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Kwangju and a story of Korean struggle--told by CNN

The Korean farmer who killed himself in protest of the WTO comes from a long line of people engaged in struggle. I did a little search and came up with this article. Kwangju was a turning point in Korean history. Hopefully someone will fill us in on what happened next. 2,000 people gunned down in the streets and at 4 in the morning. History is there to LEARN from...
Kwangju still an issue in U.S.-South Korea relationship
Bloody uprising was a democratic milestone
By Joseph Manguno
Special to CNN Interactive

South Korean soldiers round up protesters during the Kwangju uprising in May 1980. Activists demanded democratic elections and an end to the martial law declared months earlier.

(CNN) -- Much of the residual goodwill that the United States enjoyed among South Koreans for helping to save them from communism in the early 1950s was squandered in a series of missteps that took place nearly three decades later.

In October 1979, South Korea's long-time president, Park Chung-hee, was assassinated by Kim Jae-kyu, head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA).

Kim testified at his trial that he killed Park to put an end to his increasingly authoritarian and erratic rule. Instead, Park's assassination triggered one of the most turbulent periods in recent Korean history, culminating in a bloody civilian uprising in the southwestern city of Kwangju.

The void created by Park's death was filled by Maj. Gen. Chun Doo-hwan, a Park protege and commander of the powerful Defense Security Command. Chun staged an internal coup to take control of the military, then persuaded the new president, Choi Kyuh-hah, to impose martial law and name Chun chief of the KCIA.

Analysts and critics say the United States sent Chun a series of conflicting signals about his power grab, leading him to believe that Washington agreed with the steps he'd taken and thought he was the one to restore political stability in South Korea. Those signals also encouraged Chun to think he held the critical cards in the Korean-American relationship, critics say.

The United States further miscalculated by accepting the coup as a fait accompli, and built a working relationship with Chun's regime at great cost to its long-term relationship with the Korean people, analysts say.

Protest and crackdown
The situation came to a head in May 1980, four months after Chun's coup and elevation as head of the KCIA, when labor activists, students and opposition politicians, chafing from the harsh military rule, began a series of nationwide demonstrations demanding democratic elections and an end to martial law.

Chun sent the military to crack down on the demonstrators, and the latter responded with rocks and firebombs.

More than 10,000 protesters took to the streets during the Kwangju demonstrations

On May 17, as protests were dying in most parts of the country, activists in Kwangju defied orders to end the demonstrations. The Martial Law Command arrested several opposition politicians, including Kim Dae-jung, now South Korea's president, and charged him with fomenting rebellion. He was eventually sentenced to death.

The following day, elite paratrooper units of Korea's Special Forces Command were ordered into the city. By most accounts, they took to their mission with incredible brutality, mowing down scores of demonstrators.

Horrified civilians, led by militant protestors, broke into police stations and armories and seized weapons to defend themselves.

The Special Forces eventually withdrew to the outskirts of Kwangju, and the government attempted to persuade the activists to return the weapons in exchange for amnesty and democratic reforms. But hard-line attitudes prevailed on both sides, and negotiations failed.

Death toll: 191 or 2,000?
Finally, eight days after the uprising began, Seoul ordered riot-trained army units into Kwangju to mop up. It was carried out with minimal bloodshed -- only about a dozen people died -- but the death toll for the uprising is still disputed to this day.

Relatives go to the Mang Wol-dong cemetery on the anniversary of the Kwangju massacre to mourn the loss of loved ones

The government says 191 people were killed in the uprising, but Kwangju officials and survivors insist the figure is closer to 2,000. They say they cannot prove it, however, because -- they allege -- the military carted most of the bodies away and burned some, buried others and dumped the rest in the sea.

In August 1980, Chun had the military junta name him president, replacing Choi. He ruled for nearly eight years before engineering the election of his longtime crony, retired Gen. Roh Tae-woo, as his successor.

(In 1996, Chun and Roh were convicted of mutiny, treason and corruption in connection with the 1979 coup and the Kwangju massacre. Chun was sentenced to death and Roh to a long prison term, but both were pardoned in 1997 by Kim Dae-jung after he was elected president.)

The events of those chaotic months marked one of the most difficult chapters in modern American diplomacy.

Still smarting from the loss of the Vietnam War and the sudden sweep of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, the United States also was caught off-guard in South Korea.

Conflicting signals by U.S. officials led the Koreans to believe that the United States either conspired in Chun's coup and authoritarian rule or, at the very least, acquiesced to it.

Former South Korean presidents Chun Doo-hwan (right) and Roh Tae-woo were convicted in 1996 for their roles in the 1979 coup and in putting down the Kwangju demonstrations. President Kim Dae-jung, himself a former Kwangju protester, pardoned them in 1997.

Hard feelings continue
In the years since, the United States has made several attempts to disprove those suspicions and win back the confidence of the Korean people. However, their efforts, including the 1989 publication of a special "Statement on the Events in Kwangju," have failed.

Two books -- one by William H. Gleysteen Jr., the U.S. ambassador to Seoul in 1979-80; the other by retired Gen. John A. Wickham, head of American forces in South Korea during that period -- are the latest to state that the U.S. was not responsible for the events around the Kwangju uprising.

Gleysteen and Wickham say U.S. officials had nothing to do with the assassination of Park, despite a close relationship with his assassin.

They also insist that they could not stop Chun from seizing power, nor prevent him from using the Special Forces. Finally, they say that Chun's visit with President Ronald Reagan in Washington was a payoff for Chun's agreement to commute Kim Dae-jung's death sentence.

"We probably had little if any real influence over internal developments," Wickham says in his book, "Korea on the Brink." "And we were little more than hapless bystanders as Chun shrewdly maneuvered toward total power."

Gleysteen and Wickham argue that American missteps were driven primarily by two factors.

One "humiliating restraint," writes Gleysteen in "Massive Entanglement, Marginal Influence: Carter and Korea in Crisis," "was inadequate intelligence of tactical developments." A second was concern that North Korea might try to take advantage of the political instability and invade South Korea, endangering the tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed there and jeopardizing U.S. regional security interests.

A democratic milestone

Re-enactments are held each year in Kwangju on the anniversary of the uprising. Many South Koreans still believe the United States was partially responsible for the massacre.

At a conference in Los Angeles in April 2000 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Kwangju uprising, speaker after speaker -- many of them Korean-Americans -- made clear that they still do not accept official U.S. explanations for the events of 1979-80.

But they also agreed that the uprising was a milestone in the struggle for democracy in Asia.

"The Kwangju uprising in 1980 and the Tiananmen crisis in 1989," said Shin Dong-kim, an assistant professor of communications at Hallym University in Chuncheon, South Korea, "were massive and tragic and collective actions against dominant political powers and established regimes."

Both, Shin said, "were failed attempts in terms of achieving immediate goals," but in the long run advanced the cause of democracy in Asia.

Lynn Turk, former political secretary in the American Embassy in Seoul and author of the 1989 U.S. statement on Kwangju, agreed. The rebellion, Turk said, "directly paved the way for Korean democratization."

Joseph Manguno is editor of the Asia newscasts for CNN International. He was Wall Street Journal correspondent in South Korea from 1986-1990 and has been a frequent contributor to publications and conferences on Korea and Kwangju.