Carter Hounded by Kwangju Massacre


Former president Jimmy Carter’s selection October 11 as winner of the Nobel Peace Prize after several previous nominations “must be interpreted as a criticism of the present U.S. administration,” according to Nobel committee chair Gunnar Berge. He added, “They should be sticking more to principles of mediation and international cooperation.”

Sounds like good advice for Carter himself, circa 1980. Somehow, the former president had managed to smile and wave his way into elder-statesman status, while his role in the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in the Korean city of Kwangju has been all but forgotten.

In May 1980, Kwangju birthed massive student protests against the South Korean military government of Chun Doo Hwan, who’d come to power through a coup. Many other cities had seen such protests, but the students and later citizens of Kwangju had taken them a step further. They not only rallied in the face of truncheons and CS gas, but braved bullets and bayonets. May 18 and 19 saw initial massacres, followed by intense resistance. Protesters plundered armories and police boxes and drove the government’s troops out of the city. 

As detailed in Kwangju Diary (UCLA Asian Pacific, 1999), a text that I co-translated with Kap Su Seol and that was based on Jae-Eui Lee’s bestselling first-hand account, the city of Kwangju then began reorganizing its own economy and social life in the crucible of an armed uprising and general strike. Fuel and arms were rationed democratically, half-trained militias defended the city while townspeople prepared communal meals for hundreds in city parks, and nearby factories were plundered for vehicles and material to help spread the revolution.

Even the most radical of the student leaders thought the United States would intervene on their behalf, against the coup. After the fiasco of the Iranian revolution, Jimmy Carter wouldn’t dare side against an honest, grassroots movement for democracy. He would mediate, wouldn’t he?

Carter was watching, and the Iranian experience was on his mind. But as Chun Doo Hwan’s paratroopers circled the city of Kwangju and tested its perimeters, a meeting of high-level Carter administration officials, including Warren Christopher and Richard Holbrooke, gave the nod to the coup government to wipe out the rebels. Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski summed it up: “In the short term, support—in the longer term, pressure for political evolution.”  

As for the Kwangju situation, high-level cables granted to journalist Tim Shorrock in 1996 after Freedom of Information requests show that the officials “counseled moderation, but have not ruled out the use of force, should the Koreans need to employ it to restore order.” And force was used, in the form of a ferocious battle to take back the city. Perhaps as many as 2000 civilians were killed on May 26 and 27, though Chun Doo Hwan claimed there were only 144 civilian casualties. Disagreeing with official numbers (Western journalists in the city saw as many corpses stored in a single gymnasium) was cause for arrest.

As for Carter, a May 1980 report claimed that his administration was shocked at the coup government’s brutality and had no knowledge of the deployment of Special Warfare Command units to Kwangju, two claims refuted categorically by Shorrock’s investigation. In addition to records showing White House assent to Chun Doo Hwan’s offensive, Shorrock also unearthed a number of Defense Intelligence Agency cables recording the movement of Special Warfare troops toward the city.

The Kwangju Uprising sparked South Korea’s democratic movement, which eventually brought about civilian rule in the late 1980s. It has been called the most important event in the history of South Korea. However, except for a few small-press books—in 1999, when Kwangju Diary was released, it was the only book in print on the uprising—the legacy of Kwangju has been ignored in the United States. 

History obscured means history forever altered. Carter’s hands may hold the Nobel Peace Prize, but they’re also stained with the blood of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators.