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”
Part 8: Henry Scott-Stokes, Linda Lewis, and others on the Kwangju Uprising, 1997-2004.
A number of books were released in the early 2000s which were either focused on the Kwangju Uprising or on US-ROK relations. Among them were The Kwangju Uprising: Eyewitness Press Accounts of Korea's Tiananmen, edited by Henry Scott-Stokes and Lee Jae Eui, Laying Claim to the Memory of May: A Look Back at the 1980 Kwangju Uprising by Linda Lewis, and Ryu Shimin and Jung Sangyong’s Memories of May 1980: A Documentary History of the Kwangju Uprising in Korea.
In 1997 a book which collected accounts by foreign journalists of the Kwangju Uprising, titled Kwangju in the Eyes of the World: The Personal Recollections of the Foreign Correspondents Covering the Kwangju Uprising, was published. It can be read here. Most of these accounts later appeared, alongside accounts by Korean journalists, in The Kwangju Uprising: Eyewitness Press Accounts of Korea's Tiananmen, which was published in 2000. One account which did not was that of Henry Scott-Stokes, titled "An Observer Reports: Kwangju & U.S. Moral Responsibility." Stokes ended up playing a role as a the conduit of a request from the student leader Yun Sang-won to US Ambassador Gleysteen to mediate a settlement, though, as mentioned previously, Yun did not expect this to happen, and made the request to buoy the spirits of the others in the provincial hall so they would make a last stand with him:
Would we go to Ambassador Bill Gleysteen in Seoul with a request for him to halt the violence and declare a truce? That was the Spokesman's request that afternoon to us three, as earlier that day to Brad. I was deeply unhappy about this and I still am. A reporter is not supposed to become the story. On the other hand, how could such an appeal not be transmitted? I decided that I would do it via my story--my editors would have the last say in New York, when they received my piece which, I now saw, Jae would have to carry out of the city and dictate to Seoul (all phone lines out of Kwangju had been cut off). I would remain in Kwangju without Jae. This was, at the best, an unpalatable course of action. On the other hand if I had phoned Gleysteen myself, he or anyone who took the call would be unable to act immediately, as officials. They would not know who they were dealing with in Kwangju. And, meanwhile, the feeling in the air in Kwangju that after- noon was that the city and its few armed students--tank-less, artillery-less, machine gun-less, helmet-less--was there for the taking, whenever Chun decided it. These people I was talking to had their lives on the line. And I was not finding a way to help them.
Sometime about 5 pm that afternoon we finished our meeting, I finished my story and Jae and Philippe departed. I was left to fend for myself, Jae having found me a guesthouse about 200 yards down a narrow street from the students. [...] At one point in the evening, about 8 p.m., there was a great clumping of boots in the corridor outside my room and one of the students appeared. He was clad in uniform, without a hat. He was thickset, a rugby player build. But the innkeeper, the man in charge, popped up and led him away. He had come, if I understood the innkeeper's poor English, to make one more appeal to me to get to Gleysteen--I couldn't do that--or somehow intervene in the situation.He also noted the role he and the New York Times played in the events leading to Park Chung-hee's assassination:
My NYT coverage of the Kwangju period--and before it for a year and after it for two years--is open to criticism on the grounds that I neglected security issues. Seventeen years later, I see that. We appear to have helped to stir up trouble, as a newspaper.
An interview that Jae and I did with Kim Young Sam in the early autumn of l979 led to his expulsion from the National Assembly. Need we have been so provocative? Mr. Kim's expulsion was followed by the outbursts of violence in Pusan and Masan that preceded the assassination of President Park. I had helped to raise the temperature. Some in Korea felt that we had stirred up emotions--our reports were immediately relayed back to Korea by phone by Korean Americans in the U.S.--and that we were (not so indirectly) responsible for Park Chung Hee's demise. There were repercussions.He also commented on the incorrect intelligence the US Embassy was getting.
