Sunday, July 07, 2024

When rock music and go-go dancing first appeared on Korean TV

For my latest Korea Times article, I drew on something I only briefly mentioned in my previous article on Larry Tressler’s time singing with the Devils in 1969 and 1970: his experience getting booked for, and performing on, the first episode of MBC’s youth-oriented music show ‘젊은 리듬’ (Young Rhythm, November 1969 – March 1970). With his memories and photos, as well as a few other photos published by 주간여성 (Weekly Woman) magazine, which the Korea Times / Hankook Ilbo have rights to, and a handful or two of articles about the show (and its competitor, TBC’s “1,2,3, Go”) in newspapers and magazines, I was able to tell the story of the first shows to bring a large number of bands that performed for the US Eighth Army Stage into Korean homes – at least until the authorities stepped in. 

Here's a shot of the 200th episode of TBC's Show Show Show being commemorated on the cover of the Weekly Joongang (the Joongang Ilbo was affiliated with TBC - and, of course, Samsung - at this time). Kim Sang-hee is in the blue dress, and next to her in the center is, I'm quite certain, Lee Mi-ja.

Larry Tressler provided me with these two shots of the Devils performing on MBC's 'Young Rhythm's first episode on November 21, 1969:

Also shared on his Devils Facebook Page is this photo, which shows Kim Sang-hee, the host, and the band performing on the second stage in the studio.

The February 25, 1970, Weekly Kyunghyang profiled "Young Rhythm" PD Lee Jae-hwi, MBC’s youngest producer.

The Maeil Gyeongje, February 25, 1970 article that castigated "Young Rhythm" and "1, 2, 3, Go" featured this photo of the teen group Top Steps performing on one of the shows. (They were reported in late 1969 to have a contract to perform in Las Vegas (the holy grail for Eighth Army Stage bands), but by June 1970 they were back performing in Seoul, so it's not clear what happened there. They would later, by 1972, be performing as the Seoul Family (no apparent relation to the 1980s group of the same name).

The only color photos I've seen of Top Steps were in the December 24,1969 issue of Weekly Woman:

The March 11, 1970 issue of Weekly Woman featured a shot of one of the programs (perhaps "1, 2, 3, Go" since the stage looks quite different than the "Young Rhythm" photos Larry Tressler took.

There aren't many photos in the media of these shows - in fact, only two - so it was lucky that Weekly Woman, which the Korea Times has rights to, published one of them, and of course, that Larry Tressler took and shared photos of the first episode of "Young Rhythm." 

I also made mention of the Seoul American High School go-go dance troupe The Rhythms, and I hope to publish something about them at some point, since I'm in contact with some of their members.

Sunday, June 02, 2024

Go-go club designers and Fellini actress at the Chosun Hotel in 1970

For my latest Korea Times article I look at some interesting people who stayed at the Chosun Hotel in 1970. This grew out of a previous article (or two) about Tomorrow, the go-go club (or discotheque) in the hotel’s basement that was opened as Seoul’s swankiest club in 1971. In the last article, I mentioned Joe Policy, a man named in a full-page ad for the club taken out in the Korea Times, as the force behind the club’s creation, but was never able to find him. Months ago I was contacted by his daughter. Success! Except she wrote to tell me her father had died recently. She did, however, put me in contact with her mother, Carole, who shared both stories from that time and photos of the club once construction was complete. This wasn’t enough to account for another article, I thought, until I remembered Anita Ekberg, who had starred in the Federico Fellini film La Dolce Vita, as well as a less well-remembered film shot in Korea in the fall of 1970, ‘Northeast of Seoul.’ Alan Heyman shared memories of Ekberg (and her time at the Chosun Hotel) at a Royal Asiatic Society lecture by Jacco Zwetsloot back in 2011, so when former Korea Art Club leader Cornie Choy told me about meeting her in the elevator at the hotel, I immediately knew why she was there. These memories, along with the fact that I’d found colour photos of her in the Hankook Ilbo / Korea Times-owned Weekly Woman magazine, suggested a focus on both her and the Policys.

More photos of Anita Ekberg in Korea, from Weekly Woman magazine, October 21, 1970.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

April 1980 DIA report on Chun Doo-hwan's means of maintaining loyalty

Well, this is odd. I apparently transcribed this last year and then forgot to post it. At any rate, the May 18 Archives site has uploaded what appears to be all of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) reports Tim Shorrock obtained through FOIA requests in the 1990s. They, and other documents, can be found here.

On April 21, 1980, the following report was sent to the Defense Intelligence Agency (one wonders if it was written by James Young). Some predictions were, perhaps, a bit off the mark, but the information on how Chun maintained loyalty, and the hints at business connections financing him, make for interesting reading.


Activities Of Lieutenant General Chun Doo Hwan- An Opposing View

R 210503Z APR 80

This is an info report, not finally evaluated intel.

1. (U) Ctry: Republic Of Korea (KS)

2. (U) Title: Activities of Lieutenant General (Chon) Doo Hwan - An Opposing View

3. (U) Date of info: 800419/800419 

[2 Lines redacted]

6. (U) Source: [          ] Source has reported reliably for several years. By virtue of duty position, source has access to such information.

7. Summary: LtG Chon Tu Hwan insures loyalty among his subordinates by personal persuasiveness, KMA ties, carefully monitoring key assignments, and providing funds to his followers. The source of his considerable funding is not known. There is widespread but soft-spoken opposition to Chon in the Air Force, Navy, and in limited segments of the Army. His assignment as acting director, KCIA will expand his operating base but may harm his image among junior officers. Chon's appointment to the KCIA post may become a campus issue in the near future.

8A. (U) Details:

[ 3-4 lines redacted about identity of source ] He is among the most reliable sources available to this office and provided the following information concerning LtG Chon Tu Hwan during wide-ranging conversations 18 and 19 April 1980.

(A) For several years LtG Chon has had a widespread loyal following within the ROK Army which has been carefully cultivated. Among the techniques Chon uses to insure loyalty are his own persuasiveness, KMA class ties, assignment of supporters to key positions, and the payment of substantial sums of money to loyal subordinates. Source stated that while he was a subordinate commander under Chon in the 1st ROK Infantry Division, he received a minimum of 100,000 won each month for "operating expenses.” This money was received directly from then MG Chon, or from one of his trusted subordinates. All other subordinate commanders also received similar payments, with the amount dependent on their respective positions. Following the events of 12-13 December 1979, Chon reportedly authorized the payment of 500,000,000 won to members of the Tactical Operations Center (TOC), Capital Security Command, who he considered to have played a key role in supporting him at that time. Source was unsure where the money for these payments came from, but expressed the opinion it was from certain unspecified businessmen, who traditionally lent financial support to influential persons both within and outside of the military.

[Redacted ] the payment of "reimbursement” or “expense” funds within the ROK army is not unusual, however, the amounts involved here are substantially larger than is normally the case. LtG Chon appears to have access to seemingly unlimited funds. He reportedly has spent large amounts of money in recent months during his campaign to generate support from segments of Korean society outside the military and justify the 12 December and subsequent actions.

(B) [ Redacted ] Source [one line redacted] stated his belief that Chon had been “corrupted with power,” and that he (source) was convinced that Chon intended to put himself in a position to control, or as a minimum, greatly influence the ROK government. Following his appointment to the KCIA post, source stated there remained..."no doubt as to his ambitions.”

(C) [ Redacted ] Source further stated that all commanders in the capital area were now loyal to Chon, down to and including battalion commanders. Battalion command nominations for positions in the capital area now require the personal approval of Chon or a close associate. Two lieutenant colonel acquaintances of source who had been scheduled to receive capital area commands had recently been sent to FROKA [1st ROK Army] units instead, following their failure to exhibit the proper degree of enthusiasm for the new army leadership during the interview process. Source estimated that 100 percent of regimental commanders, and 95 percent of the battalion commanders in and around the Seoul area were loyal to Chon.

[ One line redacted ] See remarks by preparing officer at the end of this report regarding the possibility of eroding military support for Chon as a result of his appointment as acting KCIA director.

(D) ) [ Redacted ] Source stated that the DSC's power had grown enormously in the past three months, and that any officer who had been closely associated with former CSA [Chief of Staff, Army] General ((Chong)) Sung Hwa was particularly suspect and was likely to be under surveillance. An acquaintance who was a former staff assistant to Gen Chong had been taken into custody when he attempted to visit the general's wife and family at their home and questioned for several hours. The former CSA's house is reportedly under twenty-four hour guard by three DSC agents.

