60-Second Expert: Kwangju Uprising

The 1980 citizens’ uprising in Kwangju marked not only the beginnings of a steady struggle towards democracy, but also the growth of anti-American sentiment in South Korea. Six weeks following the assassination of dictator Park Chung Hee on October 26, 1979, a group of army commanders led by Lt. General Chun Doo Hwan, the chief of military intelligence, took control of the military and were clearly intent on seizing total power. Peaceful anti-government protestors, mainly comprised of students and workers, openly opposed Chun through street demonstrations and direct appeals to the United States. Publically, the Carter administration criticized the authoritarian policies of the South Korean government and championed international human rights. In practice, the actual decisions made by Carter’s administration reveal a different story.

Instead of responding to the appeals of the protestors, Washington assured Chun that it would not interfere if he chose to use military force against the dissident movement, at which point the South Korean government declared martial law in the hopes of quelling the dissent. In Kwangju, however, the protests and demonstrations continued, climaxing in an armed confrontation as paratroopers rampaged through the city beating, arresting and killing civilian dissenters and even bystanders. The people of Kwangju, particularly men skilled in firearms because of ‘mandatory stints in the army, formed a citizen militia and retaliated.

Though the Carter administration advised against the use of excessive force, it ultimately approved the deployment of Korean military troops to put down the popular rebellion. For the citizens of South Korea, these events ushered in eight years of repressive rule under Chun Doo Hwan. For the United States, this secured yet another pro-American dictator, during whose regime the United States remained mostly silent about massive purges, human rights violations, and other oppressive policies of the South Korean government.

Though U.S. officials claimed that Washington had no involvement with the situation in South Korea and the violence in Kwangju, previously classified State Department cables and secret CIA reports show the uprising in Kwangju for what it really was: an example where in U.S. foreign policy, human rights and democracy took a backseat to economic and security interests.

Links to these documents are provided in the full report, which can be accessed in its entirety through this link: http://www.fpif.org/articles/the_lasting_significance_of_kwangju