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. […]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,
[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.
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