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Crisis Management: Occupation of USIS in South Korea, 1985

On May 25, 1985, seventy-three South Korean students barged into the United States Information Services (USIS) library in Seoul and began a three-day occupation. The students’ primary demand was an apology from the U.S. Ambassador, Richard L. “Dixie” Walker, as the representative of the American government, for the United States’ alleged role and complicity in the 1980 “Kwangju incident,” a massacre of hundreds of protesters in Kwangju, South Korea on the orders of President Chun Doo-Hwan.

Though the United States had no involvement in the Kwangju incident and was distancing itself from the repressive Chun regime, lingering resentment toward the U.S. and misunderstandings about Kwangju persisted through the end of the twentieth century. After three long, tense days, the students, having shared their concerns with the Americans and with the larger South Korean public, peacefully left the library. The resolution of the occupation of the U.S. Embassy’s library was seen as a case study in successful crisis management.

Thomas P. “Harry” Dunlop, Political Counselor (1983-1987), was the chief American negotiator during the standoff. He recounts the intense experience in a July 1996 interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy. Paul M. Cleveland, Deputy Chief of Mission (1981-1985), recalls the pressures from Washington during the incident in an October 1996 interview with Thomas Stern. Bernard Lavin, in a December 1988 interview with Mike Brown, shares his perspective as the Public Affairs Officer (1981-1985).

To read more about Korea, assaults on U.S. Embassies or negotiations, please follow the links.

 “Seventy-three Korean students had forced their way into the Library and barricaded themselves there”

Thomas P. “Harry” Dunlop, Political Counselor, 1983-1987

DUNLOP: When I arrived in South Korea in 1983, the Kwangju incident was a relatively recent memory, as it had taken place only three years previously. This incident was part of the rhetoric of the Left in the United States about the “brutal dictator,” Chun, and the alleged role of the United States in this incident. The Kwangju incident was also raised in the streets of South Korea, when the students demonstrated against the Chun Doo Hwan Government. (Chun is at left.)

My personal involvement with the Kwangju incident was limited to learning about it in a rather superficial way before I arrived in South Korea. I observed this component as an element in the student protests, but not much more than that.

On May 25, 1985, I was having lunch in the Seoul Plaza Hotel, not far from our USIS [United States Information Service] building, when the phone rang. This was a lunch which I periodically had with diplomatic colleagues. On this occasion I was the host.

The waiters called me over to the phone. My secretary was on the line. She very properly told me that something was going on over at the USIS building and suggested that I go over there and see what it was. I excused myself, asked my Japanese colleague to “pick up the tab,” and I would pay him back later.

So I walked over to the USIS office, which was only a short distance from the hotel. The USIS office was on the ground floor of the building, which also housed the USIS Library on the second floor. Seventy-three Korean students had forced their way into the Library and barricaded themselves there. They demanded that Ambassador “Dixie” Walker come immediately and speak to them.

I walked in there to face some unknown faces behind a barricade of bookshelves piled up at the doorway. As I noted before, I did not speak Korean, although I wished very much that I could do so. Not only just to talk but to listen to what the students had to say to each other.

The students had handed in a list of five written demands. The first was that Ambassador “Dixie” Walker (seen right) come to the USIS Library and personally apologize for the “slaughter” of an alleged 2,500 people in Kwangju. The other demands concerned matters like the removal of American nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula and our immediately ensuring the peaceful reunification of Korea by withdrawing our troops from the South Korea. There were “simple” little demands like that…

I was so grateful that they went “right to the bone” of US- South Korean relations. Well, we finally got an interpreter there, who turned out to be incompetent. We had to change interpreters at least once. However, since I was the first American Embassy officer on the scene, I became the negotiator with the students.

It took us three days to get them out of the USIS Library. These were three very tension-filled days.

First of all, they were on a hunger strike. Secondly, they threatened to burn the building down. They said that they had “Molotov cocktails” and other incendiary devices, which the students often carried around. They used to throw these things. Fortunately, they were usually filled with kerosene, not with gasoline. That’s why fewer people were hurt in these incidents than you might have expected.

Once in a while they used gasoline, and a couple of students burned themselves to death, since they just did not know how to handle the stuff. We didn’t know whether they had gasoline and we didn’t know whether they were serious about the threat to burn down the building. However, we had no alternative but to take them seriously.

So, for three days they stayed in the USIS Library. This incident began at noon on a Thursday, and the students left Sunday noon. These were three rather intense days. I spent a total of about 22 or 23 hours actually talking or negotiating with them, if you can call it “negotiating.”

