Sunday, May 27, 2018

Commentary on US involvement in Kwangju and US government responses, 1980-1999

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 3: Commentary on US involvement in Kwangju and US government responses, 1980-1999

American missionaries in Korea criticized their government’s support of Chun Doo-hwan after the Kwangju Uprising, and this criticism quickly spread to the US within religious and human rights circles. Peace Corps volunteers who had served in Korea also contributed to the movement, one which, in addition to raising awareness of political repression in South Korea, was also in its early stages focused on saving the life of Kim Dae-jung. This was ultimately accomplished by a diplomatic campaign by the US government which traded Kim’s life for an invitation for Chun to Reagan’s White House. Unaware of the deal, many Koreans, as well as American activists, saw this as nothing but unequivocal support for Chun.

As early as July 1980, the American Friends Service Committee, in its Korea Report No. 8, was criticizing US support for Chun, describing a $200 million loan by the US Export-Import Bank to South Korea announced on May 20 as an “immediate signal of US support.” It also criticized a visit by the president of that bank to South Korea on June 4, and declared General Wickham’s release of troops to put down the Kwangju Uprising as “most angering to Koreans.” It called on the US government to move beyond symbolic disapproval of Chun and take firmer steps to cut off support to South Korea.

The December 1980 issue of Covert Action included an article by Steven Clark Hunziker titled “Repression, not reform, as the thrust of US foreign policy: The case of South Korea.” The article described the fall of the Shah in Iran as a turning point in Carter’s foreign policy from being human rights oriented to one of “realism,” but assumed the CIA backed Chun’s 12.12 coup and everything since. It also made clear its belief in American responsibility for Kwangju when it declared “Carter has broadened his definition of human rights to include the sanctity of bayonetting of children as long as it is done to maintain ‘consistency, moderation, and stability.’” When Chun stated that the US had supported his crackdown, the magazine took a lack of public denial to as evidence it was true, showing the flaws of Gleysteen’s behind-the-scenes rebuttals.

As anti-Americanism grew in South Korea due to the belief in American complicity in the suppression of the Kwangju Uprising, Gleysteen wrote an article in 1986 titled “Korea: A Special Target of American Concern.” Writing of criticism of US actions, Gleysteen described how “our inability to reverse the course of events was sometimes branded as conspiratorial collaboration with a harsh regime.” His article may have also been the first to publicly describe the “implicit trade-off” of Kim Dae-jung’s life for a White House visit.

Using this article and interviews with Gleysteen and Wickham in early 1987, Mark Peterson wrote the article “Americans and the Kwangju Incident: Problems in the Writing of History,” which was published in the 1988 book The Kwangju Uprising: Shadows Over the Regime in South Korea. In it Gleysteen and Wickham discussed the 12.12 coup, how Wickham had heard rumours of an impending coup but his concerns were dismissed by Defense Minister Rho, and their belief that the coup was so well executed (and then legitimized by Rho and President Choi) that there was little they could do. They chose to privately criticize Chun as Gleysteen did not want a repeat of 1961 when US General Magruder ordered Park Chung-hee back to barracks after the 5.16 coup and Park ignored him. They also felt the only way to influence Chun was to make contact with him. When Chun met Wickham and told him they had no political ambitions, Wickham dusted off Magruder’s report on Kim Jong-pil’s visit after the 1961 coup and found the same promises.

After Jeong Seung-hwa was arrested, Wickham sent a birthday card to him in prison, which reassured Jeong he wouldn’t be executed; Chun “immediately went to Gleysteen to heatedly demand an explanation for Wickham’s interference in Korean domestic affairs.” Officers suggesting a counter-coup approached Wickham but he rejected the offer. US criticism of Chun was done quietly most of the time, but openly when he took control of the KCIA in mid-April and when the national assembly was closed and politicians were arrested on May 17. In the latter case the US demanded the release of the three Kims.

Gleysteen in his writing had described how the SWC units used in Kwangju had never been under US command and had been used against student protests in Kwangju without US knowledge. As he put it,
Frustrated by our limited influence and ignorant of what was going on, the U. S. government in Seoul and Washington immediately deplored the violence and encouraged a peaceful settlement. We strongly endorsed efforts by the Catholic archbishop to mediate a settlement, which until the last two days held some hope of success. We leaned as hard as we could on the Korean army to keep talking and minimize any further violence.
Gleysteen also described publicly for the first time how their message calling for calm and restraint on both sides was never broadcast in Korea, and how disinformation claiming the US supported the initial crackdown in Kwangju was spread there by the military authorities instead. As well,
Gleysteen explained their giving permission for the Twentieth Division to be released from Combined Forces Command was contingent on its being used only if negotiations in Kwangju broke down. Gleysteen also felt that since the Twentieth had had riot control training, unlike the Black Berets, they would be able to retake the city without inciting greater violence. The U.S. did urge the military to wait and allow the negotiations a chance to work [… which] obtained about two days of delay.
Gleysteen also wrote that he had urged the Korean government to apologize or at least express regret for what happened in Kwangju, but it did not heed this advice. He timed the growth of the myth that the US was partly responsible for 5.18 with the aftermath of the Reagan-Chun summit. Wickham also explained the background of his off-the-record remarks suggesting the US would support Chun and Chun’s role in the manipulation. Gleysteen portrayed US influence as “marginal” after a “well-planned, well-executed, and well-supported” coup and said that once Chun was in control there was “no reasonable alternative” to working with him.

In the same book, Donald Clark argued that, when it came to the U.S. role in Kwangju, it was “important for the U. S. government to confront the matter realistically and consistently, without resort to exotic technicalities about the structure of the US-ROK Combined Forces Command.” At the same time, however, it was “important to address the legal position of the American officials in Korea before assigning blame to them personally for not using their authority to stop Chun from taking over the military and then the entire government in 1979-80.”