My concern at this point--and I may be in a tiny minority of querulous press people--is that the U.S. Embassy in Seoul was badly informed, both at the time of Kwangju and before and after. If you read Bill Gleysteen's dispatches to the State Department from Seoul, which we can now as they were declassified, you can see that at crucial moments he got the situation right the first time round only to muddy the waters shortly afterwards.If the last two paragraphs highlight once again the role incorrect intelligence offered by the ROK military to the US played in the ending of the uprising, the previous two paragraphs highlighted the role an American journalist played in these events, reminding us that of the various roles played by Americans beyond the US government.
Immediately after the events of May l8-l9 in Kwangju, Gleysteen reported to Washington that Korean troops had been bayoneting civilians on the streets. Correct. This was the issue. Yet within days--and just before a crucial May 22nd meeting was held at the White House to decide policy on Kwangju--Gleysteen changed the whole weight of his reporting to emphasize how the situation was unraveling, and how by implication a threat existed to the whole body politic in South Korea. l50,000 people were on the loose. Property was being destroyed. Here was a hopelessly inaccurate picture of Kwangju by that time, judging by what I and other journalists saw down there.
If I had to recommend only one book about the Kwangju Uprising, Linda Lewis’ 2002 book Laying Claim to the Memory of May: A Look Back at the 1980 Kwangju Uprising would likely be the one. A former Peace Corps volunteer who was doing ethnography in Kwangju as a graduate student in 1980, she witnessed the uprising, and her book examined how the uprising unfolded and how it has been memorialized. On a number of occasions in the book she commented on the expectation that the US would intervene (looked at here) and on how she was in regular contact with David Miller, the head of the American Cultural Center (ACC, also known as US Information Service, or USIS), and was passing on information to him (and he to her), but her homestay ‘father’ didn’t believe he was reporting to the US Embassy, because otherwise the US would have been intervening to stop the bloodshed.
The Embassy first learned of the situation in Kwangu from Miller on the morning of May 19 “when he told of reports that the paratroopers were responsible for numerous casualties and even some deaths,” but because this contrasted with the atmosphere in Seoul and contradicted the assertions of Martial Law Command and Korean government officials, the Embassy assumed Miller must be exaggerating. As well, “Miller's information was scanty because he was ordered, for security reasons, to remain indoors” and ofﬁcial Korean sources “either denied there was any particular problem in Kwangju or downplayed the seriousness of events there.”
As Lewis put it,
The apparent outlandishness of the hearsay, suppositions, and allegations about the paratroopers that ﬂew about in those ﬁrst days mirrored the incomprehensibility of what people saw taking place around them. Even to those who experienced it, the savagery was unbelievable. And if the vision of a soldier bayoneting a student on Kŭmnamno was beyond the imagination of my [homestay] ajumŏni, who witnessed it with her own eyes, how could such a story be credible to her fellow countrymen in Seoul - or, for that matter, be a realistic, even probable, scenario in the minds of the chronically out-of-touch diplomats in the U.S. Embassy?After the uprising, she documented the international attention Kwangju was receiving:
I saw a rather constant ﬂow of visitors to Kwangju throughout the summer and early fall [of 1980]: journalists, human rights activists, representatives of church groups, Korean specialists, assorted friends, and even a professor of mine from Columbia University - all, in one way or another, with their own agendas concerning 5.18.As she noted, however, while “most of us in the foreign community who had been in Kwangju in May felt an obligation to bear witness to what we had seen and to what we knew had happened,” “many of those who made the pilgrimage to Kwangju that summer came with their own ideas about the meaning of 5.18 and already knew what they wanted to hear.” As she wrote in her field journal on October 10, “I’m tired of ﬁnding things out [for people], then being treated like the information wasn’t important.” When people did not like what foreign witnesses told them, they tended to dismiss the informant. “The problem was particularly acute with reporters and with anyone connected with the U.S. government.” On October 2, she stopped by the ACC and found, as she wrote in her field journal, that
