A South Korean riot policeman is hit by a firebomb thrown by radical students outside Chosun university on May 18, 2019, on the anniversary of the Gwangju uprising. Photo: AFP / Kim Jae-Hwan

In June 1989, in a hotel room in Washington, I turned on the TV and there, unfolding before my eyes, was the Tiananmen Uprising.

Hooray, I thought. Those brave Chinese remind me of the South Korean demonstrators I covered in the provincial capital Gwangju in May 1980: patriots who died by the hundreds as they did battle against a dictatorship’s army special forces attackers.

Just as South Korea had gone on to achieve democratization in 1987, including free presidential elections – developments that I had also covered – I figured confidently that those ballsy Chinese pictured on the TV screen would need only seven years or so to bring down the one-party dictatorship in Beijing.

Was I ever wrong.

On the heels of the 39th anniversary of Gwangju and in the run-up to the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen, a book from the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History arrived: The 1987 Korean Democratization Movement in Retrospective: A Critical Oral History.

The book offers a treasure trove of reasons, from South Korean and American perspectives, why my China comparison had been inappropriate in view of South Korea’s quite different historical circumstances.

‘Moral support’

Following the deaths at Gwangju, the South Korean democratization movement took several years to reach a boil again. In the meantime, recalled Hahn Hwa-gahp, an aide to the often-jailed opposition leader Kim Dae Jung, when he and his colleagues contacted the US and other foreign embassies or the foreign press “we would use the phrase ‘moral support.’

“We never directly asked them to get involved in the matters of Korea and make protests with us,” Hahn said. “Instead, we emphasized they should criticize any irrational and undemocratic matters, saying that the US saved us through the Korean War because they wanted to protect freedom.”

Cut to the chase: the democratization movement’s peak in Korea came in 1987, which was supposed to be a presidential election year. Military-backed dictator Chun Doo-hwan had promised to step down – but he and his cronies wanted to run an indirect election under rules guaranteed to put another former military man in office.

A US team in Washington and on the ground in Seoul, given considerable latitude by President Ronald Reagan and the cabinet officers concerned, took the subtle but dead-serious approach that Hahn and other South Korean dissidents also preferred.

Gaston Sigur, assistant secretary of state for East Asia, laid out American policy, including a red line, in a speech he delivered on February 6, 1987, to the Korea Society in New York – a speech that was carefully read in Seoul.

Sigur’s speech made clear that the US expected Chun to keep his promise to quit and ensure his replacement would be democratically elected.

Massaging an ego

At the same time Sigur massaged the ego of the widely hated former general and coup leader (much as Donald Trump more recently has done with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un).

Chun “has made a historic commitment toward greater democratization in South Korea,” Sigur proclaimed. “He has said that he will be the first major Korean president to retire from office peacefully, in order to set the pattern for future Korean leaders.” Sigur added: “History will praise his service to the nation.”

Four months later, at a time when demonstrators clogged the tear-gas-filled streets of Korean cities and Chun may have been considering another major crackdown on his people, a letter from President Ronald Reagan very smoothly played the North Korea and Olympics cards.

“The American commitment to your nation must” include sound democratic institutions, “in the interest of long-term stability,” Reagan wrote.

Put less elegantly: If you crack down again, you may have to answer to your citizenry and military for breaking the US-South Korean alliance. Oh, and we might support taking away Seoul’s scheduled hosting of the 1988 Olympics.

Former US State Department Foreign Service officer David Straub, who participated in the events and in the oral history exercise, told me in an email that “South Korean elites, especially conservatives, felt strategically dependent on the US.”

Thus, “the ruling conservative authoritarians knew they could only go so far in clamping down to remain in power, and their opponents knew it, too,” added Straub, who served in both Seoul and Washington during the period. “So those in power felt limited, on the one hand, while those opposing them felt encouraged.”

Lynn Turk was a Seoul-based Foreign Service officer who, like me and other foreign news correspondents, wore a gas mask to do street reporting in 1987. Then he would go back and brief us in the embassy.

Turk told me that the relationship with the US placed limits on Chun and his chosen successor, former General Roh Tae-woo, which, if breached, “might have led to some reaction by the US. Hard to say what, but Washington might have demanded Chun-Roh step down.”

