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 7: James Young on the Kwangju Uprising and the rise of Chun Doo-hwan, 2003
In 2003, Eye on Korea: An Insider Account of Korean-American Relations by James V. Young was published. Young was one of the first to be trained as an area specialist in the US military and spent 14 years in Korea. A fluent Korean speaker, Young served as a military attache at the US Embassy in Seoul in 1979-80, acting as a liason between the ROK Army and the Embassy. As a result, the book, as its blurb puts it, “straddles the line between military and diplomatic history,” but also, because he was a rather anonymous participant with no reputation to buttress for posterity, offers a more critical view of American actions in 1979 and 1980. He also commented on the difficulty of sifting through intelligence back in Washington:
My experience in Washington gave me an appreciation for American intelligence gathering that I could not have developed otherwise. Information was available from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), State Department, and other sources that could be analyzed rapidly. Often desk officers and analysts in Washington or in other major headquarters knew more about a situation than the commanders and ambassadors in the ﬁeld, for they had a lot more information available and more means with which to analyze it. I formed the opinion then that you could probably ﬁnd enough reporting information to reach almost any conclusion, including one that totally contradicted another. There was simply an enormous amount of reporting coming in—often too much. Each morning there was a large stack of intelligence reports just in my Northeast Asia area alone at least several inches of paper every day. Later, when some individuals claimed they had had no prior warning about such events as occurred in Korea in 1979-80. I had to believe that the warning signs had been there in intelligence reports all the time, if someone had been doing proper analysis. But such scrutiny was not easy, given the volume and diversity of evidence available.When he served as a military attaché at the U.S. Embassy in 1979, his “duties were to inform the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency of all appropriate matters concerning the Korean military situation and to keep the Washington intelligence community informed on the Korean situation in general.” His immediate superior was the embassy's defense attache, and he was especially expected to work closely with the Special Assistant's Ofﬁce and Political Section, and with U.S. Forces Korea. He considered Bob Brewster, special assistant to the ambassador, the strongest of the senior embassy staff. He did additional research in early 1978 before his posting and submitted a lengthy report, which he paraphrased:
There is now a growing division in the ROK Army, which while not yet serious, may be so in the future. The senior leadership of the army, which is composed of those officers commissioned during the Korea War, is mostly from Class 7 and earlier. These officers will soon be leaving, but their departure will not signiﬁcantly improve the promotion prospects for the youngest and perhaps most capable officers, those from Class 11 and later. These officers, who are only now reaching General officer rank, are increasingly frustrated. They see themselves as better educated, more seasoned, and more modern in their outlook and behavior than their predecessors, yet the path to the top is blocked.
Most of the Class 11 and later groups’ frustration is aimed at Class 8. This group, many of whom have been General Officers for many years, is well organized and powerful. Their primary sponsor is Kim Jong Pil, and they are presently concentrated at the two-star level. The Class 11 and younger group sees Class 8 as a direct challenge and impediment to their career progression. If they are forced to wait until this group has had its opportunity to lead the army, they will be approaching normal retirement age without having the chance to reach their full potential. This factor alone seems to indicate that there will ultimately have to be a solution to this issue.Another section of the report read:
There are several leaders of the Class 11 group who will likely play a major role in this process. Major General Chun Doo Hwan, presently commanding the 1st ROK Division near Munsan is one. Others include his classmates Roh Tae Woo and Chung Ho Young. As the leaders of the four-year KMA graduates, this group bears responsibility to see that those who follow them, and themselves, of course, are treated fairly in the future promotion process.After Park Chung-hee’s assassination,
it was obvious to even the most unsophisticated observer that the focus of power in South Korea remained with the military. Yet the State Department and the U.S. Embassy felt they had no real choice but to deal with the legal government of President Choi, who, although ﬁrst in the line of succession to Park under the Yushin Constitution, was a career bureaucrat with weak credentials for top leadership. U.S. diplomats ignored the opportunity to expand direct contacts with the ROK military, seeking instead to use every opportunity to convince the Choi government to make sweeping changes even though it had no real power to do so. Some of us believed that a better choice would have been to accept the power situation as it really existed by opening up a more direct channel. It was clear that under martial law Choi was only a ﬁgurehead. Even after martial law was lifted, the military would still hold the ultimate political power. Yet the State Department continued to play the charade that it was making progress on the political reform issue through the “legitimate authorities.”Young suggested the idea of establishing a direct channel with ROK Army chief of staff Chung Sunghwa, who seemed a moderate and “had a reputation as a thoughtful, well-read, nonpolitical, and conservative ofﬁcer.” However, “the plan was disapproved after objections by the Political Section, objections supported by the ambassador.” Young assumed this was because of Chung’s associations with Park’s assassination (he was present in another building that night but was not involved) and perhaps because the use of the intelligence channel rather than the diplomatic channel may have caused concern at the State Department that it “would lose control of what it viewed as an essentially political matter.” As a result, however, a “channel to the military moderates was never opened.”
