The 1980 Kwangju Uprising and the United States
Part 1: Sources and Historical Background
Part 2: Expectations of US intervention and Chun Doo-hwan’s manipulations
Part 3: Commentary on US involvement in Kwangju and US government responses, 1980-1999
Part 4: Commentary on US involvement in Kwangju, 1998-1999
Part 5: William Gleysteen on the Kwangju Uprising and the rise of Chun Doo-hwan, 1999
Part 6: General Wickham on the Kwangju Uprising and the rise of Chun Doo-hwan, 1999
Part 7: James Young on the Kwangju Uprising and the rise of Chun Doo-hwan, 2003
Part 8: Henry Scott-Stokes, Linda Lewis, and others on the Kwangju Uprising, 1997-2004.
Part 9: Misrepresenting sources to arrive at a preset conclusion: Critiquing “Neoliberalism and the Gwangju Uprising”
In 1999, General John Wickham's book Korea on the Brink: A Memoir of Political Intrigue and Military Crisis, was published. It covers ground similar to that of Gleysteen’s book. At times, such as when he covers his being approached by a Korean officer suggesting a counter-coup after 12.12, as well as the use of the 20th division during the Kwangju Uprising, he provides less detail than Gleysteen. What he does provide is a close-up look at relations with, and the attitudes of, officers of the Korean military.
It should be noted that Wickham's first meeting with Chun after the 12.12 coup did not come until late February. However, on the day after the coup, he met Defense Minister Rho at the bullet-pocked Ministry of Defense where Rho openly tape recorded their conversation, which Wickham assumed was because “Chun and his clique wanted to hear firsthand what the American commander had to say.”
The 12.12 coup had been carried out by Chun and other generals in part because they wanted to replace the older generation of generals who were blocking their advancement. As the first class at the 4 year Korean Military Academy, Chun, Roh Tae-woo, and other generals of the KMA's Class 11 believed they were better educated and more deserving of command roles. After leaving the US bunker at Yongsan against Wickham’s advice, Defense Minister Rho had been seized by the officers carrying out the coup and forced to retroactively approve the arrest of martial law commander Jeong Seung-hwa (in part because he planned to transfer Chun). After hearing the excuses Rho made for Chun's coup, Wickham replied to him:
I told Rho that his explanation was duly noted, but entirely implausible and unconvincing. The actions initiated by the group of generals not only jeopardized the political progress of recent weeks, they also threatened the internal stability of the republic and opened very real risks of a North Korean attack. Thereby, they raised deep concerns about the future relationship between the United States and the Republic of Korea. Those concerns could lead to a full review of all American policies toward Korea, including policies concerning troop withdrawal, technology transfer, missile development cooperation, foreign military sales of U.S. equipment to the ROK, economic assistance, and several current proposals to increase the authority and responsibility of the Combined Forces Command.Rho was shocked by this response and insisted it was all a misunderstanding. After the meeting, Wickham cabled Washington:
It is clear that we are in a hard ball game with professionals who feel they can run the country better than their peers and are ﬂush with the ﬁrst round of victory. In my judgment the course of political events has been fundamentally and unalterably changed. We now must work closely with the emerging leadership to see how much of the recent political progress can be restored, and to assure that internal political as well as military stability is maintained thereby denying North Korea any incentive to intervene.Chapter 4 of his book, in which he was approached by a Korean officer who told him a countercoup to oust Chun was being planned, can be read here. In short, he quickly told the officer the US would not support any coup, as “it would have been wrong to meddle in our ally’s political fate. We could protest and cajole, but a direct intervention or an alliance with an internal conspiracy was out of bounds.” Jeong Seung-hwa, the former martial law commander arrested in the coup, may have been saved from execution, however, by Wickham's “meddling” when he sent, as was his practice, a birthday card to his colleague Jeong [Chung] :
My note to Chung reached him in prison. According to eyewitnesses Chung and his wife wept after reading the note. For them the note meant that a “lifeline” existed to an important military friend and government. […Chun also perceived it as a message that he] could not deal harshly with Chung. In fact, Chun became so incensed with the note’s import that he went to see Ambassador Gleysteen and complained bitterly about my “upstart action.” Chun said that I was interfering with the Korean legal process and that I had absolutely no right to communicate with someone Koreans regarded as a “non-person in prison.” Bill brushed off Chun’s complaint with the explanation that my note was merely a personal birthday greeting and that, as a matter of fact, if it were Chun who was in prison instead of General Chung, that perhaps he would have received a similar note. Chun was not at all amused.Wickham also related a number of meetings with retired General Mun Hyong-tae, chairman of the National Assembly Defense Committee and a former Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Chairman, who sought Wickham out to offer his help. Mun told him he had lectured Chun and the generals and explained the threat to foreign loans their actions might have caused and otherwise urged moderation. At a later meeting he communicated to Wickham that he had heard rumors Wickham was to be replaced due to the 12.12 incident. Wickham was surprised but wondered if this rumor was started by Chun’s side in the hope Wickham would be replaced by someone more pliable.
