The Lesson of Gwangju Reverberates Today

The Seattle Times

The recent news reports from Andijan, Uzbekistan, were troubling. The arrest and trial of local businessmen in the region sparked riots where there had been continuing civil unrest. The government of Islam Karimov, an ostensible U.S. ally in the war on terror, blamed "Islamist" incitement and launched a crackdown on the protests, killing many, possibly hundreds, of civilians.

The situation revealed a fundamental difficulty in reconciling the parallel policies of pursuing democratization while seeking allies against radical Islamists, particularly in nations where governments lack popular legitimacy.

But Andijan was not the first time a massacre exposed the potential inconsistency of advocating freedom (and criticizing repression) while seeking accommodation to achieve a pragmatic end. Before Andijan, and even before Tiananmen Square had become a household name for bloody repression, there was the Gwangju massacre.

Gwangju is a provincial capital located in the southwestern part of South Korea, an area that had been neglected by traditional Korean elites. What transpired in Gwangju 25 years ago is all but forgotten today in the United States, but has become the defining event in Korean-American relations for many Koreans.

In October of 1979, President Park Chung-Hee of South Korea was assassinated. Park came to power through a military coup, but was also the driving force behind Korea's industrialization. By 1979, however, his political repression was extremely unpopular. His death brought much hope that there would be political liberalization.

Within weeks, however, a clique of South Korean generals launched a coup to seize control of the military. Having succeeded, they existed uneasily with the civilian caretaker government. On May 17, 1980, the military junta, led by Gen. Chun Doo-Hwan, citing threats of communist subversion, declared martial law and arrested civilian political leaders in preparation for his "election" as president. Immediately, student protests broke out in Gwangju.

The military then deployed special-forces units to Gwangju and indiscriminately brutalized the residents for several days. The move backfired. Thousands joined the demonstrations. Some protesters broke into armories, seized weapons and drove the soldiers from the city.

Confronted with this crisis in South Korea, the supposedly human-rights-oriented Carter administration decided to give tacit consent for use of force out of concern for stability and possible North Korean adventurism. After the South Korean military withdrew a combat unit from the Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command (headed by an American general), the administration even gave approval to the request to redeploy the unit — to Gwangju.

On May 27, the unit, along with the special forces, stormed Gwangju. The military forces killed some 200 "rebels." Gwangju residents claimed the military carted away and disposed of up to 2,000 bodies.

Even as the Carter administration sent private messages of dismay at the brutal suppression, it accepted the event as a fait accompli in public, forever cementing the notion among many Koreans that the United States was complicit in the massacre. All the good will generated by billions in economic aid and lives lost in defending South Korea from communist aggression was lost in one incident, in which America's "nuanced" public position was viewed as hypocrisy — talking up human rights and democracy while condoning bloody repression.

The lesson of Gwangju was thus simple: Our policies must match our rhetoric.

President Bush seems to have understood this clearly. We toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Baathist dictatorship in Iraq, then pushed for the subsequent, historic elections in both countries, demonstrating that the U.S. is on the right side of the struggle for liberty.

The continuing terrorist attacks notwithstanding, the danger for the American policy of spreading democracy is not in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, where the U.S. has pushed for pluralism and inclusion — even for the defeated (electorally or otherwise). There, the small bands of terrorists can only disrupt, but not destroy, what the U.S. set in motion.

Instead, the real long-term risk for the policy is found in nations like Egypt, Pakistan and now Uzbekistan, where the U.S. is seen to be collusive with dictatorial regimes in the name of fighting Islamic terrorists. Radical Islamists point to America's support for these autocracies as a sign of duplicity — that America is only interested in domination and influence, not spreading liberty.

Although nuanced support for these regimes may suffice — or even be necessary — in dealing with short-term exigencies of war, the long-term consequence for such an association means lending credence to the claims of anti-American radicals with a corresponding, almost irretrievable, erosion of our own credibility.

James J. Na is a senior fellow in foreign policy at Discovery Institute and runs Guns and Butter Blog. He can be reached at

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