Kim Yong-chang, a former agent of the U.S. 501st military intelligence brigade, has been featured in the news over the past week after giving testimony about his intelligence-gathering during the Kwangju Uprising at both the National Assembly and the May 18 Memorial Culture Center in Kwangju. In particular, as noted in the Korea Times and the Korea Herald, Kim reported that Chun Doo-hwan flew in a helicopter to Kwangju Air Base at noon on May 21, just an hour before troops opened fire on protesters in Kwangju; he argued it made sense that Chun issued the order to fire during this visit.
Needless to say, many people were quite happy to hear his testimony; I certainly was. There were a few things he said, however, that seemed questionable to me, and now I have good reason to treat some of his claims with caution.
This is because on May 18, Ohmynews published an article I've excerpted below based on a telephone interview with him the previous day:
Kim Yong-jang: "3-4 days before 5.18, only US citizens were evacuated from Kwangju"Kim said further that the "the United States knew the plans of the new military authorities in advance and evacuated only US citizens from Gwangju." He was contacted 3-4 days before May 18 and after that US citizens in Kwangju were pulled out. They were all evacuated, but 12 Mormon missionaries were stopped by Martial Law forces at Sangmudae and couldn't evacuate. He received further orders to pull them out, and did so on the 25th.
Heo Jang-hwan: "'The US looked on as the new military authorities sent troops'...providing additional evidence to investigate the role of the US."
"3-4 days before the Kwangju Uprising, an order was issued to evacuate all American citizens residing in Gwangju. These were the instructions of the US Department of Defense. The evacuation order was only for Kwangju. The US knew the Kwangju Uprising was going to break out before it happened." [...]
The testimony of Kim Yong-jang that the US Department of Defense had issued evacuation instructions for Americans even before the first clash at Chonnam University on May 18 is a major clue that at that time the US had detected the moves of the new military authorities before they happened. In particular, when examining the ROK - US Defense Treaty which regulates US-Korean relations, this can be interpreted as US approval, condoning, or aiding in the operations of the new military authorities.
The claim by Kim that the US evacuated its citizens from Kwangju before May 18 is not at all true. 12 Mormon missionaries were at Kwangju Airbase by May 26, but this seems to be the only aspect of his claim that has any basis in fact. US citizens were not only not evacuated from Kwangju before May 18, they were not urged to leave until either May 22 or 23, and by May 26, the day before the military re-invaded the city, there were still at least 33 US citizens in Kwangju. This claim by Kim is, in essence, the Kwangju Uprising's version of "Jews didn't go into work at the World Trade Center on September 11." It is a claim with grave implications for portrayals of the American role in the Kwangju Uprising. We can see above how Ohmynews is using it to argue that the US knew about Chun's crackdown before it happened, protected only their own citizens, and, since it did nothing else, must have been "approv[ing], condoning, or aiding in the operations of the new military authorities."
To summarize the sources below, according to Embassy cables, the US Embassy had almost no warning of the expansion of Martial Law on May 17. According to the memoir of missionary Arnold Peterson, who lived with several missionary families on a compound in Kwangju, four Baptists from Florida came to Kwangju May 16 for an evangelistic crusade scheduled for May 18-21. Peace Corps Volunteer Paul Courtright was at the Peace Corps office in Seoul on May 15 and was not warned against returning to Kwangju the next day.
David Miller, the US consular representative in Kwangju, stayed indoors for several days after May 18 before making his way to the air base on May 24. On May 22, Peterson received a call from a US soldier he was friends with at Kwangju Air Base saying they were considering rescuing the missionaries; Peterson said this was not necessary. Since Miller was was leaving the city, on May 23, Peterson became "involved in efforts by the U.S. Embassy to locate and confirm the safety of citizens of the United States and other countries who remained in Kwangju."
According to US Embassy cables to the State Department written by US Ambassador Gleysteen, on May 25 he wrote that had been "urging [American citizens] repeatedly to leave Kwangju in the last few days," which accords with Peterson's dates. He added that on "May 25 MOFA [ROK Ministry of Foreign Affairs] requested that we urge all Americans to leave Kwangju and Mokpo as quickly as possible." He noted that "Twelve Mormon missionaries and five Canadian citizens are at the airbase at this time" but that most Americans were planning to remain in the city. He later wrote that "A USAF C-130 arrived at Osan from Kwangju at 1800 on May 26 carrying 23 evacuees." On the evening of May 26 MOFA called the embassy again, "asking for names and addresses of all Americans believed to be still in Kwangju" in order to assure their safety in the coming military operation. The "Embassy provided MOFA with a list of 33 names."
