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The US Didn’t Bring Freedom to South Korea — Its People Did

The United States claimed to be fighting in defense of democracy in South Korea. In reality, however, it propped up a series of dictatorships. The people of South Korea only won their freedom decades after the war, through brave struggles against US-backed military strongmen, like the heroic Gwangju Uprising of 1980.

On May 18, 1980, the people of Gwangju rose up against the military. Photo: May 18 Movement Archives / Wikimedia Commons

For South Korea, the popular uprising that convulsed the southwestern city of Gwangju for ten days in 1980 was a defining historical moment. The country that has since given the world the androgynous boy band BTS and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite had been living under the thumb of successive strongmen. Until 1992, regime change only took place through mass revolts or military coups. The Gwangju Uprising marked the beginning of the end for authoritarian rule in South Korea, now a vibrant young democracy that often reinvigorates itself not only at the ballot box, but also on the streets.

Of the three coups in modern South Korean history, the first two — both staged by Park Chung-hee, first to seize power in 1961, then to retain it in 1972 — were relatively bloodless affairs. Park preempted protest by rounding up thousands of activists and muzzling the press. Chun Doo-hwan, a young, US-trained general, mounted the third and final coup in May 1980, deploying the techniques he had learned from the US military.

While the rest of the country silently capitulated, Gwangju resisted the coup for ten days. Its citizens fought to repel the country’s best-trained special forces even as they wielded deadly force against the population in a bid to enforce martial law. The movement ended up controlling the city for five days until a massacre brought their insurrection to an end.

The uprising was a popular one in the fullest sense. Although college students — always pivotal in the country’s pro-democracy campaigns — initiated the struggle, they did not lead it, as ordinary citizens joined them on the barricades. The number of civilian deaths remains unknown. The South Korean government put the official toll at 196, but agreed to compensate 288 victims, with at least 81 more unaccounted for. By any count, there were more workers killed than students, attesting to their central role in the uprising.

The Restoration Years

After seizing power in the early ’60s, Park initiated an export-led industrialization drive. It was an extreme form of dirigiste capitalism, marshaling all the state’s available resources to generate more exports of goods and services. For much of Park’s rule from 1962 to 1979, economic growth was spectacular. The average annual growth rates for GNP and exports were 9.3 and 33.3 percent, respectively. Real per-capita income grew from $87 in 1962 to $1,744 in 1979 — a twentyfold increase.

The regime denounced calls for political freedom and labor rights as unpatriotic and even treacherous. There were official, state-sponsored unions, while the authorities harshly suppressed all efforts to form independent ones. Cheap and abundant labor was the only source of wealth for Park’s export-oriented brand of capitalism, which lacked a technological or financial edge.

Park dubbed his second coup of October 1972 “Yushin,” or restoration — a term he borrowed from Japan’s Meiji Restoration, the coup staged by the samurai class in 1868 to spur the country’s modernization and fend off colonial threats from Western capitalism. Park, who had been an army officer for the Japanese puppet state Manchukuo in the 1930s and ’40s, mimicked the samurai elite. He initiated a drive to build up heavy industry while suppressing opposition in the name of supreme national goals: economic development and the need for unity against a military threat from North Korea. The Yushin dictator shredded what was left of the rule of law and ruled by decree.

In the course of this push, a fully-fledged South Korean capitalist class emerged, harvesting the lion’s share of national wealth, as the Marxist economist Martin Hart-Landsberg detailed in his book The Rush to Development. Relative poverty — the share of the population earning less than one-third of the average national income — rose from 5 percent in 1970 to 14 percent in 1978.

In 1979, the economic drive came to a grinding halt as South Korea’s export-oriented, investment-saturated heavy industry fell victim to hikes in global oil prices and a growing burden of debt. The following year, for the first time since 1962, GNP shrank, by nearly 2 percent. Park’s regime could no longer rely upon the economic growth that it needed to blunt the impact of deepening inequality and harsh political repression.

Park’s Fall

Young female workers made the first dent in Park’s faltering rule. In August 1979, women who worked for the wig exporter YH Trade took shelter at an opposition party headquarters in Seoul. The police had previously evicted them from the factory where they received 220 won a day — the equivalent of $1.67 in today’s money — from their Korean-American boss, who abruptly took flight to the United States after selling the company’s assets and leaving them unpaid for months. Two days into their sit-in at the party headquarters, a huge force of riot police stormed the building, killing one of the workers and injuring many more.

