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The 1980 Kwangju Massacre and the Surge in Anti-Americanism in South Korea

In 1980, a democratization movement spread throughout South Korea following the assassination of Park Chung-hee, which ended his 18-year authoritarian rule and brought political instability to the country. General Chun Doo Hwan took power as the new president through a coup in December 1979 and expanded martial law soon after in attempt to suppress increasing demonstrations. The extent of this suppression culminated on May 18, 1980 when a student protest in Kwangju was met with a brutal military response that left hundreds injured, dead, or missing.

Anti-American sentiment arose in the aftermath of what would later be referred to as the Kwangju Massacre or Uprising. Because of the close American ties with the South Korean military and statements by the Korean government implicating the United States, many Koreans believed Washington was somehow involved in the violent suppression of the demonstrations, which led to lingering distrust and suspicion of the U.S. for years afterward. (Photo: AP)

Chun was eventually sentenced to death in 1996 for his role in the Massacre, but later pardoned by President Kim Young-sam with the advice of then President-elect Kim Dae-jung, who Chun’s administration had sentenced to death some 20 years earlier.

David Blakemore, the Korea desk officer and later Political Counselor at Embassy Seoul, recalls the larger protest, the brutal crackdown, and the misunderstandings of U.S. involvement. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 1997. In an interview with Charles Beechum in 2002, John Reid, Public Affairs Officer in South Korea in the late 1980s, describes how the State Department tried to deflect criticism of U.S. actions by issuing a white paper in 1989 to describe its take on events. Donald Gregg, Ambassador to South Korea from 1989 to 1993, explains in his interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy in 2004 how he visited Kwangju to address people’s concerns and questions. James Laney, Ambassador to South Korea in the 1990s, in his 2004 interview with David Reuther criticizes the State Department’s white paper and discusses his difficulties with the Korean press during a visit to Kwangju, including a completely fabricated press interview.

Read about the bizarre attempt by North Korea to assassinate Park Chung-hee, which led to the USS Pueblo incident. Go here to read about the demarche to President Chun do Hwan in 1987 on avoiding martial law and other Moments about Korea.


The U.S. – Guilt by Association

David Blakemore, Korea Desk Officer 1977-1980; Political Counselor in South Korea 1980-1983

BLAKEMORE:  In May of 1980, the large southwestern city of Kwang Ju in the south Cholla province essentially revolted, I guess you could say, against the central government. It started with young people demonstrating and the military garrison in the area was essentially nudged out of town. After the military withdrew, they weren’t physically driven out but they thought it was wise to withdraw from the town, a stalemate ensued for several days. I can’t remember exactly for how long.

During this time people were frantically trying to figure out what might be done to restore the status quo ante without slaughtering a lot of people. [U.S. Ambassador] Bill Gleysteen, as I recall, spent a lot of time talking to General Chun Doo Hwan about the dangers in U.S. public opinion, let alone on the ground in Korea, of any kind of a precipitous military response to the Kwang Ju incident as it was called. In the end his efforts were to no avail. One of Chung’s Korean Military Academy classmates who was the commander of Special Forces sent Special Forces down to Kwang Ju and they essentially took the city back by force and a lot of people were killed.

The official number of what “a lot” might mean was set after a commission of inquiry by the Korean government at something over 200. The opponents were sure that it was well over 1,000. There were a lot of eyewitness reports from foreign missionaries who were there. It was a mess. It was an ugly, nasty situation of Koreans killing Koreans, with the military killing essentially unarmed civilians. The civilians had taken the guns from the armory but they were no match for these Special Forces.

It is going to take a long time for Korea to get over Kwang Ju particularly because the victims were citizens of a part of the country that has a long history of being discriminated against for reasons which are about as obscure as that kind of discrimination always has been anywhere in the world. If you know any Cholla people you know that there is nothing about them that merits that sort of attitude.