Val [the new Center director] was feeling really blue - she had had some bigwigs [US Embassy officials] down the day before from Seoul. She had some [Korean] staff over for dinner, and the bigwigs said - so what do people down here think? At which point, they got honest answers. Of course, all the Kwangjuites were accused of being emotional, too involved, etc. Val was quite disillusioned. Well, welcome to the club - it is hard being from here. People pump you, then when they don’t agree, make you feel like shit. She should have been here through the incident; then she’d really know what it felt like to be an overwrought, unobjective source. Of course, embassy personnel are beyond belief. ... I wonder if the people in Iran [in the US Embassy] were as deserving candidates for their fate as the people here would be, should a similar event take place.Lewis's voice is similar to a number of Americans who were in Kwangju, including missionaries and Peace Corps volunteers, who worked in the 1980s to highlight the human rights abuses in South Korea. As missionary Martha Huntley put it, “I wanted to share how our missionary work of 16 years in Korea had taken a radical turn, to explain that my husband, Betts, and I had not so much ‘become involved in human rights’ as we had been trapped in a situation of human wrong.” “We have seen too much, we have hurt too much to be silent.” She elaborated further:
When your friends and Christian coworkers are carted off to jail as ours have been, when your neighbors and your students are shot in front of your eyes as ours have been, when you attend 24 funerals in a single day as I have done - you are involved. This involvement is not politics; it is gospel. As eyewitnesses, we feel it is urgent that we share what we have seen and experienced. There is no way our government can respond properly if it doesn’t have the facts; neither can our church work or pray properly if it doesn't know the truth.One other story Lewis related was that of the above-mentioned new director of the ACC, Valerie Steenson, who had planned to host a dinner for a number of local professors and civic leaders in late July 1980 but was forced to cancel it because most of the people on the guest list had been arrested.
Gathering facts and figures from official investigations like the 1988-89 National Assembly Hearings into the Kwangju Uprising, Ryu Shimin and Jung Sangyong’s Memories of May 1980: A Documentary History of the Kwangju Uprising in Korea is an invaluable source for anyone wanting to understand the uprising, but its treatment of American involvement in the uprising suffers from use of questionable sources.
Arguing that “the new military group succeeded in drawing cooperation from the U.S. government to justify the armed subjugation of the Kwangju Uprising,” it quoted two American press releases from May 22. The first was the State Department’s:
The United States expresses deep concern with regard to the revolt in Kwangju in southern Korea and urges all parties to seek peaceful solutions through maximum self-restraint and dialogue. Outside forces may make dangerous misjudgments if the condition of insecurity prevails and the violence continues to be heated. The government of the United States reemphasizes that, based on the obligations the Mutual Defense Treaty between the ROK and the U.S., it will react strongly to any attempts by outside forces to take advantage of the current situation in Korea.If phrases like “continues to be heated” sound awkward, it is because the source cited is not an English language source but a Donga Ilbo article from May 22. Oddly enough, this immediately follows numerous examples listed in the book of the way in which the military-censored media was distorting the situation in Kwangju. While caution should be exercised when using translations of censored Korean newspapers as sources (since, censorship issues aside, it was translated into Korean before being translated back into English), in this case the report as it appeared on the front page of the Donga Ilbo on May 23 – along with 2 other articles about the US - does include all the main points of the English press release, though the line “When calm has been restored, we will urge all parties to seek means to resume a program of political development as outlined by President Choi” appears separate from the rest of the text, which could be why it does not appear in the book (as excerpted above).
