The Gwangju Uprising and American Hypocrisy: One Reporter’s Quest for Truth and Justice in Korea

The Gwangju Uprising and American Hypocrisy: One Reporter’s Quest for Truth and Justice in Korea

The Gwangju Uprising and American Hypocrisy: One Reporter’s Quest for Truth and Justice in Korea

A personal story from a longtime Nation writer.


This is a very personal story that departs from the admittedly sardonic style of journalism you usually see on this blog. Last month I had an experience that was both rare and precious, and also provides insight into contemporary South Korea, US foreign policy, and the power and weakness of the press. It deserves to be shared, and I thank you for reading.

Two weeks ago, on May 21, I stood in the main square of the old city of Gwangju, South Korea, to receive an honorary citizenship from its mayor, Yoon Jang-hyun, a highly respected and progressive politician. Facing me were about 3,000 people gathered for the city’s annual “citizens day,” which commemorates the city’s brief liberation in 1980 from two brigades of Korean Special Forces sent down to crush a student-led movement for democracy.

I was given the honor for exposing the previously hidden role of the United States in the 1980 coup and its involvement in the decisions by the Korean military to crush the rebellion. When my name came up at the May 21 ceremony, Mayor Yoon handed me a beautiful inlaid plaque expressing the city’s appreciation for my “noble endeavor” to “globalize the spirit of the May 18 Democratic Uprising.”

Accepting that award was a high point of my life that I will never forget, and the culmination of decades of reporting I’d done on Gwangju and the US-Korean strategic relationship. As you can see from this clip on YouTube, I was overwhelmed. I expressed my shame at America’s support for the generals over the Korean people and pledged my “solidarity forever” with the city.

My award was doubly significant because my stories had grown directly out of events that took place on the very square where I stood. There, in the shadow of Gwangju’s old Provincial Capital, the last voices of the city’s rebels had been stilled on May 27, 1980, by a Korean Army division dispatched from the DMZ marking the border with North Korea. They were sent with the approval of the US commander of the US-Korea Joint Command, Gen. John Wickham.

That decision, made at the highest levels of the US government, forever stained the relationship between the United States and the South. For the people of Gwangju, many of whom believed that the US military would side with the forces of democracy, it was a deep betrayal that they’ve never forgotten. And once the rest of Korea knew the truth about the rebellion and understood that the United States had helped throttle it, anti-American sentiment spread like wildfire.

* * *

The Special Forces “black berets” were dispatched to Gwangju by military strongman Chun Doo-hwan to enforce the martial law he had declared nationwide on the night of May 17, 1980. Over a two-day period, those troops used their M-16s and bayonets to kill and injure hundreds of people in Gwangju’s streets demanding an end to military rule and seeking the restoration of democracy.

The Gwangju Massacre, as it became known, is now commemorated every year by official government ceremonies. For South Korea, it marks a low point in its militaristic history. But the remembrances also honor those who took up arms to defend their nascent republic from the generals who had stolen democracy. That’s because the people of Gwangju did the unthinkable: They fought back.

With guns and weapons seized from local armories, a citizens’ army pushed the martial law forces out of town. As the Korean army threw a tight cordon around Gwangju, the people took it upon themselves to run their affairs.

Thousands of Gwangju citizens mass in the city square during the May 1980 uprising. Photo courtesy of the May 18 Memorial Foundation.

Virtually the entire city joined in, creating a self-governing community that many Koreans now compare to the Paris Commune of 1871. Women shared food and water with the fighters. Taxi and bus drivers shuttled rebels around the town and, on several occasions, used their vehicles as weapons against marauding soldiers. Nurses and doctors tended to the wounded. Citizens, young and old, flocked to local hospitals to donate blood (click here for a chronology of the uprising).

