To South Koreans, Gwangju is not just the name of a southwestern city on the Korean Peninsula, but also the site of a large-scale civil uprising which was brutally suppressed by Army Major General Chun Doo-hwan’s military junta in 1980. Later on, it became a symbol of the early years of South Korea’s democratic movement, solidified in 1987 by the June Struggle, during which democratic elections were held for the first time. This resulted in a soft authoritarian regime, following the model of many Asian and Middle Eastern countries. Nearly a quarter of a million people participated in the rebellion: although it was brutally repressed and initially unsuccessful in bringing democratic reforms in South Korea, it is considered to have been a pivotal moment in the South Korean struggle for democracy.
For many years, Gwangju’s “May 18th Democratic Uprising” was a forbidden expression in Korean society and South Koreans were not allowed to speak openly or freely about the Gwangju Rebellion. Nowadays things have changed: current Korean president Moon Jae-in vowed last week, on the day of the 40 year anniversary of the massacre, that he would find the responsibles of the catastrophe. Words which were not left vain: for this purpose, the President founded a fact-finding committee to uncover the truth about what happened in the tragic event. The fact-finding committee, created under the Special Act on the May 18 Democratization Movement, is tasked with investigating human rights violations and the massacre that occurred during the Gwangju democratic uprising in 1980 under former President Chun Doo-hwan. The formation of the nine-member committee will be finalized after a review held by the Cheong Wa Dae. It will consist of one person recommended by the National Assembly chairman, four by the ruling Democratic Party, three by the main opposition Liberty Korea Party and one by the minor opposition Bareunmirae Party.
According to the special act, enacted last year, the committee’s two-year term can be extended by a year. The committee is also responsible for finding who ordered the helicopter gunship attacks on pro-democracy demonstrators. In addition, Moon emphasized that the historic value and significance of the Gwangju uprising should be inscribed in a new Constitution.
The roots of the Gwangju massacre can be traced back to the authoritarianism of the Republic of Korea’s first president, anti-communist Syngman Rhee, who acted in a repressive manner toward the political opposition and the country’s citizens. In May 1961, a military coup led by general Park Chung-Hee displaced the government, making Park president the following year. Once Park became president, he started repressing South Korea’s people by controlling press and university teaching. Soon after his assassination in 1979, the power void that was created was filled by Chun Doo-Hwan, a brigadier general who had taken control of the South Korean military through an internal coup. The army, under his leadership, declared martial law the following month.
Since then, the situation escalated quickly: starting May 18, 1980, nationwide protests organized by labour activists, opposition leaders and students immediately took place with the common goal to overthrow the military rule and hold democratic elections. Gwangju, which had a long history of political opposition and a simmering hate towards the Park regime, was the centre of this pro-democracy movement.
With the approval of the United States, which still had control over the US-Korean troops after the Korean war, Chun’s government sent elite paratroopers to sustain the uprising and contain the unrest, but this intervention led to more citizens joining the protest.
Weapons, guns, bats, knives, every type of weapon was used to defeat the mighty 18.000 policemen and 3.000 paratroopers. For a moment, the Korean people tasted freedom as the Chun government retreated and the city was declared free from military rule. But that freedom didn’t last very long: six days after, the government unleashed tanks, armoured personnel carriers and helicopters which easily crushed the uprising in just two hours. According to legitimate sources, the official death toll was one hundred and sixty and more than seventy people missing, but Gwangju citizens and students insist that the number is three times bigger. Numbers echo louder than guns: unprotected civilians, students, labour activists, weaponless citizens were forced to face the wrath of Korea’s military, troops and guns and they were effortlessly outnumbered.
The US’ involvement in Park’s decision to unleash hell on civilians during the uprising consequently led to an increase of anti-American sentiment among South Korean students and activists. The belief that the US were somehow related to the massacre sparked hate in the hearts of South Koreans.
