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 10: The Manipulator: Chun Doo-hwan and the US media
In a recent discussion, the story of an interview with General Wickham in early August 1980 was brought up with the assertion that it was "very possible that this served as a green light for Chun" to take over the presidency.
I don’t think that incident was taken by Chun as a green light – he was already well on the way to taking power, particularly with the civilian-military council set up after the Gwangju Uprising that officially had him sharing power with President Choi. As well, rumors were already floating around that President Choi was going to resign before the interview in question took place.
On July 15, 1980, Ambassador Gleysteen left Korea to go on vacation in the US. In his absence, Gleysteen wrote, “Wickham’s profile was higher than normal among US officials in Seoul, and this quite natural phenomenon would not have raised eyebrows if Chun had not been in the midst of his endgame for taking over the presidency and if several American correspondents had not been in town hungry for a story.” Amid Chun’s control of the media and his repeated distortions that made it appear as if the US was eager to support him, “we inadvertently provided Chun with a tool that he employed shamelessly to his tactical advantage.” [p 161]
LA Times reporter Sam Jameson’s chapter in Korea Witness: 135 Years of War, Crisis and News in the Land of the Morning Calm, titled “The Manipulator,” describes how he “unwittingly became entangled in one of Chun’s major manipulations.” [See pages 235-238.] It was he and Terry Anderson who interviewed General Wickham off the record on August 7, 1980, and Anderson asked “one last question” as they got up to leave. As Wickham remembered it in his memoir [pages 155-163], “I knew enough to be wary of the ‘one last question’ routine, and I should have declined to answer.” Would the US support Chun if he successfully consolidated his power and became president of the ROK? Jameson quoted the “highly placed military official” as saying “Yes - provided he come to power legitimately and demonstrate, over time, a broad base of support from the Korean people and does not jeopardize the military situation here (against North Korea) – we will support him, because that, of course, is what we think the Korean people want.” Though, Wickham noted, the US had been keeping its distance from Chun, he and Gleysteen had come to the conclusion that the US would have little choice but to support him if he took over the presidency, and while in retrospect he realized he should not have said so, he assumed his anonymity would be protected. The fallout from this interview led him to be recalled to the US (he went to Hawaii), where he waited to see if he still had a job or not. Gleysteen, Holbrooke, and others defended him and he kept his job.
According to Jameson,
[I]n Washington the State Department retorted, “Whoever makes such a statement to Mr. Jameson is not speaking for the United States government.” … Anderson’s story was spiked by his editor of foreign news for AP’s domestic wire in the United States because it failed to identify the person of who made the statement, Terry told me later. But a different editor sent the story overseas on an AP wire for foreign clients. That story wound up in Korean newsrooms.In his memoir, Wickham accused Jameson and Anderson of having shared their tape of the interview with Scott-Stokes, but as Jameson put it,
The next day, Henry Scott-Stokes of The New York Times, who had not been in Seoul when the Wickham interview was arranged, obtained a statement from Chun Doo Hwan that Wickham had made the comment about U.S. support for him. Henry then wrote a story quoting Chun as identifying Wickham saying the U.S. would support Chun. The story did not explain how Chun was able to make that identification. After the AP editor for the domestic foreign news wire in the United States saw The New York Times identification of Wickham as the source for the statement, the editor pulled Terry’s story off the spike, inserted Wickham’s name and sent the story out, Terry explained to me later.
In Seoul, all morning and evening newspapers gave lead play on page 1 one to Terry’s story quoting a high U.S. military official as supporting Chun. The next day the same blanket coverage of my Los Angeles Times story was repeated.
I had loaned my tape of the Wickham interview to Terry, who proposed to make a transcript of half of the interview while I made a transcript of the other half to save both of us time in preparing a written record of Wickham’s remarks. I did not see Henry at all until after his story using Chun to identify Wickham appeared in The New York Times. Years later - on February 28, 2001 - Terry, Henry and I met in the foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo as Terry was passing through town. I specifically asked Terry - in Henry’s presence - whether he had given Henry a copy of the interview tape or had loaned the tape to Henry. Terry said that he had done neither. Henry said he couldn’t remember how he got Chun to identify Wickham.My guess is that since the interview with the “highly placed military official” had already been published by AP in Korea, Scott-Stokes was aware of it, and asked Chun about it (or perhaps Chun himself brought it up). As for how Chun knew it was Wickham, I imagine there’s a pretty simple answer to the question of how the man who had headed Korea’s military and civilian intelligence agencies knew which reporters Wickham was meeting with.
The way Chun exploited that reveal was pretty breathtaking, as recorded in Scott Stoke’s August 9 New York Times article, titled "General Says South Korea Needs 'New Leaders' And He Is Willing":
Some reports here have suggested that the United States might support General Chon's promotion. Yesterday The Associated Press quoted an unnamed United States military official - according to General Chon it was General Wickham - as saying of General Chon's possible ascent to the presidency: ''Provided that he demonstrates over time a broad base of support from the Korean people and does not jeopardize the security of the situation here, we will support him because that, of course, is what we think the Korean people want.''Scott-Stokes’ article ends this way:
"That's very flattering," General Chon said of the reported remarks of the American. "I can use support any time. It could also mean that I'm a little more liked, more popular, that's pleasing, but now rules will have to be obeyed."
"I can tell you this with certainty," he said. "I have no political interest as such." President Park made similar disavowals of political ambition right after taking power in a 1961 coup. He was head of state for 18 years.As Jameson put it, "Henry’s New York Times story...let the cat out of the bag". Following this, Korean newspapers (still under Martial Law censorship) announced Wickham’s support for Chun. As the Korea Herald put it on August 10,
Citizens of this Republic are increasingly trusting [of] and admire General Chun as the new leader needed for the new age. And we note with a sense of encouragement that a top U.S. military official in Seoul (General Wickham) shares our view about General Chun and asserts that the U.S. would support him if the Korean people elect him the next president. Although Americans have no right to interfere in our internal political affairs, a close accord of opinion is welcome for cooperative relationship between the two allies.When it comes to the ethics of Anderson and Jameson, I see nothing amiss with their stories – they followed the rules. Ultimately so did Scott-Stokes, but perhaps he should have been more aware of the way Chun was trying to manipulate him. He noted the repercussions of his reporting in The Kwangju Uprising: Eyewitness Press Accounts of Korea's Tiananmen, but left out this episode:
We appear to have helped to stir up trouble, as a newspaper. An interview that Jae and I did with Kim Young Sam in the early autumn of l979 led to his expulsion from the National Assembly. Need we have been so provocative? Mr. Kim's expulsion was followed by the outbursts of violence in Pusan and Masan that preceded the assassination of President Park. I had helped to raise the temperature. Some in Korea felt that we had stirred up emotions--our reports were immediately relayed back to Korea by phone by Korean Americans in the U.S.--and that we were (not so indirectly) responsible for Park Chung Hee's demise. There were repercussions.I find it interesting that no one has ever characterized Chun Doo-hwan's takeover of the Korean government as blowback, since earlier in his career this 'manipulator' was trained in psychological warfare in the US.