Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Retired Colonel James Young and former Korea Affairs Director Robert Rich discuss the Gwangju Uprising (2020)

Conversation about the Gwangju Uprising with retired Colonel James Young (Assistant Defense Attache at the US Embassy in Seoul, 1979-80) and former Ambassador Robert Rich (Director of Korean Affairs at the State Department, 1977-1981) (Rich also served as a political affairs officer in Seoul at another time of upheavals, 1959-62). Hosted by Johns Hopkins University in December 2020 and moderated by James Person. 

The talk can be found at YouTube here. It should be noted that James Young published his memoir about his years in Korea in 2003, titled Eye on Korea: An Insider Account of Korean-American Relations.

[The following has been edited for clarity, removing lots of ums and uhs and "..." denotes repeated words or other unnecessary elements.]

(They open with general statements about 1979-1980.)

James Young - It might be valuable I think to back up a little bit and kind of lay a little background before Gwangju to kind of set the stage. As you recall, after 12.12…in Seoul the next big event was 12.14 which I believe was even more significant, because that's when Chun Doo-hwan put all of his supporters into the power of positions in the army. So after 12.14 I was surprised that there was no more resistance to that move within the army, but they seemed to accept it. And things really, except for a couple of incidents, kind of calmed down in Korea, and until probably April of 1980 it looked like we were making some progress. The martial law had been modified to allow some political participation by the three Kims at that time: Kim Dae-jung, Kim Young-Sam, and Kim Jong-pil…. 

At any rate in the middle of April the first catalyst I believe for the events that resulted in Gwangju was the appointment of Chun Doo-hwan to the KCIA, and at that time there were two power centers in Korea – de facto power centers - that was the army and the KCIA - so once he got the KCIA appointed people that were his supporters there, he controlled them both. You know, everybody understood that, so that was kind of the catalyst for a lot more student demonstrations. There was some labor unrest. There was a big miner strike over on the east coast that turned violent and some deaths, and country-wide demonstrations, mostly student demonstrations but a few civilians as well. 

About three or four days before the Gwangju mess began [it actually seems to have been May 8 - see below] I was in my office sorting out some papers and I got a call from Colonel Lee who is the Foreign Liaison Office and he said Roh Tae-woo would like to see me. Roh Tae-woo at the time was Chun Doo-hwan’s number two. He was different from Chun. Chun was more outspoken and kind of abrasive and direct. Roh Tae-woo was much more thoughtful, I thought, a little different personality, saw a little wider picture than Chun, but of course he was the firm supporter and supported him by moving some of his troops during 12.12. I said sure, and when does he want to see me, and he says, ‘Well there's a car outside the embassy right now.’ I go downstairs, get in the car and off we went. 

When we got to his headquarters, which was the Capital Security Command, and its headquarters is located over by the old Korea House - which is kind of a tourist restaurant, but most people know where that is - when we entered I noticed first of all that they appeared to be in a high state of readiness. Their vehicles were all turned outwards for deployment, they had soldiers manning them, they had weapons. It was a little unusual state of readiness, I thought. We went up and sat down, had the customary ginseng tea, and I did mostly listening and Roh Tae-woo talked for about an hour and he talked about his early days at the Korean Military Academy, that it was founded by General Van Fleet, that … the curriculum… expressed the democratic ideals, he was familiar with the writings of Thomas Jefferson. And then he talked about the long-standing friendship between the U.S and Korea, but he also talked about how we were different and particularly our borders were different; we had relatively secure borders and friendly people on both sides. He said Korea was quite different with the North Korean threat, and he said, you know we will not allow instability to continue. 

I went back to the embassy - by then it was long after duty hours - wrote a report because I thought this information should be back in Washington pronto, sent the report on my own authority. Normally it would have been coordinated with the political section and the ambassador's office because the ambassador had met with Chun Doo-hwan a couple of days earlier and had sent a rather more optimistic cable, so I certainly wanted to clear it with him, but I didn't because it was a weekend and I thought we'd better get this off to Washington. 

