Today marks the 41st anniversary of the Gwangju Uprising.
Two years ago I found, in May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement Materials Volume 9 (hosted at the website of the The May 18 Democratic Archive) an account of the Gwangju Uprising by one of the American Missionaries in Gwangju contained in a cable sent by US Ambassador Gleysteen to the State Department on June 10, 1980. With some queries to Martha Huntley and Barbara Peterson (thanks to Steve Literati and Paul Courtright for connecting me with them), and finally perusal of Jean Underwood's account in the 2003 book Contentious Kwangju: The May 18 Uprising in Korea's Past and Present, I realized it was written by John Underwood (brother of Horace G. Underwood).
There is a section of the memoir missing, but luckily that section was reprinted in full in Jean Underwood's account, so I incorporated it below. Some sections are not unclassified, most likely to protect the identities of the missionaries or Korean citizens involved.
This is of course a first-hand account that lacks information only discovered later. The main piece of information I would note would be, in light of his comments about the military's "restraint" toward the end of the uprising, that he was unaware that the military had killed over 60 civilians (and 12 of their own number in friendly fire incidents) on the outskirts of the city between May 22 and May 26.
Unclassified (ie. censored) material is marked with [ ]. In some cases, based on Baptist missionary Arnold Peterson's published account from 1990, I was able to discern who was being referred do, and incorporated it inside the [ ].
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Subject: Insider's account of kwangju riot
1. (C) Entire text.
2. There follows an account of the Kwangju riots compiled by [John Underwood,] of long acquaintance with the area. He was in Kwangju throughout the period of trouble and [ ]
This is the most balanced record and analysis of the incident we have seen so far. We have substituted [ ] Still, end-users should handle report with care. [ ]
Abbreviated retrospect of the “May 18th incident” at Kwangju, Korea.
Before May 18th:
In the spring of 1980 in Kwangju there was a great deal of campus unrest which was focused on issues within the various individual campuses. Whether or not there was a psychological link or any relationship, this antagonist stance within the institutions was followed by a revival of anti-government activity.
On Thursday, May 15th, students held a large anti-government rally with songs, slogans, marching, and in the evening a torchlight parade, all directed against the Yusin Constitution and the continued imposition of martial law in Korea. The routine air-raid drill held on the 15th of each month was canceled this day. Riot police were out in force in Kwangju but took no action of any sort, simply watching passively from their positions.
On Friday, May 16th, certain streets in Kwangju were cordoned off, and riot police were in evidence. In the evening there was a torchlight parade and shouts and songs against martial law and against Chun Doo-hwan by name. (One bilingual hearer is convinced that the words he heard to the Christian Pep song “I've got peace like a river”, etc., where other words chosen for the protest.) No police action appears to have been taken. The rally was over by about 10:00 o'clock.
Related or not, missionaries wishing to go to Taejon found bus tickets completely unavailable and were told that it was on account of soldiers going to Taejon. Going by train on Saturday [May 17], they found large numbers of enlisted men on the train, whose behavior grew progressively unruly to the physical danger of civilian passengers and the shedding of blood among the troops. No officers were in evidence.
Saturday in Kwangju was quiet. On Saturday, however, the extension of martial law and the closing of colleges of many categories was announced, taking effect at midnight, on Sunday, May 18th.
The Kwangju missionaries do not know how or when things became violent on Sunday, May 18th. In the morning things appeared quiet, but -- returning from one church or another -- some of the missionaries ran into indications of previous trouble. One mother [ Barbara Peterson ] and children, with guest Americans, saw no sign of trouble but were in the way of a heavy discharge of tear gas, which would hardly have been used for a whim. Her husband, in another location, found streets closed which had been open earlier, and also detected signs of tear gas used earlier. Other missionaries saw nothing.
At some time on Sunday troops of an Airborne unit appeared in the city. Some say at 9:00 a.m., others at noon.
