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”
In 2006 George Katsiaficas, who had previously written “Comparing the Paris Commune and the Kwangju People’s Uprising: A Preliminary Assessment,” wrote a paper titled “Neoliberalism and the Gwangju Uprising.” The thesis of this paper was “The suppression of the Gwangju Uprising marked the bloody imposition of a neoliberal accumulation regime on Korea.” He used the Cherokee Files in an attempt to argue that neoliberalism, far from being imposed on South Korea following the IMF crisis, was actually imposed in the wake of 5.18, and that economic considerations were the main driver of US relations with Chun Doo-hwan and responsible for US support for him becoming president.
The fact that the author never defined neoliberalism makes it difficult to determine whether the assertion that neoliberal reforms were actually first imposed in 1980 is correct or not, and is not the focus of the criticism that follows. What is clear is that the evidence he provided to prove a link between the suppression of the Kwangju Uprising and the “imposition of neoliberalism” was lacking. In fact, the (only) two pieces of evidence he offered came close to contradicting his argument, but he obscured this by either not quoting directly from them or by providing only a misleading, partial quotation.
The first piece of evidence appeared in this paragraph:
Whether or not American policymakers intended the global market to have a “magical” effect on democratic reform in Korea, they turned their backs on political liberalization and elevated US economic interests to the center of American policy. At the White House meeting at 4 p.m. on May 22, 1980, suppression of the Gwangju Uprising was approved, but so was the June visit to Seoul by John Moore, president of the US Export-Import Bank, to arrange for US financing of mammoth ROK purchases like US nuclear power plants and expansion of the Seoul subway system. Since economic and security issues were resolved at the same meeting, one can only conclude they were strongly related to each other. A few hours later, i.e., on May 23 in Seoul, Gleysteen advised Korean Prime Minister Park Choong-hoon to take “firm anti-riot measures.” […] Clearly the Carter administration opposed the political liberalization demanded by Gwangju activists, and in retrospect, equally as clear is their surreptitious plan for liberalization of the economy.Let’s examine some of these assertions.
[…]American policymakers […] turned their backs on political liberalization and elevated US economic interests to the center of American policy.
The US publicly criticized the military crackdown in a statement by the State Department, which read “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. […] [P]rogress toward constitutional reform and the election of a broadly based civilian government, as earlier outlined by President Choi, should be resumed promptly.”
The following information can be found in a May 22 cable provided by Tim Shorrock at his website. On May 22, the White House said in a cable to Ambassador Gleysteen that in regard to Kwangju, “we have counseled moderation, but have not ruled out the use of force, should the Koreans need to employ it to restore order.” It also stated that
Once order is restored, it was agreed that we must press the Korean Government, and the military in particular, to allow a greater degree of political freedom to evolve. Dr. Brzezinski summed up the approach: "in the short term, support, in the longer term pressure for political evolution. […]After Chun was elected president, Jimmy Carter wrote in his letter to Chun dated August 27, “We regard free political institutions as essential to sustaining a sound relationship between our two countries.” Considering the above evidence, it seems hard to argue that the Carter Administration had “turned their backs on political liberalization.”
It was agreed that what we do [after order has been restored in Kwangju] depends in large part on how the situation in Kwangju is resolved. If the situation there is handled well, with little loss of life, we can move quietly to apply pressure for more political evolution. If the situation in Kwangju involves large loss of life, the PRC will meet again to discuss measures to be taken.
At the White House meeting at 4 p.m. on May 22, 1980, suppression of the Gwangju Uprising was approved, but so was the June visit to Seoul by John Moore, president of the US Export-Import Bank, to arrange for US financing of mammoth ROK purchases like US nuclear power plants and expansion of the Seoul subway system. Since economic and security issues were resolved at the same meeting, one can only conclude they were strongly related to each other.
As previously mentioned, the thesis of this article was “The suppression of the Gwangju Uprising marked the bloody imposition of a neoliberal accumulation regime on Korea.” Anyone hoping to find an array of evidence to prove this connection, however, will be disappointed to realize that the above two sentences are all there is. A decision to approve the “restoration of order in Kwangju by the Korean authorities with the minimum use of force necessary” occurred at the same meeting as a decision to tentatively approve a visit by the president of EXIM Bank, and it is asserted that “one can only conclude they were strongly related to each other.” Before moving to the full quotation related to the visit, let’s remember the final sentence of the paragraph:
Clearly the Carter administration opposed the political liberalization demanded by Gwangju activists, and in retrospect, equally as clear is their surreptitious plan for liberalization of the economy.
