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.

Sincerely, 

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.

Video of my lecture "Experimental Artists Confront Conformity in Seoul, 1968-70"

On January 16, 2024, I gave a lecture for the Royal Asiatic Society titled “'We feel like we’re suffocating’: Experimental Artists Confront Conformity in Seoul, 1968-70,” which was previewed in an article I wrote for the Korea Times, "Experimental artists challenge 'suffocating' conformity in 1960s Seoul." Below is a video of the lecture.

I was pressed for time when preparing the lecture and only managed to watch the beginning of this (subtitled) interview with Kim Kulim. When I finished it after the lecture, I wished I'd been able to include a few revelations from it: Kim noted that the weekly magazine Sunday Seoul realized they sold more copies when the Fourth Group was covered, so they offered to fund their activities in exchange for access. This is where the body painting images and 'naked bodies entwined' photo shoot came from (visible below). Also, when Kim and the others were arrested on August 15, 1970, during their 'funeral march' in central Seoul, he was interrogated and asked how much North Korea had paid him to do it. He expected the worst, but found out later the editor of Sunday Seoul had contacted the police, and so the police, not wanting media exposure, let them off with warnings.


Sunday, January 14, 2024

Experimental artists challenge 'suffocating' conformity in 1960s Seoul

Update: The lecture can be watched here.

This Tuesday, January 16, I will give a lecture for the Royal Asiatic Society titled “'We feel like we’re suffocating’: Experimental Artists Confront Conformity in Seoul, 1968-70.” My latest Korea Times article, "Experimental artists challenge 'suffocating' conformity in 1960s Seoul," gives a preview of the lecture. For more information about the lecture see here (note that the lecture will be given at a new venue).

I’ll be leading a follow-up excursion to Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art to view the Kim Ku-rim Exhibition on Saturday, January 20, at 2:00. (The exhibition has a 2,000 won admission fee.)


This lecture is based on years of digging through the weekly magazines that began proliferating in the 1968. The first few years saw some of them publishing risque material, including nudity, but the government's crackdown on the artists featured in the lecture also affected the weeklies, and they become less interesting after 1970 (though, to be clear, they still had lots of interesting material, just less so than before). 

Two sources I recently discovered were the websites of Gang Guk-jin and Kim Kulim, which have digitized a lot of newspaper and magazine articles from that time.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Running with the Devils in Itaewon, 1968-70

Larry Tressler performing with the Devils (and the girl group Happy Dolls) at Seoul Citizens' Hall, June 1970. (Courtesy of Larry Tressler.)

A decade or more ago, I bought CD reissues of the first two LPs by the Devils, a Korean rock band active in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and was surprised to see, in the accompanying booklet, photos of the band with an American. “Who in the world is he?” I wondered. In 2022, I found out it was Larry Tressler, and conversations with him (on Facebook, email, and in person during his visit to Korea in October) provided the basis for my latest Korea Times article.

Not included in the article is this list of songs (covers) that the band used to play:

From what I remember, some of the songs in our normal set included:

Proud Mary – Ike and Tina Turner

Soul Man – Sam & Dave

Security – Otis Redding

I’ve Been Loving You Too Long – Otis Redding

Na Na Hey Hey, Kiss Him Good bye – Steam 

Land of a Thousand Dances – Wilson Pickett

96 Tears – Question Mark & the Mysterians

Born To Be Wild - Steppenwolf

Everyday People – Sly & the Family Stone

Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival

Get Back – The Beatles

Evil Ways - Santana

Dock of The Bay – Otis Redding

My Girl – The Temptations

I Got That Feeling – James Brown

Arirang (Sung by me, the American, in Korean)

하얀집 / White House [based on the 1968 song ‘Casa Bianca’ by Marisa Sannia, and sung by the Pearl Sisters] - it was classic back then - with a rock beat.  

Nima – Pearl Sisters

Released in late 1968, the latter song was the first rock(ish) song to become a hit in Korea, making the Pearl Sisters and songwriter/guitarist Shin Joong-hyun hugely popular and ushering in the age of Americanized pop music in Korea.