Because of his presence the night of Park’s assassination, Chun, as the head of Defense Security Command (DSC), was under pressure to investigate Chung. The DSC was “Park’s watchdog to prevent coup attempts and had agents in every military unit” and “was even more powerful under martial law.” When he heard from the State Department that they didn’t know who Chun was (though the CIA and DIA did), he worried about Washington’s “superficial understanding of the situation.”
On the night of the 12.12 coup by Chun, Wickham was at first told by his ROK counterparts that all ROK troops were in place, but later amended this to say several units had moved towards Seoul, leaving Wickham “visibly angered.” He quoted the State Department statement in response to 12.12:
During the past few weeks we had been encouraged by the orderly procedures adopted in the Republic of Korea to develop a broadly based government following the assassination of President Park. As a result of events today in Korea we have instructed our Ambassador and the Commander of U.S. Forces in Korea to point out to all concerned that any forces within the Republic of Korea which disrupt this progress should bear in mind the seriously adverse impact their actions would have on the ROK's relations with the United States.At the same time, any forces outside the ROK which might seek to exploit the current situation in Seoul should bear in mind our warning of October 27.As Young put it,
From a practical standpoint, this statement had almost no effect. Since the embassy had no control over the local media, which were controlled by the ROK military, the only course of action was to release the statement in Washington. Few if any people in Seoul were ever aware of the position of the U.S. government, a condition that would continue and even grow worse during the days ahead. Indeed, to the average Korean. It even appeared that the United States was actually favoring the renegade generals since there was no evidence of disapproval expressed in the Korean media.He wrote, “For all the concern expressed and effort expended on the American side, it was apparent that we had had little influence on the outcome” of 12.12, and argued that if the ROK, with far more resources on hand than the US, could not prevent the coup, there was little the US could have done.
In the aftermath of 12.12, General Wickham and his staff were left suspicious of their counterparts and the coup “reduced the general’s own credibility in Washington. In my personal opinion, General Wickham was a ﬁne officer and true gentleman, but his effectiveness as CFC commander was probably diminished as a result of 12/12.” The other result was Chun’s purge of the army:
On December 14 sweeping changes were announced in the ROK Army hierarchy. Officers loyal to Chun were placed in key commands and staff positions, particularly in those units that were politically sensitive and might have the capability to launch an attempt at a countercoup. For example, 9th Division commander Major General Roh became commander of the Capital Defense Command, which included most of the combat forces in the Seoul area, and other classmates or trusted ofﬁcers were placed in command of the Special Warfare Command, Third ROK Army, and several other units. In turn, these new commanders ensured that officers loyal to themselves were placed in command of subordinate regiments and battalions. Ofﬁcers from Korean Military Academy Classes 11 and 12 moved ahead of their seniors in certain key staff positions as well.
