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

Photogallery Strong Words Start, May End, S. African Xenophobic Attacks

President Jacob Zuma publicly condemned rise in attacks on foreign nationals but critics say leadership has been less than welcoming to foreign residents More

Video Family Waits to Hear Charges Against Reporter Jailed in Iran

Reports in Iran say Jason Rezaian has been charged with espionage, but brother tells VOA indictment has not been made public More

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Action to Stabilize Libya

Amnesty International says multinational concerted humanitarian effort must be enacted to address crisis; decrepit boats continue to bring thousands of new arrivals daily More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
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.
Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?i
X
Steve Sandford
April 17, 2015 12:50 AM
Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.
Video

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.
Video

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.
Video

Video Sierra Leone President Koroma Bemoans Ebola Impact on Economy

In an interview with VOA's Shaka Ssali on Wednesday, President Ernest Koroma said the outbreak undermined his government’s efforts to boost and restructure the economy after years of civil war.
Video

Video Protester Lands Gyrocopter on Capitol Lawn

A 61-year-old mailman from Florida landed a small aircraft on the Capitol lawn in Washington to bring attention to campaign finance reform and what he says is government corruption. Wednesday's incident was one in a string of security breaches on U.S. government property. Zlatica Hoke reports the gyrocopter landing violated a no-fly zone.
Video

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.
Video

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.
Video

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.
Video

Video Sidemen to Famous Blues Artists Record Their Own CD

Legendary blues singer BB King was briefly hospitalized last week and the 87-year-old “King of the Blues” may not be touring much anymore. But some of the musicians who have played with him and other blues legends have now released their own CD in an attempt to pass the torch to younger fans... and put their own talents out front as well. VOA’s Greg Flakus has followed this project over the past year and filed this report from Houston.
Video

Video Iran-Saudi Rivalry Is Stoking Conflict in Yemen

Iran has proposed a peace plan to end the conflict in Yemen, but the idea has received little support from regional rivals like Saudi Arabia. They accuse Tehran of backing the Houthi rebels, who have forced Yemen’s president to flee to Riyadh, and have taken over swaths of Yemen. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA, analysts say the conflict is being fueled by the Sunni-Shia rivalry between the two regional powers.

VOA Blogs