Regarding the CFC’s organization, “The command echelons have American chiefs and Korean deputies, while lower echelons sometimes have Korean chiefs,” but the distribution of Korean chiefs suggested that “Americans are in a weaker position when it comes to personnel (i.e., not much help in keeping R.O.K. officers from moving around in preparation for a coup) and intelligence (i.e., not necessarily the first to get information about military affairs in the peninsula).” While the ROK voluntarily ceded operational control to the US under the CFC, the ROK Army’s command structure was still in place and could be taken advantage of, creating a “situation in which Americans bear responsibility but do not have real control.”

He also argued that the structure of Combined Forces Command was “designed to draw the American people and their Congress into whatever goes wrong with the Korean armistice” but “a potentially dangerous feature of the joint defense structure is that it can be used to get U.S. support for whatever the R.O.K. military wants to accomplish, even it if is unrelated to national defense. As the Korean military has found political roles to play, the Americans have had to follow along or else oppose them openly.”

In conclusion, Clark, wrote,
If the Americans can be drawn into even tacit support for any general who can muster enough guns to storm the Defense Ministry on a winter night in downtown Seoul and who then fails to restrain his faction from turning those guns on the South Korean people, surely it is time to reassess the American military presence in Korea and to ask whether it is still in our interest to maintain a force which has become so vulnerable to domestic political manipulation.
After the June 1987 democracy protests, in 1988 the National Assembly held an inquiry into the Kwangju Uprising. In response to questions by the National Assembly, the US State Department released a ‘White Paper’ in June 1989 titled “United States Government Statement on the Events in Kwangju, Republic of Korea, in May 1980.” As John M. Reid, the embassy’s Public Affairs Officer from 1986 to 1990, described it, “Over a period of several months, Lynn [Turk] worked with the State Department Historian’s office to produce a definitive, official account of the Kwangju incident from our point of view. I reviewed various drafts of the statement, as they appeared, but Lynn did the work.”

At 14 pages, the main section of the report is worth reading in full. It is an excellent reference, full of dates, events, and statements from the State Department, though there are omissions, including a number of statements by Carter Administration officials speaking out about the need for stability over human rights in regard to the Kwangju Uprising.

At the time it was issued, the report was the fullest account of American actions in Korea in 1979-1980. It contains previously unknown details, particularly in regard to the removal of units from the 20th Division from Combined Forces Command. Several units were removed on October 27, 1979, after Park Chung-hee’s death, and while some were returned to CFC, others were not. Further units were removed on May 16, 1980, when Wickham was in the US, and the CFC deputy commander, Korean four-star General Baek Sok Chu, responded for the CFC.

The report also stated that in early May, “U.S. officials were alarmed by reports of plans to use military units to back up the police in dealing with student demonstrations.” Gleysteen or Wickham met with high military and political officials, including Chun, on May 8, 9, 13, 14, and 17 to counsel restraint, movement towards political liberalization, and to point out the risks of using troops. When Chun stated to Wickham on May 13 that North Korea was behind the student demonstrations and might invade the ROK, the state department spoke out, saying “we see no movement which would lead us to believe that some sort of attack upon the South is imminent.” The embassy was given two and a half hours’ notice that martial law was to be expanded and had no warning of the arrests of student leaders, closure of the national assembly, or arrests of politicians. The State Department issued this public statement in Washington on May 18 and again on May 19:
We are deeply disturbed by the extension of martial law throughout the Republic of Korea, the closing of universities, and the arrest of a number of political and student leaders. Progress toward political liberalization must be accompanied by respect for the law. However, we are concerned that the actions which the government has now taken will exacerbate problems in the Republic of Korea. We have made clear the seriousness of our concern to Korean leaders, and we have stressed our belief that progress toward constitutional reform and the election of a broadly based civilian government, as earlier outlined by President Choi, should be resumed promptly.
In regard to the Kwangju Uprising, it made the following summary in its introduction:
Neither troops of the SWC nor elements of the 20th Division, employed by the Martial Law Command in Kwangju, were under CFC OPCON, either at the time they were deployed to the city or while operating there. None of the Korean forces deployed at Kwangju were, during that time, under the control of any American authorities. The United States had neither prior knowledge of the deployment of SWC forces to Kwangju nor responsibility for their actions there. […] 
The United States was informed that Korean military authorities were considering the use of elements of the 20th Division -- one of the few regular army units trained in riot control -- to reenter Kwangju. United States officials, who had pressed for a political rather than military solution and continued to caution against the use of military force to solve political problems, reluctantly accepted that, if negotiations failed, it would be preferable to replace SWC units with elements of the 20th Division.
In February of 1996, when Chun and Roh were on trial, journalist Tim Shorrock published several articles making use of declassified diplomatic and military cables (referred to as the Cherokee Files) released under the Freedom of Information Act. Shorrock argued that the Carter Administration, focused on the ‘loss’ of Iran and the hostage crisis then unfolding, became more interested in preserving stability in Korea than in encouraging democratic development after Park Chung-hee’s assassination.