By this point Wickham had discovered Chun was writing letters to a number of US generals who had served in Korea, including General Vessey (Wickham’s predecessor) in the hope Chun would be invited to the US or that they would visit him in Korea, and even sent a personal emissary to the US. When Wickham asked JCS Chairman Rhu about this, he said he was irritated by it since it bypassed the chain of command. One US general (Stillwell, though he is not named) did visit in May when Wickham was in the US and “left a trail of venom” as he “excoriated the current US leadership in Korea.” General Mun’s response to the letter-writing campaign was to shake his head in disgust and to criticize the move because “it violated established channels of authority and reflected gross ignorance by Chun about the role played by the US Ambassador and CINC in Korea.”
Mun warned Wickham that when 370,000 students returned to campuses in the spring there would likely be protests in response to Chun’s coup, all while the economic situation looked bleak. He worried that North Korea might instigate an incident to cause international concern so as to dry up foreign investment. Mun also was troubled by the sight of “many senior officials trooping to Chun and showing abject deference to him,” which Chun seemed to enjoy. Though Wickham noted that Mun was one of the officials visiting Chun, he concluded that “Like everyone in Seoul in those days, he was trying his best to walk a straight line on a curvy road. He knew Chun could not be stopped and was worried that America might try to punish the ROK by lessening its support for his country’s defense.”
Wickham related the following about his meeting with Chun in late February 1980:
In preparation for this meeting, Steve Bradner* gave me a remarkable memorandum of conversation (memcon) between a former CINC, General Carter Magruder, and Lieutenant Colonel Kim Jong-pil. The latter, as mentioned earlier, had been the mastermind behind the coup staged in May 1961. It was not clear whether Kim had been summoned by Magruder or had come of his own volition. In any event Kim was there to explain the actions of the coup leaders, including Major General Park Chung-hee, who eventually dominated the coup group and became president. A feeling of déja vu came over me as I read the memcon; virtually all of the reasons given for the coup in 1961 were reﬂected in what Chun and his associates said about their actions.Wickham included this excerpt of his report to Washington of his meeting with Chun:
In the conversation, Kim apologized to Magruder for violating the chain of command by using ROK forces without CINC authority. Kim respectfully explained that the coup leaders had no political goals; their actions were to oust the corrupt, aging military leaders who blocked promotion opportunities of more able officers, and to “clean up” the government, which had grown so inefﬁcient and corrupt that the people were not well served. Kim assured Magruder that after he and his associates had achieved their limited objectives, they would return promptly to the barracks. “Trust us,” said Kim. The thought crossed my mind that I could change the date of Magruder’s memcon and use it as a record of my discussion with Chun.
Chun impressed me as a ruthlessly ambitious, scheming and forceful man who believes he is destined to wear the purple. His manner was cocky and self-assured despite extreme nervousness in smoking almost a pack of cigarettes. I found him unsophisticated in his knowledge of the United States and of the international consequences that could result from instability in his country. There is a hint of anti-U.S. attitude in his intensely nationalistic and conservative views. Without lecturing him, I reaffirmed U.S. concerns over the December 12 incident and the fact that we would not tolerate further instability from any group. In addition, I made it clear that the best course of action for the ROK military would be to stay out of politics entirely and devote themselves to defending the nation. After reﬂecting carefully on the lengthy meeting I remain suspicious of Chun. He is on the make, has a taste for power, knows how to use it, and does not strike me as a man to be trusted. He recognizes that he will have to earn our trust by actions, not rhetoric.(In the next post reference will be made to this meeting from Chun’s point of view.)
The third time he met Chun, on May 13, 1980, was after Chun had been made head of the KCIA. Wickham wrote that upon arriving there, “The thought crossed my mind that it was almost like a visit with the president in the Blue House.” He also wrote that “It did not escape my notice that he was speaking for the government.” Interestingly, when it came to the student protests, “Even Chun’s son was telling him that the peer pressure was so strong that he had no choice but to join the protests.” Wickham then left Korea on May 14 for the US for meetings and his son’s graduation, and returned May 19. During that time he was absent for the declaration of emergency martial law on May 17. Upon his return to Korea, unaware of what was happening in Kwangju, he met Defense Minister Chu.