Therefore, not only did the US not evacuate its citizens from Kwangju before the uprising, it only urged them to leave from May 22 or 23 and then redoubled their efforts when the ROK Ministry of Foreign Affairs requested them to do so. In the end, at least 33 US citizens remained in the city when the military returned on May 27.
Contrary to Kim's claims, the US Embassy was given about an hour's notice of the expansion of martial law on May 17, and that was only because they were making queries about the student leaders arrested at Ehwa university. As Gleysteen described it in a cable to the State Department, "The military leaders have shown disregard for constituted authority in the ROK – and for us. We have been presented with a fait accompli suggesting that the military leaders either do not know or care about the consequences of treating us in this manner." But, after suggesting various ways in which they could protest the ROK's actions, he wrote, "I regret to say at this point our influence appears disturbingly limited."
The following is from the account of missionary Arnold A Peterson, titled "5.18: The Kwangju Incident," published in English in 1990, and available in both English and Korean in: 아놀드 A. 피터슨, 5.18 광주사태 (풀빛, 1995).
A Baptist evangelistic crusade was to be held May 18-21 in Kwangju and four Baptists from Florida came to Kwangju for this on the 16th. They were staying at the Tourist Hotel downtown – not the best choice, as it would turn out. They got a blast of pepper gas while walking from church to their hotel on May 18. The crusade had to be cancelled and the Baptists from Florida and some missionary children left Kwangju on May 22.
According to Peterson, on May 22,
At 5:00 p.m. Dave Hill, a friend who was a First Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force at SongJeong Ri called. He told us that the U.S. Air Force was considering making a forced entry of Kwangju to rescue the Americans in YangNim Dong. I said that there was no need for such action. The idea for the "rescue" was the result of false fears created by reports made to the Air Force by David Miller, the American consular representative in Kwangju who had left the city and gone to the airbase. [Page 225]Actually, according to the diary of Linda Lewis, a former Peace Corps Volunteer doing PhD fieldwork in Kwangju, Miller left Kwangju on May 24. (Excerpts of her diary are reprinted in her book Laying Claim to the Memory of May: A Look Back at the 1980 Kwangju Uprising (2002).
According to Peterson, on May 23,
I spent much of the afternoon making telephone calls on behalf of the U.S. Embassy. I had become involved in efforts by the U.S. Embassy to locate and confirm the safety of citizens of the United States and other countries who remained in Kwangju. The embassy's consular representative had fled Kwangju early in the week so the embassy had no official representative left in the city.According to Jean Underwood in her chapter, "An American Missionary’s View" in the book Contentious Kwangju: The May 18 Uprising in Korea's Past and Present (2003), there were at least 5 families of missionaries on their compound, so they would have made up a large share of the Americans in Kwangju.
The method of the contacts with the Embassy was strange. During the pre-dawn hours on Wednesday, May 21, all long distance telephone lines between Kwangju and the rest of the nation were cut off by the military. The American military base at SongJeong Ri was outside the military perimeter which surrounded Kwangju. However, their telephone system was a part of the Kwangju local phone system. As a result, our friend, Dave Hill, a First Sergeant in the Air Force, was able to telephone us.
However, the telephone system on the American base was subject to the control of the Korean military. The Korean military tried to prevent calls between the American military and Kwangju citizens as a method of limiting the flow of information into and out of Kwangju. However, the American commander protested sufficiently that the Korean military agreed to allow the American base to make calls to our telephone number. After some additional negotiation, the Korean switchboard operator was also allowed to accept calls from my telephone and connect me through to the American base. In this way, we were able to communicate one or two times a day.
The embassy contacted me several times through the American Air Base. Each time they gave me the name, phone number, or other information about persons whose safety they wished to confirm. I then called or otherwise tried to contact these persons to gain information to pass along to the Embassy. Altogether, I made contact with eight other foreigners in Kwangju at the request of the American Embassy. [Pages 227-8]
The following information comes from US Embassy Cables to the State Department by Ambassador Gleysteen. Those from May 1980 are collected here.