Contrary to assertions in the 1989 white paper that “U.S. officials were alarmed by reports of plans to use military units to back up the police in dealing with student demonstrations,” Shorrock highlighted cables which revealed that “Senior officials in the Carter administration approved South Korean plans to use military troops against pro-democracy demonstrations ten days before former General Chun Doo Hwan seized control of the country in a May 17, 1980, military coup.” While the White Paper stated that the US had no “prior knowledge of the deployment of SWC forces to Kwangju,” Shorrock argued that “U.S. officials also knew the contingency plans included the deployment of Special Warfare Command troops to Seoul and Kwangju.” In particular, he highlighted a Defense Intelligence Agency cable to the Department of Defense Joints Chiefs of Staff on May 8 noted that the 7th SWC brigade “was probably targeted against unrest at Chonju and Kwangju universities.” A series of cables detailed the US response to ROK security preparations for the upcoming student protests:
"In none of our discussions will we in any way suggest that the USG opposes ROKG contingency plans to maintain law and order, if absolutely necessary, by reinforcing the police with the army," Mr. Gleysteen reported to Washington in a secret cable on May 7, 1980, shortly before a crucial meeting with Mr. Chun and top aides to acting president Choi Kyu Ha. "We agree that we should not oppose ROK contingency plans to maintain law and order," Mr. Christopher cabled back the next day. He added that Mr. Gleysteen should "remind Chun and Choi of the danger of escalation if law enforcement responsibilities are not carried out with care and restraint."
He also described how the Carter administration decided to support “the suppression of the Kwangju Uprising” on May 22 at a high-level White House meeting.
After a full discussion of the situation, "there was general agreement that the first priority is the restoration of order in Kwangju by the Korean authorities with the minimum use of force necessary without laying the seeds for wide disorders later," the minutes state. "Once order is restored, it was agreed we must press the Korean government, and the military in particular, to allow a greater degree of political freedom to evolve." The U.S. position was summed up by Dr. Brzezinski: "in the short term support, in the longer term pressure for political evolution." As for the situation in Kwangju, the group decided that "we have counseled moderation, but have not ruled out the use of force, should the Koreans need to employ it to restore order." If there was "little loss of life" in the recapture of the city, "we can move quietly to apply pressure for more political evolution," the officials decided.
In a chapter included in Kwangju Diary, published in 1999, Shorrock wrote that “U.S. officials, from the Embassy to U.S. military headquarters, were deeply involved with Chun and the Korean military in planning the crackdown against the popular forces demonstrating in the streets, universities, and factories in the spring of 1980.” “While those communications were not a green light for mass murder, they were clearly intended to signal Chun that a military crackdown on civil unrest was an acceptable, if not desirable, course in Washington.” He ended the chapter by writing, “Until people like [Richard] Holbrooke are brought to account for their crimes and misdeeds, the Cold War will never be over – and the stain on U.S.-Korean relations caused by the Kwangju massacre will never disappear.”

Shorrock’s article included quotations from Bruce Cumings: “This is pretty close to a smoking gun […] What you find is a logic that develops that they weren’t going to do a thing to Chun Doo Hwan. In the Korean context, these documents could be incendiary.” According to Shorrock, after his article was reported on in Korea, there was “a large demonstration at the U.S. Embassy and protests in Kwangju and Taegu.” Kwangju Diary also included an essay by Cumings which, while vividly depicting the machinery of repression and human rights violations that blighted the Park and Chun regimes, also argued that “leading [American] liberals…have blood on their hands from 1980: the blood of hundreds of murdered or tortured students in Kwangju.”

He went on to list the Americans who visited Korea to meet Chun and “assure him of American support,” including former C.I.A. official Richard Stilwell in May 1980, and, after Kwangju, future ambassador to Korea Richard Walker on June 6, T. Jefferson Coolidge, Jr., “a businessman who negotiated Harvard University’s original grant for Korean studies” on June 10, “rightwing national-security pundit Frank N. Trager” on August 5, banker David Rockefeller on September 18, and Berkeley professor Robert Scalapino in April and October. He then criticized the “seamless web of Democratic and Republican officials” who “backed Chun’s usurpation of power, beginning with Carter, Holbrooke, and Brzezinski and ending with a newly-inaugurated Ronald Reagan feting Chun at the White House in February 1981 for the ‘new era’ he had created.” Cumings also criticized the American corporations that worked with Chun’s dictatorship and highlighted the corruption that seemed part and parcel of these relations.

If the 1989 White Paper had made clearer the US position on the events of 1979-80, in the mid-1990s the new sources that were unearthed by Tim Shorrock suggested that, while technically not responsible, the Carter Administration had been more aware of contingency plans to use the military in May and more involved in the suppression of the Kwangju Uprising than they had previously let on. In the late 1990s, however, others began to make use of the Cherokee Files to draw different conclusions, followed by books by former Ambassador Gleysteen and General Wickham.

Continue to Part 4.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Expectations of US intervention and Chun Doo-hwan’s manipulations

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 2: Expectations of US intervention and Chun Doo-hwan’s manipulations

The belief that the US had a duty to put an end to the uprising first arose in Kwangju during the military crackdown, while the belief that the US had supported the declaration of Emergency Martial Law on May 17 and the military actions which set off and ended the Kwangju Uprising was first encouraged by the US’s putative allies.

