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 5: William Gleysteen on the Kwangju Uprising and the rise of Chun Doo-hwan, 1999
In 1999, books by former Ambassador Gleysteen and General Wickham were published. Both should be read by anyone seeking to understand this period. Wickham’s book, Korea on the Brink: A Memoir of Political Intrigue and Military Crisis, is more focused on military matters, while Gleysteen’s book, Massive Entanglement, Marginal Influence: Carter and Korea in Crisis, is more wide-ranging in its focus. Needless to say, two 200+ page books (Gleysteen’s features 11 Cherokee cables in the appendix) contain more than can be adequately covered here, but a summary of pertinent points and quotations follow.
Gleysteen’s thesis is contained in his book’s title, and asserts that US security and economic commitments to the ROK prevented US officials from seriously considering threatening military cuts or economic sanctions that would have threatened US security interests or the viability of Korea’s economy. The first section of the book focused on Carter’s plan to withdraw US troops from Korea, before moving into Park Chung-hee’s assassination.
After discussing conspiracy theories which suggested the US played a role in Park Chung-hee’s assassination, Gleysteen considered “whether the sum total of US actions and words unwittingly contributed in a significant way to Park’s downfall” and wrote, “I believe our behavior had this effect, adding rather thoughtlessly to Park’s problems and reducing his room for maneuver.” Gleysteen noted how the Nixon Doctrine, change in China policy, the criticism aimed at Korea during Koreagate, and Carter’s plans to withdraw troops aggravated Park’s feelings of insecurity and paranoia. He thought human rights criticism had “contributed to moderation in Korea” but that the summit meeting with Carter (which included him meeting opposition figures) and the release of many political prisoners, had “emboldened Park’s opposition and may have accelerated the day of reckoning, but it did not cause Park’s death.”
The day after the 12.12 coup he met with President Choi to issue a formal protest:
Beginning with this meeting, Political Counselor Clark and I would appear at each juncture in the progressive erosion of Choi’s presidency to make a strong protest, the president knew would be less important than our parallel presentations to the real power holders. Choi would always hear us out and provide a rationalization that we (and probably he) found unconvincing. He was polite, despite the painfully blunt comments I felt forced to make. I suspect that he often agreed with me but could not say so, and I know he sometimes quoted me when talking to Chun and others. Nevertheless, he seemed to have a high tolerance for being pushed around by powerful Koreans, so long as the people pushing followed proper procedures and forms.The next day, December 14, he met Chun Doo Hwan for the first time at his request.
He came to the embassy residence in combat gear accompanied by a few aides and a contingent of about forty armed soldiers, presumably to make sure I was not up to any tricks. In any event, if trouble had broken out, my only companion, Bob Brewster, and I were no match for his ﬁrepower. With his huge contingent of bodyguards arrayed all around the grounds of our residence, Chun strode into the Korean-style building as though he were a victorious battleﬁeld commander - brusque, self-conﬁdent, and clearly relishing his new role as the center of attention.They talked for about two hours, during which Gleysteen argued that “for reasons of political stability Korea had to maintain a civilian government and could not afford to lose the support of the US military and business community.” For Chun’s part, his “long, self-serving account of his actions on December 12 made them appear reactive or spontaneous.” He also accused the US of having been linked to Park Chung-hee’s assassin, something Gleysteen angrily described as “baseless.” Gleysteen also met with the new prime minister, Shin Hyon Hwack, on December 18 in the hope of enlisting his aid in shoring up the civilian government and urging the government get on with political reform.
