I conducted this interview with US investigative journalist Tim Shorrock a few months ago.
It was May 31st, we were in Seoul, and there was a lot to talk about. The Candlelight Revolution had burned brightly through the winter and deeply changed the political and cultural landscape of South Korea. Millions of Koreans had united nonviolently and successfully brought a corrupt government to its knees. Park Geun-Hye—daughter of a South Korean dictator—had been impeached on corruption charges, by a unanimous 8-0 vote from the Constitutional Court. And the newly-elected president, Moon Jae-In—a formerly imprisoned activist and human rights lawyer, son of war refugees from what is now North Korea and born in the same year as the ceasefire agreement—had largely been elected on a platform that promised change. Big change: to hold giant corporations accountable for injustice and manipulation, clear the Blue House of dishonest and self-serving political activity, and to strongly seek non-military approaches to improving relations with North Korea in hopes of future unification. This and so much more was going on, and so much has happened since.
Re-reading the transcript, now, as the world watches Korea and millions hope and pray for an end to the madness perpetuated by Donald Trump’s threats to engulf North Korea in flames and Kim Jong Un’s defiant missile tests—an end that doesn’t include a charbroiled peninsula and millions of casualties-- our conversation strikes me as more relevant than ever.
When I met Shorrock in a hotel in Myeongdong, he was preparing to fly back to the US. He had just spent two months in Gwangju at the 5.18 Archives, helping document and organize and share the story of the 1980 citizens' uprising, and the US-supported military dictatorship's murders and brutal suppression of Gwangju citizens.
Shorrock grew up a missionary kid in post-war Japan and Korea, and for decades he has been one of a small number of western journalists that has repeatedly covered human rights struggles in Korea with a view that is critical of US empire and military/economic bullying in Korea.
He helped declassify and share the infamous "Cherokee files", many of which proved that the highest levels of US government and military had not only understood the context leading to the Gwangju Massacre in 1980, but had directly given their support to the Korean military crackdown against the democracy movement.
Shorrock's work with the Cherokee files helped to change the international narrative about what happened in Gwangju, showing the civilians to be heroes rather than the communist pro-North Korean agitators the media falsely portrayed them to be.
Now he is an honorary citizen of Gwangju. And just a few weeks before I talked with Tim, he had conducted an interview with soon-to-be president Moon-Jae-In. He was the only independent western journalist to be granted an interview by Moon just before the election, largely because of Moon's history as a human rights lawyer and activist and his respect for Shorrock's work as an American activist journalist, specifically his work on behalf of massacre survivors in Gwangju.
This interview—between two American men in Korea—is not an attempt to “speak for” Korea or Koreans. Instead, it mostly focuses on the roles of US government and western media in continually belittling and misrepresenting South Korea in the news—especially any form of resistance to US colonialism, or in narratives involving North Korea and potential nuclear war. It also delves deeply into why—from a US view—the recent Candlelight Revolution in Korea is so phenomenal and has so much to teach us (read: US citizens under Trump) about grass roots mobilization and action against seemingly insurmountable odds.
I fear certain readers may misread it, though, as some sort of uncritical praise of (leftist) government, or a romanticized promotion of patriotism as seen through the rose-colored glasses of privileged foreigners. It is neither. It is meant first and foremost to be a discussion about South Korean democracy and what it means to battle colonialism as a US ally--and the role of western media in all of this. In the interview we both certainly do praise many forms of resistance to colonization, and we discuss the ways in which the US Empire gags even its "allies" via commerce, military and media campaigns that intentionally de-historify current events and malign social movements when they show the imperial nature of the US in East Asian geopolitics and globalization.
At its core, the interview below is an attempt by two foreigners, "American" men who love Korea and Koreans and have both been profoundly inspired and changed by our friends here and our experiences of Korean struggles for human rights and independence. It is an attempt through conversation to call out western orientalism and persuade US citizens to start listening more carefully to the ways in which a very real and powerful movement for independence is being silenced by military-industrial powers—and to resist the very possible start of a racist, imperialist, US-led nuclear war in East Asia.
God bless the grass,
September 20th, 2017
INTERVIEW WITH TIM SHORROCK, by SETH MARTIN
MAY 31st, 2017. Myeongdong.
