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

US Border Patrol Union Accused of Taking Sides on Immigration

Report alleges agents leaking info to immigration opponents, appearing at their private events; Center for Immigration Studies director defends agents' actions More

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Reporting from Somali capital for past decade, Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal has been working at one of Mogadishu's leading radio stations covering parliament More

Video Rights Monitor: Hate Groups' Use of Internet to Inflame, Recruit Growing

Wiesenthal Center's Abraham Cooper says extremists have become skilled at celebrating violence, ideology on Web 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.
Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Interneti
X
Mike O'Sullivan
June 30, 2015 8:20 PM
Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Syrians Flee IS Advance in Hasaka

The Syrian government said Monday it has taken back one of several districts in Hasaka overrun by Islamic State militants. But continued fighting elsewhere in the northern city has forced thousands of civilians from their homes. In this report narrated by Bill Rodgers, VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer describes the scene in Amouda, where some of the displaced are taking refuge.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video S. Korea Christians Protest Gay Rights Festival

The U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating marriage equality nationwide has energized gay rights supporters around the world. Gay rights remain a highly contentious issue in a key U.S. ally, South Korea, where police did a deft job Sunday of preventing potential clashes between Christian protesters and gay activists. Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Nubians in Kenya Face Land Challenges

East Africa's ethnic Nubians have a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years, but in Kenya they are facing hardships, including the loss of lands they have lived on for generations. They say the government has reneged on its pledge to award them title deeds for the plots. VOA's Lenny Ruvaga reports.
Video

Video Military Experts Question New Russian Tank Capabilities

Russia has been showing off its new tank design – the Armata T-14. Designers claim it is 20 years ahead of current Western designs - and driving it feels like playing a computer game. But military analysts question those assertions, and warn the cost could be too heavy a burden for Russia’s struggling economy. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.
Video

Video In Syrian Crisis, Social Media Offer Small Comforts

Za’atari, a makeshift city in Jordan, may be the only Syrian refugee camp to tweet its activities, in an effort to keep donors motivated as the war in Syria intensifies and the humanitarian crisis deepens. Inside the camp, families say mobile phone applications help hold together families that are physically torn apart. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.

VOA Blogs