Moving beyond the stunning oversimplification of the Kwangju Uprising into a mere demand for political liberalization, I leave it to readers to decide if this sounds like part of a “surreptitious plan for liberalization of the economy”:
Visits by US Persons. The question of the visit by EXIM Bank President John Moore was discussed. It was agreed to get Ambassador Gleysteen‘s opinion on that visit, and to make a final decision once Moore has reached Japan. The consensus of the group was that it might be a mistake at this time to send a negative signal to the Koreans by cancelling another visit. (A visit by Llewellen of OPIC [Overseas Private Investment Corporation] has already been cancelled).It should be noted that at this time the Korean economy was faltering due to inflation and rising oil prices and, particularly amid the turmoil following Park Chung-hee's assassination, US banks were hesitating to offer Korea the medium and short-term loans it needed. The phrasing of the sentence “it might be a mistake at this time to send a negative signal to the Koreans by cancelling another visit” raises the possibility that the visit “by Llewellen of OPIC” may have been cancelled to “send a negative signal to Koreans,” perhaps regarding the slow pace of political development or Chun's appointment as head of the KCIA in mid-April (which had resulted in the US postponing the annual security consultative meeting between ROK and US defense ministers). At any rate, the cable above is hardly indicative of the “surreptitious plan” the author was trying to “uncover.” One should always be suspicious when a piece of evidence meant to be a “smoking gun” is not quoted from at all. As a corollary to that, once suspicions are raised, one should also beware of sentences meant to anger readers that are based around a very limited quotation, as this remaining sentence illustrates:
A few hours later, i.e., on May 23 in Seoul, Gleysteen advised Korean Prime Minister Park Choong-hoon to take “firm anti-riot measures.”
Indeed, the date of this conversation was May 23, which leaves one with the impression that Gleysteen is talking about Kwangju. This is not true. And in this case, the quotation is limited in order to support a shockingly untrue assertion, as a fuller version by Shorrock reveals:
On May 23, hours after the White House meeting, Mr. Gleysteen paid a call on Acting Prime Minister Park to communicate the U.S. position. In the discussion, Mr. Gleysteen reported back, "I said that the policy decisions of May 17 had staggered us." However, the two officials "agreed that firm anti-riot measures were necessary, but the accompanying political crackdown was political folly and clearly had contributed to the serious breakdown of order in Kwangju."Reading the above paragraph, it becomes clear a) Gleysteen did not “advise Korean Prime Minister Park Choong-hoon to take ‘firm anti-riot measures,’” at all and b) his agreement that “firm anti-riot measures were necessary” is, in the context it is mentioned, clearly referring to the May 17 crackdown as far as action taken to contain the student protests, but did not extend to the “accompanying political crackdown” [including the arrest of Kim Dae-jung], which he felt “had contributed to the serious breakdown of order in Kwangju.”
Needless to say, the assertion “Gleysteen advised Korean Prime Minister Park Choong-hoon to take ‘firm anti-riot measures’” is either the result of an inability to read English, a deliberate attempt to mislead readers, or due to myopia caused by higher-than-normal levels of moral certainty.
To reiterate, the sentence “At the White House meeting…suppression of the Gwangju Uprising was approved, but so was the June visit to Seoul by John Moore, president of the US Export-Import Bank” is the only “proof” offered of a link between bringing an end to the Kwangju Uprising and a “surreptitious plan for liberalization of the economy.” The only other section remotely linked to Kwangju-like repression is an assertion about the cause of the post-Kwangju (or post-May 17) purges of Korean society by Chun.
As the author noted, between June and August “431 officials from Korea’s banking sector [were] fired,” “more than 5,000 senior and middle grade officials” were fired, “[m]ore than 10% of the members of the National Assembly were arrested or forced to resign,” “835 people were barred from politics,” and 61 executives and employees of the Korean Traders Association were compelled to submit their resignations. Chun then “shut down 172 periodicals by canceling their registrations […] and about 2,000 journalists were required to attend three-day ‘reorientation’ programs,” and then he “ordered some 46,000 ‘hooligans and gangsters’ to be rounded up, more than half of whom were either sent to reeducation camps (“Samcheong Concentration Camps” [where at least 52 people died]), the front lines, or jail.”