Many thanks to Larry for sharing so many of his memories.

[Note: The Devils were unique due to their focus on soul music, though covers of such music are absent from their LPs (their first album only features a cover of 'Proud Mary'). A number of the rock bands that had come out of the US Eighth Army stage (미군무대) scene recorded English-language covers of rock songs such as the Key Boys (Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild") and Shin Joong-hyun and the Questions (Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida"), or devoted entire sides of their LPs to covers, such as He6 ("Proud Mary," Steam's "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye," The Archie's "Feeling So Good", Fifth Dimension's "Aquarius Let The Sunshine In," and Santana's "Evil Ways"), Trippers (Santana's "Evil Ways," CCR's "Molina," Tony Orlando and Dawn's "Knock Three Times," the Archie's "Feeling so good," and Glen Campbell's "By the Time I get to Phoenix"), and the Pearl Sisters (though they sang their covers of songs like Scott McKenzie's "If you're going to San Francisco" or the Temptations' "Get Ready" in Korean).]

Thursday, January 04, 2024

Tim Hortons betrays Korea!


So, Tim Hortons (aka the Church of Canada) opened up a franchise or two in Korea in 2023, with plans to expand to 150 stores within... a time frame... in the future. You might be able to guess how much I care about this.

Now, don't get me wrong - Timmies was a staple of the Canadian (or Ontarian) experience by the 1990s. If you're not from there, I'd explain it by saying it was an omnipresent experience, unless you lived in a rural area like I did and didn't get one until...sometime in the mid 2000s (by which I mean 2005 or so). But there was one or two in Peterborough, a city 45 minutes from home, and I learned to stomach developed a taste for coffee drinking Tim's double doubles (double cream, double sugar), but the real draw was the donuts. 

To be honest though, I preferred Country Style Donuts' donuts to Tim's... their cherry crullers were to die for (though a friend who worked there later told me how many eggs went into a batch of those donuts - I think it was 48 eggs per dozen... those things were heavy... but delicious). At any rate, Tim Hortons and their drive throughs were all over the place on highways in Ontario, so they served as a good way to refuel with caffeine on hours-long drives across wide-open Ontario spaces, as bathroom stops, or, as time went on and their menus broadened, a place to grab a slightly-wider range of sandwich and soup options, in addition to donuts and coffee. But my memories of working in Guelph, Ontario, in the late 1990s, feature runs to Tims to grab a cardboard flat that would hold 4 or 5 coffees to bring back to work for your coworkers, and in that way Tims contributed to fuel the office and retail grind of suburban Ontario (I can't speak for the rest of Canada). 

But now, Timmies has opened up franchises in Gangnam, the 'Beverly Hills' of Korea, or whatever. And while the the company and its Korean partners are clearly banking on a "premium" image to propel sales in Korea ("Canada's greatest most popular coffee and donuts!"), this is being undone by Korean media outlets keen to question things foreign and - more importantly - the throngs of Koreans who have studied in Canada, which can't help but make me chuckle, considering the effort the Canadian embassy was putting into promoting university or English language study in Canada a decade ago (when I had contacts there), which I'm sure continues now. 

The Korea Times reports on the woes of someone who studied in Canada years ago:

Stepping inside Korea's first Tim Hortons that opened last month, however, he scanned the menu and was disheartened to see that everything was way more expensive than he remembered. A medium-size cup of black coffee was 3,900 won ($3.97 Canadian). The same is sold in Canada for $1.83. 

"I was hugely disappointed," said Kim who expected prices similar to Canada's. "If Tim Hortons in Canada sold their double-double and French Vanilla at the same prices as here in Seoul, I would have never gone there and neither would local patrons there."

Similar woes are reported by a former language student in Canada who "couldn't accept the fact that the brand's prices are almost on par with those of other high-end coffee brands here. 'I don't get why they raised the prices to the levels of other coffee brands here. Is this some kind of localization?'"