The disintegration of the Park regime accelerated from that point on. In October, student protests developed into widespread unrest in Masan and Busan, two industrial hubs in the southeastern province of Gyeongsang, the regime’s own economically favored home turf. The authorities brought in special forces to brutalize the people of the two cities, in a preview of what was to come seven months later in Gwangju.

This revolt in its own stronghold helped bring a swift end to Park’s regime. The same month, Park’s intelligence chief, Kim Jae-gyu, shot and killed the dictator. Kim said that the assassination was necessary to prevent a major bloodbath that Park and his generals were planning to inflict upon dissidents and ordinary citizens alike.

Park’s death created a new opportunity for Chun Doo-hwan, who was then chief of the Army’s intelligence service. He swiftly shot his way to the top of the military hierarchy in December 1979, rounding up and purging dozens of senior officers.

But it was also a chance for political dissidents to press their demands for a new constitution and other liberal measures, and for workers to protest against low wages and poor working conditions. According to the government’s own figures, there were 720 labor disputes, mainly over back pay, during the first four months of 1980, compared with just 105 in the whole of 1979. In April, the northeastern coal mining community of Sabuk rioted for three days after a police jeep ran over a picket line. The riot ended in the mass arrest of miners. After hearing rumors of a crackdown by special forces, the union leaders went into hiding.

In a confidential report published four months before Park’s assassination, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) noted that the core constituency for opposition activism in South Korea did not stretch far beyond middle-class intellectuals and college students in Seoul. In the post-Park period leading up to the Gwangju Uprising, that assessment proved largely accurate. The wave of labor disputes lacked any national focus. In early May, when college students — often referred to as “the conscience of the nation” for their tenacious resistance to authoritarianism — began pouring onto the streets of Seoul, demanding a clear timetable for democratic reforms, most citizens remained on the sidelines.

After their street demonstrations reached a crescendo on May 15, the students decided to suspend protests, partly because they were concerned about their inability to win popular support, and partly because they feared a military crackdown. Two days later, on the night of May 17, Chun’s troops barged in. They rounded up more than two thousand students and dissidents, including Kim Dae-jung, the dissident leader and eventual 2001 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. The authorities shut down colleges until further notice. On May 18, South Koreans woke up to the most stringent form of martial law: in practical terms, it was another coup.

Gwangju

Gwangju, the capital of the southwestern province of Jeolla, was the only major city where student activists gained real popular support, with protests continuing until May 16. That night, 30,000 local citizens joined the last and largest of these demonstrations, from an urban population of 730,000. They packed the square of the Provincial Hall, defying the government curfew. On May 17, when special forces occupied all the major colleges, Gwangju was also the only place where students clashed with soldiers over the shutdown.

Gwangju and Jeolla represented South Korean capitalism at its worst. The formerly affluent agrarian province had seen its fortunes sharply decline under Park. The government pushed down grain prices in order to reduce the urban cost of living, while inducing a flow of cheap labor to industrial areas from impoverished rural districts. As young men and women from Jeolla sold themselves in the sprawling industrial and red-light districts of the big cities, Gyeongsang province rose as the manufacturing center, favored and bankrolled at national level by its native elite.

People from Gwangju and Jeolla had pinned their hopes on Kim Dae-jung, the young liberal who would have defeated Park in 1971 had the elections not been rigged by the Korean CIA. During the Yushin period, Kim remained under house arrest after surviving several attempts on his life by Park’s henchmen. To curb Kim’s influence, the regime institutionalized a regional bias against Jeolla, further disenfranchising the province. Until the early 1990s, the Samsung conglomerate explicitly barred Jeolla college graduates from employment.

Workers in Gwangju earned barely half as much as their counterparts in other parts of the country. Although it was home to the country’s largest truck and military assembly line, there were only six plants employing more than ten thousand workers. Nearly two-thirds of its working population was employed in the precarious service sector. However, Gwangju was still the provincial center for education, with a large number of colleges and universities. Almost one-fifth of the population were students.