Gleysteen also went into a great deal of detail about the US government’s response, after Chun Doo-hwan’s coup of December 12, 1979, to being approached by military officers offering to carry out a counter coup. Wickham mentioned this briefly, but Gleysteen made clear the government mulled it over before dismissing the option, because “to encourage a struggle within the Korean army would have been madness.” As well, “after the abortive counter-coup, Chun called for tightened security procedures within Korean units, presumably to limit our knowledge of politically sensitive information.” Apparently, the idea of a counter coup lingered in Washington. Speaking of an assessment of the situation he wrote in mid-March, 1980, Gleysteen wrote that since “the idea still seemed to intrigue a few people in Washington,” he reiterated his opposition to any attempted removal of Chun and other officers because:
As a practical matter we have been so unsuccessful in other efforts - for example, in Korea during the Rhee era and later in Vietnam. The odds of being exposed are great, and anyone being hurt in the process could stir up a virulent nationalistic reaction. Above all, I doubt we would ﬁnd any completely reliable white hats to replace the black hats which we wished to remove.When, on April 14, 1980, Chun Doo-hwan was appointed head of the KCIA, the US received 30 minutes notice, “[p]resumably to prevent [the U.S.] from trying to block it.” As Gleysteen put it, this appointment “allowed Chun to lunge into the civilian sphere through leadership of the most powerful and ubiquitous mechanism of control in Korean society. To me, this sudden, ill-advised move was by far the most important reason that tensions escalated, erupting four weeks later in mid-May.” As he put it in a cable to Washington, “Overnight he has gone from the ofﬁcial obscurity maintained since December 12 to front-page news and Davy Crockett-style descriptions of his noble character.”
In response to this, it was decided to postpone the annual security consultative meeting (which included a meeting between the ROK defense minister and US Secretary of Defense). When the scheduling of this meeting (for June 1980) was delayed after 12.12, it led to complaints from ROKA officers since it served as an “annual seal of approval” the US extended to the Korean armed forces. Though it was done quietly, news of this was heard in Korea through the Japanese press, “which sparked a nationalistic reaction among Korean military officers. I had the impression, but cannot prove, that Chun’s group encouraged this in an attempt to deﬂect Korean anger away from Chun himself and onto the United States.” Defense Minister Choo told Wickham that this treatment of the security consultative meeting “amounted to intervention in Korean domestic politics,” and complaints were made in Washington as well. It was during this time that a Korean delegation was sent to Washington to recruit General Stillwell and others to try to pressure the Carter Administration to change this decision.
As well, when Gleysteen asked to meet Chun (their first meeting since after the 12.12 coup) to protest his appointment to the KCIA in person, Chun postponed the meeting for two-and-a-half weeks, finally scheduling it for May 9, but which point student protests were growing against Chun and calling for the lifting of Martial Law. It was at this meeting that Gleysteen did not oppose plans to reinforce police with the military, if needed to keep order. He also warned Chun about arresting politicians, and then had a conversation with President Choi in which he voiced the same concerns. Chun suggested that it would be unlike the military would be needed, and didn’t see the student protests as a serious problem. On May 13, however, Chun met Wickham and told him that North Koreans were behind the student protests, and brought up rumors that a North Korean invasion was imminent. To discount this, the US carried out an investigation and after informing the ROK, they conﬁrmed in public that “we see no movement [in North Korea] which would lead us to believe that some sort of attack upon the south is imminent,” which led Koreans to complain “that this publicity caused them to lose face.” It was also clear that the military was using media censorship to its benefit. Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam both told Gleysteen that, as the protests grew larger, they had spoken out against excess and violence, but their comments were prevented by censors from appearing in the press.