[ Redacted line ] growing influence, aggressiveness, and arrogance by DSC agents since 12/13 December has been confirmed by numerous sources. Gen Chong's former senior aide, an outstanding officer who was the number one KMA graduate of his class, was recently refused DSC clearance to study in the U.S. and has subsequently been reassigned to an undesirable job within SROKA [2nd ROK Army] headquarters.

(2) [ Redacted ]  in a related conversation on 18 April, a highly respected university dean stated that opposition to Chon was likely to increase on the campuses due to his appointment as acting KCIA director. He stated that the appointment was not only "immoral," but "illegal" as well, according to at least one highly respected legal scholar. This individual expected the Chon issue to become part and parcel of the ((Kim)) Jae Kyu execution issue, and stated that the faculty of his university expected the Chon appointment issue to actively surface toward the end of the week of 21-22 April. He expected the Chon appointment to eventually supersede both the dismissal of "Yushin professors" and the Student Defense Corps issues in importance and intensity.

8B. [ Redacted ] These remarks are reported primarily because of the information concerning Chon's efforts to insure a loyal following within the army by selective assignments and monetary contributions and the probability that his appointment as acting director of the KCIA will become an issue on the campuses. Perhaps more important, however, is the potential rift that Chon's appointment to the KCIA post may cause among his followers. Most observers see a greatly expanded power base for Chon as a result of his new position -- this is undoubtedly true. It must be remembered, however, the many of Chon's closest followers within the army are younger officers who tend to be more idealistic concerning his motives. A large segment of these officers have believed Chon's denials concerning political ambitions and have up to now honestly considered him to be concerned primarily with reforming the army. Acceptance of the acting  KCIA directorship, with its blatantly political overtones, seriously erodes the credibility of his image as a simple military reformist. Within the Air Force and Navy, opposition to Chon was nearly universal prior to his KCIA appointment; it can now be expected to solidify even further. There is also significant, if not outspoken, opposition to Chon among some army generals, particularly those recently retired. At the colonel and lieutenant colonel level, the actions he has already taken to insure loyalty will probably override his loss of credibility for the short term, but the seeds of disillusionment have been planted in recent days.

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

MBC to the US: Have you stopped denying your responsibility for the Gwangju massacre yet?

MBC Gwangju offered this report (also here, as part of a series), during its reporting on the 44th anniversary of the Gwangju Uprising. The series draws on interviews with Robert Rich (and James Young), who appeared in this discussion.


[Open the Cherokee Files Again] Part 6 - The US, As Always, Remains Not Responsible 


The United States, which is suspected of condoning and even aiding Chun Doo-hwan's new military regime's massacre of Gwangju citizens, has yet to admit responsibility.

However, Robert Rich, an author of the Cherokee Files and witness to the previously reported 'second meeting,' mentioned to reporters America's 'failure.' 

What does this ‘failure’ mean?

Press office chief Kim Chul-won continues.


America's responsibility for 5.18 is still a hot potato 44 years later.

This is because there is no transparency as to why the U.S. approved the movement of the 20th Division, a South Korean military unit under the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command, and why the U.S. discussed the May 27, 1980 operation against the South Jeolla Provincial Office with Chun Doo-hwan's side.

There is even more controversy because the United States claims to be the guardian of justice, and human rights president Jimmy Carter was in power at the time.

The fact that the United States sided with Chun Doo-hwan and not the people of Gwangju at the time of 5.18 was a key factor in the subsequent rise of anti-American sentiment in South Korea.

For this reason, in 1988 the National Assembly’s Special Committee on Gwangju sent a letter of inquiry to the U.S. government to determine what role it played in 5.18.

However, the United States sent a response stating that it “did not become aware of the situation in Gwangju in time and that the U.S. was not responsible for a tragedy that unfolded among Koreans.”

* The late William Gleysteen, US Ambassador to Korea at the time of 5.18:

I don't think the United States had any responsibility for Gwangju. I mean, it was a Korean action, the students who were demonstrating were Koreans, not Americans, the forces that were used against them were Korean, not American.

A person involved in crafting the response was Robert Rich, then Director of Korean Affairs at the State Department, whom our reporters recently met in the United States.

During an interview with reporters, Mr. Rich suddenly brought up the word “failure” in reference to Chun Doo-hwan.

After October 26, the United States should have restrained Chun Doo-hwan until Korea regained stability with the establishment of a civilian government, but it failed to do so, and this was a “failure” on the part of the United States.

* Robert Rich, Director of Korean Affairs at the State Department in the 1980s

Chun kept pushing the other way until 12.12, [when] he quite clearly took power. I would say the US government failed in that regard.

Robert Rich drew the line at that, saying that American failure does not mean American responsibility.

He said he understood the feelings of the people of Gwangju toward the United States and regretted the tragedy in Gwangju, but was adamant that it did not mean the United States was responsible.

* Robert Rich, Director of Korean Affairs at the State Department in the 1980s

...but unfortunately, we were not in charge. [Translated as “It may be unfortunate, but we (the United States) are not responsible.”]

The U.S. government's insistence that it was not responsible for the Gwangju Massacre has been consistent over the past 44 years and seems unlikely to change.

But despite these assertions by U.S. politicians and officials, there are clear reasons why doubts persist.

* Dr. Gregg Brazinsky, Professor, Johns Hopkins University 

Was it responsible? I think that’s something that still is very much debated. But, it’s hard to say, and I think no one would argue that the US has zero responsibility, right? Because the US had so much influence in South Korea at the time. [“it’s hard to say” wasn't translated.]

U.S. President Obama is offering flowers at the La Plata River with the President of Argentina.

President Obama apologized, acknowledging that the United States turned a blind eye to Argentina's military junta, which came to power in a 1976 coup, kidnapping, torturing, and killing citizens who resisted the dictatorship before the country's transition to democracy in 1983.

The United States also promised to release additional secret documents in response to President Obama's apology.

* Former US President Obama,  March 2016 (KBS News):

I’m launching a new effort to open up additional documents from that dark period. We previously declassified thousands of records from that era. [The translation adds “(dirty war)”]

The U.S. condoned the tyranny of South American dictatorships in order to prevent the spread of communism at the time, which is similar to the reason why the United States abetted the Gwangju Massacre and supported the new military administration of Chun Doo-hwan in 1980.

44 years ago, Chun was desperate for recognition from the U.S. government and Congress, and the U.S. gave him exactly what he asked for.

That is why the citizens of Gwangju have been demanding recognition of responsibility and an apology from the United States, but the US has not responded to these demands for 44 years.

This is Kim Cheol-won from MBC News in Washington. 


An unkind assessment of this news report would be to assert that it would take little more than substituting ‘미제 침략자’ (‘US imperialist invaders’) for ‘미국’ (‘US’) to make it sound more than a little alike to something the Korean Central News Agency would broadcast.

It should be noted that there are some errors above. For example, while Robert Rich said in the earlier interview that he (and former Ambassador Gleysteen) wholeheartedly supported the idea of the State Department responding to the Korean National Assembly's questions in 1988-89, he wasn't involved in "crafting the response" nor was he then Director of Korean Affairs at the State Department. It would also be a stretch to say that US decisions made at the time of 5.18 were "to prevent the spread of communism," unless one means preventing North Korean invasion or infiltration. Those in the Carter Administration who focused on Korea never believed communists were involved in Gwangju. Another glaring error is dealt with below.

As for the idea that there has been "no transparency as to why the U.S. approved the movement of the 20th Division," that may have been true decades ago, but with the 1989 White Paper and books by former Ambassador Gleysteen, former UN Commander Wickham, and former military attache James Young, there are numerous discussions of this (most noting that the 20th Division was removed from CFC OPCON before May 18, for one thing). Either MBC is unaware of these sources (i.e. incompetent), or it's trying to portray the US negatively. Or both. As to "why the U.S. discussed the May 27, 1980 operation against the South Jeolla Provincial Office with Chun Doo-hwan's side," Chun's side controlled the ROK Armed Forces, so who exactly were Americans supposed to speak to otherwise? [It should be noted that Chun was not directly in contact with the US at this time.] As for what their communications consisted of, Ambassador Gleysteen wrote in a cable May 26 that they were "urging that all realistic non-military options be exhausted and any military operations be carried out with the greatest care."

