Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Escalation of Violence During the Kwangju Uprising

This is a (lengthy) response to comments about a piece on Kwangju posted by the Marmot. The comments in their entirety can be found here, though it was a comment by usinkorea that prompted me to write this; as it began to get longer, I decided it wouldn't be very gentlemenly of me to hog the Marmot's bandwidth, so I've posted it here. The information comes from various sources, especially Memories of May 1980: A Documentary History of the Kwangju Uprising in Korea (which, though clearly biased, includes everything from victim, witness and military testimony, to internal military documents; referred to below as MoM1980), Laying Claim to the Memory of May by Linda Louis, the declassified Cherokee papers, Reporters' accounts, and other sources.

I had written (to someone other than usinkorea) “Forgive me if i ignore your ’sob stories’ about the poor soldiers, who after stomping and bayoneting the shit out of random people for 2 days made people angry enough to fight back.”

To which usinkorea responded:
"I lean toward bulgasari’s side, but this is a dangerous simplifiction. I doubt very seriously the non-military side did “nothing” for 2 days…"

This is correct on both accounts. It is an oversimplification - very few things can be summed up in a single sentence, and the circumstances surrounding Kwangju are indeed very complex, which is partly why I ended up writing this. When referring to the 'non-military side', a distinction should be made between those who were initially engaged in protest and those who were bystanders; this is a distinction the paratroopers did not make, as is well known. On the first day students most certainly did throw stones and burn a few police cars; on the second day citizens, beginning to outnumber students, built barricades, threw stones and molotov cocktails, and burned broadcast vehicles belonging to media outlets in frustration or revenge because they were not reporting what was happening.

What has to be understood is that any escalation in the tactics of the students was preceded by escalation on the part of the soldiers. The 33rd & 35th battalions of the 7th brigade arrived in Kwangju shortly after midnight on the 18th, captured the universities and beat and detained any students found on campus. In the morning they stood by the gates of the universities and administered what witnesses and victims described as incredibly brutal beatings upon any students who approached the gate (unaware of the University's closure). A marine corps master-sgt watched from his home near Kwangju National University of Education as the soldiers grabbed a student and
kicked him with their military boots and hit him with the butts of their guns, and later loaded him into a 3/4 ton vehicle. I wondered if they could really be soldiers, and I felt choked. It was like when a dog becomes so crazy that it can't recognize its owner.
As news of the paratroopers' actions spread, about 200 students gathered near the gate of Chonnam University and began protesting, calling for an end to martial law. They began throwing stones at the now-reinforced troops, who charged the students and administered more savage beatings. The students scattered throughout the city calling for a rally in front of the Provincial Hall in the city's centre (as had been planned in the event of university closures); the soldiers remained on the outskirts. The police had, during the student demonstrations held between May 14 and 16, previously helped control traffic near the rallies and left the students unmolested. That day, however, as students began demonstrating near the Provincial Hall, the police began to tear gas and beat students in order to push them off the streets. The protests moved back and forth and when the number of students increased, they attacked two police boxes and set police cars on fire. Citizens watched but most were too scared to get involved.

Worth pointing out is the fact that since these were student protests consisting of perhaps 1000 students across the city by mid-afternoon, riot police alone may have been enough to subdue them. MoM1980 states that 31st Division Commander
Major General Chong Ung suggested controlling the demonstration only with police forces for the time being since the size of the demonstration was quite small, but the order from higher level pressed for troop commitment.
(MoM1980 takes great effort to point out how the normal chain of command was ignored, and how the opinions of regional commanders (like Chong) had no bearing on decisions about troop deployment which were being made at the highest levels in Seoul.) After receiving orders to send the paratroopers into the city at 2:00, Chong delayed for nearly an hour before delivering the orders (after proposing to use the police instead). By 2:00, however, the paratroopers of the 7th Brigade 33rd and 35th Batallions had already started moving towards the city centre, again suggesting that their orders were coming directly from higher up, circumventing the normal chain of command.