Though Gleysteen had been told the military would not be used during the student protests on May 14 (which featured around 40,000 students) and May 15 (which featured 80,000 – 100,000), he saw Special Warfare Command paratroopers standing on the edges of the protest, but despite protesters driving a bus into police lines and killing an officer at one point, they were never used. When walking through the protesters at one point, he noted the absence of visible support from citizens. Gleysteen also tried to prod Choi into action before he left – just as the crisis seemed about to peak – for a trip to the Middle East:
Another source of friction was my effort to get President Choi to drop the fuzzy haze around his political program. I argued that contingency planning for maintaining law and order should be accompanied by a forthright presidential statement of intent to lift martial law promptly and allow new elections on an accelerated schedule. This would, I said, appeal to moderate protesters, even if the president conditioned his promise on maintenance of public order.In the late afternoon of May 17, the head of the political section, Bill Clark, called him to convey news of riot police storming a meeting of student leaders at Ehwa University, and at 9:30 pm the Embassy was told martial law would be expanded nationwide at midnight. Shocked by the political crackdown (arrests of the three Kims and closure of the National Assembly), the next day he met with the president and the martial law commander, conveying the US’s shock and advising President Choi free the three Kims and open the National Assembly on May 20 as previously planned. In a message to Washington, Gleysteen wrote, “The Korean military have all but formally taken over the government.” In the midst of dealing with the fallout of the crackdown in Seoul, the embassy was slow to grasp what was happening in Kwangju.
In regard to the CFC decisions regarding the use of the 20th Division, the troops were removed while Wickham was in the US (he returned May 19) and some were likely already in Kwangju by May 20. The Korean military consulted Wickham on their use in Kwangju, arguing that, having been trained in riot control, they would be better to use than the SWC soldiers, whose brutality had set off the uprising, if talks failed. Wickham agreed with this reasoning and consulted Gleysteen, who called Washington to consult his colleagues, who agreed:
In talking to Koreans, we both agreed to stress negotiations, not reentry. At the time l thought we (Wickham and I as well as the defense and state departments) had “approved” or “agreed” to a Korean request concerning the Twentieth Division, and l later talked in these terms when explaining to Koreans and Americans what we had and had not done during the Kwangju crisis. The connotation of my words did not cause any problem in Korea at the time, but when I ﬁrst wrote publicly about the issue in 1986, Pentagon lawyers straightened me out. The Koreans were not required to seek Wickham’s “approval” for these deployments, only to notify him and to carry out any compensating measures he might require. Whatever the precise provisions of our command arrangements, I believe that both the Koreans and we understood that, in order to sustain our operational cooperation, the Koreans needed a positive American reaction when making significant deployments of forces affecting national defense.Gleysteen continued:
In conversations with Koreans and inquiring foreigners, I tried to be as frank as possible about Kwangju. For example, during my backgrounder with foreign journalists on May 21, when I sharply criticized Korean behavior and completely disassociated the United States from the brutality in Kwangju, I also acknowledged that the Korean government could not allow chaos to develop in Korea and that the United States could not properly oppose the use of military forces, if necessary as a last resort, to maintain public order. On subsequent occasions, I explained that our approval (technically, our “nonobjection”) to the contingent use of the Twentieth Division in Kwangju stemmed from our humanitarian wish to minimize further use of the special forces. After the crisis subsided and misinformation continued to spread like weeds, I stepped up our educational effort, trying to distinguish two phases of military action in Kwangju: (a) the brutal actions of the special forces that triggered the uprising and (b) the military reentry on May 27 that was conducted with little loss of life. We knew nothing of the former and were appalled by it, while the latter was discussed with us in advance.He also added that
The United States was handicapped in efforts to facilitate a peaceful outcome in Kwangju. Not only were we unable to communicate freely with the people, but our views were frequently distorted and, in one key instance, deliberately blocked by the Korean security apparatus. Moreover, we lacked effective ofﬁcial representation in Kwangju, leaving us ill-informed and dependent on untested sources. This combination of circumstances was extremely frustrating and sometimes infuriating. We knew that Korea was going through a momentously important event, yet for the most part we were held to the sidelines.
