatic events that continue to shape modern Korea, both South and North.

"This book does offer some astute and fair-minded assessments of the Korean perspective. As an outsider to Korean domestic politics, Gleysteen may be in a better position to offer objective and revealing insights. However, it is important to keep in mind that he is not a disinterested observer and clearly represents an agenda with particular insights," cautioned Hwang. Somewhat similarly, William A. Douglas noted in Perspectives on Political Science that "Gleysteen does not pretend to have the objectivity of a historian—he was a participant in the events, and his book is basically a brief in support of his position. But he makes an informed, responsible argument. Other observers who were in South Korea in 1980 might question his conclusions, but the book is a serious study, not a polemic."

As one of Gleysteen's successors, Ambassador Donald P. Gregg, noted in the Korean Society Quarterly, "No other American ambassador to post-war Seoul has had to deal with such a torrent of crucial events, and Gleysteen's book is an admirable record of how he coped with the daunting agenda thrust upon him. My term as American ambassador in Seoul, 1989-93, was far calmer. It was only during my several visits to Kwangju that I derived a clear sense of how wrenching and difficult my predecessor's tour had been." Gregg added that the book "exemplifies the Foreign Service at its best. He is generous to his associates, appropriately self-critical of his own judgments, and honest in reflecting on issues that might have been handled better."

Gleysteen retired from the foreign service after his stint in Seoul, but he remained a respected voice in Asian affairs, as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a director of the Asia Society, and later president of the Korea Society. As noted on the U.S. State Department Web site, after his death from leukemia in December lf 2002, Secretary of State Colin Powell praised Gleysteen as "an outstanding person and professional, dedicated to the service of his country and the good of its people."



Korean Society Quarterly, summer, 2000, Donald P. Gregg, review of Massive Entanglement, Marginal Influence.

Perspectives on Political Science, fall, 2000, William A. Douglas, review of Massive Entanglement, Marginal Influence, p. 237.

Political Science Quarterly, fall, 2000, Balbina Hwang, review of Massive Entanglement, Marginal Influence, p. 471.



Guardian (London, England), December 16, 2002.


U.S. State Department Web site, (December 10, 2002), Colin Powell, "Death of Ambassador William Gleysteen."*