Thursday, May 18, 2006

Archive: June 2, 1980

Here is another Time Magazine archive from the time of the Kwangju situation.

Monday, Jun. 02, 1980
Season of Spleen
Outright insurrection raises alarm about an invaluable Pacific ally

Lift martial law!" shouted the demonstrators. Others cried:

"Death to General Chun!" In South Korea's provincial capital of Kwangju, tens of thousands of protesters swarmed through the streets venting their anger at the martial-law government in power in Seoul and against the country's newest strongman, Lieut. General Chun Du Hwan. The turmoil soon turned into a full-scale insurrection. Rebellious citizens seized effective control of Kwangju, which is 175 miles south of Seoul, from the fleeing police. Rioting spread to 16 other towns of the province. After four days, more than 100 people had been killed and uncounted hundreds wounded. It was the most serious crisis in South Korea since the upheaval that brought down the regime of President Syngman Rhee in 1960 and began 19 years of military domination.

In Washington, the Carter Administration nervously urged the South Korean military leaders to exercise "maximum restraint," lest their actions lead to "dangerous miscalculation by external forces"—meaning, of course, the rulers of Communist North Korea. Washington had no reason to think that the Pyongyang government was in fact trying to take advantage of Seoul's troubles, but clearly the crisis carried with it the seeds of danger for both South Korea and its allies.

The rioting started two weeks ago, with a wave of student demonstrations in Seoul. The protests were aimed mostly against the martial law that has been in effect ever since the assassination of President Park Chung Hee seven months ago. The specific targets of these protests: the ineffectual President Choi Kyu Hah, 60, and, most of all, the authoritarian figure behind the President, Lieut. General Chun, 48. As both the head of the Defense Security Command and acting director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, Chun was already being regarded as the country's offstage military ruler.

Just as the first wave of student protests subsided, the government cracked down with a series of iron-fisted edicts and actions: a ban against all political activity, the closing of all university campuses and, finally, the summary arrest of hundreds of prominent politicians, busi nessmen and student leaders. Indeed, even the head of the governing Democratic Republican Party, Kim Jong Pil, was detained. The arrest that proved to be a decisive provocation, however, was that of the government's leading critic, Kim Dae Jung. To justify their actions, the authorities charged that he had connived to foment the recent unrest and to overturn the government.

As it happens, Kim Dae Jung is a native of South Cholla province, of which Kwangju (pop. 800,000) is the capital. Cholla is the poorest region of the country, and was consistently neglected by President Park during his 18 years in power. The people of Cholla have long complained of unfair treatment by the central government. Most of all, they resent the fact that their area has been deprived of the industrialization that has benefited the rest of the country. When they learned last week that the government in Seoul had arrested Kim Dae Jung, they rose up in protest.

For four days crowds of students and workmen clashed with police and paratroops in the streets of Kwangju. Soon the protesters, waving rifles, iron bars and stones, took control of the city. They occupied the city hall and provincial headquarters and burned down a TV-radio station owned by a chain that had supported the Park regime. Raiding police and military armories, they seized some 3,500 weapons, including light machine guns. They commandeered dozens of military vehicles. For the most part the army avoided an open fight with the rioters. Even so, hospitals confirmed that 107 people had been killed.

TIME Correspondent S. Chang managed to visit Kwangju last week and found the city gripped by a strange combination of euphoria and lawlessness. Reported Chang: "The city's youth reigned supreme. Tens of thousands were roaming around town, driving or boarding army trucks, Jeeps, buses, even bulldozers. Chanting hoarsely, the youths banged on the sides of their vehicles with sticks or metal pipes. In the turbulent heart of kwangju. I flagged down a jeep for a ride. It stopped but its seven occupants stared at me suspiciously. 'What the hell do you want?' said one. When I explained, they grinned and were more than willing to oblige. One was a 20-year-old lathe operator, another a candy store employee. The five others were friends from a neighborhood auto repair shop.

"One of my erstwhile hosts, the lathe operator, from time to time would playfully take aim at me with his M16. Another kept grabbing his hand grenade and explaining to me how the pin could be removed. I pleaded with them to discontinue their antics, since the driver, a speed maniac who for reasons best known to himself wore a gas mask, kept zooming at 40 m.p.h. through alleys full of shouting humanity. I felt like one of those G.I.s who rode through liberated Paris or Rome during World War II. Kwangju, after all, had been 'liberated' by its youth power.

"My ride ended at last at the top of Mudung, a mountain behind Kwangju. The leader of my group pointed to the panoramic view of the city below and said, 'Look. We all love this city.' Then he shook hands, raced back to his Jeep and sped away. Only on the outskirts of Kwangju did I see some army troops, part of an estimated 15,000 who had been ordered to surround the periphery of the city. The soldiers were holding M-16s and guarding an approach to a penitentiary. Some demonstrators were giving them candy.