About three days later, maybe two days later, on [Satur]day the 17th, they declared full martial law. This amounted to seizing all the media, closing down the universities, and in what is probably the most bone-headed political move ever, they arrested Kim Dae-Jung, Kim Young-sam, and Kim Jong-pil (more under house arrest) but Kim Dae Jung was a real target, and that was the catalyst for Gwangju. We did not know what was going on in Gwangju until I believe the 19th[. When it] started there was a reserve division and the local police, the provincial police, and they were unable or unwilling to control the demonstrations and that's apparently in retrospect when the Special Forces were committed. They were obviously not the right group - they had no riot training - they are trained to get North Koreans and do them in. Their officers lost control. It was a recipe for disaster and that's exactly what happened.

 We had no OPCON over those forces - they were deployed without our knowledge and we didn't even find out really what was happening until probably the 19th or 20th. And I had a friend, an officer who was from Gwangju who I met with on the 20th, and he said he had talked to his parents and it was really bad, and described the situation with bodies in the street and that sort of thing. So that's really, I think, about the 20th or 21st before we really figured out what the situation was. We didn't have any reporting assets in Gwangju. There was a USIS officer and there was a MI two-man office which was on the air base at Gwangju, and there were some missionaries, so this is where we were getting our information and that's the reason it took so long for us to react and to understand the severity of the of the situation. Later the 20th division went down and they pretty much - there were some negotiations and some other things, but I'll stop there and turn it over to Bob. But that's kind of what happened on the ground there. 

Great, and we'll come back and ask some follow-up questions. Thank you Colonel Young.

Ambassador Rich?

Robert Rich – Well, as Jim has stated, the American policy at this period was to try to persuade the military, who clearly had bitten its teeth in Korea after the assassination and was the power on the scene, but our effort was to try to persuade them to allow a constitutional civilian progress toward democracy - this was very important to the United States and it was very important to us also because we believed this is what the Korean people wanted, that there was a real popular desire for a move toward democracy, and while we could not control matters and internal affairs of another country, we used our assets to try to persuade the military that this is was in their own interest in the long term, to move towards a democratic dénouement of...that crisis period. The assumption of the KCIA post by General Chun we considered a very backward, unfortunate move. We… definitely did not did not think that was a good thing to have done and it was an ominous portent of what was to happen, and then the arrest of this of all three of the principal civilian candidates - I guess I can call even Kim Jong-pil civilian by that point - they arrested … Kim Dae-Jung and the others, and the institution of strict martial law, was a power play which we were definitely not informed about in advance. We did not approve of it - it was not in the American interest and we didn't think it was in Korea's interests. As Colonel Young has stated, we had no involvement in the Special Forces’ repression of the demonstrations in Gwangju. There were parts of the military that were not under Combined Forces Command because they were not part of part of the armed forces that functioned in the planning for the defense of the country.

I would really say [to] those who feel we should have somehow been able to prevent that that deployment, I can only say, as I think ambassador Gleysteen once said, ‘anyone who thinks that as a foreign country...we could have determined how another nation uses its internal security forces must be, … we would soon be thrown out very quickly. That would be rejected by any foreign country at all and General Wickham in his authority as Combined Force Commander had no authority over those Special Forces or how they were used.

In Washington I think the principal perception we had at the time was that we were very slow to really understand what was going on in Gwangju. We were even…further removed from it than Colonel Young… or our people in Seoul and most of the information we were receiving was what the Korean military wanted us to hear, and their version of events, and we were only getting fragmentary and belated information, so in real time we did not understand the nature of the brutality and the tragedy that was really going on down there. This sort of came slowly and belatedly to us.

As time went on, naturally, given our perspectives in those years, of conviction that the North Koreans would want to try to exploit any unrest in South Korea or any separation of the South Korean from the United States to carry out a long-term program of reconquest, and this feeling, this came out of a knowledge also that at that period of time the North Koreans had sacrificed tremendously to produce a military capability that was useful to do that very thing. They were a very dangerous potential opponent at that stage in history for use of an expensive… asset that they had acquired

So yes we were concerned that extended spreading unrest in the country could create an external threat and the United States did make an effort to make it clear in Pyongyang, in Moscow, and in Beijing that any interference would immediately bring a reaction of the most severe kind from the United States.