The Gwangju Uprising, also called the most notorious act of political violence and oppression in South Korea’s history, does seem to have an American connection. In the 1940s, American advisors taught their Korean counterparts how to crush any type of political opposition. When North Korea’s army overran this constabulary in the 1950s, Americans led South Korea’s army and turned it into a high-class war machine.
Furthermore, in 1961, the South Korean regime suppressed the civilian government and, using national security as an excuse, they limited basic freedoms and rights. Since the U.S. Army’s headquarters in Seoul were right next door to the Korean army headquarters and the Ministry of Defence, it was rather obvious that the military coup did nothing without American approval after 1961. In addition, the constant and personal communication established between the two countries’ military forces also played a key role in this outcome.
When the Chun government sent his army’s 20th Division to oppress and contain the Gwangju uprising, it was his duty to first inform American Commander General John Wickham. On one hand, the American side insists that Wickham did not have the power to prevent Chun’s order and thus save the innocent Korean civilians from doom. On the other hand, Wickham’s acknowledgement of the situation led many Koreans to believe that it constituted “approval” of Chun’s use of military force against unprotected civilians. However, it is unlikely that Americans were aware of how far Chun was willing to go to make himself a dictator. But, we can safely say that, while the killers were of Korean descent, many South Koreans thought that Washington green-lighted this operation and was behind it.
Even today, the anti-americanism sentiment is strong in South Korea. During protests around December last year, South Koreans were chanting for Americans to “leave their lands alone” and that “it is the US that should pay more – they are using our land for their soldiers”. But some demonstrators went further. “I think US forces should get out completely, USFK is a symbol of the Cold War” said Cheon Jin-hee, 32.
The 1980 uprising seems to have crystallized the Anti-Americanism sentiments in South Korea. Current US President Donald Trump’s tactics are also an important factor to consider, since South Koreans are mostly neutral towards him ever since he engaged in diplomatic actions with North Korea’s President Kim Jong-un. Additionally, the US president has had interesting demands from South Korea: a much more noticeable presence of US troops in the country’s lands and renegotiation of the free trade agreement (KORUS), forcing South Korean concessions on steel in exchange for fewer restrictions on car exports to Korea. Mike Pompeo’s comments on North Korea’s missile tests also shocked some South Korean conservatives.
However, in the wake of the US presidential elections in November 2020, the political temperature may rise in both Countries by early next year. Last year’s Special Measures Agreement (SMA) that expired in December called for Seoul to pay around $870 million for the cost of stationing the 28,500-strong USFK (United States Forces Korea). The outcome of these negotiations might become an electoral issue and, according to James Kim, a research fellow at Seoul’s Asan Institute, “depending on how the Americans move ahead with the negotiations and how this looks to the Korean public, it could play out fairly negatively”. A conservative group of senior ex-servicemen, the Korean Retired Generals and Admirals Defending the Nation, said that the cost-sharing SMA agreement might be “the pivotal issue that will make or break the fate of the South Korea-US alliance.”
As far as the North Korean, South Korean and USA multilateralism is concerned, many South Korean companies seem to be frustrated by their inability to interact economically with North Koreans due to the US-North Korea conflict. All this suggests that Moon’s and Trump’s engagements are heavily influenced by US-North Korean agreements. Now, signals suggest that Trump’s engagement with North Korea is on the brink of collapse.
Taking all the above into thorough consideration, history suggests that the democratic movements in South Korea have paid off and that the country’s current government follows a more democratic approach. As far as the anti-Americanism sentiment is concerned, Trump’s “intimidation” techniques are clearly a post-Gwangju uprising US-Korean relations’ symptom. During that period, Korea was merely seen as a “co-partner” at best and a “dependent state” at worst. Trump’s disapproval of Kim Jong-un’s policy seems to have won South Koreans over for now, but their patience might wear thin if the US president decides to have a change of heart and fall back into the old habit of underestimating them.
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- The Gwangju Uprising & Anti-Americanism sentiment in South Korea - Maggio 28, 2020