Part 1: WESTERN MEDIA REPRESENTATION of KOREA and US POPULAR OPINION
SM: You grew up in Japan and Korea as a missionary kid in the wake of WWII. You saw both countries in times of wide-spread turmoil and poverty, during post-war devastation and rebuilding periods. Can you talk about your roots and what led you to become an investigative journalist? And specifically, how did you become so involved in the story of Gwangju?
TS: I guess it began when I was living in South Korea, in Seoul from 1959 to 61. I was almost 9 years old when I witnessed the 4/19, 1960 revolution against Syngman Rhee. That had a huge impact on me. I’d never seen a people rise up and overthrow an unpopular government. That experience always stayed with me. And during my teen and college years in Japan and the US, I was very involved in the movement against the Vietnam War. I knew a lot of the history of Korea and Vietnam, And at the end of the Vietnam War, there was another war scare in Korea. After the Vietnamese won and kicked the U.S. out, there was this war scare concocted by the Ford administration in Washington. US officials claimed that Kim Il-Sung was going to invade South Korea. The scare ended after about a week, but it made me realize that a lot was going on in Korea that I hadn’t really thought about for a long time, since I was there as a kid.
I began to concentrate a lot on studying. I went to graduate school and started learning more about what the U.S. had been doing in Asia while I was growing up in Japan and Korea—during the Cold War. In graduate school I focused on Korea—in particular, South Korea, its industrialization, and the role the workers played and the labor unions tried to play. And so I was following that subject, and reading newspapers about what was going on in Korea when the labor protests here began the spark that really set off the 1979/1980 crisis of democracy here. The president was assassinated and then there’s this coup by a general who was close to the president. And during that time, people—especially workers and students—were rising up. And I was watching all this from school. I began to pay very careful, close attention. I was following Korea almost daily in the news.
So when Gwangju happened, I had a lot of direct information about what had really gone on. I started coming here as a journalist in 81, and during the early 80s until 85 I came here numerous times. I started meeting people who were involved in the democratic movement, including labor organizers. Many of these initial contacts came through Christian groups that I had contact with through my parents.
SM: Your parents were missionaries in Japan and Korea. Were most of the radicals you met religious?
Tim: No. Mostly they were not, but the churches were a way underground organizers could meet. A few people were Christian activists and had links to the Korean churches. This opened up a whole world for me. I interviewed Kim Dae-Jung, and met many prominent and many unknown Koreans – trade unionists, environmentalists, democracy fighters. I found out how the other half lived here and what was really going on in the democratic movement—what a grass-roots movement it was. I became very interested in how it developed, and how those of us in the U.S. could best support the democratic struggle in Korea. I began to try to build links between American labor and peace groups and their equivalents here—to try to have some communication. That’s what my reporting was all about.
SM: When you started working as a journalist in Gwangju, what was the western media scene like concerning Korea?
TS: It was like it is now. It was basically zero interest. It was really hard to get stuff published back then. I wrote sporadically for various papers, like the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones, other publications. But there was and still is very little interest in Korea in the United States, unless you write about Kim Jong-Un being a crazy man. That’s what they’re interested in. But there’s no interest in South Korea, its democratic progress, what’s really going on here with everyday people. It was and still is as if South Korea is not a real country. It’s almost like an appendage of the United States. Shamefully, the United States media pays very little attention to what goes on here.
SM: Let’s talk a bit more about the western media coverage of Korea.
Before discussing the significance of the Gwangju Uprising, the Candlelight Movement, and the impeachment and new president to today’s political climate in Korea, let’s go back to winter 2015. I want to share a sampling with you of western coverage of the so-called “Comfort Women” agreement between Japan and Korea. As you remember, this “agreement” was widely protested and criticized in Korea, but received mostly glowing praise in the western press.
For example, USA Today talked about how President Obama had been stressing that Korea and Japan work out “their differences” and “work together to confront an increasingly assertive China and an erratic, nuclear-armed North Korea.” The article continued, quoting “Brad Glosserman, director of Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based foreign policy research institute” as saying: “This (deal) is very good for the United States because it eliminates an obstacle and therefore it allows two important allies to work together.” (USA Today 12/28)
Writing for Bloomberg Business about the agreement (12/28), Sam Kim and Maiko Takahashi declared that “resolving the issue—the biggest source of tension between the two US Allies—might give both leaders a political bounce as they prepare for legislative elections next year, as well as help reinvigorate trade that has declined in recent years. Improved ties would also be welcomed by the U.S., which has more than 75,000 troops in the two countries as they deal with a rising China and a nuclear-armed North Korea.”
