News / Asia

Defectors Say North Stirred 1980 South Korea Unrest

A woman in a traditional Korean Hanbok costume sits in front of South Korean soldiers at Namsangol Hanok Village in Seoul, May 20, 2013.
A woman in a traditional Korean Hanbok costume sits in front of South Korean soldiers at Namsangol Hanok Village in Seoul, May 20, 2013.
As South Korea marks the 33rd anniversary of a citizen's uprising, there are questions about whether North Korea secretly attempted to stir social turmoil at the time.  

A former commander of U.S. Forces Korea, retired Army General John Wickham, Jr., says it is “plausible” North Korea may have tried to take advantage of unrest in the South during the 1980 uprising, but that he never saw evidence of that.

Wickham, who subsequently served as U.S. Army chief of staff, recalls that he and then-U.S. Ambassador William Gleysteen had “limited intelligence on sources of unrest and activity” in Gwangju, but “We did conclude that the unrest and uprising was South Korean and related to the ongoing coup” by General Chun Doo-hwan amid the turmoil following the assassination of strongman president Park Chung-hee,the father of South Korea's current president, Park Geun-hye.

A citizen's resistance movement in the southwestern city was brutally suppressed by South Korean paratroopers in May 1980, but historians believe it sparked the national democracy movement which, in 1987, led to the first direct presidential election in 16 years.

Twenty-five thousand soldiers were dispatched during the crackdown and more than 200 people died or have never been accounted for.

Most of the casualties were civilians, but soldiers and police also were killed. Some groups have contended the citizen death toll was actually between 1,000 and 2,000.

In recent days, amid the incident's 33rd anniversary, controversy, which has lingered in Gwangju, re-emerged after two cable television news channels aired interviews with North Korean defectors claiming Pyongyang's involvement.

The two stations, Channel A and TV Chosun, separately owned by conservative newspapers, reported that North Korean agents masquerading as South Koreans intended to create social turmoil and bring about the collapse of the government in Seoul.

“A battalion composed of 600 North Korean soldiers penetrated” [into Gwangju]," said a man identified as Im Cheon-yong on a May 13 TV Chosun broadcast. “It was North Korean guerillas who occupied the South Jeolla Provincial Office at the time.”

Im is described as a former North Korean military officer of a special forces unit involved in the uprising.

Two days later, another defector who, unlike Im, appeared with his face blurred and used a pseudonym on Channel A, claimed to be one of the North Korean special forces soldiers who arrived on shore near Gwangju by ship on May 21, 1980.

“We pretended to be Gwangju civilian forces and even attacked the South’s government forces together,” said the man, who used the name of Kim Myeong-guk. “Among the North Korean soldiers who participated in the uprising, some were later promoted to be generals.”

Professor of political science at Yonsei University, Moon Chung-in, a former ambassador and prolific scholar on Korean affairs, calls the assertions “really silly and more than counter-productive” in settling the painful historical legacy.

Official South Korean records do not point to involvement of or infiltration by North Korean agents into Gwangju.

But the fresh allegations seem credible to some, and not only on the far right in South Korea.

“I totally believe it,” says a former U.S. National Security Council staff member with ties to the intelligence community.

The regional specialist points to repeated infiltration by North Korean agents in the decades following the Korean War. Although even he does not see North Korea as the catalyst for the 1980 uprising, which was a grassroots mass movement among those angered by a growing military presence in their cities.

Allegations of possible North Korean involvement in the citizens' movement were initially raised in 1980 by the administration of Chun,who assumed the presidency in September 1980.

Chun was sentenced to death in 1996 for his role in lethally suppressing the Gwangju uprising, but was subsequently pardoned.

The anniversary of the beginning of the siege, May 18, is marked as a somber public holiday in South Korea.

The semi-official Yonhap news agency reports the Gwangju municipal government is vowing to file criminal and civil complaints against anyone, including conservative organizations, Internet users or media outlets, who attempt to distort the legacy of the 1980 civil uprising.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

You May Like

Multimedia Brussels Schools, Metro Reopen Under Heavy Guard

City remains under the highest threat alert level due to what authorities have described as a 'serious and imminent' threat of attack

Video Debt-ridden Refugees Await Onslaught of Lebanese Winter

Aid agencies are attempting to reduce potentially devastating consequences of freezing conditions and snowstorms that killed eight last year, including three Syrian refugees

Americans Think About Strange Stuff at Thanksgiving

Millions of Americans are celebrating Thanksgiving, but they’re not necessarily thinking about turkey and stuffing

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: gig24
May 21, 2013 11:10 PM
What a disgrace,making rank by dishonesty.Now a general for kju ,Mr DogPoo,his dear leader. Look, General,resp. agent:Even,if you set a bullet through KJU's head tomorrow,you are not of sound character, thug killed other thug,that's all.You still would continue the uranium-goldmining gulags ,yoou'd continue to steal the NK People everything they own,incl. their freedom,their health and lives.I have no respect for YOU.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs