The Cherokee Files





(First published as Part One of a series in Sisa Journal, February 1996)


Senior officials in the Carter administration approved South Korean plans to use military troops against pro-democracy demonstrations ten days before former General Chun Doo Hwan seized control of the country in a May 17, 1980, military coup, according to newly released U.S. government documents.

U.S. officials also knew Chun’s contingency plans included the deployment of Special Warfare Command troops  to Seoul and Kwangju, the documents show.

Two brigades of those Special Forces were later held responsible for killing hundreds of people in a massacre in Kwangju that drew worldwide attention. In 1996, Chun and his chief lieutenant in the operation, General Noh Tae-Woo, were convicted by a Korean court of murder and treason in connection with the crimes.

The declassified documents contradict key statements made in a 1989 State Department “White Paper” on U.S. actions during the Kwangju Uprising. In that paper U.S. administration of President George H.W. Bush declared that the Carter administration had been alarmed by Mr. Chun’s threats to use the military against the nationwide demonstrations in May 1980 and did not know in advance that Special Forces were being sent to Kwangju. That absolved the United States of any guilt in the violence in Kwangju, according to the U.S. government.

“We stand by the integrity of that report and our actions,” the State Department said in an official statement, provided to me in response to this story, which was originally published in the Journal of Commerce in February 1996.

The declassified documents are part of a collection of 2,000 diplomatic and military cables from the State Department and the Defense Intelligence Agency obtained by this reporter under the Freedom of Information Act.


The chain of secret cables related to the Korean crisis of 1979 and 1980 were given the code name “Cherokee.” Most of the documents are cables between the U.S. Embassy in Seoul and the State Department in Washington. They provide a detailed, inside look at the decisions made at the highest levels of the U.S. government during that time.

According to the cables, ten days after the assassination, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance set up a secret policy-making group to monitor the situation in Korea. Departing from the standard secrecy in such situations, Mr. Vance established a special communication link code named “Cherokee.”

“In order to assure candid high-level exchange of information and recommendations on evolving ROK political situation and how USG can best encourage positive outcome, we are establishing a privacy series with this message,” Mr. Vance wrote in his cable, which is dated Nov. 6, 1979.

Direct distribution of the cables, he said, will “include only” the Secretary of State, Deputy Secretary Christopher and Assistant Secretary Holbrooke, who was instructed to handcarry the cables to the National Security Council and, “as necessary, inform other key officials.” At the U.S Embassy in Seoul, only U.S. Ambassador William H. Gleysteen had access to the cable traffic; indeed, he wrote many of its most interesting updates.

The cables with the highest classification were labeled “NODIS,” which means no distribution outside of highly classified and approved channels.

From the first day of the crisis, Mr. Gleysteen recalled in a long interview with me in 1996, Korea policy was handled by a small group of officials from the White House and State Department. In addition, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon were “brought in at high levels,” he said.  The secrecy, “a normal proclivty in a crisis,” was necessary to deal with the complex military, economic and political issues at stake in Korea, he said.

According to Mr. Gleysteen, a veteran diplomat who served in the Ford Administration as Deputy Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, the Korean crisis of 1979 to 1980 was one of the few times in his career when inter-agency policy ran smoothly. One reason for that, he said, was because both the State and Defense departments had good access to President Carter, who “was following events as a telegram reader.” At the White House, “you just pushed the Korea button and the door opened,” he recalled.


For the United States, the Korean crisis began with the assassination of President Park Chung Hee in October 1979 and ended at the end of 1980, when Mr. Chun became president and was invited to the White House by President Reagan in exchange for commuting the death sentence of dissident, and later president, Kim Dae Jung.