Despite this, we did about as well as we could. We made a major effort to urge patience and moderation, to encourage a negotiated settlement, and to minimize bloodshed if talks failed and troops had to reenter the city.He went on to describe how this effort was carried out. While Wickham stayed in touch with his Korean military counterparts, Gleysteen had conversations with General Lew (mostly by phone), meetings with other military officials, and “worked desperately to prod civilian officials into taking a stand with their military colleagues.” When he “bitterly criticized the government’s actions in Seoul and Kwangju” to Foreign Minister Park, Park “agreed but lamented the lack of anyone with the stature [in the government] to talk to the generals.” He also met with Blue House Secretary Choi and the new Prime Minister, Park Choong-hoon, but,
Although we found him sympathetic, we concluded from this meeting and a subsequent one, during which I pushed hard for a formal government apology to the people of Kwangju, that he was not going to confront the soldiers. This reticence of civilian officials compounded my worry about the outcome of negotiations dominated on the government side by the military and on the other side by militants in Kwangju.He went on to discuss American limitations in seeking a peaceful solution:
in retrospect I recognize clearly that we would have been better informed, and certainly less frustrated, if we had had an authoritative presence in Kwangju, someone who knew the local leaders and could keep us accurately informed on a timely basis, and not had to depend on secondhand reports from miscellaneous sources. We had a strong, Korean-speaking ofﬁcer in the political section, Spence Richardson, who visited Kwangju after the crisis and prepared a solid report. I now fault myself for not sending him or someone else to Kwangju as soon as I learned about the severity of the crisis. Instead, we struggled to exercise our inﬂuence largely by remote control, targeting our efforts on military and civilian leaders in Seoul, certain missionaries in Kwangju, and Protestant as well as Catholic church leaders, particularly Cardinal Kim who was in close communication with Archbishop Yun in Kwangju.Gleysteen also described the request to mediate that he received:
Just before the Korean army reentered Kwangju, we received a last- minute request on May 26 from unnamed student leaders in Kwangju that Washington “instruct” me to mediate a truce. The students made their re- quest to the New York Times correspondent, Henry Scott-Stokes, that after- noon. Rather than try to contact me, he passed it indirectly through the copy he was ﬁling to New York. The story surfaced the same evening in a newscast from our own armed forces station about 10 p.m., and I ﬁrst heard of it around 11 p.m. after I had been ofﬁcially informed that Korean forces would reenter Kwangju within two or three hours. I was unable to discover essential details or the context of the request; I was certain I could not succeed because Korean troops were already authorized and poised to move into Kwangju. So I declined the request when it was forwarded to me from a journalist by way of the embassy press attache. At the time, the decision tugged at my conscience, since I obviously did not want to blight any serious peace initiative. Later, when the request was linked to one of the militant holdouts in the provincial capital building, I was reassured that I had made the right decision. The individual who made the request was identiﬁed as Yun Sang Won, an apparently dedicated antigovernment activist and theoretician who had hardened under Park Chung Hee’s regime to the point where he opposed compromise.He went on to describe the attempts to counter Chun’s public distortion of US statements (described here), and quoted from a cable he sent to Washington on May 29:
We have been demonstrably unsuccessful in trying to stop the march of these self-appointed leaders [Chun and company] or even to slow them down. . . . Members of the Chun group both underestimate and discount our reactions because they believe we have no options. They can be disconcertingly arrogant. . . . Unfortunately, we have been constrained by our own interests in South Korean security to pull our punches and permit this dangerous arrogance to grow. We have not threatened to modify our security relationship, our basic policy towards North Korea, or our economic support, because we have calculated that the threat to do so would be counterproductive and alarming to the populace in general. I continue to believe this basic premise is correct.Shortly before the end of the Kwangju Uprising, the US Embassy learned informally that President Choi would soon announce the “formation of a Special Committee for National Security Affairs to facilitate ‘interaction’ between the martial law commander and President Choi’s cabinet,” which would be made up of key cabinet members and all senior commanders and would last the length of martial law. While Choi was the titular head of the committee, the head of its steering committee was Chun Doo Hwan. Now that he was in charge of this “supragovernment structure,” as well as the DSC (and essentially the military as well), Chun resigned from the KCIA.