A great fallout from the Kwang Ju incident from the United States perspective was the widespread misunderstanding in Korea that because Korean forces are under the operational command of the U.S. Commanders should the North Koreans attack, that must be the case in a domestic squabble like Kwang Ju too. Therefore the American general would have been able to stop the Korean forces from going back into Kwang Ju if he wanted to. If he didn’t stop them, that meant that the American government was in cahoots with Chung Doo Hwan and his obvious rise and march towards the presidency. Not only that, here is an incident of local democracy that we went along with smashing, this showed what we thought of the Cholla people, and on and on and on.

A great conspiracy theory emerged that I am sure is still common in Korea. Of course since the government has now been liberalized I am sure it is much less of a sore point. We spent a lot of time in the arcane business of trying to explain that for domestic purposes, Korean troops were never under the command of the U.S. commander. Besides that, the Special Forces who did all of the dirty work, even under wartime circumstances, were not under the command of the U.S.

Nobody wanted to hear any of that stuff. We said it over and over again but it didn’t make any difference. Kwang Ju did a lot of damage to the public perception of the United States in Korea. I don’t know whether the damage persists today but it stayed a problem for a long time….

The U.S. issues its response

John M. Reid, Public Affairs Officer in South Korea 1986-1990

REID:  In 1980, Chun Doo-hwan was in the process of consolidating an illegitimate coup. He had declared himself acting director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, and this precipitated demonstrations throughout the country, in Seoul, Kwangju and elsewhere. Chun responded by declaring martial law, which provoked even more demonstrations, and, in Kwangju, troops moved in, injuring and killing some people. There was a violent reaction, with up to 100,000 people in the Kwangju streets, burning radio stations and seizing arms and military stockpiles.

After police sided with the demonstrators, the troops withdrew. Then, other units moved back in and conducted a very brutal crackdown. It was a very bloody, nasty business, and, while there are all sorts of assertions of how many people were killed or who simply disappeared, there were at least several hundred. Our problem was that, before the troops went back into Kwangju, the Koreans approached U.S. Ambassador William Gleysteen and General [John] Wickham, the U.S. Commander and asked permission to move specific units into the city. Gleysteen either concurred or said he did not object. In fact, the units the Koreans used to do the work had not been under Wickham’s operational control, and our approval or concurrence was irrelevant.

Nevertheless, the Korean authorities did everything they could to make people think that we had approved what happened, even the killing. They had set us up, and we couldn’t shake it. Since the Kwangju incident had assumed such major importance in the radical criticism of the United States.…

Over a period of several months, Lynn [Turk] worked with the State Department Historian’s office to produce a definitive, official account of the Kwangju incident from our point of view. I reviewed various drafts of the statement, as they appeared, but Lynn did the work. It was a very detailed, well-documented piece. USIS [U.S. Information Service] prepared the Korean translation, and our translators were sworn to secrecy. I think the statement, when we finally released it [on June 19, 1989], was a bombshell. We distributed it to Korean media, published it in the student newspaper, sent it out to all our regular addressees and got it to everyone we could. Korean papers carried extensive excerpts, and Kim Dae-jung had it reproduced and distributed to his party membership. Ambassador Lilley consistently approved and encouraged what we were doing.  [You can read the White Paper here on the Embassy Seoul website.]

I think Chun and his people were highly displeased, since the paper was a major factor in focusing Korean anger away from us and back onto them, where it belonged. I don’t think Chun and Lilley were ever very cordial, and I’m sure this made them even less so. There was a great generational gap in Korea, between older Koreans who remembered the Korean War and younger, much more radical Koreans who did not.

By the late 1980s, however, everyone had become so disenchanted and unhappy with the Chun regime that resentment and anger were pervasive. I think older, thoughtful Koreans understood that we were trying to distance ourselves from the Korean government, and perhaps the recognition that we were not supporting Chun and his friends may have encouraged political change. What happened after that was very encouraging. Korea has an elected president and has now had several peaceful transfers of power. And, in only one other Asian country I can think of, has a former president been jailed for corruption.