Almost an hour earlier, however, despite the fact that the soldiers had yet to come into contact with the demonstration downtown, orders had come down from the top to move four more battalions of paratroopers, this time from the 11th Brigade, from Seoul to Kwangju, a move which was completed early the next morning. When the paratroopers from the 11th Brigade were deployed the next day, these new troops had to contend with much larger demonstrations which were beginning to include more and more citizens, enraged at the actions of the 7th Brigade paratroopers during the afternoon of the 18th. However, at 6:30 am on May 19th, before these reinforcements from the 11th Brigade even arrived, military commanders in Seoul decided to reinforce the 11th and 7th Brigades with five battalions of the 3rd Brigade, who arrived in Kwangju early on the morning of May 20th. Before the second day of demonstrations even began, almost 3,500 special forces troops were in or headed to Kwangju. Kwangju's citizens had no idea more troops were on the way (and wouldn't have been able to tell, as the paratroopers' names and regimental insignias were missing), and the arriving troops had no idea how much animosity towards them the previous troops had aroused.

One of the main reasons special forces units had been used to suppress the Busan Masan uprising in October 1979 was because of the fact that citizens had joined the students. What occurred in Busan and Masan was as close to the term 'insurrection' as one can get (though no arms were taken up by citizens); many police boxes were destroyed, and many public buildings (thought to contribute to the Yushin system) were attacked or burned. But in 1979, though the soldiers were known to be brutal in dealing with the protesters (with most of the beatings occurring after dark), no one was killed. As Donga Ilbo reporter Kim Chung-keun put it,
They were rough. They had a simple and plausible objective, though: to break up demos, to push people back off the street and at the same time, to keep the city functioning.
Kim goes on to describe their actions in Kwangju as "a strategy of terror, a blitzkrieg". Why the paratroopers acted so differently in Kwangju may be due to the uncertainties that existed after Park's assassination, which usinkorea summarized in his comment. I'm not sure if "soldiers pushed from hotbed of unrest to hotbed of unrest" is an accurate description of the use of the Special Forces during this time. It gives the idea that they were being used to put down protests, but I don't think this is the case. The declassified Defence Intelligence Agency cables presented in the Tim Shorrock article refer to them:
A Feb. 27, 1980, dispatch to Washington, "ROK Special Warfare Command Locations and Key Personnel," stated that the SWC "continues to be involved in ML (internal security) activities." The report noted that the SF troops located in the Seoul area were "not as visible during the daylight hours, however at night, key locations are reinforced with SF personnel." According to the report, SWC "is still one of the forces Chun Tu Won, the DSC Commander, relies upon to maintain his power base."
A May 8th DIA cable said that during the previous months
all Special Forces units "had been receiving extensive training in riot control, in particular the employment of CS gas had been stressed...Many were growing weary of the internal security role that SF was assigned. During the Oct. 79 Pusan/Masan riots, the officers and men sent from SF were ready and willing to 'break heads.' During their most recent deployment to standby in Wonju, there was a noticeable change in attitude. Many voiced opinions that the coal miners were in the right. It was true that the coal miners needed a higher wage, etc." According to the DIA source, "the prospect of quelling student activities is viewed a bit differently, but not with enthusiasm." The source would "not predict that SF would refuse to fire on the students, but made it clear that such demands might have significant impact on SF discipline."
That the special forces were one of the forces Chun Doo-hwan relied on to maintain his power base is interesting, especially considering how the normal chain of command was circumvented at Kwangju and orders came from the top. Whether it was because Kwangju was the only city where there were any kind of student protests that day (a city that had seen protests on the 16th, when in Seoul and elsewhere, protests had been called off), or because it was the capital of the area from which Kim Dae-jung (arrested only the night before, along with most of the local student leaders) was from, or because of regionalism, the 7th Brigade paratroopers were ordered into the city centre to suppress relatively small student demonstrations, and four more battalions from the 11th Brigade were ordered in three hours after these limited protests began. Someone gave orders that the paratroopers acted on by brutally beating anyone who looked young, or who simply happened to be there, in some cases to death. It has never been made clear who exactly gave those orders. There seemed to be nothing restraining the troops, and though 31st Division Commander Major General Chong Ung (a regional commander) would issue orders to try to rein in the troops behavior on the 19th, they were ignored. One of the most important instructions was "when dispersing crowds, concentrate on that alone and do not try to arrest people". The paratroopers did not at all seem concerned with dispersing the demonstrations during the first two days; it was in trying to apprehend people that most injuries were inflicted.

