Gwangju: Preserving the vicious nature of martial law, 1980


I spent most of the last three weeks in South Korea, primarily in  Gwangju, Jeju and Seoul. I was invited to Gwangju by the city, along with three American journalists who witnessed the uprising and the final military takeover on May 27, 1980.

On our last day there, we visited a replica of a military prison that was used during and after the uprising. Hundreds of young Koreans who had demonstrated and fought for their democracy were sent here, where they were tortured, placed in extreme stress positions, and beaten before being tried in military courts where General Chun’s martial law commanders acted as judge, prosecutor and jury.

Some 3,000 young people from Gwangju went through this prison, including my friend Lee Jae-Eui, one of the leaders of the uprising and the author of Kwangju Diarya famous account of the events that took place in May 1980 (and sadly out of print). Our guides were three men who survived the prison. DSCN3062They were led by Lee Dong Gye, the man in this picture who led the tour. One of his comrades, the man in the far right in the courtroom picture, can be seen in the old photo of defendants at one of the mass trials; he’s the man with the mustache at the far left. Interspersed are photographs from the events themselves, showing the incredible brutality displayed by the paratroopers sent by General Chun Doo Hwan to Gwangju (incredibly, he denied recently that he had anything to do with this decision, which he was convicted for in the 1990s; he was later pardoned by President Kim Young Sam, at the request of the great dissident leader and president Kim Dae Jung, the man Chun almost killed).

Strangely, the prison is located just a short walk from the Holiday Inn hotel where we stayed in Gwangju. As I walked through, I couldn’t help but remember how the U.S. ambassador at the time, William Gleysteen, once told me how relieved he and other U.S. officials were when the South Korean Army retook the city; in contrast to the paratroopers who did most of the killing in the opening days of the uprising, he said, the regular army troops acted with “restraint.” Well, if this is “restraint,” black is white and war is peace.

Our guides had great dignity and only mentioned the U.S. role when asked about it. Prompted by one of the visitors, Mr. Lee angrily recalled how U.S. General John Wickham, who was the U.S. Commander in Chief in Korea during Gwangju, said at the time that “Koreans are like lemmings,” meaning that they’ll follow any military strongman, no matter what. He let that arrogant remark sink in as we contemplated their terrible treatment at the prison. “That was a definite humiliation of the Korean people,” he finally said.

Indeed. I applaud Gwangju for keeping this prison intact and showing it to the world. Click here for a short film from MBC in Korea (in Korean) showing how the prison serves as a lesson to Koreans to never allow this to happen again. The final photo is the celebration on May 17 on the street where the great battles of Gwangju took place in 1980 – “Gwangju Eve” this event is called. Although there is still division in South Korea about the legacy of Gwangju, you can see that the people of this city are proud of their revolutionary heritage, and will never give up their struggle for full democracy and accountability in South Korea.

During the Gwangju Uprising, 165 people were killed, 3,139 were wounded, and 76 went missing. Many South Koreans believe the totals were much higher, and could have reached over 1,000 killed.


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Guest Post: South Korea Bans Korean-German from Kwangju

lee jong-hyeon (yi eun-hi)In an extraordinary and undemocratic act, the South Korean government has prevented Lee Jong-Hyeon, a 79 year-old Korean living in Germany to enter the country to attend commemoration ceremonies remembering the May 18, 1980, uprising in Kwangju. He arrived on May 12th and was expelled on May 13th. According to the Hankyoreh newspaper,

Lee had been officially invited to attend the Asia Forum, which [opened] in Gwangju on May 17, organized by the May 18 Memorial Foundation. He had been planning to stay in South Korea until May 19, during which time he would have attended the May 18 memorial ceremony and given a presentation about the democratization movement in Germany since the 1980s. Lee has visited South Korea in 1990, 1994, 2004 and 2010, and this is the first time he has been refused entry.

Today I received a dispatch from Ok-Hee Jeong, a journalist based in Berlin, based on an interview she conducted with Mr. Lee shortly after he returned to Germany. Her story is reprinted here, with permission. It was translated by Ian Clotworthy. 