At one point, I was arranging for Lilley to have an on-the-record session with a rather large group of Korean journalists. We spent days preparing for the thing, going over questions and answers. At the appointed time, I met the journalists in front of the embassy and took them up to the conference room outside Lilley’s office, on the top floor. I think they were a little awed. We sat around the table and they fired away. The questions were in Korean, with consecutive interpretation. The questions were tough and direct, but Lilley handled them beautifully. When we were leaving, one of the Koreans remarked to me, “No Korean official would have ever sat at a table with us and talked with us like that.”

“There are all of those underlying resentments which never were really fully cleared up”

Donald Gregg, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea 1989-1993

Q: Did you see the rise of anti Americanism [in South Korea]?

GREGG: I was never in 3 ½ years ever able to make a publicized appearance on a college campus. I was invited frequently to make appearances. I would always accept. The word would get out that I was coming, and the campus activists would say “Don’t let Gregg come or we will burn the campus down.” So the invitation would be canceled. I got an honorary degree from the Jesuit University there, Sogan, and they gave it to me at night on Christmas vacation. So there was still a lot of that. There were riots around the embassy frequently. So it was still there…. There are all of those underlying resentments which never were really fully cleared up.

I felt one of the things I wanted to do was to go down to Kwangju where there was tremendous anti U.S. feeling because of the supposition on the part of the people of Kwangju that we had supported the horrible suppression of things there….

It went tremendously well. It was very controversial. [President of South Korea] Kim Dae Jung said, “If you are going to go, go in the winter during Christmas vacation when the university isn’t open,” and so I planned to do that January of 1990, and the day before I was supposed to go, Kim Dae Jung called me up and said, “Don’t go, it is too dangerous. There is a kidnap threat.” The national police was aware of this, so I called a country team meeting [with the heads of the embassy’s offices and agencies], and said, “You know there is this. I have the feeling that I really ought to go. What do you think?”

The country team was split right down the middle. So I decided I would go. I left a memo in my safe saying if something happens to me, it is purely my fault. So off I went, and I arrived, and the press along with a huge bodyguard of police. The press was saying, “Have you come to apologize for Kwangju?”

I said, “No, we have nothing to apologize for. I have come because we have a cultural center there that is being firebombed, and I want to find out why there is such resentment of us.”

So I spent two full days talking to everybody…. but there was sort of a feeling of betrayal on the part of the people of Kwangju. On the morning of the third day the press came again and said, “Have you come to apologize about Kwangju?”

I said, “Yes, I found we do have something to apologize for, and that is we have kept silent for too long.” That made an impact, and so the people who had been firebombing our [center and had] been organizing the opposition agreed to see me. I had been trying to see them and they refused. So I canceled my return flight, and I had about 3 ½ hours with about six of these guys. It was absolutely fascinating. At first they wanted to meet in secret, and then they decided they wanted to have television. So we met in front of the television and newspaper people.

The first question was who gave the order to shoot in the streets of Kwangju? I said, “I have no idea. It was a Korean decision and a Korean order, and it is only Koreans who know.”

He said, “That’s a lie, because we know you have satellites that can look down from the sky and you can read a newspaper from the sky and were watching, and you know who gave the order.”

I said, “We do have those satellites, but they don’t take you inside a man’s head. We don’t know who gave the order.”

Then they said, “Do you take us as a nation of field rats because the general in charge said there is a certain lemming-like quality in Korea.” This had not gone over well.

I said, “Absolutely not. I have huge admiration for the Korean people. That is why I have come back

in this capacity.”…


They said, “We know you supported Chun Doo-hwan because he was the first man to visit President Reagan. We know you supported what he did here because you were so close to him.”

I said, “Did you know the price of his visit was [future President] Kim Dae Jung’s life?” [In exchange for the meeting with President Reagan, Chun agreed to commute Kim’s sentence and then allowed him to go into exile to the U.S.] That had been said in Washington; it had been said in Seoul, but it had never been said in Kwangju. It caused a sensation.

So after about three hours, they said, “We don’t have any more questions. We thank you for coming. Some of your answers have not been good, but some have been helpful, and we thank you for coming.”