Um... yes? Obviously? The only way to feel you're at some place on the cutting edge of hip in Korea is to feel a bit (or a lot) sore in your wallet at the cash register. If you want cheap, you can go to campus cafeterias, but you're not going to find the Instagram influencers businesses are increasingly spending their advertising budgets on there. Thinking Timmies could expand here by undercutting local budget places would be a good way to guarantee they close up shop within a few months. 

Mostly, though, I'm surprised at the focus on coffee and the lack of mention of anything about the cost of their old fashioned glazed or their timbits. What of their sandwiches? Do these coffee drinking philistines care nothing about Canadian cuisine?!? 

Postscript

I don't remember Timmies having anything like Country Style's cherry crullers, but apparently last year, for a limited time, Tim's brought back "cherry sticks", which I don't remember from back in the day (trust me, I would have noticed if they had something like a cherry cruller), but which is very similar. Those things were heavy bars which could likely take out someone's eye if you aimed just right. 

The second thing to note is that, whatever fun I may poke at Tims, whenever I've gone home and eaten one of their donuts (an obvious choice since Tims is rather ubiquitous at this point), I've thought they were delicious, but when this prompted me to have a Dunkin' Donuts donut in Korea, I'd remember that Koreans like their sugar spread throughout their food, and not concentrated into a singular point like the bottom of a gravity well the way Canadians do, and I'd wrinkle my nose at the local donuts' blandness and avoid them thereafter.

Friday, December 01, 2023

Drug scandals and why celebrities are held to such high standards in South Korea

A recent article at Korea Pro by Chris Tharp (author of this excellent memoir), titled “Unpacking South Korea’s strict drug policy amid celebrity scandals,” examines societal attitudes toward drug use by celebrities and raises an important question as to “why so many South Koreans seem to hold celebrities to such high moral and ethical standards when, in Western countries, public figures are not usually held to such standards.”

It seeks answers from PNU professor CedarBough Saeji, who has spent a great deal of time studying K-Pop fandom, summarizing them as follows:

when feelings of personal aspirations and closeness induced by parasocial relationships combine with the far-reaching nature of social media platforms, allegations of drug abuse can often lead to South Korean fans feeling betrayed and questioning their idols’ integrity or worthiness, thus profoundly affecting the fan base.

Chris also sought input from me about the history of South Korea’s drug laws, but he informed me apologetically that this material was cut by the editor. What I sent him would be a bit of work to edit into a blog post, but I did want to write a few paragraphs laying out why, from a historical perspective, I think celebrities in South Korea are held to such high moral and ethical standards.

One reason for this is that in the past, entertainers – meaning those who earned a living through performing, rather than those taking part in, say, musical performances during local festivals or while working – came from the lowest social strata. As was noted in this 2006 NYT article about the hugely successful film “King and Clown,” which was about  Joseon-era traveling performers, 

One person the director consulted was Kim Gi Bok, 77, who is considered the last surviving itinerant clown. Mr. Kim was amused at the attention he had gotten because of the film. “Before, we were treated as beggars, but now we are considered traditional artists[.]”

Gisaeng might be seen today as a few rungs above itinerant performers, but they were tainted in many peoples’ eyes by their association with the provision of sexual services. 

This caused issues during the initial rise of popular culture in urban Korea during the colonial period, leading to people in the early 1930s denouncing the negative effects of radio because “Drunken songs with corrupt lyrics from the mouths of kisaeng come into our homes every night…to great harm and spiritual corruption,” leading to “struggles in households all over Korea… between fathers who hate the sounds of the new songs and want more traditional songs and their sons…who want to hear Western music.” All of this prompted the question, “Should we not be cultivating the cultural consciousness of the masses?”*  

This gives some hint as to how entertainers were perceived, and even then their private lives were scrutinized by news media. Though working as an entertainer is certainly seen in a better light today than it was in the 1930s, elements of past attitudes linger, and media scrutiny has only intensified. 

One reason for this can be found in the question “Should we not be cultivating the cultural consciousness of the masses?” This raises the other issue that goes beyond entertainers to the role of entertainment itself. As Haksoon Yim’s article “Cultural Identity And Cultural Policy In South Korea,” put it, “The arts have… come to be seen as an integral part of cultivating morality.” 

