South Korean troops clampdown on citizens during the Kwangju Uprising, May 1980

South Korean troops clampdown on citizens during the Kwangju Uprising, May 1980

From the moment a group of Puritans first set foot on the land now known as the United States, American Exceptionalism became part of America’s identity and foreign policy. Charged with a strong sense of spiritual and political destiny, the Puritans were convinced they had a mission to transform America into a “city upon a hill”, as a moral and political example for the rest of the world to follow.1

Informed by the democratic peace theory, this belief evolved into the ideology of American Exceptionalism, where American foreign policymakers today operate on the belief that the United States must promote democracy worldwide. US foreign policy has since been driven to behave as a model of a successful liberal democratic state for other countries to emulate, while also actively encouraging countries worldwide to embrace democracy values and practices.2

However, in South Korea in 1980, the United States behaved against the common expectations of American Exceptionalism. When faced with looming regional instability and threats to American dominance, it was found that the United States prioritises geopolitical interests over the moral mission of promoting democracy even within its own allies. Instead of encouraging South Korea’s transition towards democracy, American foreign policymakers, including US President Jimmy Carter, refrained from supporting pro-democracy demonstrators in the town of Kwangju. The US reaction to the Kwangju Uprising can be described as ambiguous as the United States neither clearly promoted nor stifled the efforts of these demonstrators. Instead, the United States simply refused to stop South Korean troops from using force against its own people. This led to one of the bloodiest public protests in South Korean history. But, if the United States contradicted American Exceptionalism, how then can the US ambiguous response towards the Kwangju Uprising in 1980 be better explained?

The Kwangju Uprising

The Kwangju Uprising was a consequence of elements found within US foreign policy and South Korea’s domestic political situation.

US Foreign Policy

In the late 1970s, US foreign policy was shaped by a growing regional security perception. After the taking of American hostages in Tehran in 1979, greater caution was taken to not intervene in South Korea’s domestic politics too much so as to avoid “another Iran”.3 The United States was also worried that domestic instability in South Korea would attract a Communist attack from neighbour North Korea and the aggressive Soviet Union.4

American influence in South Korea’s democracy movement was also restrained by the poor state of the alliance between the two countries. Carter’s pressure to boost South Korea’s human rights record was not welcomed by South Korean officials.5 Neither was his decision to consider the withdrawal of American troops from the Korean Peninsula. Alarmed at the prospect of a security vacuum, South Korea and Japan protested that the absence of US troops would invite a regional war. Under pressure from American officials, Carter revoked his decision and improved relations with South Korea. However, hopes for a stable alliance were short-lived and ended in October 1979 with the sudden assassination of the autocratic South Korean President Park Chung-Hee.

South Korea’s Domestic Politics

South Korea’s domestic political situation also set out a path conducive to the Kwangju Uprising. Subjected to oppression under Park Chung-Hee’s Yushin Constitution in 1972, South Koreans began pushing for democracy. Their grievances were escalated by the economic crisis, which resulted in runaway inflation, skyrocketed debt and affected wages. Soon enough, South Koreans were flocking to opposition parties in search of an outlet to express their dissatisfaction with government policies. The room for dissent grew after the death of Park Chung-Hee, as people called for a more democratic political system to replace Park’s rule. However, democratisation came to a temporary standstill when General Chun Doo-Hwan led a military coup in December 1979. Incensed to strengthen his grip on power, General Chun closed the National Assembly, imposed press censorship and detained opposition leaders such as Kim Dae-Jung.

Infruriated, the people of the hometown of Kim Dae-Jung, Kwangju, protested against General Chun’s actions and the military rule. Crowds swelled to over 100,000 people by 19 May 1980 but was violently resisted on 27 May 1980 by South Korean troops from the Combined Forces Command. Thousands were injured and around 240 pro-democracy supporters were said to have died in the clash.

