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 4: Commentary on US involvement in Kwangju, 1998-1999
In 1998 Donald Sohn, then a second lieutenant in the US Army with experience working at the US Embassy in Seoul, as well as for Combined Forces Command in Korea, wrote a Master’s Thesis titled “Chun Doo Hwan's Manipulation of the Kwangju Popular Uprising.” In it, Sohn used his experience and the Cherokee Files to argue that perceptions of American complicity in the bloodshed in Kwangju were "constructed and molded" by the Chun Doo-hwan regime through its control of media. Chun’s purges of the military and KCIA also meant that "he effectively controlled all intelligence, diplomatic, and military communication channels and proceeded to manipulate the Carter administration into viewing Korea from a perspective advantageous to serve his own political purpose.” This “control of intelligence outflow led to distorted decision-making processes in Washington” which “reached its peak during the Kwangju massacre.” Sohn criticized weaknesses in USFK’s human intelligence gathering and highlighted the “disproportionate amount of influence” a strategically-placed Korean source could have.
Sohn highlighted the political vacuum created by the deaths of the president and head of presidential security and the arrest of the KCIA head left the military as the main source of power, since no political figure could control the military. Once the Embassy, USFK and CIA established new access channels, the purges after Chun’s 12.12 coup cut many of these off, which Gleysteen complained resulted in the previous six weeks of effort being “washed down the drain.” Sohn argued Chun tried to insulate himself from the prying eyes of the US while he consolidated his power and that Chun used assertions of a threat from the North to keep US attention in that direction. Chun also sent officers on a mission to Washington to enlist the aid of conservative US generals who argued that State Department policy could be ignored, and arranged a visit to Korea by former CFC Commander General Richard Stillwell, a critic of the Carter administration.
Sohn went on to argue that because the Carter administration was supporting President Choi and did not want a military takeover, Kwangju was staged in part to get the US to acquiesce to control by the military. Chun then portrayed this acquiescence as enthusiastic support, support that was necessary for the deeply unpopular Chun to ascend to the presidency.
Sohn criticized Shorrock for “looking back at the sea of data and picking out any marginally relevant information to implicate the U.S.,” and took issue with his use of a DIA cable on SWC troops possibly being moved to Kwangju to argue that the US knew troops were being moved to Kwangju. He included the full paragraph the relevant sentence appeared in to reveal a larger context:
Only the 7th BDE remained away from the Seoul area if you consider the 5th BDE at Inchon as being in the Capital Area. [Blacked Out (typically it would be the sources name) states] the 7th BDE was probably targeted against unrest at Chonju and Kwangju Universities. The 11th BDE held a staff/ Commanders meeting on Sunday, 4 May 80.According to Sohn, “The format and contents of this report is not characteristic of a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) generated report; it is rather more likely what the intelligence community refers to as ‘raw unevaluated intelligence.’” He argued that the Joint Chiefs of Staff would never have seen this in its unevaluated form. While he agreed with Shorrock that the US had approved the dispatch of CFC troops to Kwangju, he argued that this decision was based on “inaccurate and deliberately skewed intelligence” fed to the US by the ROK military. This was made possible by Chun’s control over the DSC and KCIA. Importantly, after Chun took over the KCIA he had replaced 33 out of 40 senior officials and restructured the organization.