Overall, the Cherokee documents paint a devastating portrait of an administration divided between its public commitment to human rights and its desire not to disrupt important U.S. military and economic ties in South Korea. According to the documents:

•    The U.S. assurances to Mr. Chun that it would not  oppose contingency plans to use military troops were made by Ambassador Gleysteen on May 8, 1980, with the advance approval of Mr. Christopher and Mr. Holbrooke. Mr. Christopher was Secretary of State during the Clinton administration, where Mr. Holbrooke served as President Clinton’s chief negotiator on Bosnia. “In  none of our discussions will we in any way suggest that the USG opposes ROKG contingency plans to maintain law and order, if absolutely necessary, by reinforcing the police with the army,” Mr. Gleysteen reported to Washington in a secret cable on May 7, 1980, shortly before a crucial meeting with Mr. Chun and top aides to acting president Choi Kyu Ha. “We agree that we should not oppose ROK contingency plans to maintain law and order,” Mr. Christopher cabled back the next day. He added that Mr. Gleysteen should “remind Chun and Choi of the danger of escalation if law enforcement responsibilities are not carried out with care and restraint.”

•    U.S. officials in Seoul and Washington were aware long before Kwangju that the Korean military was planning to use Special Forces trained to fight behind the lines in a war with North Korea against unarmed student and worker protests. U.S. knowledge of the Special Warfare Command movements was spelled out by Mr. Gleysteen in a secret cable on May 7, entitled “ROKG Shifts Special Forces Units.” In the cable, he informed Washington that the Korean military had informed U.S. commanders in South Korea that it was moving two Special Forces brigades to Seoul and the area of the Kimpo Airport “for contingency purposes” and “to cope with possible student demonstrations.” They included the 13th and 11th brigades of the Special Forces. “Clearly ROK military is taking seriously students’ statements that they will rally off campus on May 15 if martial law is not lifted before that date,” Mr. Gleysteen concluded.

•    More detailed information, including the deployment of Special Forces to Kwangju, appeared in a Defense Intelligence Agency cable to the Department of Defense Joints Chiefs of Staff on May 8. It stated that all Korean Special Forces brigades “are on alert” and noted that the 13th SWC brigade had been moved to the Seoul area on May 6 while the 62nd battalion of the 11th SWC brigade had “moved into the Seoul area” on May 7. “Only the 7th brigade remained away from the Seoul area,” the cabled stated. It “was probably targeted against unrest at Chonju and Kwangju universities.” According to the DIA cable, all Korean Special Forces units “had been receiving extensive training in riot control, in particular the employment of  CS gas had been stressed.” CS gas is a virulent form of tear gas banned in many countries and considered by some military specialists to be a form of chemical warfare.

The Carter administration decided to support Mr. Chun’s suppression of the Kwangju Uprising on May 22 at a high-level White House meeting. The decision was made after the U.S. Embassy in Seoul and military intelligence had filed extensive reports on the massacres that took place in Kwangju on May18 and May 19.

The participants in this extraordinary meeting, according to the secret minutes obtained from the National Security Council, included Secretary of State Edmund Muskie; Mr. Christopher; Mr. Holbrooke; President Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski; CIA director Admiral Stansfield Turner; Donald Gregg, the NSC top intelligence official for Asia and the CIA Station Chief in Seoul in the 1970s; and U.S. Defense Secretary Harold Brown.

After a full discussion of the situation, “there was general agreement that 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 state.

“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.”

The U.S. position was summed up by Dr. 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.


The statements in the new documents appear to contradict the 1989 White Paper. In May 1980, that report said, “U.S. officials were alarmed by reports of plans to use military units to back up the police in dealing with student demonstrations.” As for the Special Forces, the United States “had neither authority over nor prior knowledge of the movement of the Special Warfare Command units to Kwangju,” it concluded.

In a series of interviews, the State Department acknowledged an “apparent discrepancy” between the White Paper and the statements in the secret cables. But the agency strongly defended the integrity of the 1989 study.

“Its basic conclusions are unassailable and unimpeachable,” a State Department official said of the White Paper. “There are no new lessons to be learned.”

The official said the State Department may not have had “every document that ever pertained to this” available when it wrote the report, but added “there is not a great deal of enthusiasm to reopen the report.”

Asked if, by approving the contingency plans, the Carter administration may have given Mr. Chun a green light for his military coup on May 17, the State Department official said “the word approved is not appropriate.” Under the rules of the Combined Forces Command, he said, South Korea must give prior notice before using troops under joint command but has “sovereign control” over those troops once they are released. “The U.S. can only review their readiness to face the North Korean threat,” he added.