Or, as ROK Minister of Culture and Communications Sin Pŏm-sik described youth culture, or mass culture, in 1970, it was “something that emerges healthily in the mass media in a spirit of assigning tasks to citizens and lighting the way forward for the nation.” 

Yim further described how the South Korean state perceived and promoted mass culture: 

Park [Chung-hee]’s government differentiated “sound” culture from “unsound” culture. The term “soundness” was strategically used to enlighten and mobilize people for the political purpose of Park’s government. Park’s government sought to promote a “sound” culture conducive to anticommunism, nationalism, traditional morality and state-led economic development strategy. [...]

[S]ince the 1980s, culture and the arts have been considered to be a solution to social problems. Governments have tended to attribute social problems to the deserted spiritual world and the confused ethics caused by rapid economic growth. Thus, the government has stressed that the enrichment of the spiritual world by culture and arts was necessary to counteract the negative effects of materialism and commercialism. This demonstrates that cultural policy has considered the moral mission of culture and the arts. Culture and the arts have been mobilized as a cement of social cohesion.

Olga Federenko has highlighted how this even affects the advertising industry (that link is to her thesis; her highly-recommended book is here), noting that

in South Korea, the marketing instrumentality of advertising is subordinated to the ethos of public interest, and both advertising consumers and producers strive for advertising that promotes humanist values and realizes democratic ideals, even if it jeopardizes the commercial interests of advertisers.

Also, beyond previous attitudes towards entertainers and official perceptions of the role of entertainment in society, the first time drugs and entertainers were really linked in news media on a wide scale was the marijuana scandal of 1975, which I looked at here, and which was used by Park Chung-hee’s government at the height of its authoritarianism (and deployed along with extensive song bans) to enforce morals and silence the slightest hint of defiance (let alone dissent) that might appear in entertainment media. This lesson reverberates into the present, shaping attitudes toward marijuana use in general and drug use by celebrities, as well as making it clear to entertainers that when it comes to politics, they should keep their goddamned mouths shut. Almost 50 years later – and even 30 years after the arrival of democracy and greater freedom of speech (marred, to be fair, by Park II's artist blacklist) – entertainers continue to steer clear of political commentary unless they feel their opinion is a very, very popular one, such as during the candlelight demonstrations in 2002, 2008, and 2017. Only when there is a clear alignment in political opinion between those opinions felt personally and those articulated as the will of the people (the present day mandate of heaven?) will some entertainers take the risk of speaking out.


* Michael Robinson, “Broadcasting, Cultural Hegemony, and Colonial Modernity in Korea, 1924-1945,” in Colonial Modernity in Korea, ed. Gi-Wook Shin and Michael Robinson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), 65, 67.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Wooing your lover and modernizing the fatherland with Goldstar radios

I found this Goldstar portable radio ad in the Seoul Women's University (서울여대) newspaper from the summer of 1972. While the images initially caught my eye, the text proved to be rather interesting:

A symbol of prosperity and modernization of the fatherland

A radio for love, friendship, and active people, RM-707

The mini-transistor radio RM-707 for active people and friends and lovers amid overflowing youth is ideal for...

  • Campus singing groups where friendship grows
  • Enjoying go-go rhythms while picnicking
  • Conveying the thrill of being at sporting events
  • Background music while with your lover

The RM-707 is a high-performance portable radio uniquely designed by Goldstar for the styles of active youths.

Clear sound, sophisticated design

Goldstar transistor radios

Sold at Goldstar specialty stores nationwide.

Battery-powered transistor radios gave one the freedom to roam and integrate music or other broadcasts into your activities as never before (with such activities including singing groups on campus, picnics, sporting events, or even romantic escapades). I also couldn't help but note the phrase at top left: "A symbol of prosperity and modernization of the fatherland." While advertising a product that allowed young people to take part in frivolous activities, name-checking the authoritarian state's development drive was probably a good idea. Note the price of the featured product: 2,980 won. This inflation counter suggests that would be around 60,000 won today, but I suspect it felt like a lot more at the time.

