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Tuesday, January 18, 2005

SK democracy: In spite of / because of the US?

I've been having a bit of a two way barney elsewhere, attacked from one side for saying horrid things about the role of the USSR in formation of North Korea and from the other for claiming that South Korean democracy is not a result of the US intervention on the peninsula, but quite the opposite.

I won't deal with the former issue right now (maybe soon...), but I want to make a few brief points about the latter and direct readers toward some more in-depth reading.

To summarise, South Korea is cited as an example of a country where US military intervention in the Korean War prevented the whole country from becoming a dictatorship under Kim Il-song (for a recent example of this sort of throw away reference see this recent comment on a post at Lenin's Tomb). Of course, what's been left out here is the fact that the Korean War was followed in South Korea by a string of dictatorships backed financially, militarily and politically by successive US administrations (and people wonder why the scourge of 'anti-Americanism' is so rife in South Korea these days).

Right-leaning Korea commentator the Marmot provides quite a neat list in this post of the ugly regimes and incidents that the US either tacitly supported or outright encouraged. First there was Syngman Rhee's government and its violent suppression of various uprisings, then when he was finally overthrown by a student revolution in 1960 it wasn't long before the US gave its approval to Park Chung-hee's military coup and proceeded to give him large amounts of financial aid. The list can of course go on, but probably the most infamous incident in the whole history of the US relationship with South Korea's autocratic rulers was the Kwangju Massacre of 1980. This has been covered in one or two excellent English-language books, particularly the rather enigmatically titled Kwangju Diary: Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age.

At particular issue when it comes to Kwangju is the question of US culpability. The facts that the US government knew about Chun Du-hwan's plans to suppress the pro-democracy uprising using his Black Beret special forces and that they did nothing about this are indisputable. In fact, it is clear that the US government thought this the best option and were much more worried about what would happen if the uprising was not ruthlessly suppressed. Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher said at the time "We agree that we should not oppose ROK contingency plans to maintain law and order." And less than a year after the massacre that had left still-unknown hundreds (or thousands) dead, Chun was invited to the White House (after making the necessary 'democratic' gesture of commuting moderate pro-democracy leader Kim Dae-jung's death sentence to life in prison) where Reagan declared to him "You've done much to strengthen the tradition of 5,000 years' committment to freedom." (New York Times, Feb 2, 1981). For more detail on Kwangju and the documents implicating the US government in the incident see Chalmers Johnson's summary and Tim Shorrock's in-depth piece on the Cherokee Files. (I've just discovered that Tim Shorrock has a blog with recent piece on Kwangju which is well worth checking).

Much has already been written about Kwangju so I won't go on here. The point I want to make is that the people of South Korea were able to achieve the freedoms and democratic representation that they have now (albeit both are somewhat limited) as a result of their own efforts and particularly through the brave struggles they fought in the 1980s.

My hope is that the Koreans living in the northern half of the peninsula can follow the example of their brothers and sisters in the south and achieve the same things. There are some signs of new dissent (see these posts 1 / 2 /3) in North Korea, but what direction this goes in depends to a great extent on how the US intervenes. Unfortunately, I feel that it is likely to use the tens of millions of dollars released by the North Korean Human Rights Act to fund those groups or individuals who it believes are most likely to create the kind of pro-US regime it wants to see, or to cooperate with the most rightwing elements in the South to the detriment of the left - a sort of 'killing two birds with one stone' strategy. The future of North Korea also depends, of course, on the ambitions of the lower-league wannabe imperialist powers - China and Japan, and how the US interacts with these two powers in this geopolitically crucial part of the world. I think that just as in the South, US intervention is highly unlikely to bring freedom and democracy, because US interests will not be compatible - the North Koreans are going to have to do it for themselves.


At January 19, 2005 8:51 AM, Blogger Antti Leppänen said...

I don't think it's still been insignificant that the backing of US and ROK's nominal (lip service) association with "liberal democracy" has at least guaranteed the existence of formal institutions of democracy, as much as they've been prevented of functioning according to proper democratic principles. This should be the biggest difference to DPRK or whatever there will be when democratic institutions are going to be constructed over there; there's not even "gym democracy" (체육관 민주주의) to build on.

About Kwangju; I don't know if you're aware of this, but there's a Daum cafe called 518 photoclub (518 기자클럽) with a huge collection of photos from Kwangju on those days, many of them pictures that the photographers have been keeping on themselves for obvious reasons. You don't need to become a member of either Daum or the cafe to see the pics.

At January 19, 2005 10:16 AM, Blogger kotaji said...

