Contested History, Kwangju and Korea's Cold War Politics: New perspectives on South Korea's Democratization and Foreign Policy from the British Archives
May 18, 1980 was arguably a pivotal moment in the democratization of South Korea. The brutal suppression of a civic protest in the Southern city of Kwangju by the military government of General Chun Do-Hwan, with the death of as many as 2000 protesters (many of whom were university students or younger) marked the beginning of a decade of public protest that ultimately led to the establishment of democratic government in the Republic of Korea. The events of May 1980 were controversial not only because of the deployment of armed troops against a vulnerable civilian population, but also because the decision to use force required, in principle, the approval of the US military authorities in South Korea. The United States, as South Korea's senior military ally, had formal jurisdiction over the combined ROK-US forces on the peninsula, and the suggestion that the US government might have been complicit in a civilian massacre raised difficult human rights questions for the administration of then President Jimmy Carter. In the aftermath of the repression, South Korea's leading opposition politician, Kim Dae-jung was arrested by the South Korean authorities and indicted for treason, for allegedly inciting the Kwangju rebellion. For Western governments, including the Thatcher Administration of the United Kingdom, public pressure to speak out against the actions of South Korea's military government, often conflicted with wider strategic and economic objectives in the context of the Cold War.
The talk will explore the background to the events of May 18 and the response of the British government to the rise of popular democratic activism in South Korea. Archival evidence, based on newly released government records, suggest that the Thatcher government was willing to place the UK's narrowly defined economic interests ahead of the democratic and human rights of the South Korean people, in a manner that reflected a strikingly dismissive attitude towards local political conditions in the Republic of Korea.