Moving along, “The United States... has yet to admit responsibility” for “Chun Doo-hwan’s... massacre of Gwangju citizens,” we’re told. One can’t help but notice the use of “massacre,” which is not that commonly used today when discussing 5.18. (Just to compare Google search hits, the results for different terms are as follows: "광주 민주화 운동" (Gwangju Democratization Movement), 527,000; "광주 항쟁" (Gwangju Uprising), 290,000; "광주 사태" (Gwangju incident), 207,000; "광주 학살" (Gwangju massacre), 130,000.) Hard to miss also are the all-but sarcastic references to the US, which “claims to be the guardian of justice, and human rights president Jimmy Carter.” It then uses a former US official and diplomat admitting that the US had experienced “failure” in trying to rein in Chun Doo-hwan - an admission clearly rooted in the State Department's attempts to encourage democratic development in 1979-1980 - as an opportunity to castigate the US for its lack of admissions of guilt and responsibility. It’s not really clear in what context Rich was speaking when he said, clearly mid-sentence, “but unfortunately, we were not in charge,” but the report claims he made an “adamant” denial, and translates it as “It may be unfortunate, but we (the United States) are not responsible.”

Gregg Brazinsky’s comment about determining the extent of US responsibility, that it was “hard to say,” was left out of the translation to focus on his noting of American influence upon Korea at that time, which makes it difficult to say it had “zero responsibility.” Or, as Clint Work put it during a lecture for the RAS five years ago, because of the command arrangements, there was no way the US could be uninvolved. As Donald Clark described the Combined Forces Command’s contradictions in The Kwangju Uprising: Shadows Over the Regime in South Korea (Westview Press, Inc., 1988), 

The command structure puts American officers in charge of operations. But all other signs point to a situation in which Americans bear responsibility but do not have real control. […] One […can] assume that the structure will be scrupulously honored by both sides and that it is an effective way to coordinate defense[,…or one may] see it as a snare for the American side, designed to assure U.S. support for whatever the Korean military wishes to accomplish. […T]he structure is designed to draw the American people and their Congress into whatever goes wrong with the Korean armistice. But a potentially dangerous feature of the joint defense structure is that it can be used to get U.S. support for whatever the R.O.K. military wants to accomplish, even it if is unrelated to national defense. As the Korean military has found political roles to play, the Americans have had to follow along or else oppose them openly. […This risked making] them culpable for atrocities committed by local troops whom they command but cannot possibly control. [Pgs 74,76]

In addition to the ways in which the structure of Combined Forces Command involved Americans in Korean affairs, amid the power vacuum left by Park Chung-hee’s assassination, the US Embassy found itself being sought after by many local actors. As US Ambassador William Gleysteen described the situation in a cable to Washington two days after Park’s death, 

there will be elements in Korea who wish to borrow our influence. I have already been approached by some and I expect to be approached by many more generals, dissidents, political oppositionists who want our help to pursue their own ends.

Returning to the MBC report, near the end we're told of former President Obama's visit to Argentina, during which, the report asserts, he apologized for a past administration's support of a past dictatorship there and promised to share more US documents with them. This is of course included to stand in contrast to how the US treats Korea in regard to 5.18, which the US has not only never apologized for, but has also been stingy in releasing documents.

The problem, of course, is that a key assertion above simply isn't true. As the Guardian reported in 2016, Obama "stopped short of apologizing for Washington’s initial support for the military dictatorship," making clear that MBC's implicit assertion that the US is disrespecting Korea by not doing the same for it is entirely false. It's hard to know whether this error was due to incompetence or malice. But sometimes facts don't matter when a deeper 'truth' needs to be unearthed by crusading journalists and promoted - namely, that the US must have been responsible for what happened during 5.18, because otherwise nationalists believing that Koreans are inherently good, blameless victims of history (inflicted by outsiders, of course) would have to admit an uncomfortable truth: that Koreans were capable of inflicting appalling violence upon each other that May in Gwangju.


Below are summaries of the other six parts of MBC's series 'Open the Cherokee Files Again,' particularly in how they used quotations from Robert Rich (and James Young).

 [Open the Cherokee Files Again] Part 1 - The author of the Cherokee files was found

The series begins by showing the online discussion I posted here and explaining how MBC then tracked down Robert Rich, who was Director of Korean Affairs at the State Department in 1980, and went to interview him, identifying him as the author of the "Cherokee Files," cables between Seoul and the State Department from 1979-80 unearthed by Tim Shorrock in the mid-1990s.

Rich: “I would say 90% of the cables out of the State Department were probably drafted in my office.”

Chun’s drive for power “came to our attention in Washington right after Park Chung-hee’s assassination. We all learned [at] the same time from our cables from our Embassy in Seoul.”

It seems odd to put such an emphasis on Rich, when the majority of the cables that are available originate from Korea, and not the State Department. However, to note this might reduce the value of MBC's scoop. Also, from my reading of the cables, I think the State Department was pretty slow to come around to Chun's importance, so much so that his actions on 12.12 were a surprise to them.

[Open the Cherokee files again] Part 2 - What are the Cherokee files?

This really has little in the way of interviews with Robert Rich, but explains the secret cable channel set up to deal with the aftermath of Park Chung-hee's death.

"We decided to set up a separate the communication channel because we did not want to… we wanted to keep things fairly quiet."

(Wasn’t that 'Cherokee'?)

"That's right. Cherokee." 

[Open the Cherokee Files again] Part 3 - Asking the author of the Cherokee files... Important records are still unreleased

In the final days of the uprising, the embassy and USFK tried to sift through various reports that included the lies Chun’s group had conveyed in the censored media. On May 25, a State Department cable stated that Korean news had reported that radicals had seized control inside Gwangju and, bent on establishing a revolutionary government, had set up people’s courts and executed people. In another cable that day, US Ambassador Gleysteen urged this news be treated with caution. MBC showed these cables to Rich and asked him about them, to which he replied,

"This is the information we received from Seoul."  

(From the embassy or the Korean government?)

"Some of it may have come from the government."

[Actually, the cables make it clear the sources for this information was either Korean news reports (by news organizations controlled by Martial Law Command) or Martial Law Command statements.]

Rich also speaks of another report he wrote to Richard Holbrooke after the military retook Gwangju, which he ended with the following comment:

"I said at the end what I did it because that's what I believed. I believed...if monuments were built, they would be monuments to the people of Gwangju who had suffered."

MBC then notes that this report was not among the "Cherokee Files" documents obtained by reporter Tim Shorrock or the May 18 Investigation Committee, indicating that there are more files out there. (For a discussion of as-yet unreleased documents, see the fuller interview with Rich from 2020.)

[Open the Cherokee Files Again] Part 4 - More secret information, testimony of an attaché at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency

In part 4, James Young, a deputy military attache at the US Embassy in 1980, was interviewed. (His memories can be found in his excellent 2003 book, Eye on Korea.) The only part of the interview aired was this exchange:

(You were aware of Chun Doo-hwan's clique called Hanahoe.) Sure. Of course. (When?) I think I became aware of it when I became a serious Korea watcher, and that would have been...'71, maybe?

[Open the Cherokee Files Again] Part 5 - Another Gwangju Countermeasures Meeting was held at the White House

This features a brief interview with Nicholas Platt, a senior aide to Defense Secretary Brown in 1980, showing him with his notes ("the Platt Memorandum" - scroll down for English) taken of the May 22 PRC [Periodic Review Committee] meeting at the White House (which had been planned more than a week in advance, and ended up being mostly focused on events in Gwangju). It then shows this exchange with Robert Rich:

There were two White House meetings in the Situation Room during that period.

(Is it another PRC meeting?)

There was another... PRC meeting...

I remember that it was chaired by [National Security Adviser] Brzezinski. It was essentially a discussion of concern that North Korea might take advantage of the situation and what we could do to deter North Korea.

I’m sure there are memoranda somewhere, but I don’t know where it is. The White House would have records, and the State Department...

