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Thinking about Gwangju

Korea might have become a democracy in 1980 rather than waiting seven long years.
Oct 16,2017
Each year in my graduate course on the Korean Peninsula, I include a session on Gwangju. With the commercial success of “A Taxi Driver,” President Moon’s impassioned comments on the issue, and discussion of further investigations, it is useful for the American side to also reflect on what happened.

The exercise I conduct is simple, yet always proves interestingly divisive. In November of 1979, following Park Chung Hee’s assassination, President Carter put together a group called Operation Cherokee to monitor events in South Korea. The group was formed days after the U.S. embassy in Tehran was seized, and that event ended up casting a long shadow over subsequent developments. Thanks to the excellent work of Tim Shorrock, many of the classified documents used by this group, including communications from the Embassy in Seoul, have been declassified.

In the class, we ask this simple counterfactual question: Seeing the deliberations of the Cherokee group, what — if anything — might the United States have done differently? We explore this question by walking through a series of important markers in the history of these turbulent six months in Korean politics, starting with Chun Doo Hwan’s seizure of power within the military in December 1979 and ending with the events in Gwangju itself.

It is always easy to criticize those who acted in the fog of uncertainty. This is particularly true on the U.S. side, where knowledge of what was going on was thin, and filtered both by Korean authorities and the views of the U.S. Embassy. A number of my students suggest that throughout these events, the United States should watch and wait, not seeking to play a central role in developments at all. The justifications for this more passive stance vary. But they range from wider strategic interests, including with respect to both Iran and North Korea, as well as belief that the United States should as a matter of principle not intervene in the domestic affairs of foreign countries.

Yet half of the class — including both Americans and Koreans — express disappointment at U.S. timidity. I have convinced my classes that the issues are not the technical ones of whether the United States authorized the release of Korean military forces to perform martial law duty; I have come to believe that this criticism is misguided. Not only did the United States not have the legal authority to block the movement of forces; it is not clear what the U.S. military itself could have done if General Chun refused.

Rather, the issues are political: at what point might the United States have been more forceful in expressing its concerns? In this regard, a very interesting line of thought emerged quite early in the deliberations, and ultimately proved decisive: that the U.S. would be sympathetic to the need to establish “law and order.”

One motive for this way of thinking was clearly a misleading analogy with Iran. The last thing that the United States wanted was another front where it was facing challenges from mobilized social forces. But it does not take much thought to see that U.S. interests were hardly threatened by opposition and student protests in the way that they were in Iran. If there were strong anti-American tendencies in the opposition, they only strengthened as a result of Gwangju.

Another reason for being concerned about civil unrest was that North Korea would exploit these circumstances. Yet there was — and is — very little evidence of North Korean military moves during these events. Moreover, we now have new documents suggesting that the North Koreans even expressed surprise at Gwangju, evidence that they were hardly driving or even influencing these events.

Carter did issue a public statement following the imposition of martial law on May 18. But the administration’s subsequent efforts at public diplomacy were much weaker and the ambassador explicitly declined an appeal to mediate the conflict in Gwangju. After the military re-seized the city, Carter said that human rights sometimes had to be subordinated to security concerns. The Cherokee group had moved on to a strategy of accepting Chun’s consolidation of power and trying to influence the new authoritarian regime at the margins.

What might have been done differently? The events of 1986-87 actually provide a guide. At that juncture, a conservative president, Ronald Reagan, took a much more forward policy than his predecessor on the importance of free, fair and direct elections. The fact of the matter is that the unrest that the United States was afraid of was a pro-democracy movement that was protesting precisely the direction that the political system ultimately took. That process certainly looked unruly, but to conflate it with the seizure of the Iranian embassy or question its motives was an historical mistake.

I would personally prefer to see a coming together around this difficult history than further polarization around it.

But we cannot rule out that Korea might have become a democracy in 1980 rather than waiting the long seven years it did, and with the human costs not only of Gwangju but of that interregnum as well. These facts require reflection not only in Korea but in the United States as well.

*The author is the Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California in San Diego. He is the author with Marcus Noland of the Witness to Transformation blog.

Stephan Haggard