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Korea's Gwangju Uprising and Why It Matters Today

December 6, 2017

In 1980, an uprising in Gwangju, South Korea, threatened the stability of both parts of Korea. Why it happened and how it was put down have become more widely known of late because of recently declassified South Korean and U.S. government documents. The lessons they reveal are of critical importance to the current diplomatic stalemate between the United States and North Korea.

Mangwol-dong cemetery in Gwangju where victims' bodies were buried. Photo by Rhythm, CC

In 1980, an uprising in Gwangju, South Korea, threatened the stability of both parts of Korea. Why it happened and how it was put down have become more widely known of late because of recently declassified South Korean and U.S. government documents. The lessons they reveal are of critical importance to the current diplomatic stalemate between the United States and North Korea.

On the surface, the uprising, called the May 18 Democratic Uprising by UNESCO and the Gwangju Democratization Movement by others, had a simple and tragic story. From May 18 to May 27, 1980, a group of Gwangju citizens took it upon themselves to take up arms against the Chun Doo-hwan government of the time in support of and in further escalation of demonstrations happening concurrently by Chonnam National University students. They acquired their weapons by raiding armories and local police stations and turned what might have been a peaceful protest into an ultimately violent one. The rebellion, the first one to escalate to this point in South Korea since 1953, was finally stopped when the ROK Army, backed with full support from the United States, blasted into the melee. In the end, 606 people died.

The rebellion’s root causes were many. The real trigger point for it was when previous South Korean president Park Chung-hee was assassinated on October 26, 1979. After 18 years of Park’s leadership and no clear path identified for how to put a successor in power, there was now an opportunity for a complete regime change.

The people of South Korea, having lived with U.S.-backed repression going back to the 1950s, were eager to make their own mark on what needed to change. Under Park, democratization of the country was blocked at the highest levels, with students and professors who had attempted pro-democracy activist movements expelled from the universities. There were rumblings that with Park gone, those movements might re-emerge as credible alternate forces in the country, perhaps in direct conflict with directions guided by the United States and previously directed by Park and his administration.

Sensing a risk to what might happen and perhaps a possible complete restructuring of the country, another group stepped in to take charge in the face of the current vacuum. The South Korean Army, under the leadership of major general Chun Doo-hwan (also the chief of the Defense Security Command), took it upon itself to take over the country in the Coup détat of December Twelfth (1979). The army’s forces moved in ostensibly to restore order, with little hint of their long-term political objectives for the country.

In March 1980, new semesters were starting in South Korean schools. As regular students came to their classes, so too did many of the pro-democracy students and professors kicked out under the Park regime. Student unions were formed, and democratization talk became not just popular but a force with long-term popular appeal now that suppression from on high was not present.

Those students demanded an end to martial law, something that had been put in place in certain areas shortly after Park’s assassination. They also demanded broad democratization in the country, minimum wages for workers and formal support for freedom of the press. They made these demands most stringently in large public protest gatherings, one of the biggest of which happened at Seoul Station on May 15, 1980. An estimated 100,000 students and citizens participated at that event.

The military was having none of this. On May 17, acting government head and major general Chun Doo-hwan pushed the Cabinet to expand martial law to the entire country. This included Jeju Province, a region that was not part of the original martial law decree. The martial law allowed for closing universities, banning political activities and further gagging the press from reporting on much of anything the military did not want to get out.

Troops were eventually sent around the country. They ended up raiding a national conference of student union leaders from 55 universities who had gathered to discuss what to do after the clear strong support they had received at the May 15 demonstration. The military also arrested some 26 regional politicians on charges of instigating further demonstrations.

A final bloody uprising was just a matter of time, and the military moved in fast to make good on their ultimate crackdown threats. When the dust, dead and wounded bodies and blood settled at the end of the May 18-27 uprising in Gwangju, the fight was all but over for those who had challenged the new regime.

During all of this, although clamping down on the South Korean press had kept much of the news of the events out of the public eye everywhere, it did leak to North Korea. So, the day after the bloodbath ended, U.S. and North Korean officials met at the Panmunjom “Truce Village” in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). There, the North Koreans, according to recently released documents, pleaded with the Americans to reconsider their policy over what had been a highly repressed South Korean regime for years and was likely going to get even worse now. (See “Understanding North Korea and How Trump Could End America As We Know It” in the October 2017 issue of Trillions.)