I should note that in 1966, anthropologist Vincent Brandt, who was doing ethnography in a remote village on Korea’s west coast, described "the sudden development of a new youth culture" facilitated by the growth in the number of transistor radios and the resulting exposure of young people to broadcasts from Seoul. As Brandt described it,

the constant expression on the radio of romantic love as an ideal through popular songs and radio dramas seemed to have substantially undermined the repressive force of Confucian puritanism and made a severe dent in parental authority within an extraordinarily short time. The influence of Seoul broadcasts was also evident in the outspoken determination of many young people to make their own decisions with regard to occupation, place of residence, and choice of spouse.*

Brandt also described the consumer goods which appealed to the young: "A transistor radio, dark glasses, new clothes, trips to town, and for some a guitar, have an immediate fascination that may conflict with the requirement that individual interests be subordinated to those of the family."*

There's a certain irony here, since in the early 1960s the military junta that took power in 1961 oversaw the distribution of thousands of radios to towns and villages throughout the country so as to disseminate official news and propaganda, but the commercial broadcasts (such as TBC and MBC) that were also available provided "counter-examples" that could also undermine authority.


*Vincent Brandt, A Korean Village Between Farm and Sea (Harvard University Press, 1971), 16, 102.

(I should note that I was initially left scratching my head figuring out what 빅게임의 드릴에 찬 중계도 referred to, but was later clued into the fact that 드릴 was 'thrill' and not 'drill' as I'd thought, since I was imagining practicing for the mass gymnastics or card sections of university sports competitions at the time.)


Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Foreign English teacher received constant verbal abuse and even assault at hands of Yeosu hagwon owner

MBC reported last week on the egregious abuse of a foreign English teacher taking place at an English hagwon in Yeosu:

Hearing the level of abuse left me shocked until I realized the teacher was from South Africa, which then led to me think, "Gee, I wonder what colour their skin is?" (For a backgrounder on Korean attitudes toward Africans, see this post.) 

Yesterday the site laborplus (참여와 혁신) published this report on a press conference held in Seoul by the KCTU in regard to this case, which featured two of the teachers involved (hat tip to Mike C):

Verbal abuse and assault against native speaker instructor continued at a language school in Yeosu, Jeollanam-do

KCTU: "What is the Ministry of Employment and Labor doing---all workplaces should be investigated"

Comforted by a fellow instructor, an native-speaking instructor speaks through tears at the 'Emergency Press Conference of the National Democratic General Labor Union on the Incidents of Racial Discrimination, Verbal Abuse and Assault of Native Speaking instructors and Migrant Workers' held in front of the Seoul Regional Employment and Labor Office in Jung-gu, Seoul, on Thursday morning. Reporter Gang Hang-nim 

The director of a language school in Yeosu, South Jeolla Province, has been accused of verbally abusing and assaulting native speaking English instructors, prompting calls for the Ministry of Employment and Labor to take active measures to protect migrant workers.

The KCTU’s Democratic General Federation’s National Democratic General Labor Union (co-chair Kim I-hoe) held a press conference with native speaker instructors in front of the Seoul Regional Employment and Labor Office at 10 a.m. on November 14, saying, "What is the Ministry of Employment and Labor doing when verbal abuse and violence against migrant workers is widespread in Korean society?" and demanded from the Ministry a full investigation into and special labor supervision over migrant worker discrimination, verbal abuse, and assault.

On November 9 it was revealed through media reports that the director of a language school in Yeosu, Jeollanam-do, had been verbally abusing native speaking instructors, saying things such as, "Servile people should be beaten," "Those kids should be killed," and "Tell me, you’re stupid, tell me." The native speaker who shared a recording had to repeat the phrase "I'm stupid" in response to his rant. The reason given by the director was that he didn't like the way she was correcting students’ English journals, among other things.

The harassment continued in other ways. At the press conference, the native instructors disclosed that the harassment was chronic, including assaults and unannounced visits to their lodgings from the owner. "He tried to enter my home unannounced, and I had to stop him. I felt like my life was in danger and was afraid to go to work out of panic and anxiety after that day," said Ms. A, a native speaking instructor who worked at the hagwon. "He locked me in the teachers’ office, made me memorize the teaching instructions word by word, and didn't allow me to bring lunch." 

