Monday, May 18, 2009


In the Prince Machiavelli argued that it was not in the interests of a good ruler to be moral, but it was in their interest to seem moral. During his Presidency and after Jimmy Carter has exemplified this rule, consistently described himself as a "human rights" minded President while ignoring that while his time in office he did make the human rights violations of official enemies like the Soviet Union a top priority he backed some of the world's most repressive regimes. After he left office he has cast himself as an advocate for democracy and human rights, monitoring elections in third world countries and portraying himself as an advocate of such causes as Palestinian self-determination and global dialogue, all the while pleading ignorance when confronted with his record. One of the most disgraceful episodes of the Carter administration began twenty-nine years ago today in a movement that is referred to by South Koreans simply as 518. It was South Korea's equivalent of Tienanmen Square, and it ended just as bloodily.

In the 1980's South Korea was under the ironfisted rule of Chun Doo-hwan, a brutal and corrupt military dictator who ran the nation as his personal fiefdom, looting billions of dollars from the nation's coffers and savagely dispatching political opponents. Chun's tyrannical administration was deeply resented by his people, it was deeply supported by the U.S government. Cyrus Vance, Secretary of State under President Jimmy Carter instructed U.S ambassador to South Korea William Gleysteen that the American objectives in South Korea were to achieve a “maximum US share of economic benefits from economic relations with increasingly prosperous South Korea.” In practice this meant backing a fascist military tyrant who was willing to give American corporations free range in exchange for vital U.S support for his dictatorship.

Those interests clashed most notably with the interests of the populace on May 18, 1980 when students launched in earnest what would eventually become a massive pro-democracy demonstration by over 100,000 people, the Gwangju Democratization Movement. On May 18 two hundred students defied government orders to protest the closing of their University. They were opposed by thirty paratroopers who attempted to break up the demonstration by charging the students, but by mid-afternoon the demonstration had grown to 2,000 participants and moved into downtown Geumnamno.

The military responded harshly beating and killing demonstrators and onlookers alike, but the brutality only further stoked the strong pro-democracy sentiment. Within two days over 100,000 people were on the streets demanding democratic reforms. Chun responded by slaughtering pro-democracy activists in the Gangju Massacre. Estimates of the number of people killed in the crackdown range from just under 200 to over 2,000. The soldiers killed more than scores of civilians, they killed the democratic spirit. The Gagnju Massacre was rated the greatest tragedy in Korean history since the end of World War II, surpassing even the Korean War, in a poll of South Koreans.

When questioned about U.S involvement in the massacre Richard Holbrooke commented that "[t]he idea that we would actively conspire with the Korean generals in a massacre of students is, frankly, bizarre; it's obscene and counter to every political value we articulated," sadly declassified U.S documents show that to be exactly what occurred. They show that on May 9, 1980 the U.S, which in addition to the tens of thousands of American troops had operational command of 80% of the South Korean Army, aware of the discontent, authorized Chun to use force to disperse pro-democracy demonstrations. On May 17, with U.S support Chun declared martial law and prepared to bring out his Special Warfare Command troops, which, according to declassified U.S documents, he had been training since the beginning of the year to suppress internal opposition.

On May 8 Ambassador Gleysteen met with Chun to determine how to handle demonstrations which had already began on a smaller scale across the country. Gleysteen gave Chun the greenlight to crush any demonstrations as he saw fit and arranged for elements of the Korean Army under joint command to be released to hte Korean dictator to crush the demonstrations. This plan was approved by Washington which cabled to Gleysteen saying [w]e agree that we should not oppose R.O.K. [government] contingency plans." Holbrooke made clear that the U.S should demonstrate to the Korean Generals that it was "in fact trying to be helpful to them provided they in turn carry out their commitments to [economic] liberalization." Holbrooke shared the concern of many policymakers that Korea could become "another Iran," this time the movement that could "lead to chaos or instability in a key American ally" was the movement for democracy. In his remarks Holbrooke preceded to belittle pro-democracy "Christian extremist dissidents" who defied the military's ban on meeting and instructed the Ambassador to make it clear the U.S opposed their peaceful defiance of martial law. The State Department later exonerated itself declaring
"[w]hen all the dust settles, Koreans killed Koreans, and the Americans didn't know what was going on and certainly didn't approve it." said one official adding that the U.S "has no moral responsibility for what happened in Kwangju." However, this account is directly contradicted by the declassified diplomatic cables to Seoul mentioned above. Commenting on the massacre one former official noted "[t]he way they [the South Korean dictatorship] handled law and order was rough," the official said. "But we had a way of tolerating it by that time. This was not an aberration or a sudden departure from the norm. It was the norm."

China's government has been so effective in its suppression of the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tienanmen Square that Chinese students do not recognize the iconic photo, famous around the world, of a demonstrator blocking a column of tanks. The U.S is not a closed society, but in its own way the nature and even the existence of the Gagnju Massacre have been purged from popular consciousness. In Korea Ambassador Gleyseen "did not intend to publicize our actions because we feared we would be charged with colluding with the martial law authorities and risk fanning anti-American sentiment in the Kwangju area," and in American the slaughter of "immature students and radical student leaders," the ambassador's description, is just as foreign to U.S students as the image of "counter-revolutionary" demonstrators in Tienanmen Square is to young Chinese.

Even though information is not blocked in the U.S the effect for those who do not actively seek it out is the same as in China. The Human Rights Administration is remembered as a noble group of idealists and its leader's moral authority is never questioned as he speaks out about the need for democracy and human rights, even though a cursory glance at his behavior in office would quickly dispel this misconception. That every American student is taught of the suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations by an official enemy, but has never heard of the equally brutal suppression of a much more significant demonstration of comparable size and with comparable casualties by an official ally conducted with official approval is a disgrace. In this respect the U.S's education system is just as concerned with indoctrination as China's. Resist and remember 518.

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