But this was…not to say that internally in South Korea… we found this military action most unfortunate. As the days went on, however, we could not deny that we felt that there needed to be a restoration of order in the country because of the external threat produced by a sense internationally, a perception that the country was in revolution or in disarray.

So, when it came to the restoring order in Gwangju, again without our understanding at the time of the depth of the initial problem that had been created by the Special Forces, it is true that we did not oppose the restoration of order but we made every effort through General Wickham, through the ambassador and others - the policy in Washington was to try to insist that every effort be made to prevent any further bloodshed, but to try to restore order as quickly as possible and as orderly as possible.

And in that context it's my understanding - and then Colonel Young, you may be able to correct me on this - I believe that the forces that were sent down to restore order were chopped from Combined Forces Command at the request of the Korean Armed Forces. A unit which was trained in riot control and was expected to handle themselves in a more humane manner, they were requested to be released from the Combined Forces Command authority for use in domestic affairs.

That request was approved and frankly the U.S position was that we had, that General Wickham in fact as commander, had no basis on which to deny such a request from the Korean government. It's simply an acknowledgement that a small force could be temporarily unavailable for defense plans, operational plans and without jeopardizing the safety of the country, and that does not go so far as to approve how they are used. That was not within our authority as foreigners.

That was the perception we had from Washington of a very, very unfortunate situation, the brutality of which we were very slow to understand, all of it occurring against the policies which we had been urging on the Korean military, all of it in opposition to the hopes that we had for democratic development in Korea at that time.

I know that my immediate boss, the Assistant Secretary For East Asian Affairs, Richard Holbrooke, was away at much of this time in Geneva, and so we were communicating by telephone as well as cable, and when the military did go back into Gwangju and restored order, and word came to us from Seoul that the city was back under the authority of the central government - I don't remember what time of day it was because we'd been losing a lot of sleep - but I do remember one of the last things I did was pen a note to Assistant Secretary Holbrooke, who was not there, saying one of these days there are going to be monuments erected in Gwangju, but they're not going to be monuments to the Korean military.

I would only note that I had one further small involvement in the Gwangju several years later. This was at the time that the parliament in Seoul was requesting information from the United States, on our involvement that in the Gwangju incident and the powers in Washington at that time, essentially their reaction was, ‘let's just not have anything to do with this we'll claim diplomatic immunity, just don't get involved in their affairs’ and our, my successor in those days was a man named Dunlop and Dunlop felt we should … try to be cooperative because we really had nothing to hide and so requests went out to Ambassador Gleysteen who was then retired and to myself - I was in in the Philippines - and both of us sent back messages to Washington that by all means cooperate completely - we had nothing to hide, neither one of us, and we did consult with each other. Neither one of us felt that there was anything that we knew about that we were ashamed of, or that we felt was in any way collusion in what had happened and the tragedy that had occurred, and yes we should cooperate, and with that encouragement from the two of us, Washington did decide to go ahead and participate in responding positively to the Korean parliament. I think I'll stop there and see where we go.

[Question about the use of the 20th Division and OPCON]

Young - The 20th division as I recall - you know a division has three brigades - two of those brigades were removed long before this - I think after 12.12 - maybe even after the assassination. So most of the discussion was about the other brigade and it was one, I guess, that had the most riot control training. We definitely thought that it would be the best option and it turned out that when they went back in on the 26th or 27th it was successful. There was not much bloodshed, I think, maybe two or three soldiers were killed; there were some holdouts in Gwangju and they were dispatched, but you're right because …the Korean military at the time, the last two or three days of Gwangju, was very cooperative. They brought us into all their discussions and I'm sure the reason for that was so that they could say okay, ‘the U.S approves.’ Now under OPCON procedures there's no approval mechanism - they are just withdrawn, we are notified. Normally we would request some sort of reserve unit be assigned in place of it, but we did not really approve it, but we were very much consulted.

From that period the U.S government was really trying to encourage Chun and the government to make the transition to … direct presidential elections …in hindsight do you think the U.S could have done more um to encourage this? Or do you think that Chun was already determined to seize power and it was just a matter of time?