Sohn also noted that “Chun Doo-hwan was adept in using the media; his US Psychological Warfare Training probably became very useful to control the Korean and United States media.” Because Chun controlled all the intelligence mechanisms, he was able to feed President Choi exaggerated reports of student unrest and convince him to support the declaration of martial law. He also used the information cordon around Kwangju to paint a false picture of the protests in Kwangju and the actions of the SWC soldiers:
Chun described the situation in Kwangju to Ambassador Gleysteen "as a city completely taken over by armed rioters who were ﬁring automatic weapons into the paratroopers, and that the government wanted to be restrained, giving the order to ﬁre only if ﬁred upon and even then to aim for the lower half of the body.” This prompted Ambassador Gleysteen on May 22, 1980 to send the following Conﬁdential Comment to Secretary of State Muskie: "Desire for restraint at present seems sincere on part of ROK Army leaders: Containment rather than suppression is the strategy for the present, and the retention of the home and defense ministers in the new cabinet suggests it may continue. Limited ﬁring order given to troops in Kwangju strengthen this impression." It was with this perception that General Wickham consented to release the Twentieth Division of the ROK Army from its duties in the Seoul area.He highlighted that it was not only the above reasons that led to a rise in anti-Americanism, but also the inconsistency of US government actions, shifting as they did from Carter’s human rights diplomacy to Reagan’s focus on the anti-Communist military alliance. He ended by commenting on the unrealistic expectation that the US would have intervened and stating, “Repulsive as it may sound, the calamitous events in Kwangju may be looked upon as the catalyst that was needed to wean the Korean consciousness from dependency.”
In 1999 James Fowler published “The United States and South Korean Democratization” which used the Cherokee Files to “analyze the initial failure and subsequent success of South Korea’s transition to democracy” by examining “two distinct cycles of liberalization.” The first cycle began in 1979, when the government, under US pressure, “responded to opposition demands by relaxing the application of laws against dissent and securing the release of over 1,000 political prisoners.” This emboldened the opposition and the resulting crackdown set in motion the events that led to Park Chung-hee’s assassination, Chun Doo-hwan’s 12.12 coup, the May 17, 1980 expansion of martial law, the Kwangju Uprising, and Chun’s ascension to the presidency. The second cycle of liberalization began in early 1986, “when the opposition launched a petition campaign for a constitution with direct elections,” culminated with the massive protests of June 1987, and ultimately proved successful in bringing about direct elections. As Fowler summarized it in the introduction,
U.S. actions did have an impact on events, though the approval of CFC forces was only incidentally important. Instead, the essential policy tool was the use of public criticism. Ironically, this tool was abandoned under a Carter administration oriented towards human rights and then used by a Reagan administration oriented towards security. The counterintuitive result can be explained by the impact of the Iranian crisis on policy makers in 1979-1980 and the effect of Philippine democratization on policy makers in 1986-1987. Thus this article seeks to illuminate the process whereby conflicts in other countries that had no direct bearing on South Korea ultimately affected the outcome of its own domestic political process.Utilizing political science literature, Fowler examined the role of the government and the opposition in transitions to democracy, perceiving the government as divided into two factions—hardliners and reformers—and the opposition as divided into moderates and radicals. He argued that
the reformer faction is critically important to successful transitions to democracy. To maximize their own benefit in a potential transition, reformers must marginalize radicals by making concessions to moderates. Otherwise, opposition strategies will become more extreme as radicals lose patience with the process, increasing the risk of civil disorder. However, the natural tendency of the opposition to demand greater and greater concessions may increase the probability that hardliners will respond by cracking down to avoid a loss of power. Caught in a high-risk balancing act, reformers must be able to face down or change the hardliners if they are to continue making concessions and complete the process of transition. Thus, a weak reformer faction is a recipe for failure, while a strong reformer faction can dramatically improve the probability of democratization.As Fowler pointed out, however, after his 12.12 coup, “Chun Doo Hwan was able to purge reformers in the military and in the KCIA, meaning that there were no reformers left to oppose garrison decree and the crackdown at Kwangju.”
While the article covers a great deal of ground (and provides an excellent summary of events from mid-1979 to May 17, 1980), what follows are only a few of his pertinent observations.
He noted that the participation of citizens in demonstrations in Pusan and Masan in 1979 and Kwangju in 1980 reflected the results of a public opinion poll in early 1980 that showed that “for the first time, Koreans viewed a greater share in political decision making and a larger measure of personal freedom as more important than economic priorities.”
