Former presidents Chun Doo-Hwan (front right) and Roh Tae-Woo (next to him) in Seoul Appellate Court with their former army generals in December, 1996, to answer for their role in the Gwangju massacre. Photo: Chosun Ilbo/AFP

More than a week before elite South Korean troops – sent to put down pro-democracy protests in the southwestern city of Gwangju – sparked an uprising with their brutal treatment of citizens, would-be military rulers and their civilian enablers were seeking to shift blame to North Korea for the troubles the coup plotters were causing.

Then-prime minister Shin Hyon-hwack on May 10, 1980, told South Korean journalists a “close ally” had informed the government that North Korea’s infiltration-trained Eight Army Corps had been out of sight of intelligence surveillance for some time.

The unit might surface in South Korea, perhaps between May 15 and May 20, he suggested. I established that Shin’s claim was a lie and reported that finding in my paper, the Baltimore Sun, the next morning under the sarcastic headline, “Where is the Large North Korean Army Unit?”

Forty-one years later, the effort on the right continues – indeed, has accelerated, with the emergence in the last several years of new conspiracy theories to tie North Korean infiltrators to the most horrific examples of brutality during the 10 days (May 18-27) that shook Gwangju.

(I’ve been exposed to this more than most other foreigners because, as one of the handful of reporters who covered Gwangju, I’m in demand every May to comment on what happened there and what it means today.)

Some of the arguments are almost laughable. I was unable to take seriously a proud graduate of the Korea Military Academy who met me for lunch in Seoul a few years ago. He told me earnestly that it was simply impossible for any officer trained by his glorious and honorable alma mater to permit or condone – much less personally commit – atrocities that are laid to the troops sent to Gwangju by the budding dictator Major General Chun Doo-hwan.

Other arguments, however, sound more plausible. And some of them are put forth by people who have long been known to me – conservatives I viewed as level-headed before I started taking into account their Gwangju theories. I feel I need to give careful consideration to what they say because of who they are.

One such old acquaintance speaks of actions at Gwangju that would be difficult for instant civilian insurrectionists to accomplish because they “require lots of intelligence, planning, training, and execution by well-trained personnel.”

Driver’s licenses?

Driving motor vehicles is a skill that she singles out. “Many Koreans didn’t know how to drive back then. Hardly anyone owned cars.” Yet, during a resistance campaign that focused on stealing and propelling toward the soldiers large, tank-like armored personnel carriers, large buses and military trucks, there proved to be “so many who could drive.”

Protesters piled aboard city buses, taxicabs and stolen military vehicles during the Gwangju Uprising of May 18-27, 1980. Photo: Yonhap

“Driving large military trucks (if 2.5 tons or larger) and buses requires special training and licenses,” she noted. “APCs require special training, of course.”

The protesters “stole 779 vehicles, including 328 from [military contractor] Asia Motors and from elsewhere 34 military vehicles, 50 police vehicles, and 367 regular vehicles.” With those, they clashed with the army and ran the government forces out of the city, temporarily.

Interesting argument but I didn’t find it compelling – in the first place because Gwangju only started out as a student protest. As it progressed, somewhat older people were more deeply involved in leading and fighting for the resistance. Many of them were blue-collar workers.

“There were a few young men of high school age who joined the citizen’s militia, but they were exceptions,” remembers Donald L Baker, who was a US Peace Corps volunteer in Gwangju at the time and went on to a career as professor of Korean history and religion at the University of British Columbia

South Korea required most young men to serve three years in the military. Why could some of those who became rebels after their military service not have learned to drive those vehicles? Gwangju was the South Korea center of the production of such vehicles. Someone had to know how to drive them.

Then I looked back into a book on the uprising to which I had contributed and was reminded that Park Nam-sun, the head of the local people’s fighting force that grabbed and deployed those vehicles, was a 26-year-old transport worker. (A more recent article narrows his trade down to “freelance trucker.”) Of course, Park had to know plenty of people who were able to drive the vehicles.

The involvement of South Korean military veterans also seems a good answer to the argument that it took special training for someone in the resistance movement to rig the provincial capitol building with explosives.