Chu mentioned a secret meeting he held with more than 40 senior generals and admirals on May 17. These officers had voiced bitterness over the “drift in the Korean society and the absence of effective leadership in the government.” They had been very critical of efforts to foster political liberalization. In their words: “Democratic values cannot be achieved all at once, and we have been trying to go too fast, partly by pressure from the United States.” In their view, the military was the only organized body which was capable of providing crisis leadership, and it was time to take strong measures to preclude instability.In his cable to Washington that day, he discussed the implications of the military takeover of May 17:
We must recognize the reality of control by Chun and his associates. It is clear now that the group’s ultimate objective is total power. The only issues are the speed of consolidating power and the form in which it takes place. The form could be the facade of a civilian government and controlled elections, or it could be a military council chaired by Chun. We have to accept this reality of control by Chun and work with it because we are in no position to unhorse Chun and his group.Days later he reiterated the danger of trying to “unhorse” Chun, arguing that it would “probably would beget us only another Chun and the black eye of meddling in Korean affairs.”
While we can work with Chun in shaping political development that is minimally acceptable to the United States, we must recognize the limitations on our leverage and therefore resist adopting actions which could jeopardize fundamental U.S. security interests in the ROK. [...] In short, then, our leverage is relatively limited and we must take care how it is used, lest we undermine our ability to communicate openly and effectively with Chun who today controls power, and tomorrow may overtly run Korea.
Upon hearing about fighting in Kwangju, on May 21 he talked to chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Rhu Byong-hyun, who gave him a rather skewed description of events in Kwangju:
Rhu told me that the number of casualties was still unknown, but that the number of fatalities should be low because the soldiers had avoided shooting. He said that rioters had broken into homeland defense force armories and explosive storage bunkers and were in possession of more than 2,000 military weapons as well as a supply of demolitions. Considerable destruction had already occurred, and mobs were directing particular violence against Special Forces soldiers, whom the mobs were mocking as “Chun Doo-hwan’s troops.”Wickham passed over the use of the 20th Division with little comment, writing “My permission to withdraw these units was neither sought nor required under the terms of the CFC agreement” Rhu told him he was trying to moderate the generals “panic” and desire to retake the city and was trying to work out a ceasefire. The next day, May 22, he told Wickham that
His plan for moderation seemed to be working, although Kwangju was still in the hands of local residents, and there had been some shooting and property destruction during the night. He told me that eyewitnesses had been reporting shooting by youngsters and drunken men, and that large crowds and vehicle movement were also jamming the streets. [...] Rhu estimated that as many as 60 civilians were dead and more than 400 seriously injured and said the numbers could rise. Four soldiers and four policeman had also been killed.
Rhu then conﬁded to me that the martial law command was developing a contingency plan to assault the city with several infantry regiments, in the event that the violence could not be contained. He told me that Chun and his group wanted such a plan, just in case events turned sour. We discussed the concept of an assault on the city, reviewing the dangers peculiar to urban hostilities, where block-to-block ﬁghting inevitably would result in many casualties on both sides. [...] Any plan to undertake such a high-risk operation would have to be carefully organized [. ...] Rhu agreed with me that all of this detailed preparation would lake time and acknowledged the wisdom of delaying an assault on the city. He also agreed that such an operation would require great restraint lo avoid a major confrontation between the army and Korean citizens. I told Rhu that a large number of casualties would have serious implications for the rest of the country, and that Bill Gleysteen and I strongly urged a restrained approach.He wrote back to Washington that
voices of moderation seem to have prevailed over Chun and his group. [...] Chun and his generals appear willing to heed Rhu’s advice, at least for now. This is encouraging. Naturally Chun and his group feel very threatened by the Kwangju situation which could escalate and unseat them[. ...] Fear is one reason why they have been arguing for hawkish, swift solutions. Minister Chu told me that he too is trying to emphasize the rule of reason and moderation. But Chu does not inspire conﬁdence for he seems emotionally distraught, probably reﬂecting Blue House and Chun’s anxiety. Rhu on the other hand appears cool and conﬁdent and is exercising thoughtful initiative in a reasoned, moderate way. Bill Gleysteen and I have been trying to reinforce Rhu in this restraining role.On May 23 he met Rhu again, who told him that “While events in the city were relatively quiet, there appeared to be some friction between the radical and moderate groups in the city. Some of the radicals were escaping. In one instance, a truck ﬁlled with weapons and explosives ran into a military roadblock, 17 civilians were killed as a result. In the city itself, citizens were organizing restoration committees, and cleanup work was already underway.” The 17 dead in a truck likely refers in a very twisted way to one of the city buses upon which the military opened fire on the outskirts of the city.