However, the South Korean government did not help her. Ms. A said, "I asked the Yeosu Labor Office for help twice, but the case was dismissed due to insufficient evidence. I even asked the National Human Rights Commission for help, but no one thought my case was valid." "I thought filing a civil lawsuit would at least help, but my employer provided false testimonies from other teachers to frame me as a perpetrator of workplace harassment. When my case was dismissed, I lost faith in all legal systems."

Ms. B, who also worked at the same place, said, "I couldn't even expect common courtesy from people, and without intervention, these problems will continue." "The main obstacle for most foreigners is not language, but policies that exclude us and treat us as commodities," she said.

At the press conference, Kim I-hoe, co-chairperson of the Democratic General Union, said, "How can there be a hagwon in South Korea owner in 2023 who makes such senseless remarks?" "The Ministry of Employment and Labor should not dismiss this as the shamelessness of a single individual, but should immediately investigate the treatment and conditions of foreign workers and take appropriate measures," he demanded.

Ms. A left the hagwon and is working in another area. Ms. B also left and is looking for a job. The process hasn’t been easy. Under the current law, native speaking instructors who entered the country on an E2 (conversation instruction) visa and work at foreign language hagwons, language institutes, and continuing education institutions must obtain a transfer letter from their employer if they want to change jobs.

Participants in the press conference said, "It is the state’s structural violence caused by the current immigration law which allows employers to limit workers’ ability to change jobs.” "Workers on (not only E2 visas but also) E-9 visas are not allowed to change companies without their employers' consent. It is an institutional problem that creates structural violence."

"The government is increasing the number of migrant workers, but it gives all the rights to the employers and asks migrant workers to become their machines," said Udaya Rai, head of the Migrant Trade Union. Even if the employer assaults, verbally abuses, and sexually harasses them, the employer has all the rights, so we can only watch." "Korean society cannot run without migrant workers now. Migrant workers must be accepted into the fabric of Korean society. To do so, we need to create laws and systems that allow them to change workplaces freely," he said.

Lee Hyeon-mi, acting head of the KCTU’s Seoul headquarters, also said, "By restricting workers from changing jobs, the government shackles them so that they cannot escape if they are exposed to violence and discrimination in the workplace." "The government should establish laws and systems against racism and abuse of power and actively enforce them," she urged.

Meanwhile, the Yeosu language hagwon in question has reportedly been unable to operate normally due to a sharp drop in students after the verbal abuse and assault of the native speaking instructor became known to the local community. The press conference concluded with the participants conveying a request for a meeting to officials from the Seoul Regional Employment and Labor Office.

MTU's head, Udaya Rai, makes a good point about Korea's need for migrant workers, particularly as Korea's demographic implosion continues apace, and for the need to ease up on rules tying foreign workers to one employer. It should be remembered that this system was implemented in 1984 after the news media here flew into a tizzy after Le Monde published an article talking about how easy it was for travelers to find language teaching jobs in Seoul, where one even managed to marry a local girl from a "good family"; in response, the government changed the law. As David Mason remembered it:
I left back to America in the fall of 1983, the French scandal happened in 1984, and when I returned in early 1986 there were these new rules. No teaching at all on a tourist visa, and when a school or company sponsored your teaching visa they became your "owner" -- you couldn't have any other jobs unless they officially approved it. And if you stopped that job for any reason you just had to leave the country within five days, returning if you had another job that would sponsor your visa, or if not, not. Reentering on a tourist visa to find a new job, if you hadn't found one before your left, would be your only option. I remember some good quality longtime teachers who left in disgust and protest between 1985 and 1987, because they felt disrespected by all this.
Considering the role foreign workers will play moving ahead, maybe visa portability is something not to aspire to, but to return to?