Widespread and wholesale retirements were ordered by the end of the month, especially among Class 8 ofﬁcers. It was clear that the army was being purged and that Chun and his followers would now be in total effective control. To my way of thinking, the events of December 14 were more signiﬁcant than those of December 12 for at least three reasons. First was the consolidation of the army under Chun's control. Second and more importantly, these actions provided the ﬁrst indication that Chun might have more on his mind than simply carrying out his investigatory responsibilities under martial law. After all, if his intention on 12/12 had been only to investigate President Park's assassination, why was it necessary to take complete control of the army? Third, it was conﬁrming evidence, if indeed any was necessary by now, that the Choi government was incapable of exerting control over the new army leadership. Clearly Ambassador Gleysteen’s meeting with President Choi [the day after 12.12] had had no positive effect. From that point on it was obvious that civilian control of the military was a pipedream.There was debate over whether or not to meet Chun, but Ambassador Gleysteen finally decided to meet him. “He expressed the U.S. government's deep concern over the events of 12/12. Much of his rhetoric was directed at the factionalism and disunity in the army, which invited North Korea to take advantage of the situation.” As well, he “stressed the importance of maintaining constitutional order and continuing the democratic reforms that would result in political liberalization.” Chun replied to these concerns and said that the movement of troops had not been pre-planned, it was not a coup, and he had no personal ambitions outside the army. As Young put it, however,
This meeting remained somewhat controversial even after it was finished. From the American perspective, we could now send a cable to Washington indicating that Chun had heard directly from the ambassador of our deep concerns and had been suitably warned and American concerns “put on the record." But I believe that in retrospect the meeting was more useful to Chun than to the United States. This was because Chun was now able to go back to his supporters and say that he had personally met with the US. ambassador and that his explanation of events had been understood and accepted. Of course it was true that his reasons had been understood, but they certainly were not accepted. Nonetheless. Chun used this meeting to suggest to his followers and others that the U.S. Embassy was now not opposed to his power move; perhaps he even implied that the United States supported him. In the days ahead, many Koreans approached me and other embassy staff asking if it were true that the U.S. government now supported Chun, and if not, why had Chun and Ambassador Gleysteen had such a "cozy" meeting? The fact that the meeting had taken place had unfortunately become more important than what was said at it, especially given the inability of the U.S. Embassy to get its message out to the public through the government-controlled Korean media.Chun also requested a meeting with General Wickham, but Gleysteen asked him not to. Young assumed this was because Chun was recognized as the real power and the embassy wanted to run the show.
At a full scale policy review in Washington, a number of options were considered. “[T]roop withdrawal, pushed by those who wanted to return to Carter’s original plan to withdraw troops and saw another chance, was briefly considered, but was discarded as a viable option.” They also considered cancelling or postponing the annual security consultative meeting, but “the Defense Department was strongly opposed to canceling or postponing the annual meeting […and] made an aggressive argument that it was a mistake to link security policy with our political objectives to expand democracy in Korea”; this option was also rejected. Economic sanctions were also considered, but rejected because “any actions that would make the [economic] situation worse would likely cause additional social unrest, more demonstrations, and ultimately result in an even more severe crackdown by the military.” Thus it became clear that the US “had very limited options to inﬂuence the situation.”
The policy adopted was little different from that prior to 12.12.
- Attempt to preserve momentum toward a broadly based democratic government under civilian leadership.The US military instituted a gag order under which officers were not to discuss 12.12 with Korean counterparts and avoid political discussions in order “to demonstrate the non-political nature of the military and set the example of a professional officer corps.” Unfortunately, this let them think all was well and it was once again “business as usual” and cut Korean officers off from a source of accurate information amid intense censorship. “The true situation at the time was that some of these men were opposed to Chun Doo Hwan and his group, and others might have been if they had known the full story.” Young was also approached by a Korean officer who raised the possibility of a countercoup, something the US refused to support.
- Continue to deter North Korean aggression.
- Strive to keep the new ROK military leadership focused on its primary role of defending the country against attack.
Despite 12.12, the constitutional order had been preserved, some political prisoners had been released, controls were relaxed on campus political activities, and Kim Dae-jung’s civil rights were restored. As well, “Chun himself was quite skillful at convincing the US Embassy that democracy was still possible. By late January 1980, Bob Brewster had established direct contact with Chun” and met “often enough for Brewster to form some opinions as to future developments” which seemed “generally optimistic.” Wickham finally met Chun in February:
The American and Korean sides had somewhat different accounts of this meeting. The Americans felt that it had been generally satisfactory, although Wickham reported later to Washington that he was not certain that he had made any positive impression on Chun. The Korean version of the meeting was that it was dominated by Chun, who despite his status as the junior ofﬁcer, lectured Wickham about the realities of the Korean peninsula, dismissed his concerns somewhat abruptly, and was condescending and almost arrogant in his manner. I was not personally present, but from discussing the meeting with others, I tend to believe that the Korean version is more accurate. At any rate, the talk was hardly a success from any perspective and probably only served to make worse the personal relationship between the two men, which was not good to begin with.As Young put it, perhaps if they had met in December, they “could have worked more closely together, and Wickham might have had more influence on Chun’s actions. But by Feb it was too late.”