We identified their leaders. Actually, they identified themselves. One of my jobs was to find out whether these were the real leaders of the group. Apparently, they were. The students were led by a committee of five persons, five young Korean males. There were also a couple of females in the group.

They immediately draped the inside of the picture type windows which faced out on the street with banners detailing their demands. The press, of course, flocked around. The South Korean Police secured the area, thereby disrupting downtown traffic.

We had a table brought up to the barricade at the door and persuaded the Korean students to remove the barricade and sit at the other side of the table. They more or less did this, although they kept part of the barricade in place, in the form of heavy bookcases which were close by. I guess they thought that we were going to rush them.

The interpreter and I sat on “our” side of the table, and we started to talk. I did not relish the prospect of suddenly being yanked over the table and becoming a hostage, so a Marine stood directly behind me with a guy on my left.

“We made our case as quietly, calmly, and logically as we possibly could”

Fairly early on we were able to dispose of all of the demands except the “apology” for the Kwangju incident. We told them that these other demands were ridiculous, particularly the “demand” about the reunification of Korea.

I pointed out to them that their demands for reunification, the removal of nuclear weapons, and the evacuation of American forces from South Korea might make good rhetoric on the campuses, but we could not talk about them. We agreed to talk about the Kwangju incident.

There were those in the Embassy and back in Washington, when they “got their fingers in the pie,” who didn’t want to talk about anything with the students. In reply to these views, I said, well, the only other thing that we could do is just to tell them to leave the USIS Library. What if they don’t?

My view was that we could talk about Kwangju because we had a good case. I didn’t know as much about the Kwangju incident then as I do now. I figured that I knew people who did. There was one person in particular in the American Mission who had been present in Korea at the time and knew a lot about what the military relationship had been between the US and the South Koreans. He had a pretty good grasp of the sequence of events. We brought this man over. (Bodies from the Kwangju massacre are seen at right.)

He actually was the civilian adviser to the CINC [Commander in Chief, US Command], a position which he had held for many years. He was a civil servant, an employee of the Department of the Army, and an excellent man who knew Korea and spoke Korean.

I told him that I was glad that I didn’t have to pay him. I told him that he should have been a Political Officer in the Embassy. He said, “Don’t tell the military that, because they are paying me, and this is not what I’m supposed to be doing…”

I think that he’s still there in South Korea. If so, I hope that the Embassy is using him and his knowledge, for he’s a real gold mine of information. His job in South Korea was to advise the CINC on the political leanings of the South Korean officers who were dealing with him. He was sort of a walking biographic library on these various South Korean officers.

It was a very important thing to do, and it was smart of the US military to pay him to do that. I’m not sure that the Embassy would ever have gotten around to doing that or could have done it. And the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] Station was totally out of the picture.

He came over to the Embassy and told me a lot about Kwangju, and I got him to talk directly to the student leaders. We would begin all of these discussion sessions with my reminding them that they were illegally in the USIS Library building, that they had damaged US Government property, that they were young people acting irresponsibly, and that they should leave immediately. I made the same points at the end of the discussions….

Of course, you can’t carry on a discourse as if it were a one way street, when I was telling them to leave. There had to be something else in the discussion. The “something else” was the Kwangju incident.

We had these long discussions about Kwangju, with me doing my bit about denouncing their behavior and ending it that way. Between times, I would discuss the Kwangju incident and answer their questions. Of course, they were abysmally ignorant about what had actually happened in Kwangju.

For them this was just a symbol, and the figure of 2,500 deaths was a figure that they had picked up. In fact, the South Korean opposition to the government usually used the figure of 2,000 deaths in Kwangju, and the students “tacked” 500 more deaths on to it. They were even more aggressive in this respect, or whatever the word should be….

It was difficult to know to what degree they believed what we were saying. They never admitted that they believed it. We made our case as quietly, calmly, and logically as we possibly could. They listened and, after about three days, they finally left. It was a great moment for me when they left. And they left without being hurt in any way….

We had allowed them to express their views to us on a range of issues. Then we allowed one of the students to come out of the barricaded area and meet with a designated pool reporter from the press. The students said that they wanted to talk directly to the press.

Then the student representative went back in. They sang some of their student revolutionary songs and then filed out and boarded police buses, which were waiting to take them away. Of course, the South Korean Police were going to arrest them.

“Having young Koreans beaten up by South Korean Police on our property was just impossible to contemplate”

From the start they knew that they would eventually be arrested, if they didn’t burn themselves alive first. We also made it clear to the South Korean Police that we were going to follow the treatment of the students very closely. We said that we expected that there would be no physical mistreatment or beatings of these young people. There were none, as far as we know, and I think we knew….