The official said the documents describing movements of the Special Forces “would not have raised a red flag” within the Carter administration because the use of military troops to control against student demonstrations was considered the norm in South Korea. Even acts of brutality, such as beatings or use of CS gas, were not considered unusual, he said.

“The way they handled law and order was rough,” the official said. “But we had a way of tolerating it by that time. This was not an aberration or a sudden departure from the norm. It was the norm.” However, nobody in the Carter administration could have anticipated that such actions would lead to the brutality displayed in Kwangju, the official said.

“That was an unspeakable tragedy that nobody expected to happen,” he said. “When all the dust settles, Koreans killed Koreans, and the Americans didn’t know what was going on and certainly didn’t approve it.” The State Department, he said, continues to believe that the United States “has no moral responsibility for what happened in Kwangju.”

Mr. Gleysteen, who retired from the U.S. foreign service in 1981 and died in 2002, told me (in 1996) that the United States approved the Korean contingency plans to use the military because South Korea would have faced total chaos without it. He strongly denied any knowledge that Korean Special Forces were to be used against student demonstrators.

“The U.S. understood at the time that no government would allow law and order to break down,” he said during an interview in New York. “But we added that how this was done was critically important.” In any case, Mr. Gleysteen said, the Special Forces responsible for the rampage in Kwangju were “employed without the knowledge of the United States…I had no idea whatsoever they were being used for the suppression of student demonstrations.”

Mr. Gleysteen said he could not remember seeing the DIA cables on the Special Forces troop movements, but added that “even though they were not under our command, we did know usually where they were.” Nevertheless, U.S. officials had no indication they would be sent to Kwangju with orders to kill, he said.

“Given that I never believed that something like Kwangju would ever happen, that there would be soldiers sent with those kinds of orders,” such a cable “would not have been surprising information,” Mr. Gleysteen said. It was “absolutely unknown to the United States, either through military or civilian channels,” that the Special Forces would open fire or use bayonets on peaceful demonstrators, he said.

After Kwangju, Mr. Gleysteen said, he was “highly critical of the unwarranted cruel actions” and reacted strongly to the arrests of Kim Dae June and other dissidents.


Donald J. Gregg,  the former U.S. ambassador to Seoul who headed the Asian intelligence desk at the National Security Council under President Carter, said in an interview with me that he does not recall seeing “anything special” about special forces deployments prior to Kwangju.

“That was part of my job, looking at the flow of intelligence, but I read it after it was distilled by military intelligence or the CIA,” Mr. Gregg said. Asked about the DIA documents stating that Special Forces were moving to Kwangju, “maybe that didn’t get the attention it deserved, or maybe it was judged unreliable,” he said.

Mr. Gregg was the CIA station chief in Korea from 1973 to 1975 and had a long career in U.S. intelligence. With military intelligence, “you always have to be sure of the quality of the information and the source,” he said. In any case, Mr. Gregg said he could not be sure if the DIA information on the Special Forces movements “reached the policy-thinking levels”  at the embassy or the White House.

Asked about the May 22 meeting, which he attended, Mr. Gregg said “our real concern was that the North not use this as a pretext for intervention. Once the fat was in the fire, Brzezinski said we can’t do anything until things get calmed down in Kwangju.” After it was clear the Korean 20th Division had retaken Kwangju with a minimum of force, the Carter administration continued its policy of pushing Mr. Chun towards moderation, he said.

Throughout this period, Mr. Gregg said, the Carter administration was “concerned about sending the wrong signal to North Korea. That was the prism through which we always saw the events of this government.”

Critics of U.S. policy in Korea sharply disagreed with the assessments of Mr. Gleysteen and Mr. Gregg.

“What you find is a logic that develops that they weren’t going to do a thing to Chun Doo Hwan,” said Bruce Cumings, a leading expert on the Korean War, after reading Mr. Gleysteen’s May 8 cables and the DIA descriptions of the Special Forces movements. “In the Korean context, these documents could be incendiary.”

Mr. Cumings, who has written extensively about the foreign policy of the Carter administration, said the Cherokee documents read very much like the secret policy papers he collected for his two-volume history on the origins of the Korean War. “Once again, it shows that the intelligence people are much closer to the people in power,” he said. For people like Mr. Holbrooke and Mr. Brzezinski, “its always security first, security second and security third,” said Mr. Cumings. “But what they always mean is, U.S. security.”