Expectation of US intervention in Kwangju during the Uprising

Linda Lewis, a grad student (and former Peace Corps Volunteer) doing ethnography in Kwangju in May 1980, highlighted the expectation by Kwangju’s citizens that the US would intervene to stop the violence. As she put it,
the lack of some overt American action was taken as evidence that the American Embassy in Seoul did not understand what was happening in Kwangju, and this idea came from the apparent conviction (to my friends clearly obvious, to me naive, even fantastic) that the U.S. government would intervene to stop the violence. As a U.S. citizen, in the early days of the uprising I was continually questioned, not with hostility but with dismay and confusion, about the apparent lack of any American response.
The belief in the ability of the US to intervene to stop the ROK military’s actions in Kwangju was not just limited to those in Kwangju. James Young, then serving as a military attaché at the U.S. Embassy, tried on May 20th to get information on what was happening in Kwangju.
In the afternoon I dropped by unannounced at the office of a Korean Army lieutenant colonel who was a native of Kwangju and had formerly been on the staff of Chun Doo Hwan. This officer took me aside, and we walked outside together to the parking lot, where he told me what was happening in Kwangju. Earlier he had called his home there and had received a firsthand report from his parents. They had said the situation was terrible and that the special warfare soldiers had lost control. His parents had seen several bodies, including one almost on their own doorstep. He told me that the Ministry of National Defense and official ROK military sources were concealing this information from U.S. officials and were downplaying the extent of the problem. He also said there were other riots and violence in the cities of Mokpo and Naju. I had known this officer well for several years and believed him to be trustworthy and truthful. His close association with Chun meant that he was taking a big chance in giving me this information. “Please have your government get this stopped,” he pleaded. 
A belief in the possibility of US intervention was also encouraged by the Yun Sang-won and the more radical faction which took over the citizens’ committee on May 25:
On the morning of May 26, [the new resistance leadership] put up a wall poster announcing that a US aircraft carrier had arrived in South Korean waters. Many citizens expected that the carrier might help them, but Yun Sang-won was well aware that it had not come to assist Gwangju.
Yun went on that day to ask the American Ambassador to intervene, which was ultimately conveyed through an article in the New York Times. According to Bradley Martin, Yun’s friends told him that “Yun had not expected the United States to intervene and save their lives. He had made that last-minute, public request as a gesture to try to boost the morale of fellow prospective martyrs, giving them hope.” Lee Jae Eui, a student activist who took part in the uprising, remembered asking Yun about this on May 23:
I’m not sure the United States will truly help us, but there is no way to avoiding what we say now. If I say ‘no’ in front of people, how could we mobilize the masses? We need to give the people hope, to let them believe that there can be a peaceful outcome to this cruel incident. I am eager to believe that the United States will help us.
Disappointment at the lack of American intervention began to turn more critical before the uprising ended. American missionary Arnold Peterson, who was also in Kwangju, described a confrontation at a rally in front the Provincial Capital on May 24. As an effigy of Chun Doo-hwan was about to be burned, he thought a man in his 50s was criticizing this action.
So, I asked him whether he thought that the people were ready to compromise and complete the negotiations to return life to normal. His response was very angry and very loud. He turned on me and shouted that there was no way there could be compromise with murderers. Justice must be done. Those who had committed these atrocities must be punished. He said that he had seen two of his own children killed this week. He began to blame the United States for not taking an active part on the side of democracy and on behalf of the people of Kwangju. He asked how a democratic nation like America could support murderous dictators like Chun.
This question would be raised repeatedly not only in Korea but in the US following the Kwangju Uprising.

Chun Doo-hwan’s manipulations

As people in Kwangju and elsewhere in Korea were communicating their belief that the US would – or should – take action to end the violence (or, like Yun Sang-won, exploiting this belief), another group was promoting the narrative that the US bore responsibility for the violence in Kwangju: Chun Doo-hwan and the military hardliners. By cutting off phone lines from the city, and through their control of the media, they were able to initially hide, and later distort the truth about what was happening in Kwangju in the rest of the country. In Kwangju, however, they took steps to direct blame at the US. On May 22 the State Department released a statement reading in part “We are deeply concerned by the civil strife in the southern city of Kwangju. We urge all parties involved to exercise maximum restraint and undertake a dialogue in search of a peaceful settlement.” As Ambassador Gleysteen put it,
This equality of treatment in our proposed statement did not sit well with government authorities, but they eventually accepted it. Moreover, I extracted an explicit oral commitment from them that if we issued the statement in Washington, the martial law authorities would undertake to broadcast it throughout Korea and also distribute it in Kwangju through air-dropped leaflets. […]

[However,] in one of the nastiest actions against us during my entire time in Korea, someone in the martial law structure decided not to broadcast or publicize our May 22 statement anywhere in Korea (some Koreans heard the statement from Voice of America or our military networks). Nor were any leaflets dropped in Kwangju. Instead radio and television listeners in Kwangju were told that General Wickham had released troops for use in Kwangju and had encouraged deployment of military forces to maintain public order. Whatever the exact words of the Kwangju broadcast, which we did not hear, it was widely interpreted as evidence that the United States supported the actions of the special forces.
Chun’s manipulation may have extended further than this in regard to Kwangju deployments. According to the 1989 White Paper, some units of the 20th Division had been removed from CFC OPCON (Combined Forces Command Operational Control) after Park Chung-hee’s assassination and other units had been removed on May 16 (when General Wickham was out of the country; CFC Deputy Commander General Baek Sok Chu responded), after which no American input was necessary. On May 20, however, Martial Law authorities notified the US that they were considering use of 20th Division units in Kwangju. As the 20th Division was one of the few regular army units trained in riot control,
U.S. officials in Seoul agreed that use of the specially trained 20th Division -- if negotiations to bring about a peaceful resolution of the crisis failed -- would be preferable to continued deployment of the SWC against the citizens of Kwangju. General Wickham and Ambassador Gleysteen therefore responded to a query from the ROK authorities -- after consulting with their own superiors in Washington -- that they reluctantly accepted that it would be preferable to replace SWC units with elements of the 20th Division.
U.S. officials assumed they were notified about the movement of these units to Kwangju “because following the unnotified movement of units under CFC OPCON on December 12, Gen. Wickham had protested repeatedly and forcefully.” James Young, the U.S. Embassy military attaché, surmised there may have been another reason for this, however:
I believe that it was the preplanned intention of Chun and his followers to involve the United States as much as possible in the events in Kwangju. As a result, the same Korean military authorities who a day or two before were concealing information from us now were eager to share every detail concerning the 20th Divisions movements and operational plans. They went so far as to directly ask the U.S. leaders if they objected to use of the 20th.
To be sure, the forthcoming nature of the military hardliners regarding plans to invade Kwangju stands out in comparison to the (unsurprising) lack of warning about Chun’s 12.12 coup, the half-hour notice the US Embassy received before Chun was appointed to head the KCIA on April 14, and the two-and-a-half-hour’s notice given the Embassy before the expansion of Martial Law on May 17.