Considering that students in Kwangju had continued to hold demonstrations for a day longer than the rest of the country (due in part to one of the student leaders' friendship with the chief of Cheollanam-do police - both would be tortured in prison), it is very possible that they would have held demonstrations without the brutal actions of the paratroopers giving them further reason to protest. Though student associations at many universities around the country had made plans to rally off campus in the event of campus closures, only Kwangju's students did so. Whether this is due to the brutality of the soldiers urging them on, or due to Kwangju's students being more radical than those elsewhere, is impossible to know. What is certain is that it was the brutality of the paratroopers in the city centre on the afternoon of the 18th that turned Kwangju's citizens against them.

According to a Dong-A Ilbo reporter,
At exactly 4 pm on May 18 paratroopers stood in a line at the Kumnan-5 intersection. It wasn't yet one minute since warning announcements had cautioned citizens to return home quickly... Immediately upon the commander's order to the paratroppers to arrest all people out in the streets, they inserted bayonets in their M16s and charged at the citizens in bayonet drill formations. They beat up indiscriminately any and all citizens nearby, dragged them away like dogs when they fell down, and herded them into military trucks.
The soldiers chased actual demonstrators, as well as anyone who might be a demonstrator, into businesses, homes, and buses, and beat them and dragged them away, often stripping them down to their underwear; the victims ranged from middle school students to people in their 50s or 60s. Quite a few of the victims were taxi or truck drivers, some of whom were carrying students to safety, or taking victims to the hospital. Students would gather and chant slogans, and then flee when the soldiers charged. By early evening, though most citizens were too terrified to venture out onto the streets, some (mostly young men) began to join the students and fight back against the soldiers with stones. Curfew was extended from 9pm until 4am, and police and soldiers were stationed in strategic locations across the city.

By early morning four divisions of the 11th brigade had arrived in the city and taken control of principal police boxes. Most stores in the city were closed, along with elementary schools, and while public buildings and middle and high schools were open, work and studying had stopped. Around 10am, 2000-3000 students and citizens gathered in front of the Catholic center to protest. When the 11th Brigade, 62 and 63 battalions arrived, the crowd dispersed. A noncommissioned officer of the 11th Brigade explains what happened next:
After some time an order was passed down to 'get off'. We heard these instructions as 'beat up all young men'. When we got off the vehicle all of the demonstrators had already fled in different directions, and since we had to unleash our hatred on somebody, all of us began to search the buildings nearby... In a group of 7 or 8 I went to search a motel... Nobody would open the door even when we banged on it, but when the other soldiers went over the wall and opened the door, a few employees rushed out saying there was nobody in their motel.

They should have escaped through the back door. Some of us kicked them and others of us began to strike them with riot batons... this baton was so hard and heavy that, with just a little force, if they blocked it with their wrists, their arms would break... We made all four of them stand backwards against the wall when the Major came along. He made them kneel down, then with all his might he kicked their faces one at a time with the military boots he was wearing[...] Their faces turned so gruesome it was painful to look at[...]