Pat Derien, who was President Carter’s Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, said Mr. Gleysteen’s statements to Mr. Chun were “a green light as far as I could see then and as far as I can see now.” She was particularly critical of Mr. Holbrooke and others who argued that national security concerns limited the choices the United States had in South Korea.

“I’m virtually speechless when I think of them pandering to these dictators and the excuses they gave for everything,” she said.

Ms. Derien, who had sharp disagreements with Mr. Holbrooke over Korean policy during her tenure at the State Department, said “national security hysterics” frequently determined the direction of U.S. policy.

Towards the end of the Carter administration, she said, the officials concerned with security issues “captured the decision-makers, including the president and the secretary of state, threatening them with endangering national security.” That shift was responsible for the policies in Korea as well as President Carter’s decision at the end of his presidency to send arms to the government of El Salvador, she said.


The Korean crisis of 1980 occurred at a time when the United States was overwhelmed with the hostage crisis in Iran and deepening tensions with the Soviet Union. They coincided with a remarkable turnaround in U.S.-Korean relations following years of turmoil over security and human rights issues.

In the months leading up to President Park’s assassination in October 1979, the Carter administration was deeply involved in trying to restore U.S.-Korean security and military ties. Those ties had been tarnished by the Koreagate scandal of the mid-1970s, when the Korean CIA was involved in a covert attempt to influence U.S. legislation by bribing U.S. lawmakers, and President Carter’s aborted plan to withdraw U.S. ground troops from South Korea. They were also marred by President Park’s authoritarian policies under the Yushin system, which were sharply criticized by President Carter as part of his emphasis on human rights.

By February 1979, U.S-Korean relations were back on course. The key goals and objectives of the United States were laid out in a secret cable from Secretary Vance to the U.S. Embassy in Seoul and the Pacific Command in Hawaii. The U.S. goals, said Mr. Vance, were peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, gaining a “maximum U.S. share of economic benefits from economic relations with (an) increasingly prosperous South Korea;” and “improvement of the human rights environment  through evolution of a liberal, democratic political process,” in that order.

Despite the tumultuous events of the next 18 months, those policies did not change.

In June 1979, after extensive negotiations between Washington and Seoul, President Carter visited South Korea and met with President Park. During that visit, President Carter declared an end to his troop withdrawal policy and the two countries agreed to force closer military ties to counter what was perceived as a growing Soviet and North Korean military threat. President Park responded by relaxing some political controls.

The political unrest that erupted in the fall of 1979 and the shocking assassination of Mr. Park on October 26, 1979, disrupted those plans (see sidebar below). The events also created a sense of panic within the administration that, at a time of rising tensions with Iran and the Soviet Union, a political confrontation in South Korea could spark an explosion and precipitate a third crisis point in the world. Above all else, U.S. officials said repeatedly, the United States must avoid another Iran in Korea.

Ensuring that political instability in South Korea did not trigger another crisis point for the United States became the overriding policy goal throughout the Chun period. U.S. officials expressed that policy by dealing with Mr. Chun at arm’s length and occasionally expressing to him their dismay at his actions. At the same time, the Carter administration grew increasingly wary of the opposition’s tactics and tried hard to persuade dissidents not to press too hard for democratic change.


The deepening sense of anger and frustration was echoed in several cables to Seoul from Mr. Holbrooke, who presided over U.S. Asia policy in the Carter administration. The cables convey his disgust for South Koreans who did not share his concerns that maintaining stability was essential for U.S. national security.

For example, in a Cherokee cable dated Dec. 8, 1979, Mr. Holbrooke asked Mr. Gleysteen to send a direct message to Korean Christians that they should not expect long-term support for their struggles. Mr. Holbrooke wrote the cable after a period of discussing the Korean situation with Congress, including top Democrats involved in East Asian affairs, Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio.

“We have their full support at this time,” Mr. Holbrooke wrote. “Their attitudes, like everyone else, are dominated by the Iranian crisis, and, needless to say, nobody wants ‘another Iran’ – by which they mean American action which would in any way appear to unravel a situation and lead to chaos or instability in a key American ally.”