The South Korean State‘s Fear of An Old Man

By Ok-Hee Jeong

Lee Jong-Hyeon remains in shock. The South Korean native, a citizen of Germany and resident of Duisburg for the last forty years, was detained upon arrival at Incheon Airport and deported back to Germany the next day. The right to enter Korea was refused, in accordance with articles 11 and 12 of the South Korean immigration law, which states, “there is justified concern, that he will harm the state and poses a danger to public life.“ To Lee, that is ridiculous. “How can an old man like me pose a danger to public life?“ he asks.

Lee came to Germany as an immigrant worker in the 1960s. Like many other South Koreans at the time, he worked as a coal miner in the industrial western Ruhr area. Later, he went to college, married a German woman and had two children. This short man with snow-white hair is now a grandfather, and enjoys a quiet retirement with his wife Ursula.

Although well-integrated in German society, his heart has always been  in his homeland. When he left South Korea, the country was under the authoritarian rule of Park Chung-Hee, father of current president Park Geun-Hye. Together with other South Koreans and Germans, Rhee created organizations that campaigned for democracy and peaceful reunification in Korea.

When the dictator Park Chung-Hee was killed by his own secret police chief Kim Jae-Kyu in 1979, there was a new wave of hope among South Koreans, at home and abroad, that the long-hoped for era of democracy would begin. But the hope didn‘t last. In May 1980, the German cameraman Jürgen Hinzpeter captured footage of the massacre in the city of Gwangju after General Chun Doo-Hwan carried out his military coup. In this massacre, hundreds of people were brutally slaughtered; many are still unaccounted for.

Images of the atrocities of that day enraged Lee, and made him rise to the vanguard of the struggle in Germany. He worked with others to exert international pressure upon the Chun military regime and to express solidarity with the South Korean people. It fills the 79-year old with pride, that the South Koreans attained democracy in 1987 with their own power.

“I just couldn‘t believe it, when I was refused entry at the airport,” Rhee told me. “My son called the Germany Embassy in Seoul from Berlin, but the staff there said they could do nothing, that it was an internal matter for South Korea.“ Rhee felt also abandoned by his chosen homeland of Germany. In addition to disbelief, there is a mix of anger and sadness in Rhee‘s voice. “How can a government behave like this? What was my crime? I suspect, the refusal of entry has something to do with my visits to North Korea.“

He remembers the expulsion of the Korean-American activist Shin Eun-Mi from South Korea after being accused of glorifying North Korea one year ago. Her crime: mentioning that North Korean beer was delicious and that the Nakdong river was clean, in a public talk. She made those remarks in a series of talks about her travels in North Korea, which South Koreans may not visit.

For this, she was branded a North Korean sympathizer, and ordered to leave the country for five years. The accusation of being a North Korean sympathizer is taken seriously in this divided country, where anti-communism used to be a favorite tool of the Park and Chun dictatorships as they sought to silence government critics.

“The first time I visited North Korea was a conference with sixty other Koreans from abroad. Later in 1994 I was there, because my brother, who lived in North Korea, had died. During the sunshine policy of [former president] Roh Moo-Hyun‘s government in 2007, I was there at a summit of North and South Korea, with hundreds of other representatives present. But that can‘t be the reason [I was expelled this time]. I also visited South Korea in 2007 and 2010, and had no problems with entering the country. But what has happened now? he wonders.

In South Korea, the sociologist Kim Dong-Choon of Sungkonghoe university says, “our young democracy has been in retreat for 8 years, because politicians with the orientation of the 1970s cold war ideology are still in power. I think that Rhee‘s role is significant and very symbolic, so Park‘s government has used this measure to make an example of him.“

Rhee finds these developments to be worrying, and sees the refusal of entry as a further sign of the regression of democratic values. “People sacrificed their lives for democracy in our country, and now it is being hollowed out, piece by piece,” he says. But the 79-year old comes across as unrelenting. “The democracy of my homeland was so hard-won, that I cannot simply stop fighting for it! Never!” he told me.

Ok-Hee Jeong is a Berlin-based German journalist. Her articles were published, among others, in ZEIT Online, taz, FAZ (Germany) and in WOZ (Switzerland).

