The numbers 5-1-8 are seared into the collective memory of South Korea. On May 18, 1980, an elite unit of paratroopers attacked protesting students in front of Chonnam National University in Gwangju with clubs, maiming and killing. As word spread and more people joined the protests, the army opened fire on protesters on May 21, massacring hundreds. That same day, civilians broke into an armory, gathered weapons, and drove the soldiers from the city. During the next few days government ceased to function in Gwangju, yet there was no disorder. A Citizens’ Committee was organized to negotiate a peaceful resolution with the army. Unfortunately these efforts failed. The army re-entered the city in the early hours of May 27 and defeated the small civilian militia that had staged a final stand at the Provincial Office Building in downtown Gwangju.
The terrifying and heartbreaking stories of Gwangju play an important role in Koreans’ collective understanding of the military governments that ruled the country from 1961 to 1987. And commensurate with the magnitude of the event, the historical record of the Gwangju Democracy Movement continues to be debated to this day. New details emerge from time to time, as they did recently in an interview with a former soldier who claimed General Chun Doo-hwan, military dictator and convicted architect of the massacre, visited Gwangju just hours before the order was given to attack civilians. Chun, for his part, continues to spread the lie that North Koreans were behind the protests in Gwangju in 1980.
While there are many things we can learn about South Korea and about its people from 5-18, something Americans and the Trump administration should keep in mind is that a fierce strand of anti-Americanism exists in South Korea. While 5-18 may not have been the original source of this anti-Americanism, it certainly crystallized it.
At the time, the U.S. Commander of Forces in Korea had operational control of all South Korean military units. Units could not be moved without the consent of the U.S. military, and thus the U.S. government. So when it was learned that elite special forces were deployed to Gwangju to suppress peaceful protests, obviously people wondered about the U.S. role in this tragedy. While reporter Tim Shorrock would shed light on the role of the U.S. government years later, the people of South Korea had more or less pieced the puzzle together, and anti-American outbursts, specifically arson at American Cultural Centers around the country, put Washington on notice. The U.S. decision to turn a blind eye as Chun destroyed South Korea’s best shot at democracy since the student protests overthrew Syngman Rhee in 1960 remains a horrible stain on the history of U.S. foreign policy. Many in South Korea have not forgotten this.
Other events since have set off waves of anti-American sentiment, most notably the accidental killing of two schoolgirls by an armored U.S. military vehicle in June 2002 and the anti-American beef protests of 2008.
The ebb and flow of South Korea’s anti-Americanism is essentially a product of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. There is no doubt that the two countries share a common interest in preventing the outbreak of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula. To this end the South Korean people are by and large grateful for the presence of U.S. troops in South Korea. Yet events that trigger an impression that the U.S. government has little or no regard for the South Korean people causes immediate and severe backlash.
U.S. President Donald Trump recently announced he will visit Seoul during his upcoming trip to Asia for the Group of 20 Summit in Osaka. Trump is not popular in South Korea, but he isn’t necessarily despised either. Conservatives were seemingly excited about his consideration of the “bloody nose” military option against North Korea in 2017 and they continue to proudly wave the U.S. flag at their rallies. Overall, the number of South Koreans who trust Trump shot up 17 percent in 2018 following his decision to engage in diplomacy with Kim Jong Un.
But Trump is laying the foundation for another anti-American backlash in South Korea. Demands that South Korea pony up more for the presence of U.S. troops in South Korea has become a favorite at Trump stump speeches. Trump has been ambiguous at best in his statements about the continued presence of U.S. troops in South Korea. His demands to renegotiate the free trade agreement between the two countries (KORUS) were less than congenial, forcing South Korean concessions on steel in exchange for fewer restrictions on U.S. car exports to Korea (cars that South Koreans do not want to buy). Trump’s protectionist trade policies are also hurting South Korean companies, with more damage possible in the future. South Korean conservatives in particular may have felt thrown under the bus when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saw little problem with North Korea’s recent short-range missile tests since they are not “the ones that threaten the United States.”
Trump’s bullying is reminiscent of the old days of U.S.-South Korea relations, when Seoul was treated as a junior partner at best and indentured client state at worst. For now Trump’s success in averting disaster in a self-made crisis with North Korea seems to have won over the South Korean people. But Seoul’s patience may wear thin if Washington decides it prefers the 1980 mode of U.S.-South Korea relations.
Benjamin A. Engel is a Ph.D. candidate in East Asian Studies at Seoul National University’s Graduate School of International Studies and holds an MA in Korean Studies from the same school. His research interests include modern Korean history, democratization in East Asia, and U.S. foreign policy.