All that said, it’s still possible to point to loose ends – forensic questions about the origins of bullets found in some of the local dead, for example – and speculate that well trained North Korean agents were in place and took on roles in the uprising.

Another conservative Korean suggests putting myself into the shoes of then-North Korean ruler Kim Il Sung, who was still smarting from the failure of his 195o invasion of the South.

Having spent a large chunk of my life doing my level best to get inside Kim’s head, I must take the point and agree it’s logical to assume that Kim – although he did not choose to invade again – would have made sure there were some North Koreans at Gwangju.

Kim Il Sung (left) and his son Kim Jong Il are pictured in October 1980. Photo: AFP /Korea News Service

As that old acquaintance notes, in the South Korean student movement of the time there was a pro-North Korean faction, represented in the events in Gwangju in 1980. (That faction has contributed personnel to the current Moon Jae-in administration.)

To me it doesn’t seem impossible that the faction would have worked alongside any agents from Pyongyang during the 10 days, perhaps on missions such as attempted prison breaks.

But is the case for North Korean involvement more than speculative? We might have learned the answer if South Korean authorities had been more receptive to a North Korean defector.

An article by one of the conservatives I know describes what happened this way: “Kim Myung-guk, former North Korean special operations forces member, who defected to South Korea … provided materials and summarized his experience of deployment to Gwangju in 1980 with a group of other North Korean forces. 

“He went to South Korea in 2006, and told the National Intelligence Service (NIS) that he went to Gwangju during the Gwangju Uprising as a special forces operator. Kim thought that the NIS would find the information valuable, but to his surprise, the NIS agent advised him not to mention it in the future.”

There are allegations that the defector eventually was run out of the country. That distresses me, if it’s true, as I would have wanted to sit down with him and hear his story.

It’s easy enough to understand why Gwangju citizens today and their allies in the national government would not wish to entertain such a possibility. Koreans put great store by “purity.” Admitting that “impure” elements might have participated in the uprising would be anathema. Gwangju has become a sacred, holy event and casting aspersions on it can get you hauled off to court.

My own view is that it’s a complicated world. Even if some fifth columnists were put in place by Pyongyang before or during the events in Gwangju, I’ve yet to see convincing evidence that they were the dominant element or even close.

Kim Jum-Rea, 57, holds her son’s portrait during a visit to his grave on May 18, 1995, in Gwangju on the 15th anniversary of the uprising during which he was killed. Photo: Kim Jae-hwan/AFP

Anyone who was at the provincial capitol building on May 26, 1980 (the final day before government troops re-entered the city), talking with the holdouts as they prepared to meet their deaths, would be hard pressed to claim North Korean involvement in the end game, at least.

I was there on that day, and Seoul’s KTV this month has produced a documentary featuring an interview with me about what I saw and heard. The producers did a fine job and I recommend watching it.

The uprising’s spokesman and, by then, de facto leader, Yun Sang-won, was the only insurrectionist I encountered in the building who was calm and collected. We know he was not North Korean. I have gotten to know his family. We know that within the South Korean democratization movement he had been a member of a faction that was opposed to Kim Il Sung and North Korea.

Yun had performed his military duty and was almost 30, but the comrades of his final day whom I met inside the building were younger and scared – indeed, hysterical. Not one of them gave off even the slightest whiff of being a superbly trained North Korean spy or a Korean People’s Army special forces warrior out of uniform.

This is important, I think. Having the uprising end as Yun had planned, with him and the other members of his last-stand “pocket of resistance” fighting “to the end,” lent to the democratization movement the information-warfare momentum it needed to force Chun Doo-hwan and his other generals to give in and grant free elections only seven years later.

I’ll keep examining theories that arise, and any evidence that may appear. However, even if some day it should be proven that some North Korean infiltrators were also involved in the uprising, I would see such a development as unlikely to negate the courage and resourcefulness of the Gwangju immortals – the ones who dealt with the knowledge and fear of impending death, paid the ultimate price and pulled it off.

Bradley K. Martin covered Gwangju for the Baltimore Sun and is the author of “Yun Sang-won: The Knowledge in Those Eyes,” a chapter in The Kwangju Uprising: Eyewitness Press Accounts of Korea’s Tiananmen.