When Park Chung-hee took over the country in a military coup in 1961, he carried out social purification by arresting hundreds of gangsters, people engaging in ‘secret dancing,’ and members of other targeted groups and sending them to work camps. When Chun Doo-hwan took control of the Korean military, he quickly carried out a purge and replaced many officers. When he took over the KCIA, he carried out a similar purge. But, after all but taking over the country on May 17, the author argues that the wide-ranging purges Chun carried out were not part of this established pattern. Instead, they resulted from Chun’s “zeal to guarantee the stability demanded by US businessmen and Embassy officials” because the largest US banks were hesitating to offer Korea medium and short-term loans and the US government was calling for “implementation of sensible economic policies.” The “proof” for this connection of US bankers and the purges is offered in the following paragraph:
On July 11, [Deputy Secretary of State Warren] Christopher cabled Seoul that US bankers were in a titter about Korean political dynamics: “We have been informed by one of the large US banks that during the visit of Bank of Korea Governor Shin this week Shin was given a blunt message. Shin was informed by the U.S. bankers that if Korea did not get its political house in order swiftly then it would be exceedingly difficult to get necessary funding beyond this year.”Again, the full paragraph, found, ironically, in a Power Point presentation posted online by the author, not only calls doubt upon this assertion, it contradicts it. Cited as Gwangju Democratization Movement Materials IX: 583: Department of State telegram, 11July80 State 182038, it reads:
[Part] 5. U.S. Bankers warn Korea of financing difficultiesThe author argued that this call for Korea to “get its political house in order” was responsible for all of the purges and the related ugliness that followed. But the above cable, when seen in full, makes it clear that Korea getting its political house in order included the handling of the Kim Dae-jung case in a way that would be acceptable to “the rest of the world”; otherwise, its external financing might be threatened. What this suggests, then, is that the very banks that the author tried to portray as the inspiration for repression in Korea were in fact pressuring Korea to act moderately, at least in regard to Kim Dae-jung’s case.
We have been informed by one of the large New York banks that during the visit of Bank of Korea Governor Shin this week Shin was given a blunt message. Shin was informed by the U.S. bankers that if Korea did not get its political house in order swiftly then it would be exceedingly difficult to get necessary funding beyond this year. Moreover, even if the handling of Kim Dae-jung were acceptable in Korea, the authorities were proceeding as if the rest of the world did not exist -- a dangerous course for Korea in view of its external financing needs. Shin may be able to pass on the lecture effectively. While in New York he received word that he is to be the new minister of commerce.
As quoted above, the author also wrote that "On June 21, Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher wrote to Richard Holbrooke ... that Chun needs 'implementation of sensible economic policies.'" The cable, which was actually to Gleysteen, is reprinted in full in Gleysteen's book and instructed him on what to tell Chun at a future meeting. What the author does not include is the context of the above quotation:
Having concluded that General Chun Doo Hwan…and his colleagues have successfully established military control of the Korean government and that the army is presently united behind the measures being taken, we have determined that we must at the present stage focus our inﬂuence on moderating the regime’s unacceptable behavior and moving it toward constitutional government, a reduction of military involvement in politics and administration, implementation of sensible economic policies, and restraint in dealing with political opponents. Simultaneously, we seek to avoid over-identiﬁcation with the present Korean regime and its excesses and indicate that we are waiting to see whether its actions will warrant a fully normal US-ROK relationship.The same cable suggested Gleysteen convey the following to Chun Doo-hwan:
Korea’s long-term economic well-being depends heavily on the conﬁdence of international bankers, investors, and traders. They believe that a healthy economy with stable growth prospects can only be forged with the uniﬁed support of the Korean people.The author wrote that in early September, “Gleysteen huddled with Chun two days after his inauguration, seeking to rein in the government’s attempt to execute Kim Dae Jung lest international investors again panic because of Chun’s impulsive behavior.” Though he glossed over the investors’ worries and tried to portray this as being part of the embassy’s dastardly plan (which, rather neatly, turned the saving of Kim Dae-jung into something that was just part of a plot to neoliberalize the Korean economy), it seems clear that these worries by “international bankers, investors, and traders” came up more than once. The possibility that investor pressure was a force for good in Korea suggests that the relationship between actors in the financial, diplomatic, and military realms and the application or lifting of political repression in Korea was far more complex than the author portrayed it. It seems, however, that this kind of complexity was not something the author wanted to explore. He laid out the tale of perfidy and woe he was set on weaving in another section of the paper, after previously noting that “Both Wickham and Gleysteen were conveniently absent from Korea” when Chun became president:
In the case of Korea in 1980… the month of August stands out as a decisive moment. […] Wickham audaciously endorsed Chun and left Korea the next day. While both Gleysteen and Wickham were out of the country, Chun took care of all his business that month, putting Kim Dae Jung on trial beginning on August 14, getting Acting President Choi to resign on August 16, and, after getting himself promoted to four-star general, quitting the military—so he could be elected president as a civilian by the electoral college on August 27. […]How is anyone supposed to take this seriously? The author then summed this up with an excerpt of Carter’s letter to Chun that omitted any reference to the calls for democratic development and concern over Kim Dae-jung’s fate that made up over half of its text so as to highlight the “true” nature of American collusion with Chun Doo-hwan:
As I brought together my research notes dealing with this time period, I came to the conclusion that the unfolding scenario of Chun’s assumption of his new hegemonic position was so closely coordinated and synchronized that his choreographer must have watched the movie The Godfather and borrowed from it the elaborate orchestration of Michael Corleone’s killing of all his family enemies while he was in church.