Peace Corps volunteers won a good name for Americans at this time by a sort of non-violent intervention. A PCV seeing a person being beaten would go and put their arms around the person, thus being in the way of further beating. On such an occasion the attacker would leave his victim but choose another, who in his turn would be protected by a PCV who put his arms around him.
It is the spontaneous and unanimous opinion of the missionary community living together here that the Peace Corps volunteers have won a lasting gratitude of great numbers of the citizens of Kwangju for the United States. Sharing the life of the people whom they came to serve, even when it meant sharing serious, perhaps mortal, danger, they made everybody who saw them realize that Americans really care. They identified themselves with the people not by shared animosities but by shared trouble. Missionaries stay as a matter of course, in obedience to a Master and in a bond of love which leaves no choice; but the Peace Corps volunteers were if anything disobedient to their own master in not leaving the city. It is my personal opinion that if their headquarters had been able to see the situation from the ground as we saw it, headquarters would have hoped that they would stay and do almost exactly what they did. As Americans, we are very proud of our Peace Corps friends.
We heard of no violent or riot-type demonstrations before reports of airborne unit troops’ attacks upon students. We heard of no non-violent demonstrations after reports began to circulate. Again, we heard of no violent or riot-type activities after the withdrawal of the forces of law and order from the city. We assume there will have been thievery and personal violence, but we have no data to support our assumption. There was definitely absolutely no looting, and no wanton damage such as is associated with (for instance) Miami or American urban riots, except during the time when troops were trying to put down the demonstrations. This violence began on Monday and continued until the troops (and with them the police) were withdrawn from the city.
On Monday cars and buses were burned.
We are not sure when the citizenry joined the students. It may have been on Monday night. It was certainly no later than Tuesday.
We do not know who told what to whom, but the Airborne unit troops did not remain in Kwangju city after Monday, so far as we can tell. The appearance is that they were pulled out by or at about midnight on Monday, and replaced (by troops from North Cholla?).
On Tuesday, May 20th:
On Tuesday morning there were apparently no troops in Kwangju of the Airborne unit, their place having been taken by the “North Cholla” troops. (Some days later [ ] we know, in the city - not in uniform of course - stumbled onto airborne unit men very unkempt and apparently lost and frightened. He had a scuffle with them and came out ahead. This seems to be simply two men who got separated from their outfit and left behind in a hostile city.)
Tuesday morning was quiet. A [ ] went to the bank and got some money, saw young people of the “victim” age group walking unconcerned.
Rumors spread on Tuesday that the house-searches of Monday night were a prelude to planned extensive house-to-house search-and-abduction plans for Tuesday night. We assume these rumors to be baseless, but they were believed. Also believed were stories of airborne unit men waving severed breasts on their bayonets. We have been hard put to find substantiated stories of the worst treatment of women than of men, and most of the specific stories we have heard concerned not women but men. How true the rumors are likely to be is a matter on which our missionary group is not in full agreement.
A large rally on Tuesday night ran late in defiance of the curfew. On Tuesday night we heard a moderately large amount of gunfire, and on Wednesday morning we discovered troops and police apparently gone from Kwangju.
Martial law command leaflet (of Wednesday, May 21) says that on Tuesday night the troops and police suffered ten casualties (killed or wounded), and that public buildings, police station and three broadcast stations had been destroyed or burned.
Not all troops had left the city on Tuesday, nonetheless, and there was more fighting on Wednesday.
A paper written by a Korean English teacher and addressed to a foreign correspondent says that the “MBC” Television station caught fire by accident and that students tried in vain to save it. We have no confirmation.
Rumor has it that the so-called “V.O.C.”, the station of the local newspaper, was destroyed by troops. We have no confirmation.
The latter part of the night was much more quiet, despite supposedly sure word that the city was to be reoccupied during Wednesday night.
