Was there almost a second Korean War in 1980?

In this photo, taken on May 27, 1980, armed citizens are seen on trucks during the Gwangju Uprising/May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement in South Korea. Source: Korea TV

South Korea this week marks the 44th anniversary of protests in Gwangju, where over 200 civilians were killed by martial law forces suppressing what was then seen as an attempted rebellion, but which has long been officially accepted by the state as a pro-democracy movement.

“Today’s Republic of Korea stands on the blood and tears shed by Gwangju,” President Yoon Suk-yeol said. 

Despite this broadly accepted interpretation, however, some aspects remain contested. Some claim that the rebels were communists and/or that Pyongyang sent special forces to support them.

There is a further claim that North Korea was poised to intervene with conventional forces and that the peninsula was on the brink of a second Korean War.

These allegations have been investigated and dismissed by the South Korean and US governments. They are, however, believed by many North Koreans. Whether that is the result of disinformation from the regime in Pyongyang or over-interpretation by North Koreans reading between the lines of the propaganda is not clear. 

Defectors do say, though, that at the time of the uprising, official reporting within North Korea gave citizens the impression that it was orchestrated by the North. 

According to Seong, a 53-year-old who arrived in South Korea in 2015, North Korean airborne troops were on standby at an airfield. “They were ready to step in if the Gwangju struggle persisted,” he said.

People believed the army might soon join forces with the democratic forces in South Korea to realize reunification under communist rule.

What can we make of this perception? 

The uprising itself lasted for nine days. North Korean TV ran the news every day, embellishing in its usual way. 

North Korea later made a film that depicts the Gwangju Democratization Movement as a spontaneous uprising by citizens.

This is similar to how South Korean films portray it, except that it misses out the part where the army sealed off the city for three days and urged citizens to surrender before going in. It highlights martial law troops running amok under the influence of hallucinogens. 

There is no evidence that there were North Korean spies in Gwangju at the time, but rumors of espionage heroism circulated in the North Korean army and among civilians.

“I remember my aunt, who worked at the Ministry of Education, telling me that Kim Il-sung was extremely angry when the uprising was suppressed,” said Jeong, 56, who entered South Korea in 2010. “She said that officials in charge of South Korean operations were punished and lost their positions for missing a golden opportunity.”

There are many accounts among defectors related to the involvement of North Korean troops.

“My uncle served in the 32nd Light Infantry Brigade of the 2nd Corps. He was supposed to be discharged in 1978, but his discharge was delayed for two years,” said another defector also named Seong, 53. “Ten years later, he told us why. The whole family was shocked. He said he had gone to South Korea and that his unit of three commandos had advanced to Gwangju around May 18. He said they were suddenly ordered to retreat.”

Jo, 43, who entered South Korea in November 2022, remembers hearing a veteran talking about it at his middle school. “My school had a lot of events like that with war veterans to encourage students to join the military,” he said. “One was in 1997. One of them unexpectedly mentioned the Gwangju uprising in informal conversation. He said airborne troops were in the planes and on standby on May 27.” 

“He said the operation was canceled because the uprising was quelled,” Jo said.

This may help explain why North Koreans, who switch allegiance in the process of defecting, arrive in South Korea thinking that its leader at that time, Chun Doo-hwan, prevented a second Korean War. They are therefore surprised to find that Chun is dismissed as a dictator.

Kim, 36, who defected in July 2022, said: “In my church in South Korea, a man said to me, ‘How can North Koreans be so helpless after living under three generations of dictatorship? Look at South Korea. We had military dictatorship too, but we achieved today’s democracy through the May 18 Democratization Movement. It’s really sad.’”

“So I said, ‘No matter how harsh South Korea’s military dictatorship was, it didn’t exterminate entire families up to the eighth cousin for defiance, right? If it had, there wouldn’t be anyone left to demand the truth now.” 

“If South Korea’s dictatorship had been like ours, do you think democratization movements would have been possible?” Kim said.

Whether North Korea was actually involved in the Gwangju Democratization Movement or whether its troops were on alert as a matter of course or actually ready to cross the border is a matter that no one can definitively conclude until North Korea collapses and its files are opened. 

Zane Han

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