U.S. Role in Kwangju and Beyond

Donald N. Clark is a professor of history at Trinity University, San Antonio

Since most South Koreans want to avoid further trauma, it is unlikely that the death sentence for former President Chun Doo Hwan will ever be carried out. His trial on charges that included mutiny, treason, murder and grand-scale larceny was a national catharsis. Yet, because the judgment could not possibly have satisfied everyone, the controversies surrounding his illicit rise to power are likely to continue. The central controversy concerns his use of army troops to crush a democracy movement in the notorious Kwangju massacre of May 1980.

For Americans, the Kwangju massacre is not as familiar as the 1989 Tiananmen massacre in Beijing. Tiananmen happened in the heart of China in full view of the world press, while the Kwangju incident happened in a provincial backwater far from international notice.

There is another difference. Americans had no responsibility for what the Chinese army did in Tiananmen Square. The same cannot be said for what the Republic of Korea army did in Kwangju in 1980.


Ever since the United States and the Soviet Union divided Korea in 1945 and the U.S. Army occupied South Korea, the military has been the primary player in relations between Washington and Seoul. Even today, the Pentagon remains the American entity most invested in Korean affairs. Because Koreans know this, they cannot believe that the United States has nothing to do with the Korean military’s actions.

The Korean army massacre of civilians in Kwangju in 1980, the most notorious act of political violence in South Korea’s history, does have an American connection. American advisors taught the Korean constabulary of the 1940s how to crush communist (and other) political opposition. After North Korea’s army overran this constabulary in 1950, Americans led the defense of South Korea and turned the constabulary into an army that became a first-class fighting machine.

Soon thereafter, in 1961, the South Korean army overthrew the civilian government and made national security the excuse for limiting many basic freedoms. With the U.S. Army headquartered in Seoul next door to the Korean army headquarters and the Defense Ministry, and with the continual and intimate communication between the two countries’ military establishments, it seemed obvious that the military government after 1961 did nothing without American approval.

Since 1950, the South Korea-U.S. military marriage has had an additional institutional base. The joint defense of South Korea is under the coordinated command of an American four-star general. This commander has “operational control” over all forces in wartime and over front-line forces in peacetime.

Consequently, when Gen. Chun Doo Hwan sent his army’s 20th Division to crush the Kwangju uprising, he first had to notify the American commander, Gen. John Wickham, that he was removing the division from Wickham’s control. The American side insists that Wickham had no power to keep the division under his control and prevent this movement. However, Wickham’s acknowledgment that he was notified is taken by many South Koreans to have constituted “approval” of Chun’s use of massive military force against the demonstrators in Kwangju.

Military repression was far from the last resort at the time: Negotiations were in progress and the situation was cooling down. However, American toleration of Chun’s use of units from the joint command to crush the uprising, though technically legal, forever associated the United States with the Kwangju massacre.


Through the Reagan years, the U.S. government maintained that the entire episode was an internal matter in which the United States had played no role and for which it bore no responsibility.

In 1989, the Bush administration published a white paper that argued the technical innocence of the United States. However, in early 1996, documents came to light that revealed that this was not the whole truth. American officials clearly had encouraged Chun to believe that Washington was so worried about instability in South Korea that it preferred continued military rule to the uncertainties of the democratic process.

To be fair, it is unlikely that the Americans had any idea how far Chun was prepared to go to make himself the new Korean strongman. That is the distortion in South Korea today: that Americans somehow willed the Chun regime into power. However, the lines of opinion are long since set in stone.

Today, the joint command is still in place and an American general commands parts of a foreign army that he cannot possibly control. As long as that situation obtains, the problem of American complicity in the behavior of the South Korean military will remain. Chun Doo Hwan may go down as just another faraway dictator who finally got his due. But his crimes were committed in our presence and we should not be too comfortable with his sentence.