On Thursday, May 22nd:
[ As per Arnold Peterson’s memoir, and the memories conveyed to me by Barbara Peterson and Martha Huntley, he no doubt explains that it was decided the four visiting Baptists were to be sent to Daejeon, and that Barbara Peterson, her two sons, the Huntley’s youngest son, and the children’s teacher would go with them. Arnold Peterson and John Underwood drove out of the city, accompanied also by Dave Dudley. ]
In two cars with American flags and ”foreigner’s car” signs, they made a circuitous trip to Songjongni, convoyed part way by the citizenry. Songjongni also being in citizens’ hands, and no trains running, they returned and took the express highway north until turned back by a military guard on the highway. The soldiers said, however, that trains were serving a station within reach a little back on the road. This proved true, and seeing the party off, the two cars returned to Kwangju. En route they were stopped at a newly erected barricade and told that the city was under attack. This was not strictly accurate, as they found out when finally allowed to go on. Met by citizenry at the edge of the city, they were convoyed most of the way home by different streets than before, and arrived without incident.
(Citizenry faithfully supplied those in vehicles with food and drink on this trip back to Kwangju. [ Either Arnold Peterson or Dave Dudley ] was tossed a bun from citizenry in a commandeered bus, but with too poor an aim, and proceeded bunless.)
Two rumors rose from this excursion: One that the missionaries had all left the city, and one that American Embassy staff had entered Kwangju with flags flying, so we do not feel we would be justified in relying heavily on other rumors which we hear.
Rumors again confidently foretold the occupation of the city Thursday night. From 11:00 P.M. until 12:30 the Underwoods (but not the Huntleys) heard sustained and heavy firing, including weaponry larger than small arms. There was a discernable progression from the vicinity of the military unit halfway to Songjongni in the west, in a southward arc and around to a point sounding in the night like the neighborhood of the Provincial Capitol. In the morning there was no sign of any such action having taken place, so far as observations possible to us revealed.
Friday through Monday, May 23rd through 26th.
The next four days, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, were a time of negotiation and mutual forbearance by military and citizenry in the effort to restore regular government to Kwangju.
In this the initiative seems to have been taken by the Christian clergy. We recognize that the coincidence is so perfect as to make our account suspect, but the fact remains that the major role seems to have been played by pastors of the two Korean denominations with which we are most closely associated. [ Several lines blocked out, likely to protect identities of people involved. ]
Four times, according to [ ], the military consented to postpone military action at the plea of the reconciliation committee (reconciliation; resolution; settlement. Settlement procedure committee? -- Soo-sup taechaek committee).
Meanwhile there was no night when firing did not occur. Troops advanced well into the city and withdrew. On at least one occasion they withdrew when a delegation of pastors went and asked them to on the grounds that they had agreed not to come yet into the city. [Likely morning of May 26.]
On Friday morning the [ ] family saw two uniformed soldiers walking through our own hill, but did not speak to them or they to him.
Meanwhile the citizenry maintained good order in the city and began collecting weapons and explosives to avoid trouble when the city was reoccupied. (Some perhaps already felt that the collection would on the contrary provide a depot of arms to use in resisting reoccupation, but if so it was a private opinion.)
[This section is entirely missing from the account Ambassador Gleysteen cabled to the State Department but luckily is quoted in full in Jean Underwood’s account in Contentious Kwangju. Whether it was purposely cut or simply misplaced is unknown.]
Baptist pastors took a lead in seeking the formation of an effective delegation to deal with the martial law command. The Presbyterians led in the formation of a Kwangju City Emergency Relief Committee composed of about sixty ministers from many denominations. There also came into being an amorphous body of concerned citizens, including students, which was in almost constant fluid session in what appears to have been the office of the Provincial Governor. The delegations which dealt with the martial law command were in large measure an extension or instrument of this group of concerned citizens. The interrelation of these bodies is confused because the bodies themselves were almost completely without organization or structure.
The concerned citizens achieved and maintained a very clear consensus which the Reconciliation Delegation then carried to the Martial Law Command.
The Martial Law Command was quoted to us as having made a statement on the radio which was very conciliatory and asked only the turning in of weapons of the citizens. This is probably the same as an almost identical set of promises broadcast by leaflet as the fruit of the reconciliation delegation.