Mr. Holbrooke said he was encouraged by “many of the things the Korean leadership has done.” But he added that “certain events have caused us to share our concern over the potential polarization that exists as a result of the actions of what appear to be a relative handful of Christian extremist dissidents.”

To deal with those “hardliners” Mr. Holbrooke proposed a “delicate operation designed to use American influence to reduce the chances of confrontation and to make clear to the generals that you (Gleysteen) are in fact trying to be helpful to them provided they in turn carry out their commitments to liberalization.”

The United States, Mr. Holbrooke said, should send a direct message to the dissidents that “in this delicate time in Korean internal politics, the United States believes that demonstrations in the streets are a throw-back to an earlier era and threaten to provoke retrogressive actions on the part of the Korean government.”

“Even when these meetings are in fact not demonstrations but rather just meetings in defiance of martial law, the U.S. government views them as unhelpful, while martial law is still in effect,” Mr. Holbrooke said.

Mr. Gleysteen was shown this cable in his interview with this reporter, and asked if he had followed up on Mr. Holbrooke’s advice.

“No, that was too tricky,” Mr. Gleysteen replied. “This was an armchair suggestion from Washington, something we just couldn’t do.”

Nevertheless, throughout this period, Mr. Gleysteen continued to press Korean dissidents to take a moderate approach to the military and avoid confrontation.

While warning the military to be tolerant, “on the left, we tried to get the message across to the moderates that they should keep down their inflammatory actions,” Mr. Gleysteen explained. This effort was so successful, he said, that by December 1979, “people were beginning to talk about a ‘Seoul Spring’” as Kim Dae Jung was released from prison and other dissidents were freed to take part in political activities.


Even the December 12 incident, when Mr. Chun and Noh Tae Woo seized control of the military command, did not dampen the U.S. enthusiasm that democratic change might come to South Korea.

To be sure, Gen. Chun’s deployment of Korean troops on the DMZ without the permission of the U.S.-Korean Combined Forces Command deeply angered the Carter administration and U.S. military officials in Korea. “There was highest level concern over the apparent violation of the CFC structure and over any backtracking from movement towards civilian governments,” Mr. Holbrooke cabled Mr. Gleysteen in a Dec. 18, 1979, message signed by then-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.

But the Carter administration saw the incident as a temporary setback, not a dangerous signal that Gen. Chun was preparing the way for a military takeover. According to the cable, Mr. Holbrooke’s primary concern was that dissidents might use the Dec. 12 incident as an excuse to “take the offensive” against the Choi government. “If that occurred at a time of instability within the military, North Korea might be tempted “to test the waters for meddling in the south,” he said.

With that in mind, Mr. Holbrooke instructed his ambassador to extract a promise from President Choi for eventual democratization, even if the promise was vaguely defined and meant only for public consumption.

If President Choi demurred, Mr. Holbrooke argued, “you could even point out, if you were a very cynical person, that setting a date now does not necessarily mean that this date will be kept…but that setting a specific date is more important than exactly when that date is.”

Apparently, President Choi agreed to that reasoning. On December 19, according to a classified cable, Korean ambassador Kim Yong-Shik called on Mr. Holbrooke and reassured him that the political process would continue. Mr. Kim’s actual statements are censored by the State Department, but Mr. Holbrooke’s reply is not.

According to the cable, Mr. Holbrooke said he “found the ROKG message reassuring and hoped that it would be possible to carry out the commitment to broadly based political development. He then “assured Amb. Kim that the USG would not publicly contest the ROKG version of recent events, but he would not wish to see further military changes of command ‘Korea style.’”

By making that assurance, Mr. Gleysteen said in his interview, the United States was saying “we won’t argue about who did what to whom.” Although U.S. policy makers, including Mr. Gleysteen himself, had “the deepest suspicions” about Mr. Chun, “we still had that hope that he could be constrained by the total situation to behave himself in a capable manner.”

Mr. Gregg said U.S. military officials were concerned that a hard line towards Mr. Chun would damage military relationships strained by the Carter administration’s troop withdrawal policies.