On May 23, at a meeting of embassy staff and “a balanced group of legislators ranging from the opposition left to the conservative right,” Gleysteen “reserved judgement on the need for martial law and tough measures to deal with the student demonstrations” in Seoul for the benefit of the conservative lawmakers, but described the arrest of political leaders and closing of the National Assembly as unjustified and an act of “political stupidity.”

While an accurate account of the meeting appeared in the Korea Herald and Korea Times, “including references to my comments about the need for dialogue and compromise in Kwangju as well as for moving on with political development once the crisis was resolved,” a number of Korean-language papers “turned my remarks upside down, asserting that I had expressed understanding or approval of the events of May 17.” Days later, Chun, “speaking to a representative group of newspaper publishers, alleged that the United States was informed in advance about the events of December 12, his appointment to the Korean CIA, and the actions taken on May 17.” In response, Gleysteen drafted a detailed statement correcting Chun's distortions that was conveyed orally to the publishers who had met with Chun.

Donald Sohn has argued that there was little the US could do in Korea about Chun’s control of the media, which censored and significantly distorted American statements. In mid-June the embassy attempted to counter this by mailing a compilation of recent statements by American officials on South Korean political development in English and Korean to 3,000 Koreans and Americans in Korea, including Korean military officers. American officials also complained of Korean distortions in House and Senate Subcommittees, such as when Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke criticized “the deliberate distortion of American policy positions by the leadership of the Republic of Korea in recent months” on August 28, 1980, the day after Chun was elected president.

Chun made good use of an off-the-record interview given by General Wickham to AP reporter Terry Anderson and LA Times reporter Sam Jameson on August 8 in which they asked “one last question”: Would the US support Chun if he consolidated his power and became president? Since he and Gleysteen had concluded in their recent discussions that the US would have little choice but to support him, he said yes, “provided he comes to power legitimately, demonstrates over time a broad base of support from the Korean people, and does not jeopardize security of the situation here.” 

Because this was an “on the ground” view and did not reflect the policies of the State Department, when AP asked the State Department for its view, it disavowed the statements of the unnamed source, resulting in the interview not being published in the US. However, another editor approved the article for overseas distribution and it ended up in Korea. The next day, when Chun was interviewed by NYT reporter Henry Scott-Stokes, Chun, who, one assumes, knew of the previous day’s interview via his control of the DSC and KCIA, stated that Wickham was the source of the unattributed quote, which Scott-Stokes duly reported. This admission, which threatened to derail Wickham’s career, was gleefully trumpeted in the Korean press as evidence of American support. As the Korea Herald put it on August 10,
Citizens of this Republic are increasingly trusting [of] and admire General Chun as the new leader needed for the new age. And we note with a sense of encouragement that a top U.S. military official in Seoul (General Wickham) shares our view about General Chun and asserts that the U.S. would support him if the Korean people elect him the next president. Although Americans have no right to interfere in our internal political affairs, a close accord of opinion is welcome for cooperative relationship between the two allies.
Additionally, when President Carter wrote a letter to Chun Doo-hwan on August 27 on the occasion of him becoming president, he began by assuring Chun of his “desire to maintain the basic economic and security interests of both of our nations” but quickly turned to noting that “recent events in Korea have troubled us greatly” and warned that the conditions under which the submission of a new constitution to a public referendum and the holding of popular elections under that constitution would “be critical in determining the future of your country and its international standing. We regard free political institutions as essential to sustaining a sound relationship between our two countries.” He then went on to discuss the trial of Kim Dae-jung and warned that his “execution, or even a sentence of death, could have serious repercussions.” After describing the roles Ambassador Gleysteen and General Wickham would continue to play, he reiterated, “I urge you to take the earliest possible action to ensure the stability of the government through the development of popularly supported political institutions and greater personal freedom for your citizens.”

This was not how the letter was reported in the Korean media. As the 1989 White Paper described it,
Manipulation of the facts by the Korean media continued through the summer with the misquoting of President Jimmy Carter's strongly worded letter to Chun Doo Hwan upon his election to the Presidency on August 27, 1980. Carter said that political liberalization must resume in Korea, but the controlled media reported it differently. Korean newspaper headlines read: "Carter: Personal Message to President Chun Expresses Support for Korea's New Government" (Donga Ilbo) and "Security Commitment to Korea: The Major U.S. Policy" (Joong-ang Ilbo).
As the aforementioned Donga Ibo article put it, “the long letter by President Carter congratulates President Chun on his election, wishes for the success of President Chun’s government, and hopes for unchanged cooperation and the promotion of friendship between the two countries.”

This image of unconditional American support was cemented by the newly-inaugurated President Reagan inviting Chun to the White House in February 1981 as his second foreign guest. However, as former Ambassador Gleysteen put it in 1986, “there is no question that President-elect Reagan could not have invited Chun without it being understood in advance that Kim [Dae-jung’s death] sentence would be commuted.” This was not known in Korea, however (and Gleysteen’s 1986 article may have been the first time the “implicit trade-off” of Kim’s life for a White House visit was made public).