Nothing is said about when it took place. From the description, it may have been a follow-up meeting on May 22, since at the recorded meeting no decision was made to send a US aircraft carrier to Korean waters, but by the end of the day on May 22, US news media were reporting that the carrier had been ordered to head to Korea. Either that, or it is a meeting that took place without any mention whatsoever in the hundreds of pages of cables from that time. At any rate, for MBC this is once again evidence that there are more documents left to be uncovered.

[Open the Cherokee Files Again] Part 6 - The U.S. - As Always - Remains Not Responsible

(Translated above.)

[Open the Cherokee Files Again] Part 7 - The May 18 Democratization Movement Truth Commission should have met them but...

The final part of this series shows a brief interview with Robert Rich:

(Do you have any information regarding who gave the shoot to kill order in Korea?)

[Shakes his head.] "You mean earlier or later?"

His reply is translated "You mean earlier (the mass firing in front of the Provincial Capital on May 21, 1980) or later (the mass firing during the suppression of the Jeollanam-do Provincial Capital on May 27, 1980)?" Whatever the interviewer's answer to his question, or his follow-up, was, MBC didn't broadcast it.

The final chapter, however, is more concerned with criticizing the May 18 Democratization Movement Truth Commission for not interviewing Robert Rich and James Young (you know, like the enterprising MBC did).

Despite being a figure who holds the secrets of 5.18, Mr. Rich said that no one in South Korea has ever approached him about 5.18. 

He is a key figure in unraveling the truth about Gwangju, but even though the May 18 Democratization Movement Truth Commission is aware that he is alive, it concluded that there would be no information to be gained from him and did not even attempt to contact him.

[My comment: if he was such a "key figure in unraveling the truth about Gwangju," why was there really not much new that I learned from the previously-linked to long-form interview with him?] 

The report ends by stating that "there are still a lot of U.S. records about Gwangju that have yet to be released. This is why the search for truth must not stop here."

One reason for criticizing the Truth Commission is that it's about to publish its comprehensive report, and has said that after conducting a sufficient investigation, it is "impossible to find the truth" regarding who gave the order to fire on May 21. 

MBC believes that US archives or Americans who could be interviewed know the "truth" about this, which is rather unlikely if you understand that the ROK government and armed forces were going out of their way to hide the truth of what was happening in Gwangju from the Americans (even trying to prevent communication between US missionaries and Americans on Gwangju Airbase). The Platt memorandum of the May 22 PRC meeting has General Vessey (who had suggested that Chun be asked to step down) stating his belief that the ROK army was "busting their tails" to "minimize bloodshed," which was not at all true; in fact, more than 60 civilians were killed on the outskirts of Gwangju (when it was "liberated") between May 22 and May 26. The ROK army promised to airdrop leaflets printed by US authorities explaining the US position calling for calm and dialogue, but never did, instead broadcasting news reports falsely stating that General Wickham had encouraged the ROK army to move troops to Gwangu. The list goes on and on. Unless a disaffected ROK officer later passed on the origin of the firing order to an American, it's incredibly unlikely the US has such information. In other words, anyone who has looked deeply into these records and understands the context of Chun's drive for power would know well that the likelihood of the US having such information is very low.

The MBC report mentions that the Truth Commission chose to focus on documentary evidence. The specific target of MBC's criticism is the Truth Commission investigator in charge of examining American records, someone I happen to know personally, who has uncovered a large number of documents (including uncensored copies of Ambassador Gleysteen's meetings with Chun in December 1979 and May 1980), and who has struck me as being very careful when approaching evidence, and not someone who jumps to conclusions. 

Overall, if you want to learn more about Robert Rich's memories of 5.18, turning to this 4-year-old discussion of events at that time would be far more useful that wading through the snippets and fragments of an interview with him that MBC recently broadcast in multiple segments. Little new is to be gleaned from what they have broadcast. Had they made available the full interview with Rich, much like when MBC shared the full, original and translated text of the Platt Memo several years ago (which really was an incredible find), MBC's recent effort might have been more worthwhile. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Retired Colonel James Young and former Korea Affairs Director Robert Rich discuss the Gwangju Uprising (2020)

Conversation about the Gwangju Uprising with retired Colonel James Young (Assistant Defense Attache at the US Embassy in Seoul, 1979-80) and former Ambassador Robert Rich (Director of Korean Affairs at the State Department, 1977-1981) (Rich also served as a political affairs officer in Seoul at another time of upheavals, 1959-62). Hosted by Johns Hopkins University in December 2020 and moderated by James Person. 

The talk can be found at YouTube here. It should be noted that James Young published his memoir about his years in Korea in 2003, titled Eye on Korea: An Insider Account of Korean-American Relations.

[The following has been edited for clarity, removing lots of ums and uhs and "..." denotes repeated words or other unnecessary elements.]

(They open with general statements about 1979-1980.)

James Young - It might be valuable I think to back up a little bit and kind of lay a little background before Gwangju to kind of set the stage. As you recall, after 12.12…in Seoul the next big event was 12.14 which I believe was even more significant, because that's when Chun Doo-hwan put all of his supporters into the power of positions in the army. So after 12.14 I was surprised that there was no more resistance to that move within the army, but they seemed to accept it. And things really, except for a couple of incidents, kind of calmed down in Korea, and until probably April of 1980 it looked like we were making some progress. The martial law had been modified to allow some political participation by the three Kims at that time: Kim Dae-jung, Kim Young-Sam, and Kim Jong-pil…. 

At any rate in the middle of April the first catalyst I believe for the events that resulted in Gwangju was the appointment of Chun Doo-hwan to the KCIA, and at that time there were two power centers in Korea – de facto power centers - that was the army and the KCIA - so once he got the KCIA appointed people that were his supporters there, he controlled them both. You know, everybody understood that, so that was kind of the catalyst for a lot more student demonstrations. There was some labor unrest. There was a big miner strike over on the east coast that turned violent and some deaths, and country-wide demonstrations, mostly student demonstrations but a few civilians as well. 

About three or four days before the Gwangju mess began [it actually seems to have been May 8 - see below] I was in my office sorting out some papers and I got a call from Colonel Lee who is the Foreign Liaison Office and he said Roh Tae-woo would like to see me. Roh Tae-woo at the time was Chun Doo-hwan’s number two. He was different from Chun. Chun was more outspoken and kind of abrasive and direct. Roh Tae-woo was much more thoughtful, I thought, a little different personality, saw a little wider picture than Chun, but of course he was the firm supporter and supported him by moving some of his troops during 12.12. I said sure, and when does he want to see me, and he says, ‘Well there's a car outside the embassy right now.’ I go downstairs, get in the car and off we went. 

When we got to his headquarters, which was the Capital Security Command, and its headquarters is located over by the old Korea House - which is kind of a tourist restaurant, but most people know where that is - when we entered I noticed first of all that they appeared to be in a high state of readiness. Their vehicles were all turned outwards for deployment, they had soldiers manning them, they had weapons. It was a little unusual state of readiness, I thought. We went up and sat down, had the customary ginseng tea, and I did mostly listening and Roh Tae-woo talked for about an hour and he talked about his early days at the Korean Military Academy, that it was founded by General Van Fleet, that … the curriculum… expressed the democratic ideals, he was familiar with the writings of Thomas Jefferson. And then he talked about the long-standing friendship between the U.S and Korea, but he also talked about how we were different and particularly our borders were different; we had relatively secure borders and friendly people on both sides. He said Korea was quite different with the North Korean threat, and he said, you know we will not allow instability to continue. 

I went back to the embassy - by then it was long after duty hours - wrote a report because I thought this information should be back in Washington pronto, sent the report on my own authority. Normally it would have been coordinated with the political section and the ambassador's office because the ambassador had met with Chun Doo-hwan a couple of days earlier and had sent a rather more optimistic cable, so I certainly wanted to clear it with him, but I didn't because it was a weekend and I thought we'd better get this off to Washington. 

About three days later, maybe two days later, on [Satur]day the 17th, they declared full martial law. This amounted to seizing all the media, closing down the universities, and in what is probably the most bone-headed political move ever, they arrested Kim Dae-Jung, Kim Young-sam, and Kim Jong-pil (more under house arrest) but Kim Dae Jung was a real target, and that was the catalyst for Gwangju. We did not know what was going on in Gwangju until I believe the 19th[. When it] started there was a reserve division and the local police, the provincial police, and they were unable or unwilling to control the demonstrations and that's apparently in retrospect when the Special Forces were committed. They were obviously not the right group - they had no riot training - they are trained to get North Koreans and do them in. Their officers lost control. It was a recipe for disaster and that's exactly what happened.