President Carter’s congratulatory letter to President-Elect Chun couldn’t have put it better: “As you assume your responsibilities as president of the Republic of Korea, I want personally to assure you of our desire to maintain the basic economic and security interests of both of our nations.”For one last example of the author’s bias, the endnote for his description of Wickham’s interview with Terry Anderson and Sam Jameson [mentioned in Part 2], which he portrayed as part of a plot to support Chun (he conveniently failed to mention Chun’s role in unmasking Wickham as the source of the off-the-record interview), assured readers that the “best account of Wickham’s endorsement of Chun” was not the eight pages Wickham devoted to the incident in his book Korea on the Brink, nor the four pages Gleysteen devoted to it in Massive Entanglement, Marginal Influence, nor journalist Sam Jameson’s account of his interview with Wickham and Chun’s manipulation of it in Korea Witness, but rather this single paragraph written by Lee Jae-eui on page 39 of The Kwangju Uprising: Eyewitness press Accounts of Korea’s Tiananmen:
Under a joint-command structure set up with the U.N. during the Korean War, Wickham was the general in command of most of South Korea’s 600,000 soldiers. Nominally, a U.N. commander, he was, like others who hold the post, ﬁrst and foremost an American general. It was to him that Korean military people looked, to give them a lead. Meanwhile, Wickham, for his part, needed someone to deal with, it really didn’t terribly matter who that person was, he had to be there. Chun was there. When he walked into a room, heads turned. He had a certain physical magnetism. Other Korean soldiers looked to him . . . Wickham responded to that. Once the Kwangju uprising had receded - in the summer of 1980 - Wickham let it be known that he expected Chun to step up into the presidency, displacing his puppet acting president (Choi Gyu Ha). He let his views come out through the American press - at an interview he gave to two of the contributors to this book, Terry Anderson of the Associated Press and Sam Jameson of the Los Angeles Times. Wickham gave that interview on condition that it was sourced only to a senior U.S. ofﬁcial, not himself by name. However, on the following day, Chun, meeting with Henry Scott-Stokes and Shim Jae Hoon of the New York Times, let it be known that he appreciated Wickham’s endorsement. Weeks later Chun made himself president. [Ellipsis in original.]This version, which does not contain Wickham’s assertion that it was an answer to “one last question” as the reporters were getting up to leave, the threat Chun’s unmasking of him posed to his career, the way it was disavowed by the State Department and Pentagon, or even a date, was described by the author as the “best account” because it accorded with the author’s belief that Wickham’s actions were all part of a plot to place Chun in the Blue House.
All of this is unfortunate, because the article does make it clear enough that the desire to bring about changes related to Korea’s economy, particularly so as to make it more attractive to US investors, was a focus omitted from the 1989 White Paper and Gleysteen, Wickham, and Young’s books. In his Power Point presentation that is online, he posted an excerpt of the following telegram:
Needless to say, this is not something that makes the embassy look very good (it should have known that "mistreatment" of prisoners was more than merely "possible"), and it suggests that the topic of US-ROK economic and financial relations at this time should be looked into in more detail and placed in the context of security and diplomatic considerations. As the examples noted above make clear, however, Katsiaficas is not the person to do it. For critical readers, his paper suggests a gap in the scholarship that needs to be filled in, but it will require someone less determined to arrive at a preset conclusion and less willing to engage in misrepresentation of sources to carry this out.