The mural above, displayed at the May 18 Memorial Foundation, provides a vivid record of that week. You can also get a sense of the depth of popular support for the uprising in this short film, which I recorded at the Gwangju city archives of the rebellion, which opened in May. The idea of the “Gwangju Commune” is so popular that the city also gave an honorary citizenship to George Katsiaficas, an American academic who has written two books about the impact of Gwangju on Asian social movements.

* * *

Gwangju was the first armed rebellion against South Korea’s military since the end of the Korean War in 1953. But it also shook the very foundations of the American Cold War power structure in East Asia. Gwangju’s challenge to an army that had first seized political power in 1961 created a deep crisis for the Carter administration, which was overwhelmed by the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and desperately trying to prevent “another Iran” from further disturbing the status quo.

I was in Gwangju shortly after the uprising. And throughout the early 1980s, I reported on South Korea’s student- and worker-led democratic movement, and the US military role there, for the old New York Guardian, The Progressive, The Nation, and the San Francisco Chronicle. In 1985 I visited Gwangju again and met many of the participants in the uprising. That sparked a years-long quest to find the truth about the events.

In 1996, I wrote a series of articles for the Journal of Commerce and South Korea’s Sisa Journal that, for the first time, exposed how deeply the Carter administration was involved in the planning for the military coup of 1980. Based on a huge cache of declassified documents from the State Department and the Pentagon obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, my stories showed that the Carter administration had essentially given the green light to South Korea’s generals to use military force against the huge student and worker demonstrations that rocked the country in the spring of 1980 (years later, I also obtained several hundred CIA documents, showing how badly the agency had underestimated Korean opposition to the dictatorship).

When my Journal of Commerce articles were first published, they received virtually no coverage in the US press, despite the fact that Chun and another general responsible for the massacre were on trial at the time (the only major newspaper to report on them was The Washington Post). Chun was convicted and later pardoned by Kim Dae-jung, the dissident-turned-president he had tried to execute—see my interview with Kim about Gwangju here.

But my revelations were front-page news in South Korea for days and sparked several large demonstrations and sit-ins at the US Embassy in Seoul. In recent years, they’ve also captured the attention of the North Korean media, which have described my stories inaccurately and with its standard exaggerations and hyperbole.

Inside Gwangju itself, my stories had an electrifying effect. For years, its people had known that President Carter had agreed to release forces under the US-Korean joint command to put down their uprising. But until I obtained documents showing that Carter’s envoy in South Korea, William Gleysteen, had given advance approval to his plans to use military force against the students and workers swarming the streets in the spring of 1980, they had no idea of the depth of US complicity. The cables are now famously known in South Korea as the “Cherokee Documents” after the secret code name they were given at the time.

Korean martial law forces confront pro-democracy demonstrators in Gwangju, May 1980. Courtesy of The May 18 Memorial Foundation.

One of the Cherokee cables, dated May 8, 1980, showed that Gleysteen (seen in this video about my documents from South Korea’s MBC News) had told representatives of General Chun that the US government understood “the need to maintain law and order” and “would not obstruct development of military contingency plans” against what were massive but peaceful demonstrations. Others showed that, contrary to US denials, the Pentagon and the State Department were well aware that Korean Special Forces, trained to fight behind the lines in North Korea, were being deployed to Gwangju and other cities as planning for the May 18 coup proceeded.

In my view, the most damning document, obtained from the National Security Council, was the detailed minutes of a fateful White House meeting on May 22, 1980. During that meeting, which was led by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter decided that the Gwangju uprising—despite the US knowledge that it had been sparked by the slaughter of unarmed civilian protesters—had to be crushed militarily. Five days after the meeting, South Korea’s crack 9th Army Division rolled into the city and killed the remaining rebels holed up in the provincial capital building.

* * *

During my visit to Gwangju, I learned how deeply my stories had affected the democratic movement. “Your stories completely changed our view,” Lee Jae-eui, one of the leaders of the uprising, told me one day as we walked through the cemetery where the victims of the uprising are buried.