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My Gwangju FOIA Documents Get a Home – In Gwangju

mayor yoonThis week I agreed to donate my entire collection of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) documents on U.S. policy in South Korea from 1979 to 1980 to the city of Kwangju. Mayor Yoon and I worked out the agreement on May 18 after I held extensive discussions with his human rights staff. The process will take a while, but eventually the city’s archive – which just opened last year – will get all 4,000 pages of declassified documents from the State Department, the Pentagon, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council and the CIA. They will be open to researchers and eventually copied in PDF format so anyone can search them. I’m very proud that they will find a home in the great city of Kwangju, the scene of a massive uprising against military rule that lasted from May 18 to May 27, 1980. This was a great accomplishment for me, and I thank Mayor Yoon and his wonderful staff for their assistance. I was invited to Kwangju this week for the commemorations along with three reporters who were there at the time of the uprising: Norman Thorpe of the Asian Wall Street Journal, Bradley Martin of The Baltimore Sun, and Donald Kirk of the London Observer. To get a take on what they observed, read Martin’s extraordinary story about his last interview with Yoon Sang-won, the leader of the uprising who died on the night of May 27, 1980, when U.S.-sanctioned South Korean forces sent from the DMZ retook the city and ended the 10-day rebellion.




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Reflections on The Intercept’s Snowden Archive

At long last, The Intercept has decided to “broaden” access to the massive trove of NSA documents leaked by the whistleblower Edward Snowden. Here’s my initial thoughts on this momentous decision, written hastily from South Korea. Thanks to Lauren Walker of The Daily Dot for calling my attention to this story. 

The Intercept’s decision to unlock access to these NSA documents is long overdue. Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers to every paper that would take them in 1971, and the Snowden documents should have been exposed to the same light.

This archive has badly needed the scrutiny of people who understand the NSA in a historical and economic context. That’s particularly true, from my perspective, of the few journalists who have reported on NSA’s relationships to its operational contractors such as Booz Allen Hamilton, which employed Edward Snowden when he leaked his trove.

But I have mixed feelings about this announcement. Even in the small trickle of documents printed in The Intercept, I’ve seen their in-house experts miss important revelations, particularly about the contractors involved in NSA intelligence gathering. By refusing and delaying access to experts in critical areas of intelligence and acting like each successive release from their reporters was a major scoop and a reflection on their own greatness, The Intercept did a disservice to journalism and the public.

Still, I can only applaud the fact that Glenn Greenwald has listened to critics such as myself and the people at Cryptome, and I look forward to going through these newly released documents. This is an important moment in the history of national security journalism.

Tim Shorrock

Gwangju, South Korea

May 17, 2016


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Back to Korea

Gwangju National Cemetery, May 2015

Gwangju National Cemetery, May 2015

I’m heading back to Korea on Friday. I’ve been invited to Gwangju by the city government with the small group of Korean and foreign reporters who were there during the citizens’ uprising of May 18, 1980. The city is sponsoring several days of events, including a press conference and a major commemoration at the national cemetery where the hundreds of people who died fighting for democracy are buried. In my mind, Gwangju is the most overlooked anti-fascist uprising in history, and deserves great respect as one of the few times during the Cold War that a people directly took up arms against a U.S.-backed military dictatorship. Last year, Gwangju made me an honorary citizen for uncovering the American role in those events, the greatest honor I’ve ever received for my journalism.

After Gwangju, I’ll be stopping for a few days on the island of Jeju, which was itself the scene of a bloody uprising against fascist rule in 1948 that was put down, at great cost in human life, by a South Korean army led by U.S. counterinsurgency specialists. There, amidst the splendor of one of Asia’s top tourist spots, locals have been fighting for years to stop the South Korean government (and its construction ally, Samsung) from building a naval base that will also be used by the U.S. Navy (it’s part of the human cost of the Obama-Clinton “Asia Pivot” you’ve heard so much about). I’ll then stop in Seoul before flying home via L.A. Along the way, I’ll be posting stories and pics here of what I’ve seen and experienced.

I come to South Korea at a time when repression against left and progressive forces is on the upswing under the increasingly authoritarian government of Park Geun-hye, daughter of the late dictator Park Chung Hee, who ruled with an iron fist from 1961 to 1979. I experienced a bit of that repression last year, when I was subject to intense and unusual criticism from the Park government for an article I wrote for The Nation. Here’s a piece I wrote on that incident that was published in OhMyNewsone of the most widely-read websites on the Internet. It gives a flavor of what ordinary South Koreans deal with every day. 



