Published on Sunday, May 21, 2000 in the Sunday Herald (Scotland)
Korean Students Blame U.S. For 1980 Massacre Of 2000 Students
by Colin Donald
KWANGJU, SOUTH KOREA - FOR 20 years, Lee Jai Eui has been justifying to himself his decision to leave the occupied Provincial Hall and "sneak out of the city", abandoning his post as a key organiser in the student leadership of the Kwangju Uprising. "On the evening of May 22, 1980, I sat in the operations room smoking a cigarette, trying to sum up what the students were doing for the citizens. A small voice tempted me, saying, 'Leave all this if you want to achieve anything. You are so isolated, you are so alone. Kwangju is cut off from the outside world. No-one will ever know what happened.'"
Largely thanks to his secretly written account of the slaughter he witnessed, most Koreans and a growing number of foreigners know exactly what happened in Kwangju between May 18 and 27, 1980. The focus now is on why it happened. Two decades on, the US's failure to prevent the Kwangju Massacre, in which up to 2000 pro-democracy protesters and bystanders were clubbed, bayoneted and shot to death by Korean special forces, has come to rank among the country's worst Cold War embarrassments.
Documentary evidence recently made available under the US Freedom of Information Act suggests strong US complicity with the perpetrators, the emergent military dictatorship of General Chun Doo Hwan. The documentary record contrasts with the official US version, set out in a 1989 white paper, which claimed that the US Embassy, its Combined Forces Command and Jimmy Carter's White House were bemused and powerless bystanders while a close military ally inflicted one of the worst atrocities against a civilian population since the second world war.
Carter, who based his entire administration on a commitment to global human rights, has never expressed regret for the "Kwangju Incident", and has implied that suppression was necessary to prevent "communist subversion". A diplomatic cable of May 9, 1980, shows that the US Ambassador to South Korea, William Gleysteen, met with Chun to discuss how to handle the student protests that were breaking out throughout the country following the murder of the previous dictator Park Chung Hee.
Gleysteen told Chun that the US would not oppose the Korean military's contingency plans "to maintain law and order, if absolutely necessary, by reinforcing the police with the army". Panicked by the simultaneous Iran crisis and swallowing fictitious reports of North Korean troop movements fed by Chun's cronies in the Korean CIA, the Carter regime was prepared to indulge any solution that would prevent South Korea from "unravelling and causing chaos in a key American ally". Similarly, the US position that it did not know that the dreaded Seventh Special Warfare Brigade - whose atrocities against civilians were evidenced when fighting on the American side in the Vietnam War - was being moved to Kwangju has been directly contradicted by the documents.
Although the paratroopers were outside of US Combined Command, their movements, "probably targeted against unrest at Chongju and Kwangju universities", were related back to the Pentagon in a cable 10 days before the massacre occurred. The publication of this information, obtained by veteran Korea-watcher Tim Shorrock, and the refusal of the US to explain or apologise for its conduct has led to a resurgence of anti-American feeling among one of Washington's most important strategic allies in East Asia.
Last week, student protesters briefly occupied the US Embassy in Seoul to protest against the US presence in Korea, specifically its (at best) see-no-evil role in the suppression of the Kwangju spring of 1980. Significantly, the US has refused on national security grounds to take the chance of exculpating itself in Korean eyes by releasing the then senior military commander General Wickham's communications with his Korean counterparts or the US government relating to the massacre.
Kwangju Diary, the book Lee Jai Eui wrote to liberate himself from guilt at his survival, recently translated into English, describes a horrific military assault on unarmed civilians, bloody street battles and indiscriminate torture and murder.
By the end of the week in which the army had been ejected from the city, had surrounded it, and had returned with overwhelming force, the place was littered with corpses. Thousands of survivors would be mentally and physically scarred for life. Unseen by TV cameras, flatly denied by the authorities and underplayed in the Western media, Kwangju now appears the pivotal event of Korea's journey from dictatorship to democracy.
Those who still assert that the Cold War offered a clear choice between good and evil are finding it increasingly hard to assimilate. A massive martyr's cemetery on the outskirts of this hot, sprawling and featureless modern city was last week designated a national monument. Once a dirty secret, "5-18" is now enshrined in national myth. Chief perpetrator Chun Doo Hwan was convicted in 1995 of this and other crimes but pardoned because of political squabbling. His antagonist Kim Dae Jung - Kwangju's local hero, sentenced to death during the uprising - is now president of the republic, but is prevented by his small majority from bringing the military allies of his political opponents to justice.
For Lee and others, official recognition of what used to be a forbidden topic has brought no sense of closure. "I have devoted myself to discovering the truth of Kwangju. The people I left in the Provincial Hall, they knew very clearly that they would die. I had strong feelings of guilt about leaving them that did not disappear until I published the Diary five years later."
The book became the bible of the Korean democracy movement, and Kwangju a place of pilgrimage for human rights activists. Now Lee, a civil servant, devotes his spare time to Kwangju Citizens' Solidarity, a pro-democracy pressure group.
At the Mangldong Cemetery last week, President Kim Dae Jung called 5-18: "A source of pride not only for us, but for all the people around the world who believe in the common values of human rights and democracy."
On the same day Kim was honouring the dead, South Korean negotiators met their North Korean counterparts to agree an agenda for the epoch-making summit between the two Korean leaders next month. The symbolism of the date is intentional; the Cold War lives on in the Korean peninsula, and Kwangju is one of its sorest of points. While the Koreas remain divided, an atmosphere that would allow the truth of Kwangju to be fully known cannot flourish.
Next month also sees the 50th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, formerly portrayed as a civil conflict with superpower back-up, but increasingly seen as a clash of Soviet, American and Chinese neo-imperialist forces using Korean proxies. That the resulting stalemate should have given rise to conditions that produced a massacre - and treated the victims as non-people - is a source of bitterness and unfairness that two decades have not diminished.
Copyright 2000 Sunday Herald