 We had no OPCON over those forces - they were deployed without our knowledge and we didn't even find out really what was happening until probably the 19th or 20th. And I had a friend, an officer who was from Gwangju who I met with on the 20th, and he said he had talked to his parents and it was really bad, and described the situation with bodies in the street and that sort of thing. So that's really, I think, about the 20th or 21st before we really figured out what the situation was. We didn't have any reporting assets in Gwangju. There was a USIS officer and there was a MI two-man office which was on the air base at Gwangju, and there were some missionaries, so this is where we were getting our information and that's the reason it took so long for us to react and to understand the severity of the of the situation. Later the 20th division went down and they pretty much - there were some negotiations and some other things, but I'll stop there and turn it over to Bob. But that's kind of what happened on the ground there. 

Great, and we'll come back and ask some follow-up questions. Thank you Colonel Young.

Ambassador Rich?

Robert Rich – Well, as Jim has stated, the American policy at this period was to try to persuade the military, who clearly had bitten its teeth in Korea after the assassination and was the power on the scene, but our effort was to try to persuade them to allow a constitutional civilian progress toward democracy - this was very important to the United States and it was very important to us also because we believed this is what the Korean people wanted, that there was a real popular desire for a move toward democracy, and while we could not control matters and internal affairs of another country, we used our assets to try to persuade the military that this is was in their own interest in the long term, to move towards a democratic dénouement of...that crisis period. The assumption of the KCIA post by General Chun we considered a very backward, unfortunate move. We… definitely did not did not think that was a good thing to have done and it was an ominous portent of what was to happen, and then the arrest of this of all three of the principal civilian candidates - I guess I can call even Kim Jong-pil civilian by that point - they arrested … Kim Dae-Jung and the others, and the institution of strict martial law, was a power play which we were definitely not informed about in advance. We did not approve of it - it was not in the American interest and we didn't think it was in Korea's interests. As Colonel Young has stated, we had no involvement in the Special Forces’ repression of the demonstrations in Gwangju. There were parts of the military that were not under Combined Forces Command because they were not part of part of the armed forces that functioned in the planning for the defense of the country.

I would really say [to] those who feel we should have somehow been able to prevent that that deployment, I can only say, as I think ambassador Gleysteen once said, ‘anyone who thinks that as a foreign country...we could have determined how another nation uses its internal security forces must be, … we would soon be thrown out very quickly. That would be rejected by any foreign country at all and General Wickham in his authority as Combined Force Commander had no authority over those Special Forces or how they were used.

In Washington I think the principal perception we had at the time was that we were very slow to really understand what was going on in Gwangju. We were even…further removed from it than Colonel Young… or our people in Seoul and most of the information we were receiving was what the Korean military wanted us to hear, and their version of events, and we were only getting fragmentary and belated information, so in real time we did not understand the nature of the brutality and the tragedy that was really going on down there. This sort of came slowly and belatedly to us.

As time went on, naturally, given our perspectives in those years, of conviction that the North Koreans would want to try to exploit any unrest in South Korea or any separation of the South Korean from the United States to carry out a long-term program of reconquest, and this feeling, this came out of a knowledge also that at that period of time the North Koreans had sacrificed tremendously to produce a military capability that was useful to do that very thing. They were a very dangerous potential opponent at that stage in history for use of an expensive… asset that they had acquired

So yes we were concerned that extended spreading unrest in the country could create an external threat and the United States did make an effort to make it clear in Pyongyang, in Moscow, and in Beijing that any interference would immediately bring a reaction of the most severe kind from the United States.

But this was…not to say that internally in South Korea… we found this military action most unfortunate. As the days went on, however, we could not deny that we felt that there needed to be a restoration of order in the country because of the external threat produced by a sense internationally, a perception that the country was in revolution or in disarray.

So, when it came to the restoring order in Gwangju, again without our understanding at the time of the depth of the initial problem that had been created by the Special Forces, it is true that we did not oppose the restoration of order but we made every effort through General Wickham, through the ambassador and others - the policy in Washington was to try to insist that every effort be made to prevent any further bloodshed, but to try to restore order as quickly as possible and as orderly as possible.

And in that context it's my understanding - and then Colonel Young, you may be able to correct me on this - I believe that the forces that were sent down to restore order were chopped from Combined Forces Command at the request of the Korean Armed Forces. A unit which was trained in riot control and was expected to handle themselves in a more humane manner, they were requested to be released from the Combined Forces Command authority for use in domestic affairs.

That request was approved and frankly the U.S position was that we had, that General Wickham in fact as commander, had no basis on which to deny such a request from the Korean government. It's simply an acknowledgement that a small force could be temporarily unavailable for defense plans, operational plans and without jeopardizing the safety of the country, and that does not go so far as to approve how they are used. That was not within our authority as foreigners.

That was the perception we had from Washington of a very, very unfortunate situation, the brutality of which we were very slow to understand, all of it occurring against the policies which we had been urging on the Korean military, all of it in opposition to the hopes that we had for democratic development in Korea at that time.

I know that my immediate boss, the Assistant Secretary For East Asian Affairs, Richard Holbrooke, was away at much of this time in Geneva, and so we were communicating by telephone as well as cable, and when the military did go back into Gwangju and restored order, and word came to us from Seoul that the city was back under the authority of the central government - I don't remember what time of day it was because we'd been losing a lot of sleep - but I do remember one of the last things I did was pen a note to Assistant Secretary Holbrooke, who was not there, saying one of these days there are going to be monuments erected in Gwangju, but they're not going to be monuments to the Korean military.

I would only note that I had one further small involvement in the Gwangju several years later. This was at the time that the parliament in Seoul was requesting information from the United States, on our involvement that in the Gwangju incident and the powers in Washington at that time, essentially their reaction was, ‘let's just not have anything to do with this we'll claim diplomatic immunity, just don't get involved in their affairs’ and our, my successor in those days was a man named Dunlop and Dunlop felt we should … try to be cooperative because we really had nothing to hide and so requests went out to Ambassador Gleysteen who was then retired and to myself - I was in in the Philippines - and both of us sent back messages to Washington that by all means cooperate completely - we had nothing to hide, neither one of us, and we did consult with each other. Neither one of us felt that there was anything that we knew about that we were ashamed of, or that we felt was in any way collusion in what had happened and the tragedy that had occurred, and yes we should cooperate, and with that encouragement from the two of us, Washington did decide to go ahead and participate in responding positively to the Korean parliament. I think I'll stop there and see where we go.

[Question about the use of the 20th Division and OPCON]

Young - The 20th division as I recall - you know a division has three brigades - two of those brigades were removed long before this - I think after 12.12 - maybe even after the assassination. So most of the discussion was about the other brigade and it was one, I guess, that had the most riot control training. We definitely thought that it would be the best option and it turned out that when they went back in on the 26th or 27th it was successful. There was not much bloodshed, I think, maybe two or three soldiers were killed; there were some holdouts in Gwangju and they were dispatched, but you're right because …the Korean military at the time, the last two or three days of Gwangju, was very cooperative. They brought us into all their discussions and I'm sure the reason for that was so that they could say okay, ‘the U.S approves.’ Now under OPCON procedures there's no approval mechanism - they are just withdrawn, we are notified. Normally we would request some sort of reserve unit be assigned in place of it, but we did not really approve it, but we were very much consulted.

From that period the U.S government was really trying to encourage Chun and the government to make the transition to … direct presidential elections …in hindsight do you think the U.S could have done more um to encourage this? Or do you think that Chun was already determined to seize power and it was just a matter of time?