Restraining American Exceptionalism

Most American foreign policy officials insist that the Kwangju Uprising caught them by surprise. However, a more detailed look into events prior to the Uprising showed that preconditions leading to the Uprising were already long in place. In addition to prioritising geopolitical interests, I find that American foreign policymakers overlooked domestic events in South Korea as they lacked a detailed understanding of the country. Together, these two factors contributed to the US ambiguous posture towards Kwanju in 1980.

Pressing Geopolitical Interests

Geopolitical interest was the main driver behind American ambiguity towards South Korea in 1980. The heightened security perception led the United States to prioritise US strategic interests over the spread of democracy. Consequently, US Ambassador to South Korea William Gleytseen urged the United States to,

“…not take sanctions, symbolic or otherwise, against the ROK (South Korea) which would in any way diminish ROK and US/ROK defense capabilities…”6

Political nationalism within a democratising country was seen as a threat to US global hegemony, which was also challenged by Communist forces at that time. The United States therefore found it important to maintain its credibility in defending South Korea’s security in the face of an impending threat. Through this security rationale, the United States justified that the preservation of democracy at home required supporting anti-communist autocrats abroad, even if it meant denying support for the democracy movement within its own ally. When stakes in US national interests run high, the United States will almost always attempt to maintain political superiority over its allies to preserve regional stability. This includes adopting an ambiguous posture by refraining from extending help to pro-democracy movements such as the Kwangju Uprising in 1980.

If driven solely by geopolitical concerns, why wouldn’t the United States adopt a subversive, and not ambiguous, posture against the democratisation movement in Kwangju? Through direct subversion, the United States would restrain democratisation by extending military aid to South Korean troops, which operated under the orders of General Chun Doo-Hwan. Yet, the United States refrained from doing so and instead decided to not stand in the way if the South Korea government used force:

“in none of our discussions will we (the US) in any way suggest that the USG (United States Government) opposes ROKG (South Korea Government) contingency plans to maintain law and order…”7

Lacking Clarity

The US decision to adopt an ambiguous posture demonstrates the lack of understanding that American foreign policymakers had of political developments within South Korea. A clearer understanding would have allowed the United States to either promote or subvert democracy, depending on the nature of the geopolitical interests at stake. However, the strategic preference for Japan led US foreign policy towards South Korea to suffer from a lack of direction, understanding and guidance. This lack of detailed understanding is evident in the descriptive, but not detailed, diplomatic cables. Consequently, American predictions of South Korean politics were incomplete and the United States was unable to respond adequately and immediately to domestic upheavals within South Korea.

American Ambiguity

During the Kwangju Uprising in 1980, American Exceptionalism was clearly restrained from directly influencing US foreign policy. Due to geopolitical concerns, the United States was pressured to challenge democratisation in South Korea. However, the United States adopted an ambiguous instead of subversive posture as American foreign policymakers did not fully understand the scale of events leading to the Kwangju Uprising. By adopting a safer posture of ambiguity, the United States response to South Korea’s democracy movement in 1980 may be described as subtly “sitting on the fence”, but gravely challenging democracy.

  1. Deborah Madsen, American Exceptionalism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998) ↩︎
  2. Jonathan Monten, “The Roots of the Bush Doctrine: Power, Nationalism, and Democracy Promotion in U.S. Strategy”, International Security 29, no.4 (Spring, 2005), pp.112-156 ↩︎
  3. A. David Adesnik and Sunhyuk Kim, If at First you don’t succeed: The Puzzle of South Korea’s democratic transition, CDDRL Working Papers (website) <> (July 2008), accessed 20 March 2016 and James Fowler, “The United States and South Korean Democratisation”, Political Science Quarterly 114, no.2, pp.265-288 ↩︎
  4. Robert G. Sutter, The United States in Asia (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2009) ↩︎
  5. Gregg Brazinsky, Nation Building in South Korea. Koreans, Americans and the Making of a Democracy (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007) ↩︎
  6. Quoted in Tim Shorrock, “The Cherokee Files – Kwangju: Turning Point in the Cold War”, Money Doesn’t Talk, It Swears (website), (February 1996) <> accessed 29 November 2015. ↩︎
  7. Quoted in Brazinsky, Nation Building in South Korea ↩︎