Thanks for the comments.
Yes, on the question of differences between ROK and DPRK, obviously there is no need to be too crude about this. The US does, under certain circumstances, support liberal democracy as one of its strategies for producing stable client states that are compatible with securing its economic and geopolitical goals. Parts of Latin America provide another good example of this - where the outcome of US intervention has been the installation of 'low-intensity' democracies that toe the line. But I don't think we should should delude ourselves that this is anything more than one possible strategy and a good 'cover story' on an ideological level.
As soon as low-intensity democracy gets out of hand (say Chavez in Venezuela, or even Roh Moo-hyun), things can begin to get ugly very quickly again as the US supports coups or other methods of intervention.

At January 19, 2005 11:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To give you an idea of the sensationalism that often surrounds this topic, I offer you this example from Shorrock, "CS gas is a virulent form of tear gas banned in many countries and considered by some military specialists to be a form of chemical warfare." Wow, sounds nasty, until you realize that far from being "banned" by many, it is the most commonly used tear gas in the world, "They (CS, CN and CR) are effective and imply low risks when used. These substances are chloroacetophenone (codename CN), orto-chlorobenzylidene-malononitrile (codename CS) and dibenz (b,f)-1,4-oxazepine (codename CR). CN was formerly the most widely used tear gas. Today, CS has largely replaced CN and is probably the most widely used tear gas internationally" (source Wikipedia). Far from ground breaking, Tom's analysis of Kwangju is old wine/new bottles, all the "secret" documents he purports to have uncovered have been in the public domain for years. John Oberdorfer's "Two Koreas" contains one of the more comprehensive examinations of the USFK and the Kwangju uprising.

As for prior knowledge of the troop movement to Kwangju - no one, as far as I'm aware, in US State dept. denied prior knowledge of RoK troop movements. As I mentioned, the CFC requires the RoK to inform the US, but does not require USFK permission prior to troop relocation. The question is what could have been done about it. That Chun had the right to "restore order" is obvious. But even if the US had prior knowledge that Chun's forces planned to kill hundreds, and there is no evidence they did, what could they do? Line up USFK troops around Kwangju? A foreign military taking sides against the internationally recognized government of a sovereign nation...that would have been viewed as an act of war. Further, as his Special Ops forces had been trained in crowd and riot control, dispatching them to a civilian uprising is not, on the surface, illogical. Remember Carter, perhaps the greatest advocate of human rights of any recent US president, was at a loss as to how to handle Park in the 70's. That was his primary reason behind his draw down of US troop numbers.

It's easy to condemn, but I would like to hear what alternatives existed for the US in May 1980...take your time.... IMHO the US should have withdrawn the USFK during Carter's admin. It wouldn't have prevented Kwangju, but it would put to rest decades of myth concerning US involvement in the atrocity.

Finally, you end with this: "but what direction this (NK) goes in depends to a great extent on how the US intervenes." Are you now advocating US intervention in political change in NK?


At January 19, 2005 12:56 PM, Blogger kotaji said...

Thanks for your well-informed comments.
Last things first - I'm certainly not advocating US intervention in North Korea, the point I was making is that I believe the US will (and already is) intervening in North Korea, so the future of that country is contingent upon (among other things of course) the way in which the US intervenes. Personally I believe in the right of peoples to self-determination and I think 9 times out of 10 (at least) intervention by an imperialist power (with its own geopolitical and economic interests) will only lead to more political and social turmoil, violence and misery (does Iraq come to mind?).

I don't think any of the things you say about Kwangju take away from US implication in the massacre. Yes, some commentators may get a little carried away (CS gas is nasty stuff but there are no shortage of places where it has been used - ie closer to home (for me) in Northern Ireland).

But let's try to see the wood for the trees here: if you say that you don't object to the leader of a country using his military to suppress a pro-democracy uprising in a country where you have no direct involvement then this is just morally reprehensible. If, on the other hand, this is a country where you have tens of thousands of troops stationed, which you support politically and financially and which you continue to support wholeheartedly after the massacre has taken place then that is a different matter - you are implicated.

I think you are sort of right in what you imply by asking "what could they have done?" Of course they could have done just what they refused to do, objected vociferously to the use of the military in Kwangju, pressured Chun to seek a negotiated compromise with the leaders of the uprising and so on. Yes, this probably was not the best option from the point of view of the US - it could have given the upper hand to all sorts of progressive forces in South Korea which the US was afraid might change its relationship with the peninsula forever.

But I'm not interested in providing policy alternatives for the US government - it has specific interests which did not (and do not to a large extent) align with those of the Korean people who have long wanted self-determinatation, but had it denied them by both the US and the USSR (and maybe China in the future?).

The point of my critique is not to say they could have done this or that better or to provide alternative policy prescriptions for the US, but to show the disjuncture between the words and deeds of the US (or any other imperialist power for that matter).