The book, however, quotes another statement printed in the May 22 Donga Ilbo, this one by “Department of Defense spokesman Thomas Ross”:
Commander in Chief of the United Nations Command and the ROK/US Combined Forces Command John Wickham has accepted and agreed to the request by the Korean government to allow the use of certain selected Korean armed forces under his operational control in operations to subdue the crowds. […] No movement or evidence has been found of an attempt by the North Korean army to take advantage of the current situation in South Korea. [Unlike the previous statement, this one was not indented in the book.]While the previously-quoted statement was similar enough to the English-language version, the one above, with lines like “to subdue the crowds,” sound rather unlikely, and I have never come across anything similar in English at that time. (While the first statement was in the New York Times, the second one is not.) I surmised that it may have originated at ROK martial law command, not the Department of Defense. But a look at this article in the May 23 Donga Ilbo reveals that the first part was paraphrased by the reporter, while the second sentence (and one other) appeared as direct quotations. That the authors of the book turned reported speech into a direct quotation for a sentence stating that Wickham was “allow[ing] the use of certain selected Korean armed forces under his operational control in operations to subdue the crowds” is, to say the least, irresponsible. The fact that the units were not under his operational control at that point is something one would expect the Defense Department to be well aware of, making it a fair assumption that they never issued this statement. If that could be clarified, we would have a better idea of just how the ROK military was manipulating the media.
(Unlike the citation in the book, these statements appear in the Donga Ilbo on May 23 at the Naver News Archive. it is possible, however, there was an evening edition on May 22 that the site did not archive.)
Moving on, the book then notes the way in which, at the White House meeting on May 22, it was decided to dispatch planes from Okinawa and the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea to Korea to deter possible military action by North Korea. It then asks:
Why did the U.S. administration, "with no evidence whatsoever of an attempt by North Korea to take advantage of the political instability in South Korea,” not mention a single word about the causes of the Kwangju incident, but instead "agree to the use of” the 2O“" Division "under the operational control” of the Combined Forces Command to ”subdue the crowds” …?It then turned to the 1989 White Paper’s explanation of how withdrawing units from CFC OPCON worked, including the sentence “In the event of notification, the Commander of the Combined Forces Command can neither approve nor disapprove, but can only point out the effect such removal.” What follows is this response:
However, this is an obvious lie. It is recorded in an operations document dated May 16, 1980, regarding a request to transfer the operational control of the 20th Division, that when the Army Chief of Staff requested the Commander of the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command to transfer the operational control of the 20th Division “to maintain order in the metropolitan area where the riots have been aggravated,” the Commander of the Combined Forces Command confirmed receipt of the request document and stated: “Your request is approved.” The new military group naturally made an inquiry on this matter to the Combined Forces Command as it dispatched the 20th Division, not to the metropolitan area, but to Kwangju. However, this was an inquiry on the transfer of units, not a notiﬁcation to remove operational control.Though the book quoted from the 1989 White Paper twice, the authors somehow missed this statement:
Also on May 16, military authorities notified CFC officials of their intent to remove the 20th Division's artillery and its 60th Regiment from CFC OPCON. The CFC received the Martial Law Command'S OPCON retrieval notification while General Wickham was in the United States on official duties. CFC Deputy Commander, Korean four-star General Baek Sok Chu, responded for the CFC[.]While it is interesting that General Baek responded with “Your request is approved,” it was not written by Wickham. Withdrawal of units from CFC OPCON had only been used twice before this in October 1979: First to subdue the Busan-Masan uprising and then after Park’s assassination. It would be worthwhile to see the terminology used in the previous notifications. The authors also do not state whether “Your request is approved” was written in English or Korean (something worth noting considering their use of Korean-language versions of US statements that appeared in the censored media). Another request was made at this time, however, when Wickham would have been present:
The falsity of the U.S. administration's claims is also apparent in a separate instance where the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command released one battalion of the 33“ Division from its operational control clearly for the suppression of the uprising in Kwangju. On May 23 the Army Chief of Staff sent a military cooperation telegram to the Commander of the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command requesting the transfer of the operational control of one battalion of the 33rd Division by noon on May 23 “in preparation for an escalation of the riot and for the maintenance of order in the Kwangju region.” In response, the Commander of the Combined Forces Command immediately sent a telegram to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Army Chief of Staff “approving the request to transfer the operational control of one battalion of the 33rd Division.”The unit was ultimately never sent to Kwangju. Again, the source used (Army Headquarters, “Army Reference Material,” (operations orders and directions), Army Headquarters Chaksangjon No. 0-232) begs the question of what language it was in.
