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A second-order effect of the 12/12 incident was the Kwangju Rebellion of 1980. General Chun had by now taken control of both the army and the KCIA, and while high-ranking Korean military officers continued to make political maneuvers in smoke-filled rooms, relations with the United States had more or less stabilized—although the State Department was continuing to push for the civilian government to have operational control over the military, rather than the other way around. With student demonstrations growing stronger, Chun now blamed the unrest on “North Korean clandestine activities” (Young, 97), which was a baseless claim.
In May of 1980, Chun declared complete martial law and vowed to crack down on demonstrations, which he said were controlled by “impure elements” (Young, 101). Meanwhile, Ambassador Greysteen tried to play a moderating role in order to de-escalate the situation. Riots broke out in Kwangju, and the Korean Special Warfare Command had been called in to respond. The Special Forces escalated the level of violence on the rioters and many of them ended up dead. American AWACs aircraft and Navy units were deployed to Korea, again fearing that the Kim regime would use the instability in the south to launch an invasion (Young, 103).
The Korean Special Forces units may have been trained for direct-action missions behind enemy lines, but many saw these units as being palace guards who provided coup protection to the government. “In 1980 these commanders were all close associates of Chun Doo Hwan” (Young, 104). Just a month after the suppression of the Kwangju Rebellion, the U.S. embassy staff began hearing that the Special Warfare Command was planning a counter-coup against General Chun. The coup plotters were young Special Forces officers who felt betrayed by Chun.
First, they had been told that the student demonstrators were actually communist agents and agitators controlled by North Korea. They also felt that Special Forces had been improperly used for riot control, a task that Det K had trained them for since the 1960s. The Korean Special Forces had been lied to by the Chun government about the intentions and motivations of the protestors, which was what led to their overreaction in putting down the riots. The proposed coup was deterred by cooler heads in the Korean military. Soldiers are typically a more conservative lot who value security and stability. Yet another coup would not have been in South Korea’s interests.
The American response to the rebellion was tepid at best. The U.S. embassy in Seoul was not getting much if any policy guidance from Washington D.C. at this time. Halfway around the world, Delta Force and a small element from Detachment A of 10th Special Forces Group had attempted to rescue American hostages being held prisoner in Iran. The rescue attempt failed catastrophically the month prior to the Kwangju Rebellion, and the Iranian debacle “consumed the Carter administration” (Young, 110).
The coup and subsequent Kwangju Rebellion left a lot of psychological trauma on the Korean Special Forces, who had been forced to kill their fellow citizens and strained U.S.-Korean relations in general. After these events, a number of Korean Special Forces officers and senior NCOs stopped by the Det K bunker for a beer or whiskey to talk about how they felt. “It psychologically shook a lot of them really bad,” Randall said. The Detachment also attended a private memorial service held for the Korean Special Forces soldiers who lost their lives during the riots. Their remains were cremated and buried in one big vat. The South Korean government has never announced how many Special Forces soldiers died during the Kwangju Rebellion.
“I was told more than two hundred and that there will be no list published in Korea or anywhere else,” Randall said about the South Korean Special Forces killed. The families of the deceased were paid off with money as compensation and Korea’s military government was able to cover up the deaths.
Featured image courtesy of timshorrock.com.
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