Chun’s manipulations made it seem to Koreans as if the US was uncritically supporting Chun. As Horace G. Underwood warned the head of the US embassy’s political section, William Clark, “Chun is wrapping himself in the American flag. If the United States doesn't do something about it, it will have ‘hell to pay’ in the future.”

Underwood was proven to be correct. In December 1980, the USIS in Kwangju suffered an arson attack, and in March 1982 student activists set fire to the USIS building in Pusan, demanding that the US “stop treating South Korea like a colony.” A student using the library died in the fire. In May 1985 25 student leaders occupied the library of the USIS in Seoul for three days, “demanding that the US apologize for its role in suppressing the Kwangju Uprising.” In an interview in 1985, journalist Tim Shorrock asked Kim Dae-jung, “Was the United States responsible for the Kwangju Uprising and its bloody suppression?” Kim answered:
You dispatched a Korean division to Kwangju to keep order, but before sending troops, you should have examined which side was keeping order- the Kwangju people or the paratroopers. The Kwangju people kept order, paratroopers broke order. They massacred peaceful demonstrators. They massacred many young men after binding them. Their hands were bound by their sides, but they were killed. They were unable to fight. So you should have criticized the paratroopers’ side, not the Kwangju people’s side. Your attitude was not just, not fair. If America had not sent one division to Kwangju, Chun Doo Hwan would not have succeeded in getting power. If the Americans didn’t support that paratroopers’ massacre, then our people would have risen up for democracy in other cities. We could have succeeded in restoring democracy. Chun was not so strong then; he was not supported by our people. Only America supported him.
Variations of this belief not only persisted, but grew stronger as the 1980s persisted.

The opposing narratives of impending US intervention in, and American responsibility for, the Kwangju Uprising were mobilized by two opposing political forces: the military hardliners who hoped to deflect blame for the deaths they caused during their seizure of power by conjuring an aura of American support, and activists who hoped to mobilize followers for a doomed last stand against those military authorities in the hopes of inspiring future resistance. Among the latter’s supporters would be American human-rights activists, academics and researchers, some of whom, ironically, reproduced the narratives of American responsibility first promoted by Korea’s military authorities – the very people they were struggling against.

Continue to Part 3 

Friday, May 18, 2018

The 1980 Kwangju Uprising and the United States

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 1: Sources and Historical Background

The question of US complicity in the suppression of – or even in causing - the Kwangju Uprising is one that has been raised for decades. It was first brought up during the uprising by the people of Kwangju themselves who expected the U.S. to intervene on their behalf and were bitterly disappointed when it did not. The narrative of American responsibility was then popularized when Chun Doo-hwan promoted it through his control of the media in order to direct popular anger away from himself. It was ultimately taken up by academics, including democracy and human rights activists, in Korea and the US.

What follows (in several parts) is a listing of sources, an overview of events from the summer of 1979 to the summer of 1980, arguments for and against US responsibility, and an evaluation of these arguments.


In 1987, Mark Peterson’s chapter “Americans and the Kwangju Incident: Problems in the Writing of History,” in Donald N. Clark, ed, The Kwangju Uprising: Shadows Over the Regime in South Korea, Westview Press, Inc., 1988, presented an interview with former Ambassador Gleysteen and General Wickham in order to address rising anti-Americanism in South Korea related to the Kwangju Uprising.

After the June 1987 democracy protests, in 1988 the National Assembly held an inquiry into the Kwangju Uprising. In response to questions by the National Assembly, the US State Department released a ‘White Paper’ in June 1989 titled “United States Government Statement on the Events in Kwangju, Republic of Korea, in May 1980.”

After American diplomatic and military cables were declassified in the 1990s, a number of academics made use of these sources to examine the question of American responsibility. The cables were first brought to light by journalist Tim Shorrock in a February 27, 1996 Journal of Commerce article titled Ex-Leaders Go On Trial In Seoul, followed by an expanded version published in Sisa Journal in February 1996 titled “The Cherokee Files: New documents reveal U.S. policy making during Kwangju,” followed by an even longer version posted at Kimsoft in 1997 (judging by the Wayback Machine) titled “The U.S. Role in Korea in 1979 and 1980.” Alternate versions, such as one titled “Debacle in Kwangju: Were Washington's cables read as a green light for the 1980 Korean massacre?” can be found here and another, titled “Kwangju Diary: The View From Washington,” was published in the 1999 book Kwangju Diary: Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness Of The Age, Univ of California Los Angeles, 1999. For those interested in Shorrock’s work, I would suggest the longer version first published at Kimsoft. Most importantly, he has uploaded a number of key documents at his website.

Donald Sohn's 1998 MA Thesis "Chun Doo Hwan’s Manipulation of the Kwangju Popular Uprising," which is based in part on the diplomatic cables, can be found here.

Another article using the diplomatic cables is James Fowler’s “The United States and South Korean Democratization,” published in 1999 in Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 114, No. 2, pp. 265-288. It can be read here.

Finally, in 2006 George Katsiaficas wrote a paper using the diplomatic cables titled “Neoliberalism and the Gwangju Uprising,” which can be read here.