“These were military to military matters, ” Mr. Gregg said.  President Park, he said, had been deeply threatened by the U.S. pullout from Vietnam. “He was a hardened man, and saw us as a very  unreliable ally. He really wondered if we had any staying power.” Those feelings were shared by Mr. Chun and his closest advisers, many of whom had served in Vietnam, Mr. Gregg said.

Those views were not entirely shared within the Carter administration, however. According to Mr. Gleysteen, some administration officials pushed for sanctions to pressure the Chun group to relax its grip on power. The choices, he said, ranged from shifting U.S. military forces in Korea to stopping the supply of military equipment.

“Our concern was how these moves would be interpreted by North Korea,” he said. “I looked at this as a highly dangerous type of thing.”

He expressed his alarm in several cables.

“We must not take sanctions, symbolic or otherwise, against the ROK which would in any way diminish ROK and US/ROK defense capabilities, and we must also be careful not to do anything which would appear to the Korean public as anti-Korean, as opposed to anti-December 12,” Mr. Gleysteen wrote in a Dec. 29 cable. Specifically, he said he opposed holding back on the co-production of F-5 fighter planes or refusing to sell F-16s. Such an action “would violate all these precepts and I would strongly oppose playing around with either of them.”

In the end, nothing was done to disrupt U.S.-Korean military ties, with one exception: about two weeks before the Kwangju Incident, the annual U.S.-Korea Security Consultative Meeting was put off for one year.

The same logic was applied to economic sanctions. By late 1979, with U.S. aid no longer a factor in the Korean economy, the only influence the U.S. Embassy had in Seoul was its advice to U.S. and foreign business, particularly U.S. banks, Mr. Gleysteen said. But sanctions applied in the economic field, such as withholding loans or credit, would “have had the same impact on society and North Korea” as military sanctions, Mr. Gleysteen explained in his interview.

“The victims would have been business people and workers in Korea,” he said. “This is always a problem on the human rights side – that the sanctions would hurt the wrong people.” Therefore, the choice was made to treat the Chun group “by remaining aloof” from Mr. Chun and continuing to pressure the generals to reform, Mr. Gleysteen said.

“We really couldn’t come up with anything better than we did,” he explained. “But it in turn was better than it sounds and it really was reasonably effective. I mean Chun squirmed. He was very uncomfortable under this policy. He had a hard time explaining to his officers – when he’d say things were fine, they’d say but, but, but. This actually worked reasonably well.”

Dealing with Mr. Chun in this way, Mr. Gleysteen said, was a “distasteful process, and he hated me for it.” Several times, Mr. Chun called Mr. Gleysteen “governor-general,” he recalled.

Ms. Derian, the human rights official, scoffed at the idea that Mr. Chun was threatened by this policy. “This was not a slap of the wrist, it was more like a wave of the hanky,” she said. “I find the whole thing not credible.”


By April 1980, despite continuing signs that Gen. Chun was readying a full-scale military takeover, the Carter administration appeared pleased with the situation in Korea.

The administration’s views were expressed in April to ROK Foreign Minister Park Tong Jin, who visited Washington and met with Secretary of State Vance, Mr. Holbrooke and other key officials. In an April 16 cable describing that meeting, which primarily covered events in Iran, Secretary Vance expressed his “great satisfaction over the many positive developments” since his visit to Seoul during President Park’s funeral in November 1979.

“Noting that General Wickham and Ambassador Gleysteen have instructed their people in Korea to maintain very good relations with their counterparts, including the ROK military, (Mr. Vance) expressed the hope that similar guidance is in effect on the Korean side and that there will be the fullest confidence and mutual cooperation.”

Even with Mr. Chun’s assumption of powers at the KCIA in early April, the Carter administration had returned to a “business-as-usual” stance with the Korean government.

As political tensions inside South Korea mounted in March and April and hundreds of thousands of students began demonstrating for an end to martial law, Mr. Chun and President Choi began to discuss with Mr. Gleysteen and Mr. Wickham the need to use the military, according to Mr. Gleysteen.

“Chun was saying he was going to behave but he had to have contingencies if things got out of control,” Mr. Gleysteen said. It was in this context that the United States agreed with the contingency plans to use the military, he said.