He offered criticism of Choi Gyu-ha’s weakness, of how his absent voice in May 1980 was “adding to the general sense of suspicion rather than setting forth clearly what needs to be done,” as Gleysteen put it, but argued that any “indictment of Choi…misunderstands that he could only be as strong as the reformers who could help him stand down the hardliners,” and that after Chun’s purge of the military in December 1979, “Choi was on his own.”
In addressing the Combined Forces Command, he wrote,
In theory, the South Korean government was supposed to obtain U.S. approval before removing forces from the CFC command. However, there was no logistical reason that would prevent the government from removing units first and notifying the United States later. The CFC procedure was used for the first time prior to the Pusan and Masan riots. Ambassador Gleysteen observed that CFC Commander General John A. Wickham had been consulted and the new system worked “in an orderly manner.” Six weeks later General Chun demonstrated that the CFC command could be completely ignored when he moved Korean forces away from the border in order to support his takeover of the military.While Fowler notes that the Cherokee Files “indicate that the United States was aware of a large-scale preparation for a crackdown, which they explicitly did not oppose,” he argues against the idea that US opposition would have mattered:
[A]rguments about this choice have misunderstood the positive constraints on U.S. actions. Chun did not ask for or receive approval to move CFC forces on 12 December. By May he would have felt even less pressure to avoid a crackdown, because he had already purged reformers in the Korean military. Thus it is not likely that General Chun would have complied, even if General Wickham had told him no. The American choice was constrained by the lack of actors within the Korean military who could have used an American signal of disapproval to convince Chun not to crack down. Since U.S. decision makers believed that they could not change the outcome, the choice between giving a tacit green light or ruining relations with Chun was obvious. On the other hand, if the United States could have done something earlier to strengthen reformers, the option to disapprove would have been more lucrative, because it would have increased the probability of a successful transition to democracy.He also argues that, while “the fear of North Korea and the importance of security in Northeast Asia prevented the United States from seriously considering the use of economic or military sanctions to promote liberalization,” it could have tried to apply more public pressure as it had in 1979, prior to Park’s assassination, and in 1987, prior to the transition to democracy. In 1979, for example, the State Department had reacted to Kim Young Sam’s expulsion from the National Assembly by expressing “deep regret” and claiming that the expulsion was “inconsistent with the principles of democratic government.” Ambassador Gleysteen was also recalled to Washington, a first for a US ambassador in Korea.
Fowler argued that “in 1979 and 1987, public statements by the American government contributed to the progress of Korean transitions by catalyzing the radical opposition and influencing reformers to act against hardliners,” but in 1979 “U.S. public pressure declined dramatically” following Park’s assassination. According to Director of Korean Affairs Robert Rich, the Carter administration officials attending his funeral “decided that an opportunity existed for democratization, which meant that ‘we had to shut our mouths a bit’ and instead pursue liberalization through increased private diplomatic pressure, a policy which continued to the end of Carter’s term and much of Reagan’s.
In 1979 much of this quiet diplomacy took place at Gleysteen’s behest. One reason he was counted on so much was because, as he put it, “Iran distracted the Administration while it disciplined them,” and it also motivated US officials and Korean reformers like Kim Young-sam to make comparisons between Korea and Iran. Not everyone agreed with this, however (such as Gleysteen), but the White House feared the destabilizing effect of demonstrations and urged Gleysteen to counsel moderation to the opposition. Gleysteen also feared an anti-American reaction from the ROK military if the US pushed too hard for political liberalization.
As for events in 1987, Fowler argued that “Just as the failure of Iran made the Carter administration more risk averse, the success in the Philippines caused the Reagan administration to be more aggressive in South Korea.”
It would seem the declassification of the Cherokee Files resulted in their use not only by academics and journalists, but also by the former officials who appear in them. In 1999, books by former Ambassador Gleysteen and General Wickham were published, and they will make up the next post.
Continue to Part 5.