May 18 marked thirty-eight years since the historic Gwangju Uprising when thousands of Gwangju citizens took to the streets in 1980 to demand an end to decades of military dictatorship in South Korea. Armed civilians drove out the army, which had been deployed by then-General Chun Doo-hwan to put down the uprising. For a brief moment, Gwangju citizens from all walks of life came together to realize true democracy, liberated from the military regime. For several days, they not only maintained order but self-organized to share food, provide medical aid and care for those who had been injured by the South Korean police and military.

Photo - May 18 Memorial Foundation

The military government responded quickly by deploying paramilitary forces to re-seize Gwangju. Chun Doo-hwan, who had taken power in a military coup, maintained a repressive regime for seven more years until mass protests forced him to step down in 1987. 

Today, the people of South Korea still seek justice for the more than one thousand Gwangju citizens who were massacred by Chun’s regime in May, 1980. Many responsible for the mass killings have yet to be held accountable. Chun and others, who had previously been convicted, were pardoned in 1997. Chun walks free having served hardly any jail time.


Newly Declassified Evidence Incriminates Chun and the U.S.

New incriminating evidence against Chun and other key figures in his military regime have recently emerged. A witness account made public earlier this month revealed that a secret chain of command called the Defense Security Command (DSC), which took direct orders from Chun, was responsible for the decision to indiscriminately shoot at civilians in Gwangju starting on May 21, 1980.

Whistlewblower Heo Jang-hwan, a former investigator with the Gwangju 505 Security Unit, which worked directly under the order of the DSC in 1980, spoke with The Hankyoreh on May 3, 2018. In the days leading up to the Gwangju Massacre, he said, the Gwangju 505 Security Unit was briefed on a plan to preemptively open-fire at protesters. His then-superior, he added, informed the unit’s investigators that Chun will “assume responsibility” for the order to open-fire. Live ammunition was given to soldiers in Gwangju — an indication of the government’s intent to fire at protesters without provocation, according to Heo.

Last week, South Korea’s media outlet SBS also released a report based on newly-declassified U.S. State Department records that lend credence to the widely-held belief that Chun Doo-hwan had directly ordered the South Korean military to open-fire at Gwangju citizens to quell the 1980 uprising. SBS cited details from previously classified cables exchanged between the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Seoul in May 1980.

According to the documents, then-U.S. Secretary of State Edmund Muskie sent a classified message containing Chun Doo-hwan’s request for a new military strategy to address the Gwangju Uprising to the embassies of South Korea, Japan, and China on May 25, 1980. Muskie also notified them that Chun’s military regime was planning to implement a strategy of repression if negotiations with the protesters failed.

On May 26, 1980, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea William Gleysteen sent a classified report to Muskie to inform him that Chun was moving forward with plans to violently suppress the protests in Gwangju. In this report, according to SBS, Gleysteen explicitly said he purposefully did not tell the South Korean government to halt its plan to use military force against civilian protesters.

Two important facts are confirmed by these recently-declassified records:

  • Chun Doo-hwan was directly responsible for planning and ordering the massacre of civilian protesters in Gwangju;
  • The U.S. had full knowledge of Chun’s plan to use the military to suppress the Gwangju democracy movement yet did nothing to prevent the massacre. The U.S., which had operational control over South Korean forces, gave tacit approval for Chun’s plan to deploy heavily-armed troops to crack down on civilian dissent.

The declassified records also show that Chun, to justify his use of military force, had fabricated the claim that North Korea was behind the Gwangju Uprising. He accused then-dissident (later democratically-elected president) Kim Dae-jung of collaborating with North Korea to incite the “riots” in Gwangju. Not a single shred of evidence has emerged to corroborate Chun’s claims about North Korea’s involvement.

South Korean people’s movements have endured many forms of military repression and state violence, which the South Korean government has historically justified by accusing them of being orchestrated by North Korea. Clear evidence of U.S. involvement behind mass killings of Korean people, on the other hand, have not led to any formal denouncement of or action to hold accountable U.S. government or military officials.

Artificial division of the Korean peninsula has been at the root of decades of authoritarianism that sparked the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, as well as the 1948 Jeju Uprising and other mass resistance movements in South Korea’s history. Division prolonged by U.S. military occupation has had a long-lasting and traumatic effect on the Korean people. As North and South Korea prepare to resume inter-Korean cooperation after the historic Panmunjom summit, a critical part of reconciliation and unification should be an examination of the multitudinous ways in which division has impacted the lives of the Korean people, and perhaps more importantly, honoring the struggles of those who stood up to the forces behind Korea’s division.


By ZoominKorea staff


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