Sunday, September 22, 2019

Kim Yong-jang was not a military intelligence officer

Back in May I wrote a post about Kim Yong-jang, who had become something of a media darling after claiming he had been a intelligence officer in the US 501st Military Intelligence Brigade and revealing that Chun Doo-hwan flew to Gwangju Air Base on May 21, 1980, just before troops began opening fire on protesters. Some of his claims seemed fishy to me, but one in particular I knew not to be true - that the US had pulled its citizens out of Gwangju days before May 18 - I examined in depth here to prove the claim false.

After that I was contacted by journalist Kap Su Seol, whose name I immediately recognized - he was one of the translators of Lee Jae Eui's Kwangju Diary: Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness Of The Age (1999). He was even more suspicious of Kim's story than I was, did a great deal of digging, and wrote articles for the Kyunghyang Sinmun documenting his findings (here, and here). The latter article is translated in part here (though the translation doesn't feature photos of the (English-language) documents he uncovered; best look at the original articles).

What he found was that Kim Yong-jang
never worked as an intelligence officer of the 501st Military Intelligence Brigade. Kim joined the 501st Intelligence Brigade as an interpreter in 1974 and retired as an interpreter in the mid-1990s. He was not in a position or had the authority to personally draw up official reports for the 524th Military Intelligence Battalion, the United States Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM) and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). The only evidence Kim submitted to the Prosecution Service as a witness was a commendation for twenty years of service.
What that commendation reveals, however (as any reader of English can see), is that Kim was a civilian language specialist. Seol conducted interviews with US military personnel and went on to document not only how Kim's story changed, but also how the media outlets getting the scoop tried to cover for Kim.

Needless to say, considering how what Kim was saying was what so many wanted to hear, some people were not happy with Seol's investigation and let him know it. He has finally been vindicated, however, by a post at Newspaper and Broadcasting, a blog by the Korea Press Foundation.

The post highlights the need to engage in fact checking of whistle-blowers' stories as a "basic principle of journalism" and gives four examples of how this was and wasn't done. The first is of how in 2017 the Washington Post checked the background of a tipster seeking to give them a dramatic story about Republican U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore and discovered she was working with an organization out to embarrass the Post. The second is of how CBS failed to do this in 2004 in regard to a tip about George W. Bush's national guard service, resulting in the resignation of Dan Rather. The third is related to the Hutton inquiry which blamed the BBC for not fact checking a story. In the midst of the mess, the whistle blower committed suicide, and the end result was the resignation of BBC chairman Gavyn Davies and BBC director-general Greg Dyke, as well as journalist Andrew Gilligan.

The final example is related to Kim Yong-jang, and gives more background on how he came to speak out this year. Initially, the producers of the MBC show "PD Notebook" were working on a report about the Kwangju Uprising and were made aware of Kim Yong Jang and his testimony that Chun Doo-hwan went to Kwangju airbase just before the army opened fire on protesters on May 21. Despite their excitement at this scoop, however, they tried to verify his story and came up short. They checked the air force flight records but found no entry for Chun (though there was an entry for President Choi Gyu-ha's visit to Kwangju). Ultimately, the PD Notebook team verified that there was little evidence to support Kim's claims. After they decided not to interview him, Kim Yong-jang came to Korea, held a press conference at the National Assembly, and appeared on "JTBC News Room" and "Kim Eo-jun's News Factory." The article then pointed to Seol Kap Su's Kyunghyang Sinmun article as helping to confirm that Kim was not who he said he was. The article ended by stating that the lesson of these four cases was that the problem was not the whistle blower, but the media, and the media needed to carefully vet such sources.

It's nice to get some more background about how Kim came to Korea this year, and nice to see Seol vindicated. Kim's story was too good to be true, as it turns out, but luckily cracks in it began to appear almost immediately. We may have to accept that no proof directly linking Chun to the shooting order will ever surface. Better that than allowing tainted testimony to stand unquestioned.