At January 19, 2005 2:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What happened in Kwangju was dispicable, no question, but its important to remember the context of the time. I'm not sure if you've lived in Korea, or what your association with the country is, but as one who spent more than seven years living, working and studying in various locales around the country, it has been my experience that the perception of the Kwangju incident around Korea is not as clear cut as the US supporting the violent suppression of democracy. Even today in North and South Choongchung provinces, for example, Cholla folks are not welcome, and many from the area who were around in 1980 believe Kim Dae Jung was a communist working for NK as part of a plot to undermine the RoK government. This perception is also quite common in North and South Kyoungsung provinces as well.

When he was elected in 1997, even though the country was in the grip of the worst economic crisis ever, and that crisis was/is viewed as the product of gross mismanagement by GNP president KYS, KDJ still needed the support of arch-conservative Kim Jong Pil to win the election (the same Kim who headed the KCIA and tried to have KDJ assassinated during Park's tenure). And even then he only defeated GNP candidate Lee Hoi Chang by 1.5%. I was living in Daejeon at the time and it was common for people to assert that KDJ was a ruthless communist that would lead the country to ruin, many would point to Kwangju as an example of his agenda. Animosity and mistrust runs deep in a still very regionally divided Korea.

As for the US response to RoK troop movements, as Shorrock and Chalmers both note, the Koreans had long used the military to fortify the police during large, often violent, demonstrations. In fact, again in Shorrocks 19 page work on the incident, he mentions that as the RoK had used army units before, in Pusan and Masan in 1979, and that only 'moderate force' was used, no one imagined the RoK soldiers could commit the sorts of atrocities they did in Kwangju. As well, as for the dispatch of Special Forces troops, according to a May 9th cable, "Under the U.S.-Korean Combined Forces Command structure created in 1978, Korean special forces were outside of joint U.S.-Korean control and did not need U.S. approval to be moved." Further, during a special meeting in Washington on events unfolding in Kwangju, "there was general agreement that the first priority is the restoration of order in Kwangju by the Korean authorities with the minimum use of force necessary without laying the seeds for wide disorders later," the minutes state. "Once order is restored, it was agreed we must press the Korean government, and the military in particular, to allow a greater degree of political freedom to evolve."

Isn't this exactly what you would advocate?


At January 19, 2005 9:19 PM, Blogger kotaji said...

I think maybe we'll have to just disagree on this on - we seem to have different criteria for determining what constitutes complicity in this situation.

I would be interested in hearing what you think about the broader question I'm trying to address: is South Korea a good example for US intervention? Does US imperialism go around the world leaving behind stable prosperous democracies? I get the impression that you think that the US was right to fight the Korean War but shouldn't have hung around to long on the peninsula.

I was interested by what you said about regionalism in Korea - this was very clearly South Korea's very own internal divide and rule tactic. The interesting thing is that as time goes on and the days of dictatorship fade into the past, regionalism is losing its power and didn't seem to figure much in the 2004 general election. Hopefully this is a sign of a new period in Korean politics where voting is based more on party policy and social class than patronage and divide and rule tactics.

At January 20, 2005 10:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed because it linked to malicious content. Learn more.

At January 20, 2005 12:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That should of course be "plus ca change", not enough coffee in the blood stream today.


At February 01, 2005 2:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are those who believe that everything America does around the world is 100% pure and just. These people are idiots.

Then there are those who bend over backwards trying to villify the U.S. at every turn. They too are idiots.

The answer is in the middle to those mature enough to try to sort through it.

Kotagi, it seems to me you have decided, probably long ago, that the US is the enemy and from that point on you looked only for information that would support your new relgion and immediately downplayed or ignored anything that might smudge your new worldview. I say this because you do not give much evidence that you are willing to really consider other viewpoints before coming to conclusions.

I don't really care how you reply to save face. It's just something that you (and the rest of us) should quietly ponder on your own.

At February 01, 2005 3:29 PM, Blogger kotaji said...

OK let's try to save a little bit of face ;-)
I suppose if you read this Mr Anonymous then you do care how I reply...

I have absolutely no interest in villifying the US. As far as I can see there is nothing at all wrong with America or Americans. What I am against is imperialism, whether it's US imperialism, or French or British or Chinese or Soviet/Russian. Imperialism means a powerful country imposing its will on another so as to pursue its own economic or geo-political interests, thus denying the people of the subject country self-determination. It happens that in the 21st century the US is the biggest imperialist in the world, and in fact powerful enough to impose its will on all the other smaller ones. We - and by that I mean the people of the world, and *especially* the American people - need to fight imperialism or we will never have a world with peace or justice. If you are from the United States please study your own history, beginning with the American Revolution against British colonial rule. Learn about the American Anti-imperialist League (, of which Mark Twain was a member, and the struggle against the Vietnam War in the 1960s.


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