Bringing the War Home

Conditions in Gwangju finally reached boiling point on the morning of May 18, when commandos broke up a small, spontaneous protest against the shutdown at the gate of Chonnam National University, the regional hotbed of student activism. Fewer than a hundred students who had escaped the beatings went downtown, where the city’s distraught citizens were unsure how to vent their anger about the new coup and the arrest of their favorite son, Kim Dae-jung.

By the afternoon, the initially peaceful street march had turned into a series of ever-larger street battles. The commandos increasingly resorted to violence. Over the first five days of the uprising, before the civilian takeover of the city, the military bludgeoned, stabbed, and shot its victims to death. Soldiers stripped their captives naked on the streets — men and women alike — to humiliate them and terrorize bystanders.

A few weeks after the suppression of the uprising, the US Defense Intelligence Agency suggested that the savagery of the special forces could partly be attributed to their “Vietnam experience,” citing an anonymous American eyewitness who had likened Gwangju to the My Lai massacre. Although it is not widely known outside South Korea, the country sent combat troops to Vietnam with US funding between 1966 and 1973. At its peak, this involved about fifty thousand South Korean marines and special-force troops, outnumbering the North Vietnamese regular army on the battlefield. Their brutality was infamous.

The special-force units sprayed the protesters with the same CS gas that they had used to smoke the Viet Cong out of underground hiding spots. Their full metal jacket bullets, also used in Vietnam, inflicted permanent and often fatal injuries as they broke into fragments and tore through human flesh and bone. One commando sergeant brandished a bayonet before his captives, yelling: “This is the bayonet that I used to cut forty Viet Cong women’s breasts.”

Escalation

The ruthlessness of the military convinced Gwangju’s citizens that nonviolent resistance would be futile. They fought back, initially using whatever they could lay their hands on: broken cobblestones, steel pipes, and kitchen knives. Soon, they began producing Molotov cocktails and erecting barricades. In response to the military’s ceaseless attacks, the citizen-defenders came to resemble a big, puncture-proof balloon that inflated, deflated, and inflated again — the crowd scattered, only to regroup and regain size once more.

By the evening of May 20, two hundred thousand people were on the streets. Much of downtown Gwangju was under the control of its citizens, except for a few strategic and logistical points such as highways, the train station, and the Provincial Hall, which the military had made into its temporary command center. The clashes continued to escalate, but the battle was no longer one-sided, leaving the soldiers anxious for their safety.

That night, the city’s taxi drivers shifted the standoff in favor of the protesters. They were front-line workers, often beaten by soldiers for transporting injured civilians to safety. Earlier that day, in a small square at the city’s stadium, the inter-shift hangout of the drivers became an impromptu debating forum, where they decided to use their vehicles to ram the military barricades at the Provincial Hall. Protesters parted to let a force of taxis and buses, well over 200 strong, down the Kumnam Avenue toward the hall.

The soldiers managed to stop the phalanx of vehicles by almost suffocating the entire avenue with CS gas. They smashed windshields and captured drivers after beating them ruthlessly. Angry protesters set fire to the tax office and the buildings of two broadcasting networks, insisting that taxes should be spent on their needs, not on the weapons that the coup organizers were using to kill innocent civilians. The state-controlled media aroused their ire because of its failure to report on the ongoing carnage.

The taxi march emboldened the protesters, who began raiding government car depots so they could use the vehicles to ram through military cordons. At the train station, which was logistically important for the military, protesters drove out the soldiers after a melee. A reinforced company of troops could only recapture the station by firing into the crowds. It was the first use of live ammunition by the military, leaving at least five protesters dead and many more injured.

Uprising

The confrontation continued the next day, May 21, when the protests developed into a full-scale armed uprising. In the morning, at the city’s expressway tollgate, protesters from a nearby industrial district clashed with an infantry division that had been brought into the city. By 10 a.m., the soldiers had begun to use live ammunition to take out the vehicles that were attempting to smash through the barricade at the Provincial Hall. Protesters seized hundreds of jeeps and armored personnel carriers from Asia Motors — now Kia — the city’s military contractor.

Around 1 p.m., without warning, soldiers opened fire on the protesters. In 1995, the South Korean government put the immediate death toll of this shooting at fifty-four, with more than 500 injured. In spite of this atrocity, the crowds had grown too large and too angry to be dispersed.