Young - It's a difficult situation. I was relatively junior at the time. I was the army attache, I had a colonel above me, and you know junior people always think they have better ideas than the senior people. Now once I became a senior person I realized how wrong I was about that, but at the time I thought there were some things that we could have done. I thought, one, we could have forcefully disavowed Chun Doo-hwan and the 12.12 group. We had a lot of contacts, all of us, where we could use those contacts to set the record straight. They controlled the media and several times - ambassador Gleysteen's book has a lot of detail on this, on the statements that we tried to make to the Korean people. They said, okay we'll do it and they never did - they just did not cooperate and when they did, sometimes they just flat-out lied about our involvement. We had a leaflet operation which I was much in favor of. We could have dropped leaflets all over Gwangju, you know, saying ‘this is our position - no more bloodshed, negotiation.’ We were prepared and had the planes ready to go, helicopters. The Koreans said ‘Oh there's going to be an airspace management problem,’ or something, which was baloney. So anyhow the leaflets were never dropped. We could have challenged their distortions maybe more forcefully, but again the only real outlet we had was AFKN, the military channel there, and they are under some guidelines too, to be able to operate in a foreign country. We could have withdrawn the ambassador, maybe overtly supported the opposition figures. There were pros and cons for both of those, and diplomatic problems, but at the time I thought we should have reacted a little more forcefully than we did.

To go back to the Special Forces just for a second, there's still some belief that General Wickham was involved in that. General Wickham was not in Korea until about the 19th, long after this happened. He came in on kind of the tail end, so there's no way that he was he was involved in that. 

Rich – I’ll second what Colonel Young says. To get back to Gwangju itself. The problems we face today in communications with the Korean public stem from that period when the [ROK] military were making every effort to portray the United States as approving of what they were doing, and one thing I wish we could have done more was in that public sphere of somehow getting the word out better to the Korean people that we had not approved this and we did not think it was a good idea. But there was a conscious campaign and the military controlled the media. Now we did do one thing - we did relax the constraints on the Armed Forces Radio in Korea to be able to report in full some of the statements that the U.S government was making. But to have done that was in English and we could only hope that at least it got to some of the elites and could percol[ate] down, but … looking backwards it's clear that who dominated the media at the time, and those perceptions still linger today.

Of course one of the restraints was that, you know, this is a sovereign country and that, you know, you don't want to do anything…

So there's this limited ability to act without the support of the ROK government lest they decide to toss us out of the country. Did the Chun government message that it felt capable of defending itself from the DPRK without us support? Was this a just an empty threat?

Rich - I think we felt at the time… let's go back to the general effort, the sort of full-court press that had been going on ever since the assassination. From our perspective there were three options that could happen ahead: One, you could have a military takeover – clearly the strongest institution in the country at the time; two, you could have a progression towards a democratic government, which was what we hoped for. Three, you could have a revolution, and the problem with standing by and the prospect of a revolution was again the external threat which was a great concern to us as well. So it was not the U.S position to stand by completely and allow disruptive forces to perhaps develop towards a revolution.

But everything we could do - we felt we had to try to restrain the military from aggrandizement of its power and allow not a revolutionary change, but a there was at least a constitutional mechanism, not popular with everyone because the incumbents had their position under the Park Chung-hee autocratic government but .. The constitutional arrangements did allow for a progression towards democracy and it was using that constitutional structure that we hoped to stimulate in two ways. Everything that the U.S government did was designed to enhance the prestige of that civilian framework government because of the, you know, public relationships with the president and those things. At the same time, through all the channels available to us to keep telling the generals what a bad idea would be for them to short-circuit this process and take overt power

Now there was no question that we understood at this time that Chun Doo-hwan and others of the [11]th class really were the power on the ground, but if they could use restraint we felt there was a pathway forward that could lead to a more democratic government. That was what we hoped for. So yes, there was always the imminent threat of the military just taking over, which they eventually did, but at the same time there was the latent threat of a degree of unrest that would reach a disruptive potential in the country and that to some degree was the danger that Gwangju sort of waved at everybody. 