"What started it all? The Martial Law Command blamed it on 'hooligans and impure elements,' a reference to Communists and their sympathizers. Kwangju is not without some Communists. In fact I saw a red flag atop at least one commandeered army truck, the first I have ever seen in a land where Communism is outlawed. But I saw no signs of provocateurs or organized hooliganism. What I did see was an impending danger: with the youthful protesters stockpiling weapons, and troops encircling the city, Kwangju could turn into a bloodbath."

In Seoul, meanwhile, an apprehensive calm prevailed. The Cabinet of Prime Minister Shin Hyon Hwack abruptly resigned, taking the blame for "failure to maintain domestic calm." It was succeeded by a new one headed by Park Choong Hoon, a retired major general and administrator credited with having been a force behind South Korea's economic development. On Tuesday the Martial Law Command announced that it had decided to close down the National Assembly indefinitely. Opposition members assembled on the grass in a kind of sit-down strike. All 43 of them offered their resignations to the floor leader. Grumbled one:

"Even under [President] Park, nothing like this ever happened." A sense of distrust and fear seemed to pervade the city. Said a longtime resident of Seoul: "If the North Koreans sent planes to strafe the city, people would think it was Chun Du Hwan attacking the dissidents." Remarked a Kyung Hee University professor: "This is a season of spite and spleen."

The latest political turmoil has compounded a growing concern over South Korea's economic future. The country's highflying prosperity has recently slowed down. Unemployment has risen to 5.6% and is expected to pass 7% by the end of the year. Inflation has reached almost 20%. Last month workers at the Sabuk coal mines, demanding a 40% pay hike, rioted for three days; a policeman was killed and scores on both sides were injured before the miners settled for a 20% increase. Three weeks ago, the Tongmyung Timber Co. of Pusan, South Korea's largest plywood maker, went bankrupt, leaving liabilities of $106 million. Some of its 3,000 employees demonstrated for their unpaid wages and skirmished with police. Says a Korean economist: "With more big bankruptcies like that one, much of our labor force could explode."

After the unrest spread to Kwangju last week, U.S. Secretary of State Edmund Muskie declared at a press conference that he was "deeply concerned" that the South Korean government was moving away from "liberalizing policies." The problem, as his aides explained later, is that the U.S. has precious few bargaining chips with which to influence developments in South Korea. Obviously Washington cannot threaten to withdraw its 39,000 troops or threaten economic sanctions against Seoul, since such actions would only undermine a pro-Western country that the U.S. once fought dearly to protect.

Nor can the Carter Administration realistically hope to bolster the position of President Choi, since he has little power and indeed may be a virtual prisoner of the military in the presidential compound, the Blue House. To be sure, American and South Korean troops are joined in a combined command, and in theory this gives the U.S. some control over more than half of South Korea's 600,000-man armed forces. But such authority can amount to very little. General Chun himself flagrantly ignored a Korean-American agreement on prior consultation last December, when he ordered reserve units to help him arrest some 40 rival officers. More cooperatively, the Seoul government last week asked General John Wickham Jr., U.S. commander of the joint forces, to release some Korean units under his command for "crowd control and internal security." He obliged.

Late last week Kwangju remained under the effective control of its insurgents, but hastily organized "citizens' committees" were trying to reimpose some order at the grass roots. Teams of youths, for example, canvassed the streets to induce people to turn in their weapons; they succeeded in collecting more than half of those that had been seized. Community leaders, meanwhile, met with government officials and army commanders to try to negotiate a truce. Spokesmen for the townspeople lodged a series of specific demands: that the government keep its troops outside Kwangju until order is restored, that it compensate families of the dead and wounded and that it refrain from retaliating against the rioters. Initial negotiations did not produce a settlement, but at least the city was calmer than it had been for a week.

Ever since Chun seized power, among his goals were the execution of Kim Jae Kyu, the former intelligence chief who killed President Park, Chun's mentor, last Oct. 26; and the exclusion of Opposition Politician Kim Dae Jung from the election of a new President that was supposed to be held some time next year. Last week Chun made notable progress on both fronts. The South Korean Supreme Court rejected Kim Jae Kyu's appeal of his death sentence, and four days later he was hanged, along with four accomplices. In the meantime, martial law investigators announced that they had found evidence to back up their sedition charges against Kim Dae Jung, which conceivably could make him liable to the death penalty as well. Removing an opposition figure like Kim from the political scene might be a temptation for a military autocracy in the making. But it obviously would do nothing to relax the explosive tensions in Kwangju. As the past few weeks have shown once again, unruly events in South Korea have a frightening way of taking on a life of their own. At the height of the bloodshed and chaos in Kwangju last week, one university demonstrator shook his head with fear and disbelief. "This," he said, "is something we never intended."

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