On May 25 Wickham was told that
Late on the 24th, more than 10,000 rioters had demonstrated near the capitol and radical elements forcibly turned away citizens trying to turn in weapons. The radical group now consisted of student leaders, including some from Seoul, criminals, and poor people who had little to lose. The hardcore radical group was estimated to number about 500. They were wearing army fatigues, were heavily armed, and were quite willing to shoot. The group had begun to organize a city-wide control mechanism and were employing intimidation, in the form of kangaroo courts and quick sentences, to force innocent people into complying with their directives. Rhu said the police were hopelessly inadequate against the rioters. The capitol had been occupied by the radicals, and provincial leaders had ﬂed for their lives. It was estimated that some 5,600 weapons and more than 350,000 rounds of small arms ammunition were unaccounted for, so a dangerous situation existed. […] Rhu told me that local citizens were clamoring for the government to return with superior military force to restore law and order.By May 26 it was clear to Wickham that the patience of Chun and other generals had been exhausted, and that they feared that the instability in Kwangju could spread, threatening their positions. He was told stories of communists controlling the radicals there but was reassured that the army would be magnanimous in paying reparations and offering amnesties to offenders. He was also told the 20th Division would carry out the operation to retake the city, and that they would only shoot in self defense. The Special Forces units that had set off the uprising would be held in reserve only.
[It is worth noting that none of these promises were kept. The SWC troops, wearing 20th Division uniforms, were used to storm the provincial office (where they fired on journalists in a nearby building), and hundreds of survivors and other participants were hunted down in house to house searches, imprisoned, and tortured.]
The formation of the Special Committee for National Security Measures was explained to Wickham as a necessity, legal under martial law, and not at all a power grab; the next president would be popularly elected. Wickham referred to this as “just talk” that he’d heard repeatedly. But as he put it, “Our leverage was limited because of our security commitment, and because the Koreans, particularly the military, were increasingly intolerant of U.S. intervention in their domestic affairs.” He also wrote, “We probably had little if any real inﬂuence over ROK internal developments, and we were little more than helpless bystanders as Chun shrewdly maneuvered toward total power.”
Wickham went on to describe his ill-fated interview (mentioned here) and the fallout from it, such as finding out about it upon arriving in Washington for meetings and being diverted to Hawaii on his way home all the while fearing for his career.
In addition to his description of events from the US and ROK military's point of view, he also quotes in full (or at least "fuller" than elsewhere) pertinent quotations, such as the Korean government’s statement about Martial Law on May 17:
When we review the situation at home, the maneuvers of the North Korean Communists have been stepped up with each passing day to communize the South by taking advantage of continuous social disturbances. . . . They are maneuvering to create a decisive moment for a southward invasion by inspiring and agitating disturbances on the campuses.
At this critical moment the irresponsible rash attempts and blind behavior of some politicians, students, and workers have converted this society into a lawless one of chaos, disorder, agitation and subversion. Moreover, the aftermath of social disturbances has resulted in slowing down of exports and creating an economic depression, thus increasing labor disputes and unemployment and further increasing social unrest. Our country is faced with a grave crisis.He also provided a full(er) quotation from a statement made by President Carter about Korea at an August 21, 1980 press conference:
We have been deeply concerned about Chun and some of the policies he’s put forward. I understand now he might step down as general to become president. We also are concerned about the upcoming trial of Kim Dae-jung. Under the new leaders in Korea our inﬂuence is limited, and we’ve got the option of expressing our extreme displeasure by withdrawing our forces, which might destabilize that whole region of Asia, or accepting some political development of which we disapprove. We would like to have a complete democracy with full and open debate, free press and elected leaders. The Koreans are not ready for that, according to their own judgment, and I don’t know how to it explain it any better.The book ends with a reprint of the 1989 White Paper.
* Stephen Bradner's fascinating career is detailed here. He played an important role in keeping the US out of the April 19 student protests in 1960:
In 1960, he was an eyewitness to the popular uprising against Syngman Rhee, the authoritarian and deeply corrupt South Korean president. On 18 April of that year, Bradner shinned up a tree to see what was happening and spotted US military police patrolling in Seoul alongside South Korean military police (MPs). “I was worried that our MPs would be dragged into fighting against Korean student protesters for democracy if any violence broke out,” Bradner told this writer many years later. “So, I went to see the commander of the US intelligence unit on the US Army base in Seoul, and told him of my fears that something was about to happen.”
That officer not only listened to Bradner, but persuaded the military police commander to order his men to return to barracks. The next day, 19 April, was a milestone in Korean history. Thousands of university and high school students swarmed the streets of cities to protest against Rhee. Police opened fire. Bradner was a witness to the tragedy. As police bullets cracked past, he dashed to the British Embassy and heaved himself over its protective wall to escape the fusillade. But dozens of students were killed; many more were wounded. But there was no US military involvement – thanks in part, to Bradner’s counsel.Continue to Part 7