The leaflet listed eight promises:
1. Troops not to enter the city without prior notice.
2. Excesses acknowledged.
3. Those in custody to be (for the greater part) released.
4. Indemnification and medical treatment for dead and wounded.
5. Broadcast resumption with factual reporting.
6. Discontinuance of use of defamatory vocabulary.
7. Free passage for unarmed pedestrians on signal of raised hands in motion.
8. Absolutely no retaliation, pledged on personal honor. Citizens’ matching obligation only the turning in of arms.
Apparently from this point when everything was achieved, things began to go wrong.
If this report of mine is in error, it is an error not of malice. I did not easily believe what I do believe to be the case, and I am unhappy about the reflection these facts [or distortions?] make on a group which I regard more highly than this report will indicate. Recognizing, then, that my efforts to be fair may have faltered or my information betrayed me, my understanding of what happened next is as follows.
Up to this point there appears to have been one broad category of people not represented on the amorphous committee of concerned citizens. There appears to have been no representation of the so-called Social Activist community of Christians; nobody from the ROK Presbyterian Church, from the YWCA (or YMCA?), or from the Roman Catholic social action organization. By an unhappy coincidence, people representing these bodies began appearing in the concerned citizens’ committee soon after the eight-point settlement was reached, and by the same unfortunate coincidence, the former consensus did not continue. The committee of concerned citizens was no longer united in willingness to welcome reoccupation of the city on the agreement reached, but became divided on the question of whether some material political concessions ought not also to be demanded.
Another factor now became evident. This was the existence of three schools of thought among the students. Dr. Hahn Wansuk [Han Wan-suk] defined them this way. One group, which consisted largely of local Kwangju students, was the conciliatory group. Another group, composed chiefly of students not in Kwangju institutions and mostly from Seoul, was the hard-line group. A third group, not to be identified with anything except their shared position, was the suicide group. The conciliatory group was in agreement with the settlement worked out by the delegation. The hard-line group wanted to secure some kind of political concessions as a price for the bloodless readmittance of the forces of government. The suicide group wanted nothing to do with any settlement, but simply to die and by their death to wake Korea to the intolerable situation in which they felt her to be lost, so that the nation would awake and save itself.
[From here the embassy cable continues.]
By and large the hard-line students did not refuse to accept the settlement achieved, but some of them felt with the social activist newcomers on the concerned citizens’ committee that a little tougher bargaining would be better. The suicide group, of course, was the major problem.
With the breaking of consensus, the delegation could no longer speak for the city in dealing with the Martial Law Command.
On Sunday night we received a message indicating that only military security forbade telling us outright that military action would begin on Sunday night or Monday. Since there had been no notice given the city, Mr. Peterson, Mr. Huntley, and Mr. Underwood agreed to seek members of the reconciliation delegation and suggest that they ask enough delay to keep the promise made before.
On Monday morning we set out on this errand; and saw posted on the street new posters of an inflammatory nature, over a name almost but not exactly like that used by the reconciliation procedures committee. The committee member whom Mr. Underwood approached seemed to Mr. Underwood to have felt that he had done all he could do, and that the breaking of the consensus had resulted in the breaking of the city’s side of the achieved settlement, so that the promises were already void. The fabricated posters were clearly the work of others, and would not be believed by intelligent people. Mr. Peterson’s contact was out of touch at the moment, but we met some others, and were taken by them to the meeting of concerned citizens, not to speak but to listen.
There had been a deadline announced, and in fact the martial law troops did not come until after that deadline passed, so either our interpretation of the information we received was wrong or somebody took action after all.
The occupation of the city came on Monday night, or more properly in the early hours of Tuesday morning, May 27th.
The military operation was swift and neat. The gunfire we heard was far less than we had heard on the Thursday when it had been so noisy.
We think it clear that the occupation of the city was as relatively bloodless as it turned out because in fact the city did not oppose it. The only actual opposition, we believe, was from the suicide group and some tragic high school children who joined them.