In one of the just-released cables of the time, the North Korean representative said to the U.S. representatives: “Don’t you think it is about time for the U.S. government to re-evaluate its aid policy to South Korea? The SK martial law command should have listened to the students’ just demands, but they used force instead. They also ignored all the efforts made by the citizens’ committee to cope with the situation. The American military authorities in the south should have prohibited the martial law command from using troops in Kwangju so as to prevent needless bloodshed.”

The cable went on to cite several other damning statements made to the U.S. authorities – ones that ring especially strong as they are read from the view of 2017. Noting that the SK troops that moved in on the uprising were actually “under the command of the U.S. commanding general,” the cable pointed out that “the U.S. should have exercised its influence over the SK authorities and held them in check.” Most pointedly, the cable noted that “the U.S. should draw a lesson from Iran [at the time going through its own overthrow of previous despots]; you will fail when you do not support the people. We mean the great mass of people, not a small clique that happens to be in power. We believe that the SK people are anxious to achieve democratization as soon as possible.”

The U.S.- and CIA-led forces in the region attempted to spread the word that South Korean citizens were actually in strong support of the current regime in their country and that the uprising was in all likelihood instigated by forces from North Korea itself. When then Chinese Prime Minister Hua Guofeng seemed to echo those statements, making some think that perhaps China itself was behind some of what the United States was suggesting was a deliberate undermining of the sovereignty of the South Korean government, the North Koreans responded angrily. As the formerly confidential U.S. documents now reveal, the North Korean representative responded “in an irritated manner” that “Hua can say whatever he likes to say, but it does not matter to us (NK). We do not care one iota for his or any other foreigner’s personal opinions about our republic.”

The communications go on to say that the North Korean representative cited here “stated numerous times and in varying forms his conviction that the United States shared the responsibility with the SK martial law command and the ‘puppet’ SK government for the ‘Kwangju Riots.’”

The United States continued its own misinformation campaign on the matter, calling attention to what was happening as a “continuing NK propaganda campaign aimed at driving a wedge between the U.S. and SK.” A report dated June 5, 1980, from the Defense Intelligence Agency even claimed that as many as 2,000 people in the Gwangju rebellion came from the hills in the region and were encouraged to become part of it by outside communist forces.

That this is most likely propaganda is backed up by what was revealed by the CIA Station Chief at the time – there were no references at all to any North Korean involvement in what was labeled an “insurrection.” Further, the whole region was even then one of the most monitored regions in the world. If the U.S.- and CIA-led surveillance, including both US SIGINT and human intelligence, couldn’t catch infiltrators coming from North Korea into the south at the time, then the truth of the matter is likely that there was no such infiltration.

The whole matter has been put into the public eye once again now, not just because of the release of these cables and the current U.S.-North Korean saber rattling. The occasion is instead the release of the South Korean movie A Taxi Driver (Taeksi Woonjunsa) – a movie based on the true story of Jurgen Hinzpeter, a German photo journalist who photographed the beginnings of Chun’s military assault in Gwangju (thanks to the assistance of a Seoul taxi driver). It is a tribute to perhaps changing times that the movie itself is even out. It is now the most popular movie in South Korea and has been watched by over 12 million people.

Two of the attendees who recently saw the movie were Edeltraut Brahmstaedt, Hinzpeter’s widow, and the recently named new President Moon Jae-in (after the conviction of the previously highly corrupt South Korean leader Park Geun-hye). After seeing the movie, President Moon was clearly strongly affected. So, when he spoke at the national commemorations of the uprising at a cemetery in the hilly regions outside Gwangju, he said, “The truth of Gwangju is a rage I cannot ignore.”For two others who likely have not seen the movie – North Korean President Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump – the truths of what is finally being uncovered about Gwangju should at least not be lost on either of them.

One is a fact that Kim knows well himself – that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has had a long distaste for Chinese influence of any kind, despite what the world may think is happening behind the scenes. It goes back to the earliest days of the government of North Korea and was reasserted strongly during the occasion of the Gwangju uprising.

The second is that the United States needs to own up to its own continued role in fomenting instability in the region, again going back to the early days of the North Korean/South Korean split. The Carter administration’s decision to support the military uprising in South Korea in 1979, and then throughout the events of Gwangju that followed in 1980, is a further testament to American stupidity in managing diplomacy in the region.

The world will bear witness to this story further in the coming months. The movie A Taxi Driver has been selected as South Korea’s nomination for best foreign film for the 2018 Oscars and has already become one of the highest grossing films in South Korean history.