Park’s regime had militarized South Korean society, inadvertently giving his people the means to fight back against state repression. After they had completed three years of compulsory military service, the state organized able-bodied men into reserve army units by workplace or district. Armories were common. Over the next few hours, the protesters captured thousands of rifles and hundreds of hand grenades, along with several machine guns. Miners in a nearby coal pit brought supplies of dynamite as they joined the uprising.

They brought the firearms to a park beside the Provincial Hall. Anyone could take a rifle, even teenagers. One of those teenagers was Han Sang-gyun, who would be elected president of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions three decades later. Some reserve commanders, usually retired non-commissioned officers, organized the insurgents into units — they called themselves Shimingun (“Citizens’ Army”).

Even with an armed militia on their side, Gwangju’s citizens could not overpower a special-force brigade, which could have outgunned an entire infantry division. People were still being killed and wounded, and the overcrowded hospitals found their blood banks depleted. However, the ragtag militia showed more restraint than the country’s best-trained elite force.

Some rebels installed two machine guns on the roof of a hospital overlooking the Provincial Hall. They could have riddled the headquarters of their enemy with bullets, but they held back, intending the machine guns to serve as a show of potential firepower. Out of a total of twenty-three soldiers killed during the uprising, just eight lost their lives in confrontations with the rebels — the rest were victims of “friendly fire.”

The Gwangju Commune    

By the early hours of May 21, the military had retreated, leaving Gwangju under popular control. The strength of the people came not from their captured firearms but from solidarity, resilience, and sheer numbers. Over the course of five days, Gwangju’s citizens had shed their own blood and tears to drive out the soldiers.

The military began to seal off Gwangju, capturing rebel vehicles that tried to venture beyond the city limits and taking no prisoners. These fatal ambushes only came to light because of a few lucky survivors. In the city itself, however, violence came to an end as government forces pulled out. The citizens found themselves living in an altogether new community, a commune they had already started to build while repelling the army. Over the next five days, Gwangju remained calm, despite the palpable fear of another military crackdown.

There was no looting or panic buying. Some civil servants cooperated with the rebels, doling out rice from the city’s reserve. In the aftermath of the mass shootings at the Provincial Hall, people had started to donate blood en masse, soon exceeding the capacity of the blood banks. Sex workers also gathered at the Red Cross Hospital to donate blood. Rejected at first because of concerns about their occupation, these young women made tearful entreaties: “Our blood is clean, too.”

The sex workers, who were probably in their late teens or early twenties at most, were among the first non-student participants in the movement. Some of them volunteered to wash the corpses, often disfigured by bullets and bludgeons, at a judo studio where the army’s victims had been brought so their families could claim the bodies. But social stigma meant that the role of sex workers in the uprising subsequently vanished into oblivion.

Four Tendencies

The commune consisted of four main social forces. First of all, there were citizens of Gwangju who turned conventional social networks into vehicles to organize resistance. For example, open-market vendors, many of whom were middle-aged women, used gye, a traditional way of pooling resources, in order to organize communal kitchens to feed the militia and protesters. College students also played multiple roles in the daily running of the commune, such as food distribution, traffic control, and organizing funerals. These students called themselves the Student Settlement Committee (SSC), although many trade unionists and ordinary citizens joined their efforts, too.

The second force encompassed the city’s political and religious leaders, who wanted a quick, peaceful end to the uprising. They formed a Settlement Committee (SC) at the Provincial Hall to negotiate with the military. Third, there was the militia, now under the control of Park Nam-sun, a freelance trucker. Yune Seok-ryu, a day laborer, organized rapid response units from the militia to support its units on the edges of the city. The militias of the two men occupied parts of the Provincial Hall.

Finally, there was Yun Sang-won’s group, which clustered around Wildfire, a night school for workers. Yun was a former student activist who had abandoned a banking career in Seoul to organize workers in Gwangju. He ran the night school at the heart of the city’s industrial hub. After the mass shootings on May 21, when his comrades sought to arm themselves, Yun opted instead to bring together a collective of his students and teachers to publish a single-page newspaper called Militants’ Bulletin. They went on to produce ten issues.

