Chonnam National University, where the Gwangju Uprising began, on May 18, 1980. (May 18 Memorial Foundation)

2 Days in May That Shattered Korean Democracy | The Nation

A look back at the violent protests that is now seen as the first shot in the mass movement that swept aside a quarter-century of dictatorship to create one of the world’s most impressive democracies.

On May 18, South Koreans paused to mark the 40th anniversary of the Gwangju Uprising of 1980, one of the most traumatic days in their history. The 10-day revolt was triggered when students and citizens protesting a military coup by a renegade general were attacked by airborne special forces with a viciousness and cruelty that Koreans had not experienced since the darkest days of the Korean War.

The armed resistance by Gwangju’s Citizen Militia liberated the city from the marauding troops. The townspeople, freed from decades of military rule, kept their city running, buried their dead, and transformed themselves into a self-organized system of mutual aid they now call the Gwangju Commune .

Those who died in Gwangju “believed that the survivors would manage to open up a better world” and “were convinced that the defeat of that day would become the victory of tomorrow,” President Moon Jae-in declared on May 18 in the city square where protesters were killed in 1980.

But their dream of a just society was snuffed out on May 27 by Korean Army troops, who were released from their usual duties on the border with North Korea to reoccupy Gwangju. The official death toll from the uprising stands at 165, but residents believe that more than 300 people were killed, with dozens still unaccounted for.

Despite that defeat, Gwangju’s resistance is now seen as the first shot in the mass movement that, in 1987, swept aside a quarter-century of dictatorship to create one of the world’s most impressive democracies. And, after years of hostility by conservative governments and attacks on its legitimacy by South Korean rightists, the Gwangju Uprising is widely celebrated in art, music, literature, and film.

President Moon, who came of age as a political activist during South Korea’s authoritarian era, promised to give momentum to an independent truth commission that is investigating the Korean military’s use of force, including the question of who ordered the firing on civilians and sent a helicopter to strafe a building near Gwangju’s center. The commission, he said in an interview with the Gwangju affiliate of broadcast company MBC, would also seek to identify individuals who sought to “conceal and distort the truth” of the Gwangju Uprising.

That’s a tall order, because that trail leads straight to the United States and its president, Jimmy Carter, who ran for office in 1976 vowing to make human rights the centerpiece of American foreign policy. Sadly, he failed to do that in Gwangju, sparking the worst crisis in US-Korean relations since 1945. What happened there stoked years of anti-American sentiment, and Gwangju has remained a point of contention ever since.

2 Days in May That Shattered Korean Democracy
Geumnam-ro, where the airborne troops opened fire on protesters on May 21, 1980. (May 18 Memorial Foundation)

As some Koreans are painfully aware, the Carter administration played an essential role in Gwangju by helping the coup leader, Lt. Gen. Chun Doo-hwan, crush the uprising. At a high-level White House meeting on May 22 that we first reported in 1996, Carter’s national security team approved the use of force to retake the city and agreed to provide short-term support to Chun if he agreed to long-term political change (that, of course, didn’t happen until he was forced out by massive protests in 1987).

The stakes were high, and were exacerbated for US policymakers by the simultaneous crisis over the Islamic revolution in Iran, which eventually brought Carter’s presidency down. As the once-secret minutes to the White House meeting show, plans were also discussed for direct US military intervention in Korea if the situation in Gwangju spiraled out of control.

Within days of the May 22 meeting, the US commander in Korea, General John Wickham, released two divisions of Korean Army troops from the US-South Korean Combined Forces Command (CFC) to retake the city. Fearing that North Korea could intervene, the Pentagon also asked the Korean military to delay its assault on Gwangju to give the US military time to dispatch an aircraft carrier and several spy planes to the peninsula, according to 1989 testimony by South Korea’s martial law commander at the time.

Under that cover, Chun’s forces reentered the city and killed the remaining rebels. Hundreds more were hunted down and tortured in a military prison in Gwangju (it’s now a museum where former prisoners work as guides).

Chun was tried and convicted in 1996 of treason and murder, but he was later pardoned. To this day, he continues to deny any responsibility for the mass killing. In its official statements about the incident, the United States has consistently described Gwangju as a domestic issue for South Korea. “When all the dust settles, Koreans killed Koreans, and the Americans didn’t know what was going on and certainly didn’t approve it,” a State Department official said in 1996 when the White House meeting was first reported.

Carter, who has won global praise for his humanitarian actions since leaving the presidency, has never spoken publicly about his actions in Gwangju (through an intermediary, he declined to comment for this article). His most extensive remarks came in an interview on CNN on June 1, 1980, when he was asked by the journalist Daniel Schorr if US policy in Korea reflected a conflict between human rights and national security.