Given the essentially unchanged nature of our security interests, the key variable for us will be the real reaction of the Korean public. If by a reasonable test, most Koreans seem willing to live fairly comfortably with the newly emerging political structure, I think we should be able to also. If the people manifestly cannot tolerate the new leadership and resort to confrontation, we will be forced, whether we like it or not, either to try to bring about change or to disengage. [Emphasis added later.] I urge that we not jump too quickly to conclusions, because we are faced with a society which contradictorily wants both law and order and change.
Much of the criticism of the US at this time is directed at its lack of criticism of Chun Doo-hwan and its appearance of working with him. Gleysteen wrote that he made recommendations that during a US government policy review of relations with the ROK in June, they should think about threatening the reduction of military support, but was unintentionally undercut by President Carter’s interview on CNN on May 31, 1980, in which he said:
We are urging the military leaders and the elected civilian leaders of South Korea to move as rapidly as possible toward a completely democratic government. In the meantime we are making sure that Korea is kept secure . . . I would like to see every nation on earth democratic . . . But we can’t sever our relationships with our allies and friends and trading partners and turn them all over to Soviet inﬂuence, and perhaps even subversion, simply because they don’t measure up to our standards of human rights.As Gleysteen put it,
I could hardly fault the president’s choice of words (ironically so different from those he used during his confrontation with President Park a year earlier), but in the immediate context they seemed to foreclose the option of threatening some attenuation of our military cooperation with Korea. In fact, Chun mentioned Carter’s interview to me approvingly when I saw him a few days later. (I had to remind him that the president had also talked of setbacks to democratic government in Korea.)As part of the cool, reserved stance the Carter administration chose to follow, they agreed to continue the indeﬁnite postponement of the security consultative meeting, to postpone policy planning talks, and to "defer, delay, or downgrade a number of non-critical economic missions."
On June 21, ahead of a meeting between Gleysteen and new Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, Gleysteen was sent a preliminary briefing:
Having concluded that General Chun Doo Hwan…and his colleagues have successfully established military control of the Korean government and that the army is presently united behind the measures being taken, we have determined that we must at the present stage focus our inﬂuence on moderating the regime’s unacceptable behavior and moving it toward constitutional government, a reduction of military involvement in politics and administration, implementation of sensible economic policies, and restraint in dealing with political opponents. Simultaneously, we seek to avoid over-identiﬁcation with the present Korean regime and its excesses and indicate that we are waiting to see whether its actions will warrant a fully normal US-ROK relationship.The cable also suggested economic pressure may have been brought to bear on Chun as well. Gleysteen was told “you will receive instructions to inform the Korean Government Monday that we will abstain in Manila on Tuesday when the Asian Development Bank brings a Korean loan to a vote.” Gleysteen wrote that he told the foreign minister that this was “a response to events in Korea.” He was also told to convey to Chun that “Korea’s long-term economic well-being depends heavily on the conﬁdence of international bankers, investors, and traders. They believe that a healthy economy with stable growth prospects can only be forged with the uniﬁed support of the Korean people.” Also, Chun was to be told: “If a more broadly based support is not visible, the necessary public and political support in the United States for our presence in Korea could be weakened.”
Gleysteen was also advised that “you should then state to General Chun that there are two matters involving immediate issues” they should discuss: “the question of the political leaders and others who have been imprisoned since May 17, and the linkage of the Combined Forces Command with domestic political structures. Of these two, the issue of the arrested political leaders is by far the most important.” The linkage that was spoken of was of the Combined Forces Command to the new Special Committee for National Security Affairs due to CFC deputy commander Baek Seok-ju to the latter committee; he was later removed from that committee.
Secretary Muskie and Gleysteen were able to talk for several hours, including time spent at Yokota airbase in Japan where General Wickham joined them. “After listening to my fairly systematic review and replies to his questions, Muskie commented that he felt Chun Doo Hwan was abusing the American security commitment to Korea. I thought this was an apt characterization, and we agreed that I should tell this to Chun under instruction.”
