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To care for the People As if They were Heaven: Kim Dae Jung on Kwangju and the U.S. role in South Ko

Tim Shorrock recounts his June 1985 interview with the late President Kim Dae Jung published by The Progressive, February, 1986. The Korea Policy Institute is pleased to present the original interview, along with Shorrock’s recollections of President Kim.

The Kwangju people kept order; paratroopers broke order…You should have criticized the paratroopers’ side, not the Kwangju people’s side. Your attitude was not just, not fair.

-Kim Dae Jung, 1985

On August 18, 2009, Kim Dae Jung, the former president of South Korea and that nation’s leading dissident during its long period of military dictatorship, died in Seoul of heart failure.

News of Kim’s death came as a shock to millions of Koreans, north and south. For decades, Kim had stood almost alone as a symbol of the deep Korean desire for democracy and independence, and was revered on both sides of the border for his commitment to unification and reconciliation between the two Koreas.

As a journalist who has written extensively about Korea for the past 30 years, I too was deeply saddened by Kim’s passing. My feelings were shaped in part by my personal experience with Kim, whom I had met several times during his years of exile in Washington in the early 1980s.

During that time, I worked closely with a faith-based coalition that sought to focus public and congressional attention on South Korea and the deep ties between its authoritarian leaders and the U.S. military. Kim spoke to the coalition several times, giving his impressions of US-Korean ties and how they could be improved.


Two things struck me about Kim during our meetings. One was his deep Christian faith and his boundless optimism about the possibility of change. Even in the darkest days of the military dictatorship, he expressed a strong belief that democracy would be restored to South Korea. Many supporters found that concept hard to embrace, given the enormous US military presence there and the huge US economic stake in South Korean industry and trade.

The other was his love for America and his profound faith that the American people and their leaders would eventually do the right thing in Korea. Sometimes I thought he was incredibly naïve: throughout the Cold War, the US government had supported savagely repressive governments, such as Chile’s after 1973 and Indonesia’s after 1965, in the name of national security, and did it for decades in South Korea. At the same time, Kim for years was the subject of a vicious campaign of slander by US officials who portrayed him as a dangerous and unbalanced leftist. To me, it seemed incredibly unrealistic to think that would ever change. But it did, and Kim turned out to be right on many fronts.

My fondest memory of Kim Dae Jung is from 1985, when I met him at his home, shared a traditional (and delicious) Korean meal, and sat down for an extensive interview. I had just spent several weeks in South Korea meeting with student and labor activists, and was there to write about the growing movement against the US-supported dictatorship of Lt. Gen. Chun Doo Hwan, who had seized power in a violent coup in May 1980. During my visit, I had spent several days in Kwangju, Kim’s home town and the site of the infamous Kwangju Massacre, when hundreds of students and workers were gunned down and bayoneted to death for standing up to Chun’s coup (details from my reporting can be found in the PDF of my Progressive article, “Korea: Stirrings of Resistance.”)

All of this was very personal for Kim, who was arrested in the wake of the massacre, charged with organizing the uprising, and sentenced to death. In December 1980, Chun spared Kim’s life as part of deal in which his illegitimate government was recognized by the incoming Reagan administration (Chun was Reagan’s first official state visitor to the White House). Kim was released in 1981, and spent the next four years in the United States before returning to Seoul in 1985.

My interview with him was thus critical to my work. When I met him in June 1985, his home was surrounded by military police and his freedom of movement greatly restricted. In the days leading up to the interview, I had witnessed several clashes between student activists and riot police, and my clothes still reeked of the vicious pepper fog used by the cops to disperse crowds.


The day I met with Kim, he was in a great mood despite the security cordon around his house in central Seoul. To my surprise, he remembered me. During one of his talks in Washington, I had asked him about his views on nuclear power and the US campaign at the time to pressure the Korean government to buy power plants from the US companies Westinghouse and Bechtel. He hadn’t said much in reply — and Kim told me, with a laugh, that I had probably been disappointed in his answer.

I had been; but I was definitely not disappointed with what Kim told me in our interview that day. For the first (and only) time, Kim addressed the sensitive issue of Kwangju and the manner in which the Carter administration, led by Richard Holbrooke, then the Assistant Secretary of State for Asian and Pacific Affairs, had responded to the tragedy.

Essentially, Carter and Holbrooke — enthusiastically backed by Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski — saw the Kwangju incident as a threat to the US-South Korean military relationship and therefore something that threatened vital American interests. At the height of the crisis, as I’ve described in detail in several articles based on declassified documents from the time, the Carter administration decided not to break with the Chun regime and instead tried — and failed — to coax a group of military gangsters into democratic reform. Military and economic aid continued, and the people of Kwangju were dismissed as “radicals” and “extremists” who had brought the calamity on themselves. It was a disgraceful performance, and persuaded many Koreans that America could never be trusted again.

Kim Dae Jung knew first-hand what had happened to his compatriots, and in our interview that day expressed deep anger about what had occurred in Kwangju. He publicly criticized the US government for its unequivocal support for the Chun military group and equated that backing to “supporting” the massacre. By releasing a division from the combined US-South Korean command to put down the uprising in Kwangju, he argued, the Carter administration allowed Chun to take power.

“If America had not sent one division to Kwangju, Chun Doo Hwan would not have succeeded in getting power,” he said. “If the Americans didn’t support that paratroopers’ massacre, then our people would have risen up for democracy in other cities. We could have succeeded in restoring democracy.”

In our interview, Kim also laid out his vision for a future, democratic South Korea and expressed his deep hopes for reconciliation with the North. “In the future, we can realize strong security because we can enjoy the people’s voluntary support and also force North Korea to have a sincere dialogue to bring peace to the Korean peninsula,” he told me.


Kim was very direct about the role of American forces in his country. They needed to be in South Korea then, he said, because “there is no strong security under dictatorial rule.” But once there was peace, he insisted, the need for US forces would disappear. “We would raise conditions for a permanent peace treaty to ask America troops to withdraw from South Korea.”

Much of Kim’s vision became reality, and he died knowing that the people of Kwangju had been vindicated and the threat of war between North and South Korea greatly diminished. But nearly 30,000 US troops remain in South Korea and a US commander remains in control of Korean forces in times of war — making South Korea the only country in the world where a foreign army exerts such influence. As the recent clash between the North and South Korean navies illustrates, we’re still a long way from peace and reconciliation in Korea.

Still, Kim’s vision remains. I’m proud to have known this great fighter for democracy, and will always treasure the Chinese calligraphy he wrote for me that long ago day:

To care for the People As if They were Heaven.


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