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.