One final question for me about … documents that were released for the 40th anniversary … from the embassy in Seoul…did you have any thoughts about these new materials and what they tell us or don't tell us?

Young - It really… they reinforced my memory of events. The real pity is that most of our interaction with Chun Doo-hwan from the from 12.12 on was done by Bob Brewster, the special assistant [i.e. CIA], and he has some very interesting cables, and I don't think you're ever going to see them released. You know they don't release stuff and mine went to the - all my reports went to DIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, which would be the release authority and I don't think they'll be released either. So you know, that's just an institutional deal but…

So you said that Brewster's cables were interesting. Can you give us a little bit of a… I know again from your memoir … that you think his impression of Chun - and he was the one who was meeting primarily, even before Ambassador Gleysteen - his impression was somewhat more favorable than that of people in the in the US military establishment.

Young - I think that's a fair assumption. I think that they had a good relationship. It was professional and I think Bob was more optimistic about the future and when they went to full martial law on the 17th, I think the relationship between Chun and Bob Brewster kind of bit the dust. That's my recollection.

Rich - I was in a position in those days to read all of this traffic. The things that have been released are consistent with other things as well, although there are clearly… not all the messages I have seen released yet. I think they probably are released somewhere in the processes of the national archives, which are unfortunately very delayed these days. They're a bit overwhelmed with the documentation. But Bob Brewster, all of his messages… he did some very insightful memoranda of his discussions with Chun, but all of that was in direct coordination with the ambassador because Bob had a professional ‘hat’ that it allowed him to talk to Chun without it being a problem publicly, whereas when the ambassador talked to Chun at this stage it gave Chun prestige that we were not trying to enhance publicly in terms of his power role. But I will say I felt that the country team was very much united on all of this. Nobody was playing games behind the scenes. While there are…[of] all the embassy messages [I] have seen yet in the released materials, I haven't seen anything that is counter to things that I haven't seen and at this stage it's hard to be very specific about what's missing. I do notice there's some deletions in the material that's been released. None of these are very significant, having looked at them. I think they come in two categories: some of them in those days, for your releases, always delete any reference to the fact that our special assistant [CIA] is concurring in what's said but often embassies would say, an ambassador would include in a message such a phase as “Cass agrees,” something like this which simply means ‘What we know through intelligence does not conflict with, or agrees with, what I'm reporting to you.’ This is simply a reassuring statement that we don't have any competing information out there. 

Also there are some deletions - even Choi Gyu-ha - which I think were made to at the time … assuming we were protecting people who might be somehow hurt by knowledge that they talked to us, and or at least that their views were controversial at the time. But these were not clandestine arrangements in any way and I didn't notice any deletions that I thought could have any way interfered with the thrust of what what's available to us.

Audience Questions:

I still don't understand why the US could not publicly disavow General Chun's attempt to entrap the US if the U.S had the will to do so.

Rich - Public statements were made in Washington through the spokesman of the State Department who met with the press daily in those days, and these were designed to make it clear we were not involved in or agreeing to what was going on, but frankly these statements did not reach very far in Korea, to the extent we at some point tried to have them repeated by AFKN, but I don't think any - we simply were not … countering the military's statements effectively. I think we both feel that. It was apparent at the time and it was much more apparent since. So, statements were made but I think they didn't get anywhere

Young - I agree, Bob. It's hard to get your message out when you when the media is controlled by the other side.

Why didn't AFKN radio Korea broadcast have an option to go out in Korean… so that the message got out to a broader audience in Korea - our message of not supporting Chan and his actions?

Young - I don't know the answer to that question. I don't know if they're restricted in to English or… I just don't know - I know that they had some restrictions for their agreement to operate in Korea. That's a good question, and in retrospect it probably would have been a good idea to do it, but AFKN has a limited audience in Korea - mostly English speakers, mostly military. Most of what they cover is stuff that military people are interested in, so I'm not sure it would have, even in Korean, that it would have reached a lot of people… the Koreans that listen to it are mainly trying to learn English. I think they're English students.

