Magazine article The Nation

Debacle in Kwangju

Magazine article The Nation

Debacle in Kwangju

Article excerpt

Few incidents have revealed so starkly the contradiction between U.S. security interests and human rights as the decision to release South Korean troops under U.S. command to suppress the Kwangju uprising of 1980. The move was taken with full knowledge that the rebellion was triggered by the massacre of hundreds of protesters by black beret Special Forces dispatched by military strongman Chun Doo Hwan after he ended a brief democratic spring by declaring martial law. That U. S. decision was made by President Jimmy Carter on the counsel of Warren Christopher, now the departing Secretary of State but then Deputy Secretary, and the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, Richard Holbrooke, who is being touted as a possible replacement for Christopher in Bill Clinton's new Cabinet.

In Seoul, where Kwangju has come to symbolize the birth of South Korea's modern liberation movement and the nadir of its militaristic past, the incident has been put to rest. On August 5, a Korean court convicted Chun of treason and murder for his takeover and role in the Kwangju massacre, and later sentenced him to death. But there has been no such accounting here, where Christopher and Holbrooke, who was President Clinton's chief negotiator on Bosnia, refuse to accept any U. S. responsibility for what happened in Kwangju.

"This is an obvious tragedy for the individuals involved, and it's obviously an internal matter for the people of the Republic of Korea," said Nicholas Burns, Christopher's chief spokesman, after the verdicts from Seoul's "trial of the century" were announced this summer. "Kwangju was an explosively dangerous situation, the outcome was tragic, but the long-term results for Korea are democracy and economic stability," said Holbrooke when I questioned him recently about his policies in Korea. "The idea that we would actively conspire with the Korean generals in a massacre of students is, frankly, bizarre; it's obscene and counter to every political value we articulated." When the Carter Administration heard Chun was sending Special Forces to Kwangju, "we made every effort to stop what was happening," Holbrooke said.

But documents I recently obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the Carter Administration's complicity with Chun ran much deeper than simply approving a military operation to retake Kwangju: According to the newly declassified documents, which include hundreds of top-secret State Department and Defense Intelligence Agency cables, on May 9, 1980, the Administration gave prior approval to Chun to use military force to crack down on student and labor unrest; Chun declared martial law on May 17. The cables also show that U.S. officials knew as far back as February 1980 that Chun was mobilizing Special Warfare Command troops, trained to fight behind the lines in a war against North Korea, in his repression of dissent in Kwangju.

The documents (which I have also described in The Journal of Commerce and the Korean press) directly contradict a 1989 White Paper on Kwangju prepared by the Bush Administration. It concluded that "U.S. officials were alarmed by reports of plans to use military units to back up the police in dealing with student demonstrations" and "had neither authority over nor prior knowledge of the movement of the Special Warfare Command units to Kwangju."

The most important F.O.I.A. documents describe secret communications between William Gleysteen, the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea from 1978 to 1981, and the team assembled in November 1979 by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to monitor the crisis that erupted in South Korea after President Park Chung Hee was shot to death by the head of the Korean C.I.A. In Washington, Vance's team was headed by Holbrooke, whom Gleysteen called the "chief apparatchik" of Carter's Korea policy. Other key players were Christopher and Donald Gregg, the former C.I.A. station chief in Seoul who was head of Asian intelligence under Zbigniew Brzezinski's National Security Council. …

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