The South Korean Police [had] wanted to smash the windows and drag these students out. We, of course, would not permit that, as this was diplomatic property. Having young Koreans beaten up by South Korean Police on our property was just impossible to contemplate.

There were some people who said, “Well, then let’s get the Marine Guards into this and get rid of these students.” This raised the same problem, though perhaps slightly less of a problem than if they were removed by South Korean Police or military. The way we wanted to do it was to talk them out of there. (U.S. Marine Guards are seen with Amb. Walker at right.)

Of course, by their occupation of the USIS Library, they were achieving one of their purposes. Perhaps this was the only purpose that they could have realistically achieved and was the most important. That is, to get publicity for their views. Every minute that they had those banners up in the windows, and they would take them down and put them back up later, they were achieving one of their purposes.

It looked as if these banners were printed on sheets which they had brought with them. We never figured out where they got that stuff. Of course, they had “cased” the building before. After all, the USIS Library was open to the public.

Several issues arose about crisis management which might be worth talking about, because this was a crisis. There were 73 lives at stake. I don’t think that any of the Americans in the USIS building would have been hurt, had the building started to burn, although some of us might have been.

I think that we did the right thing in having one principal negotiator. (Bernie Lavin, the USIS chief, was also heavily involved and a great help.) I got very tired throughout this period. Paul Cleveland, the DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission], would periodically ask me if I didn’t want someone to spell me. However, I think that consistency in our approach to the students was very important. At times, I just had to stop and say, “All right, that’s enough for today.” Then I would go off and lie down and rest.

Interpretation is also very important. We had a really bad interpreter at first. One of the problems in dealing with Koreans is this emphasis on politeness. The first interpreter was doing two things that were terribly wrong. He was using denigrating terminology which I was not using for him, like I was the Political Counselor dealing with these “riffraff” from off the streets. That was absolutely wrong.

The interpreter should have said in Korean exactly what I said in English, but it was very hard for him to do that. The second thing that he did was the exact opposite. He would not interpret into Korean some of the “tough things” that I wanted to say, such as, “You young people are acting irresponsibly.” He would use the vocabulary of address that was denigrating to them, but he couldn’t bring himself to say the things that I wanted to say to them….

The question arose about food. They arrived at the USIS Library on an advertised hunger strike. In my view, they had chosen to use food as a weapon, if you will. I thought that it was legitimate for us to use food as a weapon also, if we could figure out how to do it.

We asked the Department to ask the CIA, the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigations], the ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms], or whatever agency had experience with hostage negotiations whether we should give these young people food when they got really hungry. We never got an answer, which I thought was disgraceful. The answer might have been, “We don’t have a clue” as to whether giving them food would be a good or bad thing.

I began to be concerned because I thought that the tone of their voices was getting ragged. But silence was unacceptable to me. Well, they were hungry. They actually didn’t eat anything. They had access to the water fountains and the toilets, and we made sure that those continued to function. Some of our people said at the beginning, “Turn those off.” Well, we could have turned them off but didn’t. We got absolutely no help from Washington on such issues.

The next thing that I wanted to do is that I wanted somebody with the necessary skills to “bug” that room and tell me what the students were saying to each other. Would you believe that I was told that we don’t have that capability?

Nobody did it. I wanted somebody to tape the conversations between the students and listen to it. I didn’t want to have them transcribed, but I wanted someone to listen and tell me what they were saying to each other. We never got that, and I thought that this was also disgraceful.

However, the protesters finally left. Everybody was very happy at the way that this crisis had been handled, because nobody was hurt and, I guess, God was good to us at that time.

“[Our] faith in Korea’s future was really tested”

Paul M. Cleveland, Deputy Chief of Mission, 1981-1985

CLEVELAND: [Our] faith in Korea’s future was really tested….So we sent Harry Dunlop, our Political Counselor, to start a dialogue with the students; that lasted three days. He just kept talking to them. He did a magnificent job.

In the meantime, in the Embassy, there was major ongoing debate. I, Steve Bradner, and several other senior officers wanted to continue the dialogue; there were others, like the Station Chief and the Security Officer, who wanted the students ejected forcibly. We did not want to use the police; we thought that given time, we could talk the students out of the building.

We had a very responsible and thorough discussion, chaired by Dixie. He was a great chairman listening patiently to both sides and maintaining order and civility. The pro-police action people were concerned about the US image–we looked “weak” and “vacillating.” The Korean government would certainly never have permitted this “disorder” to continue.

In the final analysis, Dixie sided with us “weak kneed diplomats”, even though the government — including the Foreign Ministry, I believe — began to apply increasing pressure on us to let their police into the building to drag the students out. The government felt that the incident was an embarrassment to Korea, as I suppose it was.