Rich - Yeah I just don't know any details on this that I remember. We did try to do something through Voice of America, but in those days Voice of America was broadcasting to Korea only on short wave, so again, a limited audience. AFKN was not set up to broadcast in Korean. It would have been … perceived as a direct interference in Korean affairs for us to use this English-language channel for our own military's use as …essentially a weapon against the ruling regime. I don't know any way that was ever considered by anybody, but it would have been pretty much flaunting our power to do something against the sovereignty of Korea.

Right, and certainly that high-handed approach or heavy-handed approach would have potentially damaged relations even further. 

[According to Colonel Young’s book,] There was fear over intelligence estimates over Carter's plan to withdraw USFK troops. I was wondering if you could elaborate on this and do you think Carter had given up on or tried to distance himself from Korea by the time these events happened due to all of the political fallout he had gotten in the years prior?

Young - Well even though he's quoting me …Bob may have a better answer than I do about what was going on in Jimmy Carter's mind. Ambassador Gleysteen's book is very thoughtful on the Carter withdrawal policy and has more details than mine. I would just say that there was so much institutional opposition to that it had no chance of getting through. There was an in-depth study of North Korean forces done which kind of changed the threat posture and analysis. There was a lot of stonewalling in Washington and Carter was president for four years and that wasn't long enough to get that that particular policy done. [There] was just too much institutional opposition and foot dragging and studies and that sort of thing.

Okay thank you. Ambassador Rich did you have any…? 

Rich - Well essentially at this time of Gwangju, I would say, the President had sort of withdrawn from the field of battle on Korea. For several years we had fought the battle internally in the U.S government to get him to change his policies on withdrawal and finally that point had been achieved after the June meetings in Seoul and after the assassination I did not feel in Washington any sense…by the time of Gwangju that the president was engaged in the issue.

But I felt we had fully as much authority as we needed for the U.S policy of trying to trying to encourage a democratic dénouement of the ongoing crisis and to prevent the military from taking over. I know, I hear what the question is saying, that we took precedence of security over democracy. That's not how we saw it at the time. We saw all of our efforts ineffective as they were aimed at the democratic solution, but there are always those who feel that somehow we should have used force majeure to have prevented the military doing what it did, but that that would have involved a much greater direct injection of American power into internal Korean affairs which today would have certainly be cited by all the questioners as a terrible overreach and a desecration of Korean sovereignty.

So it's always nice if things go the way you want, but when they don't, you can always say ‘what more could we have done,’ and that's… at the time we felt we were doing everything that could be reasonably done, but the question’s out there. I can't answer it, what more one could have done.

What do you think Ambassador Gleysteen’s decision not to act as an intermediary…what's your assessment of that decision, Colonel Young?

Young - I would say we were enormously fortunate to have Ambassador Gleysteen as our ambassador during this crisis. He knew exactly what was happening, his insights were right on target, and we were really lucky to have him. As far as him being interjected somehow as an intermediary in Gwangju… there was nobody was in charge of Gwangju. It was a mess. There was, I think, very late in the game, about the time that the 20th Division went in and restored final order, there was a request through a very strange channel, like a New York Times reporter or something, that he should get involved as an intermediary, but it was hard to determine exactly the source of that, and who are you going to talk to? So he's clean as a whistle on that, and he was a great ambassador. It would have been a lot worse if we hadn't had him.

Rich - The bottom line is that that issue did not arise in a way and in a timely fashion that it would have ever really been evaluated, so it never was really discussed as an option. I would like to second what Colonel Young says there. If you have a very good ambassador in a country well involved, then back in Washington, we are dependent upon the interpretations and the understandings of our people in the field, and of course what you hear from newspapers and other things. But, if you feel like the people on the scene are wise and are informed, we don't try to second guess them in Washington. You can always make mistakes pretty quickly if you pull a view out of the hat by somebody thousands of miles away, so we did trust what we were hearing and I think rightly so. There are times when we have people on the scene who are not well cut in and that causes a different kind of trouble.

[…] Over the past few years - this kind of gets us to contemporary developments -president Korean president Moon Jae-In has made efforts to release more information about the events of Gwangju including making a freedom of information act request directly to the U.S government. Do you think President Moon's re-examination of Gwangju will present an opportunity?