Young - It's a difficult situation. I was relatively junior at the time. I was the army attache, I had a colonel above me, and you know junior people always think they have better ideas than the senior people. Now once I became a senior person I realized how wrong I was about that, but at the time I thought there were some things that we could have done. I thought, one, we could have forcefully disavowed Chun Doo-hwan and the 12.12 group. We had a lot of contacts, all of us, where we could use those contacts to set the record straight. They controlled the media and several times - ambassador Gleysteen's book has a lot of detail on this, on the statements that we tried to make to the Korean people. They said, okay we'll do it and they never did - they just did not cooperate and when they did, sometimes they just flat-out lied about our involvement. We had a leaflet operation which I was much in favor of. We could have dropped leaflets all over Gwangju, you know, saying ‘this is our position - no more bloodshed, negotiation.’ We were prepared and had the planes ready to go, helicopters. The Koreans said ‘Oh there's going to be an airspace management problem,’ or something, which was baloney. So anyhow the leaflets were never dropped. We could have challenged their distortions maybe more forcefully, but again the only real outlet we had was AFKN, the military channel there, and they are under some guidelines too, to be able to operate in a foreign country. We could have withdrawn the ambassador, maybe overtly supported the opposition figures. There were pros and cons for both of those, and diplomatic problems, but at the time I thought we should have reacted a little more forcefully than we did.

To go back to the Special Forces just for a second, there's still some belief that General Wickham was involved in that. General Wickham was not in Korea until about the 19th, long after this happened. He came in on kind of the tail end, so there's no way that he was he was involved in that. 

Rich – I’ll second what Colonel Young says. To get back to Gwangju itself. The problems we face today in communications with the Korean public stem from that period when the [ROK] military were making every effort to portray the United States as approving of what they were doing, and one thing I wish we could have done more was in that public sphere of somehow getting the word out better to the Korean people that we had not approved this and we did not think it was a good idea. But there was a conscious campaign and the military controlled the media. Now we did do one thing - we did relax the constraints on the Armed Forces Radio in Korea to be able to report in full some of the statements that the U.S government was making. But to have done that was in English and we could only hope that at least it got to some of the elites and could percol[ate] down, but … looking backwards it's clear that who dominated the media at the time, and those perceptions still linger today.

Of course one of the restraints was that, you know, this is a sovereign country and that, you know, you don't want to do anything…

So there's this limited ability to act without the support of the ROK government lest they decide to toss us out of the country. Did the Chun government message that it felt capable of defending itself from the DPRK without us support? Was this a just an empty threat?

Rich - I think we felt at the time… let's go back to the general effort, the sort of full-court press that had been going on ever since the assassination. From our perspective there were three options that could happen ahead: One, you could have a military takeover – clearly the strongest institution in the country at the time; two, you could have a progression towards a democratic government, which was what we hoped for. Three, you could have a revolution, and the problem with standing by and the prospect of a revolution was again the external threat which was a great concern to us as well. So it was not the U.S position to stand by completely and allow disruptive forces to perhaps develop towards a revolution.

But everything we could do - we felt we had to try to restrain the military from aggrandizement of its power and allow not a revolutionary change, but a there was at least a constitutional mechanism, not popular with everyone because the incumbents had their position under the Park Chung-hee autocratic government but .. The constitutional arrangements did allow for a progression towards democracy and it was using that constitutional structure that we hoped to stimulate in two ways. Everything that the U.S government did was designed to enhance the prestige of that civilian framework government because of the, you know, public relationships with the president and those things. At the same time, through all the channels available to us to keep telling the generals what a bad idea would be for them to short-circuit this process and take overt power

Now there was no question that we understood at this time that Chun Doo-hwan and others of the [11]th class really were the power on the ground, but if they could use restraint we felt there was a pathway forward that could lead to a more democratic government. That was what we hoped for. So yes, there was always the imminent threat of the military just taking over, which they eventually did, but at the same time there was the latent threat of a degree of unrest that would reach a disruptive potential in the country and that to some degree was the danger that Gwangju sort of waved at everybody. 

One final question for me about … documents that were released for the 40th anniversary … from the embassy in Seoul…did you have any thoughts about these new materials and what they tell us or don't tell us?

Young - It really… they reinforced my memory of events. The real pity is that most of our interaction with Chun Doo-hwan from the from 12.12 on was done by Bob Brewster, the special assistant [i.e. CIA], and he has some very interesting cables, and I don't think you're ever going to see them released. You know they don't release stuff and mine went to the - all my reports went to DIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, which would be the release authority and I don't think they'll be released either. So you know, that's just an institutional deal but…

So you said that Brewster's cables were interesting. Can you give us a little bit of a… I know again from your memoir … that you think his impression of Chun - and he was the one who was meeting primarily, even before Ambassador Gleysteen - his impression was somewhat more favorable than that of people in the in the US military establishment.

Young - I think that's a fair assumption. I think that they had a good relationship. It was professional and I think Bob was more optimistic about the future and when they went to full martial law on the 17th, I think the relationship between Chun and Bob Brewster kind of bit the dust. That's my recollection.

Rich - I was in a position in those days to read all of this traffic. The things that have been released are consistent with other things as well, although there are clearly… not all the messages I have seen released yet. I think they probably are released somewhere in the processes of the national archives, which are unfortunately very delayed these days. They're a bit overwhelmed with the documentation. But Bob Brewster, all of his messages… he did some very insightful memoranda of his discussions with Chun, but all of that was in direct coordination with the ambassador because Bob had a professional ‘hat’ that it allowed him to talk to Chun without it being a problem publicly, whereas when the ambassador talked to Chun at this stage it gave Chun prestige that we were not trying to enhance publicly in terms of his power role. But I will say I felt that the country team was very much united on all of this. Nobody was playing games behind the scenes. While there are…[of] all the embassy messages [I] have seen yet in the released materials, I haven't seen anything that is counter to things that I haven't seen and at this stage it's hard to be very specific about what's missing. I do notice there's some deletions in the material that's been released. None of these are very significant, having looked at them. I think they come in two categories: some of them in those days, for your releases, always delete any reference to the fact that our special assistant [CIA] is concurring in what's said but often embassies would say, an ambassador would include in a message such a phase as “Cass agrees,” something like this which simply means ‘What we know through intelligence does not conflict with, or agrees with, what I'm reporting to you.’ This is simply a reassuring statement that we don't have any competing information out there. 

Also there are some deletions - even Choi Gyu-ha - which I think were made to at the time … assuming we were protecting people who might be somehow hurt by knowledge that they talked to us, and or at least that their views were controversial at the time. But these were not clandestine arrangements in any way and I didn't notice any deletions that I thought could have any way interfered with the thrust of what what's available to us.

Audience Questions:

I still don't understand why the US could not publicly disavow General Chun's attempt to entrap the US if the U.S had the will to do so.

Rich - Public statements were made in Washington through the spokesman of the State Department who met with the press daily in those days, and these were designed to make it clear we were not involved in or agreeing to what was going on, but frankly these statements did not reach very far in Korea, to the extent we at some point tried to have them repeated by AFKN, but I don't think any - we simply were not … countering the military's statements effectively. I think we both feel that. It was apparent at the time and it was much more apparent since. So, statements were made but I think they didn't get anywhere

Young - I agree, Bob. It's hard to get your message out when you when the media is controlled by the other side.

Why didn't AFKN radio Korea broadcast have an option to go out in Korean… so that the message got out to a broader audience in Korea - our message of not supporting Chan and his actions?

Young - I don't know the answer to that question. I don't know if they're restricted in to English or… I just don't know - I know that they had some restrictions for their agreement to operate in Korea. That's a good question, and in retrospect it probably would have been a good idea to do it, but AFKN has a limited audience in Korea - mostly English speakers, mostly military. Most of what they cover is stuff that military people are interested in, so I'm not sure it would have, even in Korean, that it would have reached a lot of people… the Koreans that listen to it are mainly trying to learn English. I think they're English students.

Rich - Yeah I just don't know any details on this that I remember. We did try to do something through Voice of America, but in those days Voice of America was broadcasting to Korea only on short wave, so again, a limited audience. AFKN was not set up to broadcast in Korean. It would have been … perceived as a direct interference in Korean affairs for us to use this English-language channel for our own military's use as …essentially a weapon against the ruling regime. I don't know any way that was ever considered by anybody, but it would have been pretty much flaunting our power to do something against the sovereignty of Korea.

Right, and certainly that high-handed approach or heavy-handed approach would have potentially damaged relations even further. 

[According to Colonel Young’s book,] There was fear over intelligence estimates over Carter's plan to withdraw USFK troops. I was wondering if you could elaborate on this and do you think Carter had given up on or tried to distance himself from Korea by the time these events happened due to all of the political fallout he had gotten in the years prior?