“There is no incompatibility,” Carter snapped. South Korea, he said, typified a situation where “the maintenance of a nation’s security from Communist subversion or aggression is a prerequisite to the honoring of human rights and the establishment of democratic processes.” Shamefully, none of this was true.

As two of the principal journalists who have investigated US involvement in Gwangju, we know there is much more to the story. Over the past five years, we have interviewed dozens of participants and survivors of the uprising as well as many of the US officials involved in the decision-making that May.

Now, at a time of growing tensions between Seoul and Washington over North Korea and the cost of US military bases in the South, we have uncovered deeper evidence of US complicity in Gwangju and what the US government knew and when it knew it. The story is much worse than we thought.

  • When Carter’s White House made the decision to support Chun’s crackdown on the rebellion, it knew that 60 people in Gwangju had been shot to death and over 400 injured just 24 hours earlier, and that Chun was directly responsible. We learned that from notes taken by a senior Pentagon official who was present at the critical White House meeting on May 22.
  • General Wickham, the US commander, was fully briefed on the Korean Army’s planning for the May 27 assault on Gwangju in a May 21 meeting with. Gen. Lew Byung-hyun, the CFC’s deputy commander. Lew, in turn, told the US general that he was carrying out the wishes of Chun and the coup leaders. Wickham himself confirmed this.
  • The US contingency plans for Gwangju included sending additional US ground forces into Korea, a volatile proposal that has never been disclosed before and indicates how seriously US commanders and the Carter administration viewed the situation. If it had escalated, “we would have been much more aggressive” and asked for “additional support from the Pacific Command to suppress the unrest,” General Wickham told us.
  • The prime mover in the May 22 meeting was Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, who had been deeply involved over the previous three years restoring once-frayed ties between the US and South Korean militaries and strengthening the Cold War alliance between the US, Korean, and Japanese armed forces.

The Gwangju Uprising was the culmination of a series of events that unfolded in South Korea after the assassination of the former dictator, Park Chung-hee, on October 26, 1979. Fed up with 18 years of harsh dictatorship, Korean students and workers began agitating for a return to democracy. As tensions escalated over the next six months, General Chun and a small group within the military launched a rolling coup, taking over the military, the Korean CIA, and then, on May 17, the government itself.

2 Days in May That Shattered Korean Democracy
Protesters and paratroopers clashed for 3 days in Gwangju’s streets. (May 18 Memorial Foundation)

“This might have been the longest coup d’état in world history,” says Prof. Kwang Ho Chun, a military strategy specialist and professor of international studies at Jeonbuk National University in North Cholla Province.

In the months before the coup, US officials, led by diplomat (and liberal icon) Richard Holbrooke, tried to find a middle ground between the martial law forces and the pro-democracy movement [see Shorrock, “Debacle in Kwangju,” The Nation, December 9, 1996]. “The United States had at least five months to support Korean democracy,” but failed, Professor Chun said in his interview. While the US emphasis during Gwangju on Korean security was understandable, he said, US officials should have recognized that “sometimes democracy can improve a security situation much faster” than military action.

In fact, as the rebellion intensified, Carter and his advisers began to see it as a much greater threat than Chun’s violent takeover of the government. The situation came to a head over a 48-hour period between May 21, 1980, when Chun’s forces opened fire on the people of Gwangju, and May 22, when the United States threw its support behind the Korean generals.

“May 21, 1 pm, was a very critical point,” Lee Jae-eui, an activist and writer who witnessed the massacre in front of Gwangju’s provincial capitol building, told us as he stood on the exact spot of the firing years later.

For three days, Chun’s paratroopers had used boots, clubs, bayonets, and even flamethrowers to terrorize the city, filling the morgues with the dead and overwhelming the hospitals with bodies ripped apart by the violence. Angered and shocked beyond measure, the people, led at first by young students and joined by taxi drivers, bus drivers, shopkeepers, gangsters, and prostitutes, fought back with vehicles and their own handmade weapons.

By midday, hundreds of thousands of furious Gwangju residents surrounded the paratroopers, who had made their stand at the old capitol building. Suddenly, and without warning, Lee says, the troops opened fire.

Repeated volleys from M-16s turned Gwangju’s now-famous Geumnam-ro (avenue) into a scene of carnage. “I saw so many people killed, so many injured, with blood everywhere,” recalls Lee. “I suddenly had a very strange feeling, that I had to join the struggle to fight the military.” The massacre was indelibly sealed in Korean memory in A Taxi Driver, the acclaimed 2018 film starring Song Kang-ho, the beloved character actor from the Academy Award–winning Parasite.

In the hours that followed, Gwangju residents raided police stations and armories in nearby towns and grabbed carbines and other weapons, and by that evening had taken over the city. But tragically, as recounted in Lee’s famous book about the uprising, Kwangju Diary: Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age, many of the fighters naively believed that the United States, as the champion of democracy, would come to their aid {…}

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