Yun’s newspaper won the population’s trust with clear political arguments against the surrender of firearms and practical advice for action. For example, the second issue, dated May 22, urged people to gather in their own districts and march toward the Provincial Hall. The next one called on teenagers to surrender their rifles to adult militias and demanded the government’s resignation. Yun’s group organized daily mass rallies to pressure the SC and keep popular morale high.

Repression

The SC only wanted amnesty for the insurgents and those detained during the uprising. To facilitate negotiations, its supporters began to collect firearms from the militias. With their help, a military agent defused the dynamite that was kept in the Provincial Hall’s basement. No insurgent would have considered detonating the explosives, but this move deprived them of an important bargaining chip against the military.

Yun’s group wanted to continue the uprising until other cities and towns rose up against Chun. They built up support among the militia and the SSC. On May 26, the SC’s negotiations with the military fell through. Yun’s group, the two militia leaders Park and Yune, and some of the SSC took over the Provincial Hall. For them, there was no reason or excuse to put down their weapons and evacuate the hall, as suggested by the SC. They saw any such move as a humiliating defeat that would betray those who had laid down their lives for the uprising.

Through the medium of Henry Scott Stokes, the New York Times correspondent who had come to the city two days before, Yun asked the US ambassador, William H. Gleysteen, to broker a “truce” with Chun. Gleysteen declined the request because the South Korean government had already informed him that the military were going to retake the city by May 27.

About fifteen thousand people joined the final rally. The organizers told them they should leave the square if they wanted to live. Yun and his comrades convinced most of the women to leave the Provincial Hall. One small group of militia members stayed behind to defend their last stronghold, with a larger number scattered throughout downtown.

The predawn raid began with one infantry division and three special-force brigades. The troops killed an unknown number of militia members, including Yun, whose half-charred body was found with a handgun in his right hand and Stokes’s NYT business card in his shirt pocket — as if the twenty-nine-year-old leader had been caught between two irreconcilable goals: to continue the fight to the last, or to negotiate so as to prevent innocent blood being shed.

Washington’s Fingerprints

The uprising and massacre took place under the watch of President Jimmy Carter, who had been elected on a platform of human-rights diplomacy. In 1980, the United States maintained a forty-thousand-strong ground force in South Korea, and had operational control over much of the South Korean military — apart from the special forces used in Gwangju.

De facto US support for Chun came at a very early stage. On December 14, 1979, just two days after Chun had seized control of the military, Gleysteen met with the new ruler at his embassy residence. CIA station chief Robert G. Brewster had arranged the meeting at Gleysteen’s request.

The ambassador’s meeting with a general who had just committed the most shocking breach of army discipline was entirely outside of diplomatic protocols, both in venue and timing. It also differed starkly from Kim Dae-jung’s first visit to the US ambassador. It was not until July 1987, sixteen years after his first presidential bid in 1971, that Kim — one of the country’s few statesmen and a lifelong dissident — could officially set foot in the embassy compound of his country’s closest ally.

To Chun, the fact that Gleysteen quickly met with him was probably more important than the content of their discussions, as an implicit seal of US approval for his violent rise to power. After the meeting, Gleysteen cabled the State Department, retracting his “careless” earlier depiction of Chun’s takeover as a “coup in all but name.” He advised State Department officials to refrain from publicly using that term: “Whatever the precise pattern of events, they did not amount to a classical coup because the existing government structure was technically left in place.” Gleysteen believed that the United States had to approve the general’s contingency plan to use military force in order to prevent South Korea from slipping into “total chaos.”

According to John A. Wickham Jr, who was then serving as US military commander in Korea, Chun had told his subordinates that he would exploit his relationship with the CIA’s Brewster to get the US ambassador onside. After Chun’s seizure of power, Brewster told Wickham that Chun was “the only horse in town,” a man with whom the United States would have to work, “even if at arm’s length.”

US support culminated in a policy review meeting urgently convened by the White House on May 21 following the mass shootings in Gwangju. Twelve senior officials and three army generals agreed to “prioritize the restoration of order in Gwangju by the Korean authorities.” General Wickham released two infantry divisions from his command to the South Korean military in order to quash the uprising. The US government also diverted an aircraft carrier, Coral Sea, from the Indian Ocean to South Korean waters so as to stave off any possible provocations from North Korea.