On April 14 Chun was appointed KCIA director and quickly “began purging many positions at the KCIA in the same manner he had done in the army during the days following 12/I2.” As it was clear that Chun's ambitions had expanded, “the prevailing feeling in Washington was that it would be necessary for the US government to take positive action in order to oppose this move.” A move to cancel the security consultative meeting was opposed by the Defense Department, so as a result it was indeﬁnitely postponed. While this was meant to “demonstrate that failure to implement political reform, and further attempts to consolidate power by Chun would have a negative effect on U.S.-ROK relations,” the watered-down nature of the postponement “gave the correct impression that the U.S. government was not united in its desire to punish Chun.” Young argued that this “move by Washington was totally ineffective: indeed, it served to make Chun stronger. It also tended to split the embassy and USFK, since USFK blamed the State Department and by extension the embassy for supporting the postponement.”
Young also described the difference of opinion that arose between the embassy and the military as to the prospects for political development. When Gleysteen met Chun on May 8, he came away feeling optimistic due to Chun’s calm demeanor and his playing down of the student demonstrations and assertion that the use of troops to suppress them would likely not be necessary. On the same day, however, Young was invited to see Roh Tae-woo, who argued that no patriotic officer could allow instability in the name of political freedom due to the threat from North Korea. Young noticed that his troops, while not on full alert, seemed ready to be deployed in short order. He wrote a report which caused some controversy since it contradicted Gleysteen’s hopeful predictions. When Wickham met Chun on May 13 and Chun spoke of communists organizing the students and argued North Korea was moving to take advantage of this; Wickham quickly stated there was no evidence of such North Korean moves. As Young put it, “by this time the relationship between Chun and Wickham had deteriorated to a point where neither man had much inﬂuence on the other.” As well, “For the ﬁrst time, Wickham stated his frank opinion that Chun intended to use these arguments as a pretext to take those steps that would allow him to move directly into the Blue House.” Young spent that same day at the intelligence center in the Yongsan bunker, personally monitored DPRK forces, and came to the same conclusion. As he put it, “it was clear that the stories about North Korea were being cooked up in order to justify further domestic crackdowns and related activities.”
After the crackdown of May 17, rumors began to trickle in of violence in Kwangju on the 19th. On the 20th, because the Korean authorities were not sharing any information, Young turned to another source to find out 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.Despite his reporting immediately on this as soon as he returned to the embassy, “there was some disbelief that things could really be that bad. It was the next day before the true dimensions of what had happened were fully accepted.” The next day, he tried to take action:
On the morning of May 21, I proposed to Colonel Blottie that I go personally to Kwangju to assess the situation and see what we could do to help. We had arranged for a U.S. military aircraft to ﬂy me into the U.S. air base, and from there I would try to enter the city, which was blocked off by ROK Army forces. This mission was given some consideration but eventually disapproved by Gleysteen, who was concerned about the danger. To me, it was just part of being a soldier and certainly no more dangerous than what I had experienced previously in Vietnam, but I respected the ambassadors wishes. Soon thereafter the embassy ordered a total evacuation of all American citizens from Kwangju.Young provided background on Special Warfare Command troops whose brutality set off the uprising:
Although these troops were highly trained for the behind-the-lines operations directed at North Korea and, therefore, should logically have been under CFC authority, the Korean leaders had consistently resisted such suggestions. Quite frankly these forces were considered by most serious Korea-watchers to be earmarked for political-type activities such as anticoup protection. Also, they were often among the ﬁrst units called out during martial law. The special-warfare commander was always personally approved by the president as were the heads of the Defense Security Command and Capital Defense Command. In I980 these commanders were all close associates of Chun Doo Hwan.He also commented in detail on the use of the 20th Division:
In later ofﬁcial statements on this, the U.S. government maintained that it had no power to refuse the use of the 20th Division because, under the terms of the CFC charter, either country could withdraw its own forces upon notiﬁcation—no approval was necessary or required." This is technically and legally true, but in this case my recollection is that we participated very much in the decision process.As Young critically described the episode in which the ROK army failed to distribute leaflets with the US position on them in Kwangju,
Indeed, 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.