Young – Bob? I don't know anything about this subject.

Rich - I'm not familiar with it … actually for 12 years in retirement I was running the State Department's systematic declassification program but that's not for you - that's not the way you got these documents. But that's the up and down sort of release of documents after 25 years. And I don't know of any move or any reason to retain any of that material and classification insofar as the State Department's concerned. As Colonel Young as mentioned, the intelligence agencies and DIA in other ways sometimes are more resistant to releasing their material, although substantively, I don't think there's any problem. It's usually for other reasons than substance. I don't think there's anything in our archives that changes anything we know today. I'm pretty certain of that. I've seen an awful lot of stuff in the archives that has all sorts of the labels on it that you’re supposed to keep it from public view, and I say quite honestly I don't know of any hidden bombs on the subject.

Well… that brings us to just around 11:15. […] I thank all of you for joining us and for your questions. 

Rich - May I comment just a moment, [may] I just say as the director of Korean Affairs at the time I would like to extend my sincere regrets at a great tragedy in Gwangju, one that will always be seen in Korean history as a tragedy, and if any degree of lack of what we might have done, I apologize. We certainly sympathize with those who suffered and their descendants and we certainly applaud the vigor and dynamism of Korean democracy today.


There are a number of interesting things that came up in that discussion. Part of it relates to CIA chief of station Bob Brewster. In his book, James Young wrote, on May 18, after the expansion of Martial Law, closing of the National Assembly, and arrests of politicians, 

Bob Brewster met with Chun Doo Hwan to deliver the same strong protest. Chun replied that “impure elements” and “radicals” had taken control of the demonstrations and that the government had been forced to act as a result. Brewster was especially disappointed by this response, for he had been led to believe by Chun in their earlier contacts that such hard-line actions would be taken only in the most extreme emergency. I frankly think Brewster was embarrassed by this turn of events, and at this point he completely lost confidence in Chun’s willingness to tell him the truth. Their relationship had been reasonably good to this point. In fact, Brewster was probably the only U.S. government official who had such a relationship with Chun since 12/12—now that was gone. [Page 101]

A former USIS officer who was in Seoul throughout this time period told me that Young's account of Brewster above matched his memory. And above we see that, according to Robert Rich, Brewster's more frequent meetings were coordinated with the embassy:

But Bob Brewster, all of his messages… he did some very insightful memoranda of his discussions with Chun, but all of that was in direct coordination with the ambassador because Bob had a professional ‘hat’ that it allowed him to talk to Chun without it being a problem publicly, whereas when the ambassador talked to Chun at this stage it gave Chun prestige that we were not trying to enhance publicly in terms of his power role.

Also above, Rich noted that

most of the information we were receiving was what the Korean military wanted us to hear, and their version of events, and we were only getting fragmentary and belated information, so in real time we did not understand the nature of the brutality and the tragedy that was really going on down there. This sort of came slowly and belatedly to us.

One reason for this was explained by the former USIS officer: "Either [Bob Brewster] or one of his senior people later admitted that they had lost their best contacts in Korea's national security apparatus as the rolling coup moved through the government."  

I also learned that there was a MI [Military Intelligence] two-man office which was on the air base at Gwangju, which was likely the source of Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) reports written about events in Gwangju. In fact, I hadn't realized that Young was reporting to the DIA, so it's clear he is the author of this DIA report from May 8 about his meeting with Roh Tae-woo. 

I hadn't known about the role of Rich (or Gleysteen) in convincing the State Department to accede to the ROK National Assembly's requests for information during its hearings in 1988-89, which led to the "White Paper." 

Also interesting was what was said about Jimmy Carter and Korea. Young described the "institutional opposition and foot dragging" that put an end to his troop withdrawal policy, and as Rich described it,

the President had sort of withdrawn from the field of battle on Korea. For several years we had fought the battle internally in the U.S government to get him to change his policies on withdrawal and finally that point had been achieved after the June [1979] meetings in Seoul and after the assassination I did not feel in Washington any sense…by the time of Gwangju that the president was engaged in the issue.

Overall, not a lot of new information, but there is some, and there are also some useful restatements or summaries of events in 1979-80.

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