In 1996, the investigative journalist Tim Shorrock revealed that the United States had been aware of Chun’s plans to use special forces against civilians. How much Washington knew — and when — about the Gwangju carnage is still a matter of debate. Attendees at the May 21 meeting were certainly informed of the mass shootings the day before in Gwangju that had killed about sixty people. Two days later, on May 23, an internal National Security Council memo by senior staff member Michel Oksenberg admitted that Washington had been behind the curve on South Korean troop movements and the “regional rebellion.”

None of this changes the basic facts about the position of the United States toward Chun. At all policy-making levels, from the local CIA station to the White House, the United States not only protected but also helped prop up the vicious coup leader against his own people.

“Life Became a Funeral”

Four months after the massacre, in September 1980, Chun effectively declared himself president after the unanimous vote of a rubber-stamp electoral college. He went on to rule the country until 1987, when a month of nationwide protests forced the regime to allow free presidential elections. However, Chun’s handpicked successor won the presidency thanks to a split opposition vote. 

The collective sacrifice of the Gwangju rebels made it clear that any future attempt by those in power to use force would carry the risk of massive bloodshed. The outcome of the uprising also gave rise to a new breed of activists, who mounted ceaseless resistance to the military dictatorship. A feeling akin to survivor’s guilt drove them on to ever bolder actions. In Human Acts, a novel inspired by the uprising, the Korean writer Han Kang — herself a Gwangju native — succinctly describes the mood: “After you died I could not hold a funeral, and so my life became a funeral.”

South Korea remains a democracy of many contradictions. Three years ago, in 2017, the country proved the vibrancy of its democratic culture when a combination of peaceful protests and impeachment proceedings ousted Park Geun-hye, the daughter of strongman Park Chung-hee, from the presidency. Park’s rule had been plagued by corruption and incompetence, and the movement that brought it down became known as the Candlelight Revolution, in reference to the countless beams of candlelight during the nighttime protests.

Too often, however, such vibrancy merely counterbalances the shortcomings of South Korean democracy, while falling short of more fundamental change. An expedient consensus between moderate liberalism and hardcore conservatism still serves as a rickety foundation for the country’s jerry-built institutional politics.

One case in point is the fate of Chun under the democratic system. The former dictator became the subject of global headlines in 1996 when he was put on trial and convicted of treason and corruption. However, the treason conviction only covered his role in the suppression of the last stand at the Provincial Hall. There were no charges relating to the coup itself, nor to the other nine days of atrocities wrought by Chun upon Gwangju.

A year later, he was pardoned at the request of then-president-elect Kim Dae-jung. Kim wanted to woo the conservatives who still regarded him as a leftist. Chun, now eighty-nine years old, still lives in the lap of luxury in Seoul.

Legacy of the Uprising

The consensus within the ruling bloc stifles organized labor and left politics in South Korea. Skewed electoral laws disenfranchise left-leaning minority parties and help maintain the two-party duopoly, in an echo of the US political system. Global media may praise South Korea’s successful containment of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, in 2019, the country had the third-highest workplace fatality rate among OECD members, surpassed only by Mexico and Turkey.

Hard-won democratic rights, including freedom of expression, helped create a climate in which Parasite could be made and win four Academy Awards for its satirical indictment of South Korean inequality. But the film’s success, needless to say, can do little to address the inequality it depicts. The average South Korean worker works more than two thousand hours a year — the second-highest figure in the OECD.

The liberal agenda of Moon Jae-in, the former human rights lawyer and student activist who was catapulted to the presidency during the Candlelight Revolution, grew very thin when it came to social injustice. In July 2017, the government raised the legal minimum wage by 16.4 percent to 7,530 won per hour ($6.50), despite corporate opposition. However, it also redefined seasonal bonuses and certain cash benefits as part of salaries, blunting the impact of the reform.

While Moon mobilized all available resources to contain COVID-19, his post-pandemic stimulus package — blatantly misnamed the “Korean New Deal” — is a neoliberal cliché that discarded his earlier commitment to a green, sustainable economy.

Four decades after the Gwangju Uprising, many of the demands of the insurgents remain unmet, and the inequalities that brought them onto the streets still linger very strongly. For many on the Left in South Korea, life is still a funeral; like Yun Sang-won and his fallen comrades, they still have the Provincial Hall to defend.