Lee, who escaped from the city but was captured and jailed by the Korean military in the fall of 1980, is the co-author of the famous book Kwangju Diary: Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age. This chronicle of the uprising circulated underground for years and became a bestseller before being published in South Korea after democracy was finally restored in 1987. “So many people were arrested for having that book,” he said.

The day I arrived in Gwangju, the May 18 Foundation sponsored a three-hour press conference, where I talked about the documents with participants in the uprising and academics who’d studied it. It was covered by major media organizations, including Hankyoreh, the only national newspaper not owned by a major business conglomerate, and MBC, the largest private television network in the country.

One of those attending, Song Hee-sung, was a leader of the women’s brigade during the uprising and is now a member of the South Cholla Provincial Assembly, her state’s legislative body. She was particularly interested in what my documents said about North Korea. That’s because right-wingers in the South are now trying to discredit the Gwangju uprising by saying it was actually led by 600 North Korean soldiers who infiltrated the city at the time.

My meeting with activists in Gwangju. Song Hee-sung, on the front-right, was a leader of the women’s brigade during the 1980 uprising (Credit: Tim Shorrock)

I responded that the documents stated quite clearly that the United States had observed no unusual troop movements by North Korea during the period leading up to and following the uprising. Similar observations were made at the time by US intelligence agencies. I explained that the Korean peninsula, then as now, is closely monitored by US electronic intelligence, including by U-2 spy planes and the National Security Agency, and that any military move by North Korea in 1980 would have been noted and widely publicized. The idea that 600 North Koreans were in Gwangju, I added, was ridiculous.

To my surprise, my comments were the headlines in the stories that appeared the next day (such as this story from UPI). For many reporters and editors, my analysis was a counterpoint to the interpretations of Gwangju by the South Korean right wing. Young Koreans, too, upset with the increasingly authoritarian tilt of President Park Geun-hye (the daughter of the longtime dictator Park Chung-hee), were drawn to the coverage. Later I was told that an interview with me in OhMyNews, a “citizen journalism” site with massive web traffic, had drawn over 4,000 “likes” on Facebook. Another story in Hankook Ilbo, a major daily, drew a similar audience.

Later, in Seoul, I met one of Lee’s co-authors on the Diary, Dr. So Jun Seop, who is now a researcher at the National Assembly library. Dr. So, who was 22 during the uprising, spent five years underground before being arrested in 1985. “Until Gwangju, there was no anti-American movement in South Korea,” he told me. “But this incident ignited that sentiment. Before reading [the Diary], many students thought the United States was friendly. But they changed their mind after that.”

The fact that it was human-rights liberals like Holbrooke who managed US policy at the time intensified their anger—and mine as well. In a 1996 article in The Nation, I compared the late State Department official to Alden Pyle, the CIA do-gooder with the “wide campus gaze” who personified Cold War liberalism in Graham Greene’s great book about Vietnam, The Quiet American.

* * *

After my exuberant days in Gwangju, I traveled north to Seoul. I went there primarily to cover the women’s march across the DMZ organized by Gloria Steinem, the life-long feminist leader, and Christine Ahn, a Korean-American peace activist from Hawaii.

Upon my arrival at Seoul’s rail station, I was met by Cho Tae-guen, a senior aide to Park Won-suk, a member of the National Assembly (to my delight, Mr. Cho was holding a copy of my book Spies for Hire so I could identify him). He said his boss was interested in my articles on Gwangju and, in particular, a chapter I had written for a book about the uprising.

In 1999, an English version of Kwangju Diary was published by the University of California Press, and included essays on the significance of Gwangju by myself and Bruce Cumings, the premiere US historian on the Korean War (and a longtime contributor to The Nation). My essay drew on the documents I’d obtained under FOIA, describing them as “the view from Washington.” Both the English and the Korean editions of the book are now out of print.