“There was a certain amount of contradiction in it,” he said. “We recognized he couldn’t lose control of law and order in society. On the other hand, using soldiers was very dangerous and if there was any shooting, that would bring the house of cards down.”

Mr. Gregg said the Carter administration was generally satisfied with how Mr. Chun handled the student demonstrations. “I remember the general feeling,” he recalled. “There was real apprehension when the riots broke out in Seoul. Chun was a very tough man. So there was relief when they were moderately handled.”

Even the behavior of the Special Forces in the October 1979 demonstrations at Pusan and Masan – when the Black Berets were quite willing to “break heads,” according to the DIA documents – did not indicate the severity of what happened in Kwangju, Mr. Gleysteen said.

“That was nothing really egregious by local standards,” he said. “We had no preview of Kwangju, of what amounted to very cruel brutality…It was very much out of line with Korean military behaviour in our experience.” In fact, the initial reports from Kwangju were so horrific that “there was some disbelief in our minds” that it had happened, he said.

Those first reports were recorded in a May 19 cable to Washington, based largely on the observations of a U.S. Embassy information officer in Kwangju. “Rumors reaching Seoul of Kwangju rioting say special forces used fixed bayonets and inflicted many casualties on students,” Mr. Gleysteen wrote. “Some in Kwangju are reported to have said that troops are being more ruthless than North Koreans ever were.”

Two days later, however, the tone of Mr. Gleysteen’s messages had changed. “Unquestionably…a large mob has gained temporary run of the city, and the authorities face series of very difficult options,” he wrote.

Later that day, he wrote that “while military will probably restore order using considerable force, sufficient damage has been done to create scars which will last for years.”

That night, as President Carter’s security advisers prepared to discuss Kwangju at the White House on May 22, Mr. Gleysteen reported that the “massive insurrection in Kwangju is still out of control and poses an alarming situation for the ROK military who have not faced a similar internal threat for at least two decades.” He estimated that “at least 150,000 people are involved” and said “there has been great destruction.” He said the Korean military as “concentrating defense on two military installations and a prison containing 2,000 leftists…The December 12 generals obviously feel threatened by the whole affair.”

It is clear from the Cherokee cables that the Carter administration had decided by May 22 that military force was necessary to retake Kwangju from what the United States considered a “unruly mob.”

In a meeting with the foreign minister that day, Mr. Gleysteen described “the extent to which we were facilitating ROK army efforts to restore order in Kwangju and deter trouble elsewhere,” according to a May 22 cable. “We had not and did not intend to publicize our actions because we feared we would be charged with colluding with the martial law authorities and risk fanning anti-American sentiment in the Kwangju area.”

In another cable that day, Mr. Gleysteen said he and General Wickham “have been assured by the military hierarchy” they would encourage public distribution of the official U.S. statement from the day before urging “maximum restraint” on both sides. By this time, however, military action had apparently already been approved because the military hierarchy also told Mr. Gleysteen and Gen. Wickham they “will not undercut us by taking forceful action in Kwangju for at least two days unless the situation goes completely sour.”


By this time, Mr. Gleysteen was convinced the situation in Kwangju had reached a point of no return.  In a cable sent at 10 p.m., he reported that the Kwangju “rioters” had increased to 150,000 and were seizing hundreds of vehicle and thousands of firearms. Kwangju, he said, “has turned completely into a scene of horrors.”

“If peaceful methods fail” to end the disturbance, Mr. Gleysteen concluded, the “government has 20th Infantry Division, plus airborne and special forces units, on alert in Cholla Namdo.”

U.S. approval of the military action – which involved allowing the 20th Division to be deployed from the CFC in Seoul – was agreed upon at the May 22 White House meeting of the newly created Policy Review Committee on Korea. It took place at 4 p.m. on May 22 in Washington, which would have been early in the morning of May 23 in Seoul.

After deciding, in Mr. Brzezinski’s words, on “short term support” for Mr. Chun and “in the longer term pressure for political evolution,” the White House group discussed pending visits by key U.S. officials to Seoul, including one in early June by John Moore, the president of the Export-Import Bank.