On May 25, Gleysteen wrote,
The Korean foreign ministry has now piously requested that all foreigners leave Kwangju for their own safety. American embassy and military authorities in Korea have formed a task force which is working late Sunday night on this problem. Initial conclusions are, however, that there is no way to extract the remaining Americans safely and that there is somewhat greater safety no[w] in their lying low in place. Those remaining (25-30 persons, including five Peace Corps Volunteers, missionaries and academics) had unwisely disregarded strong warnings from the American ambassador urging them repeatedly to leave Kwangju in the last few days while it was feasible to do [so]. The five Peace Corps Volunteers defied a direct order to leave. Once out of Kwangju, they will be sent home.American citizens being urged "repeatedly to leave Kwangju in the last few days" would accord with Peterson's calls starting on the 23rd (though he makes no mention of requests by the Embassy to leave). As well, according to Linda Lewis, US consular representative in Kwangju David Miller had urged her "to get a bag packed" on May 22.
On May 26, Gleysteen wrote,
Shortly after 1800 May 25 MOFA requested that we urge all Americans to leave Kwangju and Mokpo as quickly as possible. With the help of BPAO Miller, who had just left Kwangju, and consular records, we were able to pass a list of those Americans thought still to be in Kwangju to the American OIC [Officer in Charge] at the nearby ROKAF base. Twenty-five of the Americans were contacted by the OIC. (No calls are permitted from Seoul to Kwangju, but we have a line to the airbase and a Ministry of Communications line to Kwangju for emergency use.) Six remain to be reached, but, of course, there may be other U.S. citizens there not presently known to embassy. Some of those contacted decided they would try to reach the military base, although they would have to pass through barriers manned by radicals and ROK military astride all routes leading out of the city. Twelve Mormon missionaries and five Canadian citizens are at the airbase at this time. Others have decided to remain in their homes for safety or other reasons. Four Peace Corps Volunteers could not be reached. (We have talked with PCV Paul Courtwright. [sic]) We are making another attempt to contact all those we have not spoken with and will report as Americans reach the base.Later that day, he wrote,
A USAF C-130 arrived at Osan from Kwangju at 1800 on May 26 carrying 23 evacuees (including four Canadians and one South African.[...]I asked Paul Courtright, one of Peace Corps Volunteers in Kwangju at the time, for his thoughts on the claim that the US issued an evacuation order before May 18, and he replied, "That is the first I've ever heard of such an order and I think there is little credibility." He added the following:
There are four Peace Corps Volunteers in Kwangju: Tim Warnberg, David Dolinger, Judith Chamberlin and Julie Pickering. Peace Corps has 24 other volunteers in Chollas and has contacted all but one, asking them to come to Seoul.[...]
MOFA called Embassy evening of May 26 asking for names and addresses of all Americans believed to be still in Kwangju. MOFA officials indicated that information would be passed along to Martial Law Command in attempt to assure AmCits’ safety. Embassy provided MOFA with a list of 33 names - - all the Americans there that we are aware of at this moment. If we learn of any others, we will notify MOFA immediately.
I was in Seoul on May 14-15. On the 15th I was at the [Peace Corps] office. I took the 고속 bus from Seoul to Gwangju on May 16. PC knew I was going to Gwangju. The point of this: if there was such an evacuation order, the PC would have told me not to go. There was no mention of any evacuation.As for when the Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) in Kwangju were first told to evacuate, he wrote, "The first we heard of the order to leave was on 23 May. Judi Chamberlin was the person who told us. Judi may have got the message on 22 May but she did not come over to Tim's to tell us until 23 May."
Peace Corps Volunteer David Dolinger wrote that he was in contact with the Peace Corps office in Seoul on May 22. All of the above accounts point to May 22 or 23 as the date when the US Embassy and the Peace Corps office began urging (or ordering, in the case of the PCVs) American citizens to leave Kwangju. Needless to say, this was five or six days into the uprising, not three or four days before.
Some of Kim Yong-jang's other statements, particularly one reported in the Korea Herald about how he "said he filed 40 reports to the US officials, three of which were read by then-US President Carter," made me rather suspicious. How would an intelligence gatherer know his report had been read by the president? As far as I know, most raw intelligence reports would be sifted through and compiled into prepared reports for the Pentagon, and then passed upward; it would be unusual for raw intelligence reports to be passed upwards, particularly to the president. Seeing how Kim has now made a clearly incorrect statement - one seemingly meant to show the US in a negative light - his claim that President Carter read his reports, which included information about "the military’s corpse disposal, helicopter shooting, sexual assaults and takeover of Gwangju Prison" should be treated with skepticism.