Soft power

“The Olympics played a huge role,” Turk said. “Chaos in Korea could have canceled the Olympics, and the US was making noises that if Korea couldn’t hold the 1988 Olympics, it could ramp up Los Angeles to hold them again.”

On the other hand, China, post-Tiananmen, “didn’t have any benefactor problem,” Turk observed.

It wasn’t just hard power. Soft US power also played a role in Korea. One big difference with China was that “South Korea was more heavily and thoroughly influenced by things American, including democratic ideals,” Straub noted.

Indeed, not long before, Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing and the “Gang of Four” had attempted with much success to wipe out all traces of bourgeois behavior and thinking – a category that most definitely included American ideals – in a generation of Chinese young people.

A contrast that’s useful to make is that between Chun and Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor and China’s ruler at the time of Tiananmen.

James Kelly, who at the time was White House special assistant for national security affairs, told me: “China is and was very different – mostly because of Deng.”

Deng “was indeed determined to reform China,” Kelly said, “but as a lifelong party man – plus his own experiences in unstable chaos – he was not going to allow what he imagined would occur.”

During China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, when that generation was being transformed, Deng “had seen what Red Guards could do and, for better or worse, saw the youngsters in Tiananmen as their successors,” Kelly said.

Lynn Turk added: “After Gwangju, the ROK military told Chun it wasn’t going to do that again to its own citizens.” To compensate for such feelings among soldiers, the Chun regime needed to create a “huge, draftee-reinforced riot police force, which was supposed to be able to contain demonstrations,” Turk recalled.

“It was the size of the demonstrations that was the determining factor. They overwhelmed the riot police in Seoul and reinforcements were sent, leaving other cities open to out-of-control demonstrations. And then even the reinforcements were overwhelmed in Seoul.

“Chun decided it was too risky to try to use military units composed of draftees. And the special forces, which had been used in Kwangju, wanted no part of crowd control again.

Turk said he wasn’t “sure the Chinese military held any such qualms [in case] they had been called upon.” A view on that last question comes from Wang Dan, a student leader during Tiananmen who in 2019 commented in the New York Times: “The Chinese government realized that it could no longer butcher its citizens with the whole world watching.”

No election issue in China

Another big difference was South Korea’s scheduled election.

“There was no precipitating event after Tiananmen like there was in Korea” after Gwangju, Lynn Turk said. “Chun had promised to step down after his term, so there had to be some kind of process for a successor, and it was that process that gave the students, and then the larger population, something to focus on: one-man, one-vote, direct election.”

That demand resonated because it harked back to South Korean experiences before an earlier military dictatorship had taken the right away. “Until Park Chung-hee instituted the Yushin Constitution [in 1971], there had been direct elections for president,” Turk noted. On the other hand, “I don’t think the idea of elections had much influence in China.”

Indeed, as Wang Dan put it in his New York Times article about Tiananmen: “Our movement failed 30 years ago because we lacked support and experience in promoting democratic change.”

Important as was his role as a Beijing University student who started the sit-in in Tiananmen Square, Wang Dan’s name would have been only briefly familiar at best to most foreigners who followed China news.

On the other hand, South Korea’s long-experienced and crafty opposition leaders Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam were ubiquitous in world news media. The protests became much more than a student movement, with office workers, labor and even the Roman Catholic Church joining in.

Although the two Kims were very much the match of  Chun and Roh overall – just try to name a Chinese dissident who could compete with Deng in 1989, or stand up to Xi Jinping today – both of their legacies suffer from their egotism.

Neither Kim would give way and unite the split opposition forces to put the other into the presidency in the campaign that began after Roh Tae-woo, on June 29, 1987, defused the crisis by issuing a declaration that the constitution would be amended to permit direct election – one man, one vote, as demanded.

“Chun and Roh were pretty certain that the two Kims would be unable to compromise, and therefore Roh had a good chance to actually win,” Lynn Turk said.

He added in an aside: “Sometime if we are in a bar together I will tell you some details of what might have happened if Chun and Roh thought Roh wouldn’t actually win.”

Although the two Kims’ intransigence gave that year’s election to Roh – just as the ex-generals had anticipated – that does not take away from the fact that South Koreans were able to replace the dictatorship with democracy. Although they had to wait for years, both Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung eventually were elected president.

Bradley K. Martin, an Asia correspondent since 1977, covered the South Korean democratization movement for the Baltimore Sun and Newsweek. This article was originally published June 3, 2019.

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