Numerous sources provide insight on American actions in Korea in 1979-1980. Among them are the following by American officials in Seoul:
  • John A. Wickham, Korea on the Brink: A Memoir of Political Intrigue and Military Crisis, Potomac Books, 2000.
  • William Gleysteen, Massive Entanglement, Marginal Influence: Carter and Korea in Crisis, Brookings Institution Press, 2000.
  • James V. Young, Eye on Korea: An Insider Account of Korean-American Relations, Texas A&M University Press, 2003.
There are also accounts by Americans in Kwangju (or Seoul):
  • Martha Huntley, "Should we tell you about this?" Presbyterian Survey, March 1982.
  • Tim Warnberg, "The Kwangju Uprising: An Inside View," Korean Studies, v.11, 1987.
  • Arnold A Peterson, 5.18: The Kwangju Incident, 1990, in 아놀드 A. 피터슨, 5.18 광주사태, 풀빛, 1995.
  • Linda Sue Lewis, Laying Claim to the Memory of May: A Look Back at the 1980 Kwangju Uprising, Hawaii Studies on Korea, 2002.
  • Jean W. Underwood, "An American Missionary’s View," in Gi-Wook Shin and Kyung Moon Hwang, eds, Contentious Kwangju: The May 18 Uprising in Korea's Past and Present, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2003.
  • Peace Corps Volunteer David Dolinger's account of what he saw in Kwangju during the uprising can be found here, while additional comments by him can be found here.
  • Mark Peterson, then the Fullbright director in Seoul, also wrote “The Kwangju Resistance Movement, May, 1980: Some American Perspectives,” which can be found here.
Journalists' accounts of the uprising:
  • James Fenton, All the Wrong Places: Adrift in the Politics of the Pacific Rim, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988. 
  • Henry Scott-Stokes and Jae Eui Lee, eds, The Kwangju Uprising: Eyewitness Press Accounts of Korea's Tiananmen, M.E. Sharpe, 2000.
  • Donald Kirk and Choe Sang-hun, eds, Korea Witness: 135 Years of War, Crisis and News in the Land of the Morning Calm, Eunhaeng Namu, 2006.
Also worth reading are the following:
  • Ryu Shimin and Jung Sangyong, Memories of May 1980: A Documentary History of the Kwangju Uprising in Korea, trans. by Park Hyejin, Kwangju Minjuhwa-undong Kinyeom-saeophoi, 2004.
  • Choi Jung-woon, The Gwangju Uprising: The Pivotal Democratic Movement Which Changed the History of Modern Korea, trans. by Yu Young-nan, Homa & Sekey Books, 2006.

Historical Background

(Much of what follows is based on James Fowler’s article, with numerous other additions.)

In mid-1979 Park Chung-hee loosened restrictions on dissent and released 180 political prisoners as part of an understanding with Jimmy Carter, who visited Seoul in June and who decided to cancel his plans to withdraw US troops from Korea. This seemed to embolden the opposition, however, and a resulting clampdown – which included suppressing the YH strike at NDP headquarters – was soon followed by the expulsion of NDP leader Kim Young-sam from the national assembly, followed by the mass resignation of NDP members. Student protests in Kim’s hometown of Busan, as well as Masan, in mid-October were joined by workers and grew to the point that the government declared martial law in the Busan area and sent in Special Warfare Command paratroopers to put down the protests, which resulted in a handful of deaths (there were guesses of 3-5 dead at the time; no deaths were confirmed until 2011). It was during an argument over how to deal with the protesters that KCIA director Kim Jae-gyu, who urged moderation, shot and killed Park Chung-hee on October 26, 1979.

The response of the military authorities to the assassination was to declare martial law on the mainland only. Because this was not full martial law, the military did not have the sweeping powers it would have had otherwise. Though the civilian government theoretically maintained its power, it soon became clear that acting president Choi Gyu-ha was not a decisive leader and was not going to take any dramatic steps in the direction of political liberalization. After being elected interim president by the electoral college on December 6, however, he gave some hope to the opposition when he lifted Emergency Measure 9 (EM-9) and released Kim Dae Jung from house arrest.

The martial law commander, Jeong Seung-hwa, seemed to be a moderate but had been in an adjacent building the night of Park Chung-hee’s assassination, which drew the suspicion of many in the military. This included Chun Doo-hwan, the head of Defense Security Command, who was investigating the assassination. Chun was a protégé of Park Chung-hee and leader of Class 11 of the Korean Military Academy, a younger class that cut its teeth in the Vietnam War and that felt passed over for promotion. When rumors arose that Jeong might transfer Chun to the east coast, essentially ending his career, Chun struck. On December 12, 1979, elements of the 9th Division, under the control of Chun’s Class 11 classmate Roh Tae-woo, were removed from the DMZ (without first alerting the US military) and moved on Seoul. Martial law commander Jeong was arrested with violence and Chun’s forces attacked the Ministry of Defense. By the end of the night Defense Minister Rho Jae-hyun had been captured and belated approval for the arrest of Jeong Seung-hwa had been given by the President. Chun was in control of the military, and a purge of the old generation – and of moderates – followed as his Class 11 classmates were put into positions of power.

As James Fowler summarized it,
In spite of these movements by hardliners against reformers in the military, the civilian government continued to pursue liberalization. 1,722 political prisoners were released or had their sentences reduced in December 1979, and in February 1980 the government relaxed press censorship and restored political rights to Kim Dae Jung and hundreds of EM-9 violators. The move briefly appeased radicals, but the probably intentional effect on the moderate opposition was to start up an age-old internecine rivalry between Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam that would hamper their ability to focus on their real opponents.
Liberalization affected students as well. In May 1975, after the fall of South Vietnam, the ROK government had passed EM-9 and reinstated the Student Defense Corps, which dominated life on campus and banned all club activities. These restrictions were lifted in 1980. As American missionary Martha Huntley, who worked on the campus of Jeonnam University, described the students of Kwangju,
In the spring of 1980 they were euphoric. For the first time in eight years they were allowed to have class discussions and to elect student officers; club activities were reinstated, censorship was relaxed, campus autonomy was promised, students and professors who had been imprisoned for years returned to the campus as heroes. There was a renaissance of creativity as students poured out long—pent-up feelings and newborn hopes by writing poetry, drama, songs and speeches. They were not radical, they were responsible. And they thought it was going to last.
On April 14, Chun Doo-hwan appointed himself head of the KCIA while still remaining head of the DSC, therefore controlling both the military and civilian intelligence agencies. Amid rising inflation, a number of labor strikes took place, some of which turned violent. Students began protesting campus military training and other issues related to campus autonomy, but in early May they began to protest martial law and Chun’s ascension to the KCIA just as Martial Law Command was issuing warnings that labor and campus disturbances would no longer be tolerated. In early May students began to call for the end of martial law by May 15. The military hardliners clearly found this threatening: by May 7 Special Warfare Command (SWC) paratroopers were being moved to the Seoul area for possible use in riot suppression. On May 8 Kim Dae Jung joined the students in demanding an end to martial law, and Kim Young Sam and the Catholic Church followed the next day.