The book goes on to quote from the White Paper about the US deciding that use of the 20th Division would be preferable to use of the SWC troops if negotiations to bring about a peaceful resolution failed, and its comments on terminology, to which the book responds:
The explanation by the U.S. administration is mere sophistry and nothing more than a play on words. The U.S. government confounded the issue of releasing the 20th Division from its operational control with the issue of the 20th Division, already released from its operational control, moving to Kwangju to suppress the Kwangju Uprising in spite of the original goal of “maintaining order in the metropolitan area,” and patched this up as a matter of terminology. On May 16 General Wickham received a request to release the 20th Division from the operational control of the Combined Forces Command and approved the release. Then, ‘asked’ on the 20th whether the 20th Division could be dispatched to Kwangju for riot-suppression operations, unlike the original purpose, he agreed “after consulting with his own superiors in Washington.” Moreover, they claimed to have stated that it would be preferable to replace the Special Warfare Command units with elements of the 20th Division if “negotiations failed,” but this is merely a cunning lie fabricated to evade responsibility, since it was only slaughter by paratroopers, not negotiations, that was sweeping the streets of Kwangju until the night of the 20th when Major General Pak Chun-byong received orders to move to Kwangju; and since the evacuation of the airborne forces was decided only on the morning of the 21st.Amid the “mere sophistry” and “cunning lie[s],” the authors ignore (again) that Wickham was not present on May 16 and the fact that by May 22 (23 in Korea), when the White House agreed to use of the 20th Division, negotiations had begun. It does ask the pertinent question: Why was the ROK military asking if the US opposed use of the 20th Division in Kwangju when it already had OPCON and could do what it liked with those units? So intent are they on finding evidence of American duplicity, it never seems to cross the authors’ mind that the ROK military’s manipulations may have extended beyond that of Korean media reports of US statements.
The book ends its examination of the US role in Kwangju with the following paragraph:
The U.S. administration's continuous warnings that an aggravation of the Kwangju incident might lead to an invasion of South Korea by North Korean forces, even though there was absolutely no such indication, and its speedy dispatch of early-warning planes and an aircraft carrier, also created an atmosphere that led to public anxiety over the Kwangju Uprising, thereby promoting the political isolation of Kwangju and helping to justify the armed suppression. Since the power of the minjung emerged at the political forefront in the Kwangju Uprising, unlike the coup d’etat of December 12 which was a power struggle within the pro-American leadership, the U.S. administration cannot avoid criticism that it actively supported and defended the new military group. Moreover, since these steps were taken not according to spontaneous judgments by individuals such as General Wickham or Ambassador Gleysteen, but by “superiors in Washington” - including the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and the PRC of the National Security Council - they elicited political consequences that were to be expressed radically throughout the 1980s. The new military group, the U.S. government, and the press - which became the propaganda machine of the new military group - formed a trinity and concentrated on isolating Kwangju politically and ideologically from the rest of the nation.Though the book argues that US military moves in the region “created an atmosphere that led to public anxiety over the Kwangju Uprising, thereby promoting the political isolation of Kwangju and helping to justify the armed suppression,” Wickham’s book suggested otherwise. Considering the worry and tension among ROK military leadership over Kwangju that Wickham depicted in his book, American actions to deter North Korea may have helped reduce the pressure they were feeling and provided breathing room so negotiations could take place, rather than the military rushing back in to retake the city.
The above selections from this book are useful for highlighting the ROK’s military censorship and possible issues with the terminology used by the CFC, but the writers’ analysis is biased by use of Korean-language sources which themselves were designed by ROK military, via their censors, to convince Koreans that the US unequivocally backed them. Ironically, these writers who championed the struggle of the minjung against the military dictatorship ended up parroting the same narratives used by that dictatorship in regard to US responsibility for 5.18. The analysis also suffers from the authors’ cherry picking of information from the White Paper, making it appear that in writing this section of the book they worked their way backwards from an already-arrived-at conclusion. The next part will examine more closely another paper constructed in the same manner.
Continue to Part 9