By Tim Shorrock

OhMyNews, December 8, 2015

When I heard last week that the South Korean Consulate in New York had contacted my editors at The Nation about my article on President Park Guen-hye’s crackdown on the labor movement, I was surprised and a little shocked. I’ve been writing about South Korea for over 30 years for the Nation and other US publications. But until this call, I’d never heard a direct complaint about my article from the Korean government. So I wondered: why did this article catch their attention?

From what I’ve been able to piece together, the person at the Consulate contacted my editors on direction from his boss in Seoul. But he wasn’t contacted until after my article had been translated into Korean and posted on the Internet, drawing thousands of readers and comments. My article, which was quite critical of the Park government and included many details about her dictator father, Park Chung Hee, apparently deeply offended someone inside Park’s foreign ministry, which then instructed the Consulate to complain to the Nation.

Aside from the fact that I refered to “a dictator’s daughter,” however, there was little in my article that was new or unusual. I believe that it caught the government’s attention because it was so unlike most reports about South Korea in the U.S. press. For the most part, American reporters in Korea see the country only in Cold War terms, with the “bad” North Koreans always the villains and the “good” South Koreans always the victim of those villains. And of course they consistently see the United States as the ultimate champion of “good” South Korea.

Unfortunately, this framework obscures the complexities of South Korea, its political and economic system, and its ties to the United States. As a result, few Americans know that South Korea was ruled by many years by tough dictators who were supported by the United States despite their suppression of democratic rights. Fewer still are aware of the deep divisions within South Korea over this legacy and that the fact that many Koreans are opposed to the conservative policies of Park Guen-Hye and her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak. Why would Americans think any differently when President Obama, America’s most liberal president, praises Park and Lee as champions of democracy and important military partners?

Therefore, my primary thought after the Consulate contacted the Nation was that the Korean government was upset that an American journalist was putting their country in an unfavorable light. Calling my editors and complaining about my article seemed to be a form of intimidation to pressure the Nation and myself to report more favorably about President Park. It angered me, and so I posted what they’d said on my Facebook page – not knowing of course that it would be picked up as a major story by the Korean media.

So I disagree with the government’s attempt to “correct” my reporting. At the same time, I found myself agreeing with something the Consulate told the Nation. He said that we should understand that South Korea has undergone tremendous change over the past 30 years. That is true, and I can’t disagree.

I lived in South Korea during the era of Syngman Rhee and witnessed his overthrow. And later, during the 1980s, I spend many months in South Korea writing about the citizens’ movement for democracy and meeting with labor organizers, religious activists and political organizers about their experiences and hopes for the future. On my last trip, in 1985, conditions were very difficult, and sometimes I would meet someone one day and learn they had been arrested the next. I also visited Kwangju, and learned much about what happened in that city during the uprising and afterwards.

After that visit, I didn’t return to South Korea for many years. But in reporting from Washington in the 19990s and in my visits in 2001, 2013 and 2015, I understood how much South Korea has changed since the dark days of dictatorship. I know that conditions are still bad for many people, particularly ordinary workers, farmers and the urban poor. But I also know that South Korea today is nothing like the authoritarian days of the 1970s and 1980s. My worry, along with many Koreans, is that under Park South Korea may be slipping back into the old ways. Instead of reacting angrily, the Korean government should welcome that critique and show the world that it is unafraid of criticism.

To the opposition party, Hankyoreh and other publications that have criticized the Park government for criticizing the Nation – thank you for your solidarity! You are showing that democracy is still vital and that you have no intention of allowing South Korea to slip back into dictatorship.

Lastly, I want OhMyNews readers to know that I have tremendous respect for what South Koreans have accomplished in building that democracy over the past 50 years. You should also know that I am extremely critical of my own government and the Obama administration for its undemocratic policies, particularly the widepread surveillance of U.S. citizens by the National Security Agency and its attacks on whistleblowers who try to expose these wrongdoings.

Last May I was made an honorary citizen of the City of Kwangju. So I feel like I’m a citizen of both Korea and the United States – and as a citizen and a journaliist, it’s my duty to shed light on what’s wrong with both of our countries and seek ways to make us better. No government should be afraid of the truth.







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