[He goes on to describe finding 10 guests, including a couple who pleaded that they were on their honeymoon] No conversation was necessary. It was about merciless beating [...] Citizens who were captured were first beaten up. It was in order to prevent them from escaping, and to dishearten them. Next we took their clothes off and left them only in their underpants. Then we tied their hands behind them with their belts, made them hold their clothes with their hands tied, [and] walked them to our truck [...] Then we transferred them by truck to the Chosun University sports complex. The suffering did not end there [...] I can't write in words how much they were beaten... [1]
By noon the demonstrations had been suppressed, but when the paratroopers went away for lunch, leaving police and a few troops behind on guard, citizens came out and began demonstrating near the Catholic centre. Angry at the media for not reporting anything that had happened, they set two broadcasting vehicles on fire and pushed them towards the police barricade, along with oil barrels from a construction site. They began to build barricades and hurl stones at the police, while workers who were building an underground pedestrian pass collected pipes, wood, and tools to use as weapons. The paratroopers quickly returned and soon all 5 available airborne battalions were converging on the city centre. The protest was broken up, but the protesters melted away to hold isolated demonstrations, only to reconverge elsewhere later in larger numbers. By early evening pitched battles were taking place between citizens and the army near the Fire Station and the Bus Terminal. As a paratrooper recounts:
Around 8pm, about 70-80 soldiers from our regional division faced the demonstrators and fought the kind of hand to hand combat that we had only heard about before [...] There were wooden sticks, stones, and bricks in the hands of the demonstrators, and we had riot batons in our hands. Still, the civilians, however large in number, were no match for our well trained soldiers. Of course, there were 7 or 8 people lightly wounded on our side, but with the exception of a dozen casualties who were unable to run away, all of the demonstrators were forced to flee. We beat and trampled on the injured demonstrators again, then withdrew [...]
More people were killed or injured on the 19th compared to the previous day as the protests against the soldiers became larger and more fierce, and many more soldiers were now in the city. In comparison to the previous day, soldiers used bayonets more often, and (accidently) opened fire on a handful of occasions. The 2nd day of protests, towards the end, began to move towards an uprising, and a citizen's one at that. As Linda Louis writes:
Although 5.18 has been characterized as a students' uprising, college students were in fact just the catalysts, the first participants. It was only a relatively small group of them who were active, and armed, throughout the entire event. Students comprised just 19.5% of the official victims and were only a slight majority (15 of 28) of those killed on the last day (May 27) when the army retook the Provincial Office Building.
The next day saw more soldiers enter the city, and even larger demonstrations, a large vehicle protest in the evening by taxi and bus drivers angered by the soldiers' attacks on drivers, and, by the early hours of the 21st, the retreat of the army from every part of the city centre except the Provincial Office Building, where a confrontation the next morning would see soldiers open fire on a large demonstration, killing over 50, which would prompt the citizens to arm themselves, and force the military to retreat from, and surround, the city.

The first 3 days of the uprising saw the situation escalate on both sides, initiated by the soldiers. Their actions on the first day shocked onlookers, who couldn't believe what they were seeing (it also shocked the regional commanders, when they found out what was happening); then on the next day when some people gained the courage to try to stand up to the soldiers, four more battalions descended on the city and initiated more brutality, to which citizens began to respond with rocks, barricades, club-style weapons and burning vehicles. When their numbers grew to the point that they were a threat to the soldiers (and their use of a vehicle protest proved effective at occupying public space) the soldiers began to open fire, which led protesters to arm themselves. By the time a number of protesters had gained arms, the army had retreated from the city, hoping to encircle and isolate it until the situation (and emotions) calmed down. From a military standpoint this worked; when the army's tanks rolled in 6 days later, few were willing to risk their lives in a hopeless battle. The fact that some people were, and that some did lose their lives in the final battle, however, proved to be inspiring to those facing repression in the 7 years that followed.

[1] "My Splendid Holiday," Operations Order - Splendid Holiday, ed. Yun Chae-gol (Silcheon Munhaksa, 1988)pp. 35-37. Quoted in MoM1980. (I do hope the translations in this book are accurate...) (Note - 'Splendid Holiday' was the code name for the paratroopers' military operation in Kwangju)

No comments: