In August, a South Korean court condemned former president Chun Doo Hwan to death for leading a military coup in 1979 and using paratroopers to brutally repress student demonstrations in the opposition stronghold of Kwangju in 1980. But in Washington, the verdicts from South Korea's "trial of the century" sparked a wave of historical amnesia. "This is an obvious tragedy for the individuals involved and an internal matter for the people of the Republic of Korea," said State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns.
To my knowledge, not a word appeared in the press that President Carter released troops from the joint U.S.-Korean command to invade Kwangju after its citizens took up arms against Chun's marauding forces. Yet that fact tells only half the story of U.S. complicity with Chun. According to declassified U.S. documents I obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the Carter administration gave prior approval to Chun to use the army to quell the wave of unrest that shook South Korea in the spring of 1980. The hundreds of State Department and Pentagon cables contradict the official U.S. claims that the Carter administration was surprised by Chun's resort to force and had no advance knowledge he was deploying paratroopers trained to fight in North Korea against his own citizens.
These documents are especially relevant today because the two diplomats responsible for U.S. policy during Chun's takeover--Warren Christopher, then deputy secretary of state, and Richard Holbrooke, assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs--are the key architects of President Clinton's foreign policy.
The Korean crisis began on Oct. 26, 1979, when President Park Chung Hee, a key U.S. ally, was shot to death by the head of the Korean CIA. Carter immediately dispatched an aircraft carrier to the Korean peninsula and bluntly warned North Korea not to intervene. But tensions quickly erupted between Korean martial law forces and the powerful dissident movement that had fought Park's dictatorial system. The unrest caused panic inside an administration obsessed with the hostage crisis in Iran.
In November 1979, Holbrooke proposed a "delicate operation" in Seoul "designed to use American influence to reduce the chances of confrontation and to make clear to the generals" that the Carter administration is "in fact trying to be helpful to them, provided they in turn carry out their commitments to liberalization." The overriding concern in Washington, he explained, was to keep South Korea from turning into "another Iran." In practice, this meant U.S. security first, Korean human rights last.
The generals got the message. On the night of Dec. 12, 1979, Chun, then head of defense intelligence, pulled an army division from the DMZ and shot his way to control of the military. Chun's mutiny, which was the basis of his treason conviction, stunned the Carter administration and its commanders in Korea. But U.S. military aid continued to flow with no strings attached. And as labor unrest flared and student opposition to military rule intensified, Chun's desire for order seemed a better alternative to the political chaos promised by the dissidents.
On May 9, 1980, President Carter's envoy in Seoul met with Chun to assure him of U.S. support if he needed to mobilize the army. "In none of our discussions will we in any way suggest that the (U.S. government) opposes (Republic of Korea government) contingency plans to maintain law and order, if absolutely necessary, by reinforcing the police with the army," U.S. Ambassador William J. Gleysteen told his superiors. Christopher immediately signed a cable approving the plan, but worried that things might get out of hand. He was right: 10 days later, Chun turned the tables on his hapless allies by declaring martial law.
But the students of Kwangju refused to kneel down to their new oppressors. The killing spree that followed on May 19 and 20 is now known as the Kwangju Massacre. Yet instead of imposing sanctions, as it should have done, the Carter administration stayed the military course. On May 22, the White House made the fateful decision to crush the Kwangju uprising and asked the Pentagon to draw up contingency plans if the rebellion spread. As Chun later did in his trial, Holbrooke complained that human rights critics were paying too much attention to Kwangju without considering the "broader questions" of Korean security.
Now that South Korea has come to grips with its militaristic past, isn't it time for the United States to do some soul-searching of its own?