On a somewhat-related topic, perhaps foreigners hoping for better treatment and representation could ask the Chosun Ilbo for help? But then (in comparison to the Joongang Daily's take on the bedbug problem, which pointed out that at least one Korean had been exposed to them while travelling abroad) considering Chosun Ilbo's report on the spread of bedbugs in Korea, which might as well be titled "Dirty foreigners bring bedbugs to Korea," perhaps not:

A mysterious bedbug infestation that first made headlines in Paris earlier this year seems to have made its way to Korea, traveling in the luggage or clothes of foreigners.

A dormitory at Keimyung University in Daegu and a public sauna in Incheon where bedbugs were sighted recently are believed to be inhabited or visited to foreigners, although it is still too early to make definitive conclusions. [… (Oh, they're making conclusions, all right)]

An official at the National Institute of Biological Resources said, "Hygiene standards are very high in Korea, so even simple maintenance can prevent a major spread. But bedbugs could continue to be spotted in areas frequented by foreigners." [...(who by inference must have very low hygiene standards)]

In Korea, bedbugs are often traced to areas with high numbers of foreign laborers. "There was even a case where bedbugs arrived here still attached to the body of a foreigner and spread in his room," the official said.

Maybe this is not the best way - in your English-language edition, of all things - to speak about the people who may well be ensuring you receive your pension in the future. 

Oh, and maybe put systems in place (and enforce them) to try to protect foreign workers from abuse, so that they don't give up after being failed in so many way by officialdom here?

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

"Paradise" by the projector's light, and real estate databases

 For my latest Korea Times article, I interviewed Todd Henry and Minki Hong about their documentary, ‘Paradise,’ which uses oral history and animation to explore the history of Seoul’s last-standing (if no longer operating) theater that once served as a venue for gay cruising.


I didn't have the space to discuss Todd's other project, which he shared when Paradise was first screened at the theater late last year, which is mapping out queer spaces in Seoul, some dating back to the 1960s and 1970s, which have mostly disappeared (including one grouping of such spaces in Sindang-dong, the neighbourhood I now live in), almost all of which were "anchored" by the presence of second-run theaters where gay cruising took place. The maps he put together were assembled from "a fragmented variety" of sources, a "combination of real estate databases, aerial photography, oral histories, and textual sources" such as weekly magazines. 

I recently discovered a two online real estate data bases, one which you have to enter an address for (and provides building information such as the year it was built), and another which provides a map which you can click on to find similar information, as well as information about the lot. Both are great tools which can be used to learn more about whatever neighbourhood or building you might be interested in.




Monday, October 30, 2023

Exploring Gaehwasan with the RAS this Saturday

I’ll be leading an excursion next Saturday, November 4, for the Royal Asiatic Society to Gaehwasan (near Gimpo Airport), a low mountain covered with temples, tombs, a Korean War memorial, and fall colours. It also overlooks Haengju fortress, site of Imjin War and Korean War battles. 

Starting from Banghwa Station, at the end of Line 5,we will pass through a park with a number of 400-year-old zelkova and gingko trees and then head up the mountain to see the numerous, beautifully carved tombs, flanked by stone statues, of the Pungsan Shim clan, who for several generations served the Joseon kings and were memorialized for their meritorious deeds, including taking part in the overthrow of the notorious king, Yonsan-gun, and, generations later, organizing righteous armies during the Imjin War.



We will also go to Yaksasa Temple and see a statue of the Buddha and a three-story stone pagoda which date back to the Goryeo Era.


We'll see an even larger such statue dating from the early Joseon period outside Mitasa Temple, on the other side of the mountain. The statue was found buried in the 1930s, when the temple was rebuilt. Both temples were destroyed during the Korean War, but the pagoda and statues survived.


Next to Mitasa is the Memorial to the Loyal Dead, which was erected to remember the 1,100 soldiers of the Korean 1st Army Division who died defending Mt. Gaehwasan - which overlooks Gimpo Airport - during the opening of the Korean War, which will provide an opportunity to learn more about the fighting which took place on the mountain during the war, as well as its military importance in the present. I'll also touch on the importance of the area during the Imjin War.

Being a mountain, of course, there will be lots of opportunities to take in views of the Han River and surrounding area and enjoy what nature has to offer (below is a spring view).

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For more information about the tour, or to sign up, see here.