After consultations with Washington, both General Wickham and Ambassador Gleysteen agreed to its deployment. I do not mean to imply in any way that the American side "ordered" or "approved" this decision, but it has always seemed to me that, in later attempts to explain this issue, we tried to hide behind technical and legal provisions of the CFC charter, when ethically and morally we were obligated to explain this situation more frankly to the Korean people. The fact was that we were consulted in great detail on this issue and reached the same decision, although perhaps more reluctantly, than ROK authorities.
We had the capability to deliver leaﬂets and handbills independently, but we instead depended on the martial-law authorities and ofﬁcial government outlets to deliver a message that was directly against their own interests and then complained when they failed to pass it along to the people.The ROK military instead spread rumors that the US had approved the initial crackdown, but, Young criticized,
in many cases we let distortions of our position remain unchallenged. We also failed to keep an accurate account of these false stories and. by the summer of 1980. had lost almost any ofﬁcial record of exactly what tales were being spread. Even the most ridiculous and unbelievable account will eventually gain some credibility if no one denies it. yet this was the situation we allowed to happen.They also did not make their feelings clear with the international community in Seoul. A series of policy meetings continued in Washington into late June but were hamstrung because "[t]he Carter administration did not want to send any signals that would imply support for Chun and the generals, yet it was reluctant to take the type of ﬁrm actions that were necessary to express direct opposition." One reason these meetings produced
such a mild and ineffective result was the manner in which they were conducted. Because any decision on our Korea policy would necessarily involve security, foreign policy, economic, and other considerations, several departments of the government were involved. [...] The customary approach was that when one agency objected to a particular course of action, it was usually “watered down." [...] This is what happened in the aftermath of Kwangju, and it resulted in a continued weak and ineffective Korea policy.Gleysteen met Chun three times in June and early July, each time arguing Chun should drop martial law and move toward elections. During the last meeting he complained about Chun abusing the ROK-U.S. security relationship in order to advance his own political ambitions. As Young put it, “There is no evidence that any of these meetings resulted in any positive results from the American viewpoint. In fact, since the American ambassador was now meeting him regularly, they tended to legitimize Chun’s authority.”
In late June as well he began to hear rumors of a possible countercoup, this time coming from younger officers, including SWC officers who “felt that their leadership had misled them about the Kwangju situation and the motivation of the resistors. Now their national leaders were not supporting them adequately while the special warfare units were being widely criticized.” This was ultimately handled within the ROK army.
Of the US attempt to save Kim Dae-jung’s life, he wrote that Chun was “successful in blackmailing the United Slates, and from that time forward our relations were essentially normalized.”
To summarize his criticisms of Carter Administration policy, he thought it was too focused on North Korea and maintaining stability so as to not create opportunities for invasion. There were also fears among some in Washington that Korea might disintegrate the way Iran had, so Washington was “prepared to live with another military regime before they would take a chance of further instability. In this regard, the Kwangju incident had truly shaken the conﬁdence of the Carter government.”
He also thought that “USFK's considerable inﬂuence with the ROK military was never used to its full potential - perhaps because of institutional jealousy and the embassy's desire to be “in charge" of some- thing that it could never really control.” Additionally, he thought Wickham was largely “out of the loop” and criticized the embassy for rarely consulting experienced Korea hands such as Spence Richardson in the political section and himself. He concluded with the following:
Had we had a more focused administration in Washington and less-cautious leadership in Korea, we might have made a stronger attempt to work closely with the military moderates after the Park assassination, taken a stronger anti-Chun posture immediately after 12/12, or even as late as the end of May, 1980, in accordance with the plan suggested by some of the younger embassy members. [… H]ad the United States chosen a bolder course, democracy might have blossomed nearly a decade earlier than it actually did. At the very least the United States would have communicated its views to the Korean people in a manner that would have averted many of the hard feelings that linger to this day.Continue to Part 8