The days from Friday through Monday were also the period during which Americans were instructed to leave Kwangju. Time magazine's account that “ some missionaries” where are received at the Air Force Base is true and that the young people who came as missionaries of the Latter Day Saints did (we hear) leave Kwangju. We know of no other. [ Two lines missing. ]
Our presence was conspicuously (word chosen by design) satisfying to all we met. To have left would have been impossible to us each, and had we forced ourselves to leave, there would, we think, have been no more place for us to serve in this community.
From Tuesday, May 27, through Wednesday, June 4th:
The city was reoccupied in the daybreak hours of Tuesday May 27th. The radio warned everyone to stay off the streets that day. Not all of us obeyed the order, but none of us suffered hurt or threat of hurt.
Follow up operations seemed largely to be not retaliatory but simply for the removal of those who still refused to turn in arms or accept the return of police and troops. Six were flushed out of our own hill, and were taken into custody in a situation where they could more easily have been shot by the troops into whose arms they were skillfully herded.
We were shocked by an incident at the YWCA, in which blood was shed and lives were lost. Later we learned (from sources more likely to be sympathetic than not to the YWCA) that at the time of the incident there was a prayer meeting in the YWCA late into the night in violation of the curfew, and that although the girls at the prayer meeting slipped safely home, the boys chose to remain, and that in spite of all the turning in of weapons, the boys had guns with them. Finally, we learned that there were only two deaths, one of an employee on duty, and one of one of the boys.
The May 18 incident was not communist inspired or infiltrated or infected. This is clear fact, but we hear -- not surprisingly -- that the troops which reoccupied the city were given to understand that they were dealing with a communist insurrection. If judgment is to be passed, we think this misinformation of the troops extremely unfortunate. The other side of the coin is the restraint by which so few casualties occurred, even when the troops thought it was communists they were fighting.
For the known dead, the city provided burial space in the suburban city cemetery, but families did not have the option of burials elsewhere. Trucks took coffins, free buses took mourners, city gravediggers prepared row on row of open graves, and after interment helped finish the sod and mounds. We attended or shared the funeral of a seminary student whom we understand to have been exemplary in behavior and killed almost by accident while guarding explosives from falling into the wrong hands. The multiple simultaneous burials were extremely taxing to observe.
As the May eighteenth incident falls farther into the background we begin to feel we see increasing degrees of retaliation. One source sympathetic to the citizens says that the contract was broken by the city and the promise already void. If the promise is not void, the appearance is that it is somewhat broken. If the promise is void indeed, the wonder is that there remains this much gentleness.
If an abbreviated account is this long, consider how much remains unsaid, but one final point I am determined to make. It is this.
In my life I have never felt such wondering pride in my Korean friends as I have felt in the days of this May eighteenth incident. All I had supposed about the characteristics of the Korean people was surpassed by what was to me an incredible willingness to pay any price required if by paying it they could have good. I mean particularly their restraint showed by the military after the first tragic days which set everything off, and the discipline and restraint showed by the citizenry at a time when they believed things far more outrageous than the tragic truth.
In no way diminishing the credit due to our Korean friends, first praise goes to God, who in His good will saw fit this time to answer our prayers with daily miracles worked in the hearts of hundreds who know him and thousands who do not. If I have one regret it is to end this report with no more praise and this.
I wish now to emphasize some important points to be remembered:
1) Kwangju was never a riot-torn city. For under 24-hours riot-type activity took place in specific and limited locations on account of the citizens’ outrage, but even during those times the city was not in turmoil and the people of the city not in danger from the so-called rioters. Outside the hours of this destructive fury, which was so narrowly focused and so specifically localized, the city was quiet, and people were completely safe either on or off the streets.
2) Kwangju was not a city held dangerously by students or dissidents. It was a city united in crisis. The crisis came from outsiders, uniting the citizenry as only happens in crisis and disaster. Even the police, even the riot-police, were felt by the citizens to be innocent of offense against the city. The animosity of Kwangju is against the airborne unit which behaved so badly, and against the central government, which the city believes to have been unfair throughout.