So Representative Park, a member of the Justice Party, decided to introduce a bill in the assembly to provide funds to publish a new edition; it has seven co-sponsors. On May 26, he invited me to a press conference at the National Assembly to announce the initiative and talk about the importance of getting the book back in print. That, too, was a very proud moment for me. Representative Park is a longtime democracy activist who previously helped run the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, a broad-based coalition based in Seoul.

I was also honored by the presence of Representative Kwon Eun-hee of the New Politics Alliance Party, South Korea’s most prominent whistleblower. In 2012, Ms. Kwon was a police officer in Seoul in charge of criminal investigations when she got a tip that the National Intelligence Service—the successor to the once-dreaded Korean CIA—was using social media to harass and terrorize citizens critical of the government. Kwon started an investigation that was eventually stifled by the chief of the police department. So she blew the whistle on the cover-up and went to the press. Her disclosures became a huge national story and rocked the government. But she was harassed and demoted and finally quit to run for office; today, she is called “the daughter of Gwangju” by her admirers.

Korean Army soldiers rounding up suspected insurgents after retaking Gwangju on May 27, 1980, with the approval of the US government. Courtesy of the May 18 Memorial Foundation.

Their joint statement focused on the necessity of awakening the public to the disclosures made in Kwangju Diary and its importance as a historical document.

Today, the Kwangju Democratization Movement is not only commemorated as a painful and tragic chapter of the country’s modern history, but also remembered as the watershed moment for its democracy. The Kwangju Democratization Movement went down as an inspiring moment for human freedom and dignity not only in Korea’s national history but also in the world’s.

We, undersigned, are National Assembly members who have learned a grave lesson from the Kwangju Democratization Movement and who would like to be tribunes for the people and democracy…. The Kwangju Diary is a true, vivid record of the Kwangju Democratization Movement. And its English version, first published in 1999, became the must-read for anyone to understand the Korean democracy movement as it brought home the meaning of the Kwangju Democratization Movement and the nation’s democratization on an international scale.

Yet, we only recently learned that Kwangju Diary has become out of print since 2005. It is disgraceful that the only historic English-language record documenting the Kwangju Democratization Movement has been out of print for almost a decade.

They went on to call on the central government and the city of Gwangju to take steps to ensure republication of the book, and promised to secure the “related institutions’ budget” to finance it. I followed with a statement that summarized my findings and explained my chagrin at the fact that my own country had helped destroy the Gwangju “Commune.”

This was a betrayal of the Korean people because the United States has always said publicly it’s here to defend South Korea against North Korea and to support democratic and human rights. But instead it made a decision to support the military security forces and to maintain what they said were US national security interests in Korea. And as an American citizen, I find this a very shameful thing.

Finally, I paid tribute to Representative Kwon as a whistleblower, and told her that in President Obama’s America whistleblowers are now an endangered species. She nodded in appreciation. Like my visit to Gwangju, the press conference was a great lesson in international solidarity.

* * *

My favorite part of the trip came at the end of the May 21 ceremony in Gwangju, when the crowd, joined by a well-known opera singer and a children’s choir, sang the city’s liberation anthem, “Marching for our Beloved.” Banned by the government during the 1980s, it has become the unofficial song of the South Korean democracy movement.

But in recent years, as the government and parts of society have moved to the right, the song has become controversial. Recently its chorus was banned because clips of it appeared in a North Korean movie about Gwangju. When the tune was played at this year’s official May 18 commemoration in Seoul, the government representatives sat stoically as the rest of the crowd stood in respect.

There was no such reluctance in Gwangju. Led by Mayor Yoon, the 3,000-person crowd loudly sang the anthem through every verse, their fists held high, as clips of the Gwangju citizens’ army filled the giant screen behind the stage. It was a beautiful moment that told me that revolutionary Gwangju is still alive, and the spirit of democracy and freedom more vibrant than ever.

My thanks to the editors and co-authors of Kwangju Diary, Kap Su Seol, Nick Mamatas, and Bruce Cumings.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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