“The consensus of the group was that it might be a mistake at this time to send a negative signal to the Koreans by cancelling another visit,” the group decided, according to the notes.

On May 23, hours after the White House meeting, Mr. Gleysteen paid a call on Acting Prime Minister Park to communicate the U.S. position. In the discussion, Mr. Gleysteen reported back, “I said that the policy decisions of May 17 had staggered us.” However, the two officials “agreed that firm anti-riot measures were necessary, but the accompanying political crackdown was political folly and clearly had contributed to the serious breakdown of order in Kwangju.”

Mr. Gleysteen also noted that the United States was “doing all we can do contribute to the restoration of order,” and cited the official statements issued in Washington the day before and “our affirmative replies when asked to ‘chop’ CFC forces to Korean command for use in Kwangju.”

Over the next few days, Mr. Gleysteen said, he tried to seek a compromise by urging restraint on the part of the people of Kwangju and asking the government to apologize for the killing that took place on May 18 and May 19. But Mr. Gleysteen said he was alarmed by the turn of events inside of Kwangju, particularly when citizens seized arms and emptied one of the local prisons.

“The point is, law and order was gone. It was chaos,” he recalled. “Both sides at that point were rather equivalent.”

As he has said in previous interviews, Mr. Gleysteen defended the U.S. decision to allow the 20th Division to be released from the joint command to enter the city during the early morning hours of May 27. According to Gen. Wickham, he said, the 20th Division had been “very careful and well-behaved” while on martial law duty in Seoul. In addition, “we did not want the special forces used even further, precisely because of what had happened.”

When he received a last-minute request to mediate in Kwangju from a U.S. reporter on the scene in Kwangju, Mr. Gleysteen said the 20th Division was already rolling. In addition, Mr. Gleysteen said he had no idea of the authenticity of the group seeking the mediation decided not to act.

“I grant it was the controversial decision, but it was the correct one,” he said. “Do I regret it? I don’t think so.”



When Park Chung Hee was shot to death in October, 1979, he had ruled South Korea for nearly 18 years. Although the Korean economy had made huge leaps during that time, the government’s heavy hand in the economic planning had been a disaster.  A decision to invest in heavy industry, such as steel and shipbuilding, had led to overcapacity at a time when the world economy was slowing down. Runaway inflation bit deep into workers’ already meager wages, sparking a rise in labor unrest.

Politically, the country was ready for a major change.  The Yushin Constitution, imposed by President Park in 1972, allowed Mr. Park and his political party to rule the country virtually by decree. Dissidents were routinely arrested and tortured. By 1978, students, intellectuals and Christians were pressing for a more open political system that would allow direct elections for president. Workers, meanwhile, began secretly organizing unions and grew increasingly frustrated as President Park’s secret police broke up their meetings and arrested their leaders.

In June 1979, President Jimmy Carter came to Seoul for his first meeting with Park. Within two months, political tensions began to heat up as President Park launched another crackdown. “A real tightening up was taking place,” recalled Mr. Gleysteen, who was ambassador to Seoul from June 1978 to January 1981.

In the fall of that year, tensions reached a climax when a group of textile workers organized a sit-in at the offices of the New Democratic Party headed by Kim Young Sam (who later served as South Korea’s president). After several days of negotiation, President Park ordered riot police to storm the building; in the resulting melee, a young woman worker was killed. An angry Kim Young Sam, in an interview with The New York Times, denounced Mr. Park and said the United States should cut off all ties with him. A few days later, Mr. Kim was expelled from the National Assembly.

“We choked on that,” said Mr. Gleysteen, who was recalled to Washington for consultations to protest the action.

Mr. Kim’s expulsion sparked widespread demonstrations in the port city of Pusan and the nearby industrial zone at Masan. Again, President Park declared martial law and sent tanks and paratroopers to stop the rioting.

Suddenly, in the midst of the turmoil, President Park was assassinated by Kim Jae Kyu, the director of the Korean CIA. In response, the Korean military declared martial law throughout the country. The Carter administration warned North Korea not to intervene and quickly dispatched aircraft carriers and early warning aircraft to the Korean peninsula to back up its threat.

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