After this meeting with Secretary Muskie, Gleysteen was told to meet Chun and
emphasize that while our security commitment to the ROK is ﬁrm, Chun and his group are abusing that commitment in ways that will undermine Korea’s long-term stability. In talking to Chun you should reafﬁrm our security commitment forcefully but indicate I lack conﬁdence that what he and his group are doing to establish a government will have the support of the Korean people and thus be consistent with our mutual security interests. […]As Gleysteen explained it, the US strategy at the time was to deprive Chun of an American stamp of approval:
In previous conversations we have made clear what issues are the subject of our special concerns. Actions, not words, will determine the degree of American conﬁdence and reactions in the weeks to come. If Chun asks, you should remind him that the issues about which you have conveyed our concern are:
—efforts toward resumption of political development and accommodation;
—the establishment of a constitution which will permit broadly based government through free, popular elections;
—the adoption of a new constitution under conditions which allow public discussion and free choice;
—concern for the handling of political prisoners in accordance with humane and internationally accepted standards of due process of law, including family and legal access and veriﬁcation of their welfare, and with full consideration of the impact of political amnesty on international public opinion; and
—efforts to reduce rather than exploit the resentment and frustration which exist in some Korean circles toward the U.S.
Although we were handicapped by being unable or unwilling to reinforce our policy with powerful military or economic leverage, we had some success in consciously exploiting the new regime’s eagerness to be accepted as a fully legitimate government. With a seal of approval from Korea’s ally, Chun knew that he would ﬁnd it easier to enlist domestic support, engage the international community, and compete with North Korea. […] The Carter administration withheld these signs of approval. The security consultative meeting with its attendant session of defense ministers was indeﬁnitely postponed. No cabinet-level meetings took place. Only a few friendly Korean official visitors were received in Washington, where they were subjected to ﬁrm American “advice,” and no major American official came to Korea except a few persons on economic missions, the U.S. army chief of staff, and, after the U.S. elections, the secretary of defense on a special mission.Gleysteen’s book finishes with a detailed description of the US attempt to save Kim Dae-jung’s life. When the visit to Reagan’s white house – the unstated quid pro quo for sparing Kim’s life - ultimately occurred, Gleysteen was disappointed that Reagan made no mention of the talking points that Gleysteen and others had prepared (particularly about the need for democracy) and instead spoke only of their common struggle to defend against communism. As Gleysteen wrote,
Granting my subjectivity as one of the principal architects and implementers of it, I think this policy of reserve toward Chun was more successful than mounting heavy rhetorical assaults without the backing of major sanctions that we deemed (correctly, I believe) too dangerous. Our stance probably contributed to some of the constitutional improvements. It helped to prevent the holding of the new presidential election under martial law […and] it was a critical aspect of our effort to spare the life of Kim Dae Jung. To be sure, the longer Chun was in power without revolt from the Korean people, the harder it was for us to hold the line against normalized relations. Moreover, once bargaining began over the Kim issue, willingness to normalize our behavior was inherent to a successful resolution.
Although some years later President Reagan redeemed himself in my estimation by taking a stand against Chun’s excesses, in 1981 I felt he was wrong - very wrong - to adopt such an uncritical stance during his ﬁrst meeting with a man who had seized power in a coup, presided over a brutal suppression of Kwangju citizens, and usurped the presidency of Korea. The words and the pictures flashed back to Korea tarnished the image of the United States in Korea, and to the people of Kwangju they reinforced a wide- spread misperception that we had colluded with Chun’s forces. Obviously, this was not President Reagan’s intent, but it was an unfortunate by-product of his not wanting to be associated with the outgoing administration. I would have recommended a slightly slower schedule and less warmth in Reagan’s embrace.A summary of Wickham's book will be looked at in part 6.