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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
(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