On May 12 moderate student leaders, mistaking a cut-off in a radio broadcast on campuses for a signal that a coup was in progress, sent students home. Radical students criticized this as weakness and took over the movement, resulting on May 13 in the first off-campus protests in Seoul in years. The protests culminated on May 15 with protests around the nation, including 100,000 students in the streets of Seoul alone. Though protesters killed a police officer by driving a bus through police lines, the SWC troops present at the edge of the protest were not put to use. The next day student leaders postponed further protests to wait for the government’s response (a response made clear by a raid on their meeting and the arrests of many student leaders). To support the students, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam made a joint call for the lifting of martial law. Fowler argued that “For hardliners, this final coalition between radicals and unified moderates was the final provocation,” but that likely lay with a different announcement. As American missionary Arnold Peterson explained it, on the afternoon of Saturday, May 17, Kim Jong-pil announced
he had decided to vote for a proposal advanced by the opposition New Democratic Party. This proposal would abolish martial law and return full control of the government to the civilian politicians led by President Choi Kyu-Ha. The opposition New Democratic Party had been advocating such legislative action for many weeks but lacked the votes to pass such a bill in the National Assembly. The National Assembly was due to convene on Tuesday, May 20. Kim Jong-Pil's announcement of his support for the measure meant that the bill would surely and quickly pass. If martial law was in fact abolished the military leaders, who had been, in effect, running the country behind the scenes, would lose all their political influence and authority.
Hours later the military pressured President Choi and the Cabinet to extend martial law to the whole country, giving the military direct control. The national assembly was closed, as were universities, which were promptly occupied by troops. Numerous student leaders and Kim Dae-jung, Kim Young-sam, and Kim Jong-pil were quickly arrested.

While these measures kept Seoul and most cities quiet and ended student protests there, in Kwangju on May 18 students met as planned in front of Jeonnam University where they were attacked by SWC troops sent to the campus the night before. Angered, students moved downtown, but police had trouble controlling the protest. Despite protests by an officer on the scene that the protests were not that serious and SWC troops were not needed downtown, they were ordered into action and proceeded to attack the protesters, and eventually even bystanders, with such brutality, even bayoneting some, that citizens eventually joined the students and the protests continued for days, growing ever more violent. A turning point came on May 20 when a protest by taxi and bus drivers allow the citizens to take control of the streets and put troops on the defensive. Shooting by soldiers at the train station late that night resulted in 20 casualties and citizens burned MBC, KBS, and the tax office. On May 21 troops cut phone lines out of the city and retreated to Provincial Hall and promised to leave but then opened fire on citizens demonstrating there, as well as in front of Joseon University, and later throughout the city as they retreated to the suburbs. Helicopters also fired on people from the air. Protesters seized guns from armories outside of the city and troops retreated to the edges of town and guarded the main roads in and out of town. According to Linda Lewis, the official count of the dead for May 21 was 62 dead, "most (54) killed by gunshot, the majority (66%) in the vicinity of the Provincial Office Building". Many, many more were wounded.

From May 22 the city became what is remembered as "liberated Kwangju." Citizens formed committees to hold discussions with the army. Guns were collected, and the streets were cleaned up. Large rallies were held calling for democracy and the end of martial law. On May 25, students refusing to give up their guns took over the committee and when talks broke down, chose to fight to the end. Between May 22 and May 26 the killing continued on the outskirts of the city. Soldiers fired on cars, trucks and buses leaving or entering Kwangju and other passersby, killing at least 65 civilians and 12 soldiers (the latter in friendly fire incidents). On May 27 the military moved into the city during the pre-dawn hours and attacked the Provincial Office, where the remnants of the citizen's army were stationed, and other locations. The official number killed that day is considered to be 26, though troops quickly carried bodies away.

With the declaration of martial law on May 17 and the final suppression of the Kwangju Uprising, Chun and the military group had unobstructed power. Much as when he purged the military after the 12.12 coup, and the KCIA after his takeover of that organization, Chun presided over purges of the media (firings of journalists and mergers or closures of numerous media companies), social purges (of the sort carried out after Park Chung-hee's coup in 1961; many were sent to the "Samcheong Reeducation Camps"), purges in the banking sector, and elsewhere. In early August, Chun promoted himself to full general and on August 16 Choi Gyu-ha resigned as president. Chun's "coup in stages," begun December 12, finally ended when he was elected president (under the still functioning Yusin constitution) by the Council on Unification, an electoral college, on August 27.

Continue to Part 2

Bibliography of the Kwangju Uprising (in English) - Updated

I've updated my 2006 post titled "Bibliography of the Kwangju Uprising (in English)." With some help from the Wayback Machine the links are now all updated and some new material has been added. Feel free to suggest additions!