Kwangju Declassified: Holbrooke’s Legacy

One of the most important documents I obtained in my 15-year quest to unearth the US role in South Korea in 1979 and 1980 were the minutes to a White House meeting that took place on May 22, 1980. At this meeting, the Carter administration made its critical decision to support the South Korean military as it moved to crush the Kwangju Uprising, the largest citizens’ rebellion in the south since the Korean War ended in 1953.

The document, which I first obtained in 1996, is significant for historical reasons. But it’s also important because two of the key players at that meeting were the late Richard Holbrooke and Zbigniew Brzezinski. Holbrooke, who was until his untimely death a perennial favorite in Democratic circles for the coveted job of secretary of state, recently served as a high-ranking official in Hillary Clinton’s State Department. Brzezinski, who was Carter’s national security adviser, has won a certain claim to fame in fashionable Washington think-tanks (such as the New America Foundation) for his opposition to the war in Iraq and his biting critique of the Bush/neoconservative school of foreign policy.

In South Korea, however, both men showed an appalling disregard for democracy and human rights. Their actions should not be forgotten – particularly by progressives who like to champion Holbrooke and Brzezinski as men of honor who exemplify the conduct of US foreign policy. Here’s the story of that fateful May 1980 meeting, with the minutes attached at the end.

By Tim Shorrock

On May 22, 1980, President Jimmy Carter’s national security team gathered at the White House for a high-level meeting on an unprecedented political crisis in South Korea.

The situation was dire. Twelve hours earlier in the city of Kwangju, hundreds of thousands of armed students, industrial workers, taxi drivers, students and citizens had gathered in a downtown plaza to celebrate the liberation of their city from two divisions of Army Special Forces troops who had been sent to quell anti-military protests throughout the country five days earlier.

The demonstrations had been called to denounce military intervention in Korean policitics and the May 17 declaration of martial law by a Korean General and intelligence chief, Chun Doo Hwan, who later took power as president and ruled the country for eight years. In Seoul and other large cities, Chun’s raids on university campuses and his roundup of student leaders and political dissidents shut down the protests. But in Kwangju, a city in Korea’s southwestern Cholla Province well-known for its resistance to centralized, authoritarian rule, students continued to defy the martial law edicts.

On May 18, apparently warned by their commanders that a communist revolution was unfolding in Kwangju that could infect the whole country and inspire North Korea to invade, Chun’s troops began a two-day rampage through the city.

In broad daylight, they began beating, bayonetting and shooting anyone who dared to stand up to martial law. Bystanders too were attacked – some of them chased into their homes and killed. Horrified and angered by the actions of the storm troopers, the people of Kwangju – most of them skilled in firearms because of males’ mandatory stints in the army – formed a citizens’ militia and started shooting back. After two days of combat and hand-to-hand fighting in which dozens of people were killed and wounded, Chun’s Special Forces turned tail and pulled out of the city. It was the first armed insurrection in modern South Korean history.

Back in Washington, the events in Kwangju were viewed with fear and loathing. The United States had nearly 40,000 combat troops in South Korea, and these forward-based, nuclear-armed troops were key to the US Cold War strategy of encircling the Soviet Union and China with military bases.

Indeed, just months before, Carter had agreed to reverse his 1976 campaign promise to withdraw US troops from Korea after enormous pressure from conservative lawmakers and the Pentagon concerned about upsetting the US military posture towards North Korea and East Asia. Moreover, South Korea was a symbol to US policy makers of a ideal ally that supported the US in unpopular wars like Vietnam; unlike in many countries, anti-Americanism was virtually unknown. In this context, the armed uprising by ordinary citizens with an unknown agenda was a frightening prospect.

There was another specter haunting US policy: Iran. In the Middle East, just a few days after Park’s Chung Hee’s assassination in Seoul (the event in October 1979 that set off the Korea crisis), radical Islamists loyal to the revolutionary, anti-US government of Ayotollah Khomeni had seized the US Embassy in Teheran. With US policy in the Middle East already in shambles because of the 1978 revolution that toppled the Shah of Iran, the Carter administration was reeling from a crisis of confidence.

Since almost the moment that the dictator Park was felled by a gun wielded by the head of his own CIA, Carter’s aides had been desperately trying to keep the lid on in Korea to prevent it from becoming “another Iran” and creating a truly global crisis for US hegemony.

Yet as Holbrooke and the rest of Carter’s national security team gathered at the White House that day, they knew much of the details of what had happened in Kwangju. The few foreign media in the city had managed to transmit stories of the savage brutality inflicted by the Special Forces on the city’s population, especially its youth.

Secret cables from the US Embassy in Seoul to the State Department that I later obtained under the Freedom of Information Act confirmed that massacres had indeed taken place and were the primary cause of the uprising. The Defense Intelligence Agency, in other documents I obtained, warned that the Special Forces were fully capable of vicious cruelty and that Chun was secretly planning to seize power.

But none of that seemed to matter: what was important to Carter’s White House was the preservation of US national security interests – not the democratic impulses of a Korean population sick from 18 years of dictatorship. As the citizens of Kwangju waited for a sign of hope, Carter’s team made a fateful decision: to support Chun’s plan to put down the rebellion by force.

The participants in the May 22 meeting, according to the declassified minutes I later obtained from the National Security Council, included the Deputy Secretary of State, Warren Christopher; Holbrooke, assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific; Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Adviser; CIA director Admiral Stansfield Turner; Donald Gregg, the NSC’s top intelligence official for Asia and a former CIA Station Chief in Seoul; and U.S. Defense Secretary Harold Brown.