The interpreter I had, who was a superb young woman, whispered to me, she had just done a magnificent job and really removed the language barrier. She said they are terribly afraid they are all going to be arrested after this because the police are after them. I said, “Thanks for telling me.”

So I went out, it was raining, and the cops were surrounding the place as they had and tear gas had been needed to flush some people out at times. So I put my arms around two of these guys and I went up to the very tough policeman who had been my chief bodyguard and said, “You are not to touch these people. You are to let them go.” He could hardly believe it. I said, “I mean it. I don’t want you to touch these people.” So he barked an order and the cordon gap opened up, and as they passed through each one was either kicked or pushed out into the darkness. One of them turned and waved as he went….

I went four times to Kwangju…. I consider those visits to be among the most interesting visits of my life. In fact it made me feel quite at home when I went to North Korea because I felt the same kind of resentment in the North that I had felt in Kwangju. I saw it evaporate as the North Koreans found I was taking them seriously and trying to answer their questions in good spirit.

“This was a full-page interview, pure fabrication, the whole thing, just absolutely made up!”

James Laney, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, 1993-1996

LANEY:  They had a white paper that the State Department presented, you know, looked into it, and they exonerated [Chun] Doo Hwan himself. When I was Ambassador I looked into it, and there was very clear evidence that the white paper was not really as even-handed as it ought to have been; in other words, it wasn’t convincing to the Koreans. And in the long run, if you can’t — it’s one thing to satisfy yourself, but if you can’t satisfy the people that feel aggrieved, and I don’t mean cave into them, then you haven’t really succeeded very much….

I mentioned before we started, about a visit to Kwangju. I said, “I want to go to Kwangju.”

They said, “No, you don’t want to go to Kwangju.”

I said, “Yes, I do!” I said, “I believe in human rights, and I think that I don’t want to duck this.”Anyway, so we set up a thing; I was to go to Kwangju. I was not to go to the cemetery, because they said that would be incendiary. I don’t understand. I was always restless with my handlers because I, on the whole, think I have pretty good instincts, and I find they’re always much too cautious, you know. But nevertheless there are some times when I realize I need to listen to them.

But we had a meeting with some of the aggrieved people in Kwangju, a private dinner, that is, with no press or television or anything, and I just wanted to listen, I wanted to hear their side of the story and so forth. I was not attempting to placate them, I just wanted to hear. In a way, I was going down and just saying, “Look, I’m here, and I want to hear you, you know” and they appreciated it.

When the dinner was over and we walked out of the little room where we’d eaten, there were television and print media waiting for me, and “What did you talk about?” And I said, “I’m sorry, but this was off the record. I’m down here because I’m interested. As the Ambassador of the United States I’m down here to express my concern about what’s happened. I’m not here either to apologize or to explain, but I am here because I’m concerned.”

The next day we drove on across the middle part of the south of Korea to a Buddhist monastery up on a mountain. And we stopped at our rest stop along the way, and somebody in my entourage said, “The Blue House [the President’s Residence] is trying to reach you.”

I said, “How do they know where I am?”

And he said, “Oh, they know all right!” As it turns out, the daily papers in Seoul carried a verbatim interview with me about Kwangju. Well, I’d given no interview! But this was a full-page interview, pure fabrication, the whole thing, just absolutely made up!

And the Blue House was just incensed; they were just livid! I said, “I didn’t give an interview!”

“Yes, you did! It’s here in the newspaper. ”

I said, “Look! I did not give an interview. This is all a mistake.” And so we had to go back, and so I unleashed a broadside against the irresponsibility of the press that would make up an interview.

Well, then the next brouhaha was not the subject of the interview or the interview itself or anything; it was that the American ambassador has trespassed his welcome in criticizing the local press. [Laughter]

And I said, “You’re doggone right I’ll criticize it.” [Laughter] As it turned out, I had to give an interview to one of the papers that would be on the record and would be really what I said, a long interview, explaining the whole thing, and they ran it! And after that it was no more.