Young - Well even though he's quoting me …Bob may have a better answer than I do about what was going on in Jimmy Carter's mind. Ambassador Gleysteen's book is very thoughtful on the Carter withdrawal policy and has more details than mine. I would just say that there was so much institutional opposition to that it had no chance of getting through. There was an in-depth study of North Korean forces done which kind of changed the threat posture and analysis. There was a lot of stonewalling in Washington and Carter was president for four years and that wasn't long enough to get that that particular policy done. [There] was just too much institutional opposition and foot dragging and studies and that sort of thing.

Okay thank you. Ambassador Rich did you have any…? 

Rich - Well essentially at this time of Gwangju, I would say, the President had sort of withdrawn from the field of battle on Korea. For several years we had fought the battle internally in the U.S government to get him to change his policies on withdrawal and finally that point had been achieved after the June meetings in Seoul and after the assassination I did not feel in Washington any sense…by the time of Gwangju that the president was engaged in the issue.

But I felt we had fully as much authority as we needed for the U.S policy of trying to trying to encourage a democratic dénouement of the ongoing crisis and to prevent the military from taking over. I know, I hear what the question is saying, that we took precedence of security over democracy. That's not how we saw it at the time. We saw all of our efforts ineffective as they were aimed at the democratic solution, but there are always those who feel that somehow we should have used force majeure to have prevented the military doing what it did, but that that would have involved a much greater direct injection of American power into internal Korean affairs which today would have certainly be cited by all the questioners as a terrible overreach and a desecration of Korean sovereignty.

So it's always nice if things go the way you want, but when they don't, you can always say ‘what more could we have done,’ and that's… at the time we felt we were doing everything that could be reasonably done, but the question’s out there. I can't answer it, what more one could have done.

What do you think Ambassador Gleysteen’s decision not to act as an intermediary…what's your assessment of that decision, Colonel Young?

Young - I would say we were enormously fortunate to have Ambassador Gleysteen as our ambassador during this crisis. He knew exactly what was happening, his insights were right on target, and we were really lucky to have him. As far as him being interjected somehow as an intermediary in Gwangju… there was nobody was in charge of Gwangju. It was a mess. There was, I think, very late in the game, about the time that the 20th Division went in and restored final order, there was a request through a very strange channel, like a New York Times reporter or something, that he should get involved as an intermediary, but it was hard to determine exactly the source of that, and who are you going to talk to? So he's clean as a whistle on that, and he was a great ambassador. It would have been a lot worse if we hadn't had him.

Rich - The bottom line is that that issue did not arise in a way and in a timely fashion that it would have ever really been evaluated, so it never was really discussed as an option. I would like to second what Colonel Young says there. If you have a very good ambassador in a country well involved, then back in Washington, we are dependent upon the interpretations and the understandings of our people in the field, and of course what you hear from newspapers and other things. But, if you feel like the people on the scene are wise and are informed, we don't try to second guess them in Washington. You can always make mistakes pretty quickly if you pull a view out of the hat by somebody thousands of miles away, so we did trust what we were hearing and I think rightly so. There are times when we have people on the scene who are not well cut in and that causes a different kind of trouble.

[…] Over the past few years - this kind of gets us to contemporary developments -president Korean president Moon Jae-In has made efforts to release more information about the events of Gwangju including making a freedom of information act request directly to the U.S government. Do you think President Moon's re-examination of Gwangju will present an opportunity?

Young – Bob? I don't know anything about this subject.

Rich - I'm not familiar with it … actually for 12 years in retirement I was running the State Department's systematic declassification program but that's not for you - that's not the way you got these documents. But that's the up and down sort of release of documents after 25 years. And I don't know of any move or any reason to retain any of that material and classification insofar as the State Department's concerned. As Colonel Young as mentioned, the intelligence agencies and DIA in other ways sometimes are more resistant to releasing their material, although substantively, I don't think there's any problem. It's usually for other reasons than substance. I don't think there's anything in our archives that changes anything we know today. I'm pretty certain of that. I've seen an awful lot of stuff in the archives that has all sorts of the labels on it that you’re supposed to keep it from public view, and I say quite honestly I don't know of any hidden bombs on the subject.

Well… that brings us to just around 11:15. […] I thank all of you for joining us and for your questions. 

Rich - May I comment just a moment, [may] I just say as the director of Korean Affairs at the time I would like to extend my sincere regrets at a great tragedy in Gwangju, one that will always be seen in Korean history as a tragedy, and if any degree of lack of what we might have done, I apologize. We certainly sympathize with those who suffered and their descendants and we certainly applaud the vigor and dynamism of Korean democracy today.


There are a number of interesting things that came up in that discussion. Part of it relates to CIA chief of station Bob Brewster. In his book, James Young wrote, on May 18, after the expansion of Martial Law, closing of the National Assembly, and arrests of politicians, 

Bob Brewster met with Chun Doo Hwan to deliver the same strong protest. Chun replied that “impure elements” and “radicals” had taken control of the demonstrations and that the government had been forced to act as a result. Brewster was especially disappointed by this response, for he had been led to believe by Chun in their earlier contacts that such hard-line actions would be taken only in the most extreme emergency. I frankly think Brewster was embarrassed by this turn of events, and at this point he completely lost confidence in Chun’s willingness to tell him the truth. Their relationship had been reasonably good to this point. In fact, Brewster was probably the only U.S. government official who had such a relationship with Chun since 12/12—now that was gone. [Page 101]

A former USIS officer who was in Seoul throughout this time period told me that Young's account of Brewster above matched his memory. And above we see that, according to Robert Rich, Brewster's more frequent meetings were coordinated with the embassy:

But Bob Brewster, all of his messages… he did some very insightful memoranda of his discussions with Chun, but all of that was in direct coordination with the ambassador because Bob had a professional ‘hat’ that it allowed him to talk to Chun without it being a problem publicly, whereas when the ambassador talked to Chun at this stage it gave Chun prestige that we were not trying to enhance publicly in terms of his power role.

Also above, Rich noted that

most of the information we were receiving was what the Korean military wanted us to hear, and their version of events, and we were only getting fragmentary and belated information, so in real time we did not understand the nature of the brutality and the tragedy that was really going on down there. This sort of came slowly and belatedly to us.

One reason for this was explained by the former USIS officer: "Either [Bob Brewster] or one of his senior people later admitted that they had lost their best contacts in Korea's national security apparatus as the rolling coup moved through the government."  

I also learned that there was a MI [Military Intelligence] two-man office which was on the air base at Gwangju, which was likely the source of Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) reports written about events in Gwangju. In fact, I hadn't realized that Young was reporting to the DIA, so it's clear he is the author of this DIA report from May 8 about his meeting with Roh Tae-woo. 

I hadn't known about the role of Rich (or Gleysteen) in convincing the State Department to accede to the ROK National Assembly's requests for information during its hearings in 1988-89, which led to the "White Paper." 

Also interesting was what was said about Jimmy Carter and Korea. Young described the "institutional opposition and foot dragging" that put an end to his troop withdrawal policy, and as Rich described it,

the President had sort of withdrawn from the field of battle on Korea. For several years we had fought the battle internally in the U.S government to get him to change his policies on withdrawal and finally that point had been achieved after the June [1979] meetings in Seoul and after the assassination I did not feel in Washington any sense…by the time of Gwangju that the president was engaged in the issue.

Overall, not a lot of new information, but there is some, and there are also some useful restatements or summaries of events in 1979-80.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Terry Anderson, reporter who covered the Gwangju Uprising, passes away

Update: A tribute to him by a friend, which includes video of interviews with him, can be watched here.

I was saddened today to learn of the passing of journalist Terry Anderson. I certainly didn't know him well at all, but I corresponded with him a few times, most recently in December. 

Anderson is best known for having been held hostage in Lebanon for seven years until being freed in 1991. But I've always known of him for his coverage for the Associated Press of the Gwangju Uprising. His account of that experience can be read here. In it, despite the years spent as a hostage, he wrote:

Covering the Kwangju rebellion in 1980 was one of the most difficult, exhausting and emotionally demanding assignments I have ever had. Though a professional triumph for the Associated Press and for me personally, it left me with emotional and psychological scars that took years to heal.

He noted in an interview done for an MBC documentary in 2004 something not apparent in the photos of the time - the fact that it was May, it was hot, and the smell of death was everywhere, something he said "will never leave me." 