This crack foreign policy team quickly came to a consensus. “The first priority is the restoration of order in Kwangju by the Korean authorities with the minimum use of force necessary without laying the seeds for wide disorders later,” the minutes stated. “Once order is restored, it was agreed we must press the Korean government, and the military in particular, to allow a greater degree of political freedom to evolve.” (scroll down to the bottom of this article to view the declassified minutes of this meeting).

The U.S. position was summed up by Brzezinski: “in the short term support, in the longer term pressure for political evolution.” As for the situation in Kwangju, the group decided that “we have counseled moderation, but have not ruled out the use of force, should the Koreans need to employ it to restore order.” If there was “little loss of life” in the recapture of the city, “we can move quietly to apply pressure for more political evolution,” the officials decided. Once the situation was cleared up, the war cabinet agreed, normal economic ties could move forward – including an important $600 million Export-Import Bank loan to South Korea to buy American nuclear power equipment and engineering services.

Within hours of the meeting, the US commander in Korea gave formal approval to the Korean military to remove a division of Korean troops under the US-Korean Joint Command and deploy them to Kwangju. The city and its surrounding towns had already been cut off from all communications by a tight military cordon. Military helicopters began flying over the city urging the Kwangju urban army – which had taken up positions in the provincial capital building in the middle of the city – to surrender. At one point, a Kwangju citizens’ council asked the US ambassador, William Gleysteen, to intervene seek a negotiated truce; but the request was coldly rejected.

In the early morning of May 27, the Korean troops from the Joint Command shot their way into the provincial capital and quickly put an end to the resistance. The Kwangju Commune was shut down, and hundreds of people who had participated were rounded up and imprisoned. In early June, Carter’s team approved the Eximbank loan, and South Korea went ahead with its plan to buy US nuclear technology – a deal that went right into the pockets of Westinghouse and Bechtel corporations. By September 1980, Chun was president, and in January 1981 he was chosen by incoming President Reagan as the first foreign head of state to visit the White House. US-Korean ties were restored, and a crisis averted.

But not for the people of South Korea. Partly because of the decisions made at that White House meeting, they endured eight more years of authoritarian rule. Over the 1980s, however, a mass movement, with Kwangju as its symbol, spread like wildfire throughout South Korea, culminating in 1987 with huge demonstrations in Seoul and other cities that drew millions of people. In 1996 the democratic movement reached an apex when Kim Dae Jung, the longtime dissident leader (and a Kwangju native) was elected president of South Korea.

I asked Holbrooke once about his role in US diplomacy at the time, particularly the decision to allow the Korean military to use force to end the Kwangju Uprising. In a story that appeared in The Nation, he said this: “Kwangju was an explosively dangerous situation, the outcome was tragic, but the long-term results for Korea are democracy and economic stability. He added: “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. That was a flat-out lie, as my documents attest. In fact, as I wrote in The Nation and the Journal of Commerce, Holbrooke took it upon himself to prevent the democratic Korean opposition from speaking out against military intervention, and then kept his mouth firmly shut when the Kwangju disaster struck. Later, after leaving the Clinton administration, Holbrooke went on to make a small fortune advising large corporations – including South Korea’s Hyundai Group.

I ended my Nation article comparing Holbrooke to Graham Greene’s devastating portrait in The Quiet American of Alden Pyle, the eager C.I.A. agent sent to colonial Vietnam to subvert the Communist-led Vietminh. At the end of the book, Pyle, who has been secretly providing plastic explosives to a “Third Force” private army opposed to both the French colonialists and the Vietminh, turns his “wide campus gaze” on a Saigon street where a bomb planted by his allies to disrupt a French military parade has exploded prematurely, killing women and children and blowing the legs off a pedicab driver.

“There was to have been a parade,” Pyle mumbles as he wonders aloud whether he should clean the blood off his shoes before talking to the police; “I didn’t know.” Thomas Fowler, the cynical English journalist who narrates the story, walks away in disgust. “He was impregnably armoured by his good intentions and his ignorance,” Fowler concludes.

I can’t think of a better description for the tortured liberals who presided over the debacle in Kwangju – some of whom still direct our foreign policy today.

Carter administration, Policy Review Committee (May 22, 1980)

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3 Responses to Kwangju Declassified: Holbrooke’s Legacy

  1. Susan Hall says:

    This was an enlightening article. There have only been a few things I knew about the Koreas. The first was the huge demonstration they had against accepting beef infected with Mad Cow disease from the US. The second information I had about North Korea was that they had a starving time & their people are now shorter than the South Koreans. I can appreciate their desire not to be under the US empire after reading this article, not that I think the dictator they have now is a good thing. I have watched the dancing presented to the North Koreans leaders, which is done in perfect unison and with everyone dressed exactly alike and thus hundreds of little closes with not individual creativity or interactions are seen. This vision sometimes comes to my mind when I see the children in our US charter schools all dressed in their dull uniforms.

    One question I have is if South Korea had the nuclear weapon capability before North Korea?

  2. Ellen Barfield says:

    You probably don’t remember me, Mr Shorrock, but I met you and you gave me some documents about Kwang Ju in 2003 before I went back to S Korea with Yoomi Jeong to testify for the Korean Truth Commission about having been stationed with the US Army in S Korea at the time of the Kwang Ju massacre. I just want to thank you for this article about Holbrooke’s involvement in the Kwang Ju atrocity. I am always interested in more information about that time and what happened.

  3. Ibrahim Zabad says:

    Beautiful peace and so relevant for today’s events. Meticulous research. Probably, similar research would have to be done sometimes in the future when we–if we were still alive–would find about the real stances of the Obama administration regarding the revolution in Egypt!

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