3) Civil rights, human rights, and greater democracy were not at the heart of Kwangju’s anger. Student activity towards these goals was the immediate cause of the events which roused the city, and many citizens feel deeply about these causes, but the Kwangju incident was not for or because of these things. It was because of outrageous acts against its people, and its objective was to make known that such acts could not be inflicted here with impunity.
4) The outrages which occurred were not for their part discernibly infected with sexual license or with sadistic acts against women. Despite rumors of unspeakable acts, victims of abuse provide inadequate grounds for belief in specifically women-focused atrocities.
5) To those who have lived long in Korea, the single most amazing factor in the entire Kwangju incident is an atypical and probably miraculous restraint exercised by all. Whatever charges may be brought against the government or the martial law command, the conspicuous fact is that within the confines of the Kwangju area and the time of the Kwangju incident after the withdrawal of the airborne units, the military exercised and, the Korean government allowed, a restraint which ran counter to their record and must have been galling to maintain. By the same token, the self-discipline and restraint shown by the citizenry is beyond all precedent.
Finally, the missionaries were not in any great danger, but were the object of concern on the part of not only our own country but also on the part of Koreans on both sides of the Kwangju conflict. Nonetheless we learned that heroism is apparently not required of God's servants in situations like ours; but that He gives instead a clear consciousness of what we should or should not do. Together with so unmistakable an assurance of His care that there is no room for the kind of fear which heroism conquers. Had things gone differently, or some accident occurred, one or more of us might have died, but unless it is heroic to relax in the love of God, we never felt that He was asking us to be His heroes.
This is not to say we were in so critical a situation, but only to say we were given strong and simple gifts which made these things irrelevant.
[ John Underwood ] June 5-6, 1980.
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An MBC news report posted online in 2018 showed footage of Gwangju which included the burials at the public cemetery.
A German photographer/reporter came to our home this day - he had heard Betts speaks German. But Betts was out translating for someone else. The reporter spoke excellent English. So I accompanied him to the mountainside where they were doing the burials - and it was exactly this. The coffins were on a truck and then lined up with their pictures when there were pictures. Some had family members there to mourn, but some did not, as some of these were students whose families lived out of Gwangju. There were Buddhist priests doing services, and there were Christian ministers and priests doing services - I believe every person buried had someone to say words over them. All of this was spontaneous and done by the citizens of Gwangju - the ministers and priests who were there came of their own accord, as we missionaries did. I believe the gravediggers - the same. It was incredibly sad and moving. Seeing this footage really brings that day back.
I also showed her this image from the video, asking who these people were (assuming the "girl" on the right was one of the missionary children):
The woman is definitely Jean Underwood - she and John were there at the cemetery the day the German reporter and I were there, when they were burying the first 27 or so bodies. The "girl" is definitely Kathryn Dudley - she and her husband David were Presbyterian seminary students who were in Gwangju the year 1979-1980 and were living on the compound in Yang Nim Dong. They both were teaching English and working with students. She and I had gone downtown together a couple of times to see what was going on, and she and her husband were moving around among their students”.
I contacted Martha Huntley to ask if this was her (or Jean Underwood) in the interview. She replied:
Yes, that was my interview. The details of the people injured - the young mother and the man who lost his eye were people I knew personally; I haven't seen their stories anywhere else but in my own talks and writing, and they have so haunted me. The woman who poured out the coca colas was pouring them out on her young son's grave...a heartbreaking sight. That interview brought back the burial scenes vividly. And the other people described in it would be, besides the ones I knew like the Honam Seminary student, would have been the ones I questioned for the German photographer-reporter for his reporting.
I also contacted Bradley Martin to ask about the interview. He also confirmed it was Martha, and while he couldn't remember who exactly connected him with her - he knew many Christian and missionary activists in Japan - "Someone I knew gave me Martha's phone number. Glad they did!"
Martin was recently interviewed by KTV about his May 26, 1980 interview with Yun Sang-won, who had overtly become the leader of the uprising after a day earlier.