He also faced danger during the retaking of the Provincial Capital:

As the light grew, I saw two paratroopers on top of the building, just 15 or 20 yards away. Taking my camera, I cautiously crouched at the window, trying to take a picture. Both men spotted me, then opened up with their M16s. The first bullet struck inches from my ear, and I threw myself into a corner, where Ahn and another correspondent were already crouched. When the soldiers began shooting through the thin, lathe-and-plaster wall, we dove frantically out of the room into the hallway. We had believed the government knew this hotel was occupied by foreign press, but either no one had told the soldiers or they didn't care.

A number of journalists were in the Tourist Hotel with him, including CBS's Bruce Dunning, who wrote in the book Korea Witness

I also remember spending one night on the floor of a yogwan near the city center as small arms fire echoed sporadically. Apparently I remarked dryly, "This is a hell of a way for a grown man to make a living." I didn't really remember saying that until years later when the AP's Terry Anderson, who shared the yogwan floor that night, told me that many times during his years as a hostage in Lebanon he had thought of that remark.

When I was working on the book Called By Another Name with David Dolinger, David had wanted a section of the book to focus on his fellow PCV Tim Warnberg, so we reached out to a number of people who knew him, including his sister, Roxanne, who we did a lengthy interview with. One other person I was able to contact was Terry Anderson, who wrote of Tim,

I remember him well. He was generous with his time and his knowledge, and helped us any way he could to tell the story of the Kwangju uprising. I remember he put me in touch with a Korean pastor who generously allowed us to use his car - our only means other than bicycle to get around. The pastor, by the way, was appalled at the way we abused the vehicle, but the AP paid for the repairs. Tim was a kind young man who was justly angry at what he saw. We all liked him. 

Tim's sister shared with us a letter Tim had written to Terry on March 20, 1992, three months after his release from captivity in Lebanon:

Dear Terry, 

My name is Tim Warnberg and I met you in Kwangju, South Korea nearly twelve years ago when I was a Peace Corp volunteer and you were reporting on the massacre in that city. My co-worker was Judi Chamberlin and you interviewed me for the Associated Press and taped the interview as well. Robin Moyer, a photographer for Time magazine was also there. I am so happy that after all these years I now at long last have the opportunity to recontact you. I have kept your business card on my desk and thought about you each time there was some snippet of news about the hostages, hoping for your safe release soon. Before going any further, I want to warmly welcome you back to your freedom and your family. Your recent article about your captivity and subsequent release was very moving. Both before and after your forced confinement I have thought about your compassion and kindness when you were reporting on the horror which we witnessed in Kwangju. Your recent poetry and writing reveal that you still have not become jaded and have not been consumed by anger and bitterness but, even in the most depressing of circumstances, have tried to maintain your objectivity and your obvious understanding of and affection for people.

After my Peace Corps experience, I stayed in Korea, studying and working until 1985. I returned to the U.S. in 1986 and became a graduate student in Korean literature and language at the University of Hawaii. In 1987 I wrote an article, enclosed with this letter, titled The Kwangiu Uprising: An Inside View, which was published in the Journal of Korean Studies. I received my Master’s and was working on my PhD when I got the devastating news that I have AIDS. I returned home to my family in Minnesota and have somewhat improved but the disease is slowly taking its toll. I have thought back to the events in my life which have profoundly affected me and I think of those chaotic days in Kwangju. Not only was I affected by the horror of the massacre and shocked at what humans can do to each other, but, in the midst of catastrophe, I was also impressed with your courage and determination. As a reporter you endeavored to get the truth out, yet you never lost sight of the fact that the stories you were writing were about real people with real emotions. Although people may think that all reporters have these qualities, I realized then that this is definitely not the case. 

I hesitate to intrude further on the precious time to on you are spending with your family but my own situation forces me to be bold: I am wondering if the tape you made of my interview in Kwangju in May 1980 still exists. I don’t know what your policy is concerning the tapes you made when you were covering stories but, if possible, I would like to get a copy so that I can listen to my first-hand account of the massacre. If you have taped over the interview or lost the tape I will certainly understand. If that is the case, please accept this letter as a welcome back to “the world” and a wish for much good fortune in your future endeavors.


Tim Warnberg

I sent this on to Anderson, who replied, "thanks so much for preserving it and sending it to me. It brought his memory back so clearly." 

Anderson was also involved, along with LA Times reporter Sam Jameson, in an anonymous interview with USFK head General Wickham in August 1980 in which Wickham conceded that the US would likely support Chun if he came to power "legitimately." Chun, in an interview with Henry Scott-Stokes a couple days later, outed Wickham as the unnamed official, and Wickham was recalled to the US. You can almost hear the glee in Chun's voice after outing Wickham in the NYT article:

''That's very flattering,'' General Chon said of the reported remarks of the American. ''I can use support any time. It could also mean that I'm a little more liked, more popular, that's pleasing, but now rules will have to be obeyed.''

More on that interview and its fallout can be read in this post. (I should note that I've heard today through the grapevine the memory of someone present at the Chun interview who stated that Anderson gave Henry Scott-Stokes a copy of the tape with the recording of Wickham's interview on it, so that post may have to be amended.) Of the interview, Sam Jameson wrote that 

I felt that Wickham in the interview was merely predicting what Washington would do when it realized it had no choice but to accept Chun, not that he was acting as a "patron" of Chun. To the contrary, I thought Wickham's remarks showed that he was disgusted with Chun and upset with the political situation that Chun had created with his mutiny of December 12, 1979, and the palace coup of May 1980.

In December last year I wrote to Terry Anderson to ask him what he remembered of Wickham's demeanor during the interview in regard to his feelings about Chun. He replied,

It has been more than 40 years since that interview, but given the controversy around it, I remember it well. I think you are correct in your analysis. It was clear that Wickham did not like Chun or the situation Chun had put him in. [...] The fact that his distaste was even noticeable showed its strength. Good catch. Rgds. Terry Anderson

I'm glad I wrote to him when I did. 

Rest in Peace.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Traces of the Independence Movement and echoes of development in Seodaemun

Next weekend, on Saturday, April 20, I will be leading a cultural excursion for RAS Korea titled "Traces of the Independence Movement and Echoes of Development in Seodaemun," during which we will visit preserved houses and museums connected to the independence movement, as well as Donuimun Museum Village. 

For more information, and to register, see here.

Excursion summary:

In the Seodaemun area stand a number of preserved houses connected to the independence movement that have been converted to museums. As well, the area has been the site of redevelopment projects in recent years, which led to the preservation of one neighborhood which was renamed Donuimun Museum Village. We will visit these museums and learn about independence movement figures and Seodaemun’s history while also examining the ways in which the past has been preserved in the area.

We will set off from Dongnimun Station and visit the recently-opened National Memorial of the Korean Provisional Government, which overlooks Seodaemun Prison. After learning about overseas attempts to gain Korea’s independence, we will walk past the Independence gate to Dilkusha, the former home of Albert and Mary Taylor. Albert Taylor was involved in mining in northern Korea, but it was his work as a journalist that led him to document aspects of the 1919 March 1 independence movement. After years of being subdivided into apartments, the city bought the house and restored it, converting it into a museum which displays mementos donated by the Taylors’ descendants.

After passing by the home of musician Hong Nan-pa, a western-style ‘Culture House’ which was built in the 1930s, we will walk along the restored city wall to Gyeonggyojang, which was built in 1938 and served as the home of independence activist Kim Ku from 1945 until his assassination in 1949 – which took place in the house. Today it has been converted into a museum, which we will visit. 

We will end our walk in Donuimun Museum Village, a restored neighborhood which features a local history museum, a memorial hall dedicated to Francis Schofield, a Canadian missionary and supporter of Korean Independence, and numerous buildings in which theaters, photo shops, and comic book reading rooms of the past have been recreated. A current trend is for museums in restored buildings to document the preservation process, so we will be offered the opportunity to think about how the local government preserved older aspects of the city in this neighborhood rather than redeveloping it – a fate suffered by the rest of the Gyonam-dong area to the northwest. 

This walking excursion will set off at 1:00 pm from exit 5 of Dongnimun Station (독립문역) #326 (subway line number 3). The excursion will last until about 5:00 and end between Gwanghwamun Station and Seodaemun Station (Subway Line 5). Participants may join Matt afterwards for a coffee or an early dinner (not included in the excursion fee) nearby. The walk is mostly flat, but comfortable walking shoes are recommended.