May 18 Uprising and Cherokee

In May 2010, the United States apologized for their ‘wrong policy’ and violence towards five different Native American tribes, including the Cherokees. In December 2009, Barack Obama signed an apology towards Native Americans. The resolution apologized “on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on the Native Peoples by citizens of the United States.” John Wayne, once a Western hero, became an outlaw.

Korea’s government has also apologized for its state violence. In October 2003, President Roh Moo hyun accepted the recommendation of the National Committee for the Investigation of the Truth about the Jeju April 3 Incident and sent an apology and consolation to the victims’ families and the residents of Jeju Island for the state’s wrongdoing in the past, half a century after the incident.

In 1988, the May 18th Gwangju Uprising was designated the “Gwangju Democratization Movement,” becoming a symbol of peace and human rights, not just for Koreans, but for all of Asia. Yet, something is still missing; there has yet to be any US apologies. The April 3 Uprising happened in Jeju, a frontier of East Asia, when the conflict between the US and Soviet Union was at its most tense during the time of the Berlin blockade.The holocaust that occurred on Jeju Island took place under US military oversight. That’s why we hold the US responsible as the massacre’s primary culprit.

The US’ ‘Korean Crisis’ began October 26th, 1979, when President Park Jeonghee was assassinated by one of his men, and continued through general Chun Doohwan’s military takeover in 1979, the massacre of thousands of Gwangju citizens in 1980, and President Reagan’s visit to Korea in 1983. The recently declassified US government’s “Cherokee files” made it possible to reconstruct the role of the US in May 18th Gwangju Uprising. We were able to access to this confidential document thanks to Tim Shorrock, a journalist in the US. When Park was killed, US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance created a secret task force, which he named ‘Cherokee,’ to monitor the situation in Korea. Only the highest level officers from the White House, State Department, Department of Defense, CIA, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were allowed access to the network, which President Jimmy Carter was also made aware of.

It is clear that Cherokee’ existed for the US’ benefit. In a secret letter which Vance sent to the US embassy in Seoul in February 1979, he defined the US’s goals as “gaining a maximum US share of economic benefits from economic relations with (an) increasingly prosperous South Korea” first, and “improvement of the human rights environment through evolution of a liberal, democratic political process” second.[ref][/ref]

Even unpredictable events like those of October 26th couldn’t change or modify these strategic goals. As the Carter administration became boxed into a corner by the Iran revolution, the dominant atmosphere in the government and the congress was that they would not allow “another Iran” to be born. While outwardly they claimed to practice “human rights diplomacy,” the Carter administration had no other option but to ensure that there were no failures in the US’ foreign policy, as they couldn’t afford to lose even one vote in the upcoming 1980 election.

If Korea’s April 3rd Jeju victims were scapegoats of the Cold War, the victims of the May 18th Gwangju massacre might be seen as sacrifices of the neo-Cold War. When the Cherokee documents were made public, we learned that hardliners such as Holbrooke, Assistant Secretary of the Asia and Pacific region, and Gleysteen, the US Ambassador to Korea, played leading roles in the situation at the time. According to testimony by Pat Darien, President Carter’s Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, “national security hysteria” dominated the president and his administration’s decision-making in this political circumstance. The decision made about Gwangju also came from this condition.

There is obvious evidence that the US intervened in the Gwangju massacre. In the minutes of a “meeting for reviewing policy” held in the White House amongst the Cherokee task force members on May 22nd at 4PM (May 21st, 7AM Korean Standard time), the meeting concluded with the agreement that “the first priority [was] the restoration of order in Gwangju by the Korean authorities with the minimum use of force necessary without laying the seeds for wide disorders later.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref] As Zbigniew Brzenzinski, famous in Korea as Carter’s National Security Advisor, summed up the US’ position: “support [for the Korean government] for the short term, pressure for political development in the long term.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref] The meeting also led to order to change the route of Coral Sea, a US aircraft carrier from the Philippines to the “Japan Sea” to prevent the uprising in Gwangju diffusing to other regions. When Coral Sea embarked at Pusan Port, the civilian leaders of the Gwangju Uprising, isolated in the provincial building (where they would eventually be killed in combat by military forces) cheered because they thought the US had come to rescue them.

Cherokee is the name of an Indian tribe whose people were massacred by America’s white settlers. Now, it is also symbolizes US intervention in the darkest days of Korean history. For 200 years, nothing has changed. The US must apologize for its ‘wrong policy’ of intervention in Gwangju.

written by Professor Haeyoung Lee (ISC Advisor, Hanshin University)