By the third day, the events at the USIA [United States Information Agency, another name for the USIS] building were becoming well known throughout Seoul, even though the media was not allowed to give it any coverage. The students wrote their political testaments on the windows so that all passersby knew what was going on. Of course, with each passing day, the number of Korean spectators increased, so that what the U.S. was doing about the student invasion was well known throughout the city.

While Harry Dunlop continued the dialogue with the students, we also talked incessantly with Washington. CIA experts on “hostage” situations were brought in to counsel us over the phone. There were questions about whether we should bring food and liquids to the students. I talked to Paul Wolfowitz, the Assistant Secretary, on a couple of occasions. We received a tremendous amount of attention and good support.

One day, when I had to go to the USIA building to talk to Dunlop, someone took my picture which then appeared in the “New York Times”. Then I got calls from all over the US, from friends who wanted to know what I was doing. I think the US press gave us very good and favorable coverage.

My Korean friends–like Yi Hong Goo (recently the Prime Minister and then a university professor)–who were essentially spectators, gave me good feed-back. They advised us to continue down our path; it was good advice which we followed. Eventually, the students left the building and the issue was resolved peacefully and I think to our credit.

My motivation during those days was my belief, shared by Steve Bradner — who essentially represented the UN command — and many others, that the USIA incident was an opportunity to show the Koreans how democracy really works. It is a system that required dialogue and patience and certainly abhors force such as the police would have undoubtedly used–when the issue was a political one.

The great irony was that when Dunlop, after three grueling days, finally talked the students into leaving the building and we had negotiated a peaceful exit and departure, as the students hit the street, the police grabbed them and threw them in paddy wagons.

You could see the billy clubs flying inside the wagons, but we made strong representations and most of the students were released by the police within twelve hours and sent home. Some of the ring leaders were jailed and sentenced to jail, even though we did not press trespassing charges against the students.

All this happened in a period when we were having problems with hostage-taking in the Middle East and other places. Our situation was not a hostage situation, but some saw it as U.S. inability to protect its own people and property. In fact, it was a signal lesson on democratic development, which rarely moves without some disruptions.

“[The] U.S. was a good vehicle for attracting attention”

Bernard Lavin, Public Affairs Officer, 1981-1985

LAVIN: The Political Counselor, Harry Dunlop and I chose the path of patience, dialogue and persuasion. We were getting advice from Washington, the Korean government, Ministry officials, the Korean police, Korean professors and so-called experts in how to deal with the students. The advice ranged from “Throw them out,” “Call in the Army,” “Turn the police loose on them,” “Starve them out,” “Drug them” to “Let them stay there till they drop” or “Tear gas the rascals.”

Ambassador Walker, despite very heavy pressure on him from some circles at State and the Blue House [the Korean presidential residence], supported the position Harry and I had taken. During the three days and nights of discussion, Harry did a masterful job in firmly but diplomatically rejecting the absurd demands.

On the second morning I talked to the whole group and reminded them that earlier generations of students and their professors had often used USIS for exchanges of opinions with Americans. I told them there was no need for them to use violence to get our attention. Their demands should have been directed to the Korean government but they felt the U.S. was a good vehicle for attracting attention.

I used the names of many of the students and professors who had come to USIS in the past, peacefully. This seemed to impress them and Harry later reported that this appeal to the 73 students had a palpable effect.

Emotions were high all around. Some of the students threatened to kill themselves in front of the TV cameras or to cut off their fingers or poison themselves. In my talks with Harry and the Ambassador I urged patience.

I felt there was a serious possibility that some of the students might be injured or killed because the police, as they told me, were itching to get their hands on the students. The Korean government had been embarrassed by the event and media coverage world-wide. My final argument was that if a student were to be killed, for years afterwards, on the anniversary of the death, flowers would surely be brought to USIS — hardly a welcome prospect to associate USIS with a martyr.

The students were finally persuaded to leave. At twelve noon on the third day, they formed up in the library, put on their head bands, sang songs, hugged each other and marched out to the TV cameras. They were quickly taken by the police.

In Washington there was ecstasy that the ordeal was peacefully resolved. The Ambassador and DCM came over to my office to join Harry and me and the staff which had performed superbly throughout the three days and nights. Mr. [Charles Z.]Wick [Director of the United States Information Agency in Washington] called the Ambassador to congratulate him. (Wick is at right.)

Harry was given a Superior Honor Award by State as I was by USIA. I also appreciated the fact that State also gave me a Superior Honor Award.

The Korean press was highly laudatory as was the academic community of “the wisdom and skill of the U. S. government in handling this explosive situation.” All was well that ended well.