And another from USA Today (12/28/2015), by Kirk Spitzer, titled “S. Korea, Japan reach landmark agreement on WWII sex slaves”, shared that “South Korean foreign minister Yun Byung Se said the agreement resolves the issue ‘finally and irreversibly.’ “
And so on. Your thoughts?
TS: Well, all those quotes reveal an imperial and colonial mindset towards both Japan and Korea. They reveal virtually no understanding of the history between the three countries [Korea/Japan/US]. No understanding of Japan’s colonial role and the fact the United States for most of the post-WWII period has supported the most right-wing elements of the Japanese political system. Namely, the Liberal Democratic Party, which is now led by a guy whose grandfather Nobusuke Kichi was a key player in the Japanese imperial government that declared and made war on America. And they also don’t seem to understand or grasp the fact that the United States has been pushing for this kind of three-way alliance for decades, and that this was a big obstacle for the United States because of real grievances that Koreans still have against Japan.
SM: And that many of the survivors of—now grandmothers—are still alive.
TS: And the survivors are still alive. And Japan has never formally apologized. And Japanese politicians continue to worship at Yasukuni’s shrine—where many war dead are buried, including war criminals. All this is linked to Japan’s use of Koreans for sexual slavery during the war. And this new “deal” was made without the input of the Korean people.
But the agreement is not going to stand. Now that you have a real progressive president, and the people have moved to get rid of this conservative government, you’ve got a government that wants to renegotiate that deal.
SM: Right. But how much of that do we get in the western narratives shared by major media? That coverage came from winter 2015, when there was international pressure to make this agreement.
Now let’s move up to the recent Candlelight Demonstrations and the trial of Park Geun-Hye.
What was much of the western world reading about this massive upheaval and change in Korea? Let’s take one op-ed piece from CNN by Euny Hong, for example. The title was “The President Who Got Impeached for Being Embarrassing” (http://edition.cnn.com/2017/03/12/opinions/south-korea-america-different-democracies-opinion-hong/index.html). In March I saw this making the rounds online. It seemed as if it was a ready-made answer for folks who already had their minds made up about Koreans, their culture and their supposed inability to lead themselves.
TS: [Mutters] Oh God...
SM: But so much has changed since the “Comfort Women” deal and even the Candlelight Demonstrations. Can you talk about some of what was driving the Candlelight Movement? For example, there was the labor leader who died from coma-inducing injuries received from the Korean police at a protest—from water canons.
TS: Baek Nam-gi.
SM: Yes, Baek Nam-gi. And we have the history textbook issue. And we have the issue of the “comfort women” agreement still being protested. And we have THAAD. So can you give us more of a context for what’s happening in Korea, and how and why Moon Jae-in is now president and Park Geun-Hye is in prison? Something more than “The Korean people were embarrassed”?
TS: First of all, Park [Geun-Hye] was not just embarrassing. She was a criminal. And that’s not just really embarrassing. It’s shocking to the Korean people.
SM: And the CNN article said that one of the reasons [for the rage and mass-protests] is that Koreans have an immature democracy.
TS: Well, CNN has an immature view of what democracy is. It doesn’t have any idea what democracy really is. They have no respect for Korean democracy and how Korean people fought for their democracy, and continue to fight for their democracy. And it is such an arrogant thing to say, that she’s just an embarrassing president. She’s a criminal. She’s being tried on criminal charges. She took bribes from big corporations and the corporate elite. And that’s not merely embarrassing, that’s criminal. And so there’s good reason for her to be driven out of office.
And this kind of coverage, you know, again it just reflects this kind of imperial, colonial mentality. People don’t even see South Korea as an independent country [in the media]. The U.S. Government doesn’t, and many in the U.S. media don’t. And they just report on Korea as if the United States is some kind of an innocent bystander in a country where they have a hostile North Korea against the U.S. There’s no historical understanding. There’s no historical analysis. It’s just simplistic propaganda, basically, pushed by the U.S. government and reported as news.
SM: This reminds me of another longtime area correspondent and English writer on all-things-Korean, Michael Breen. Years ago he wrote a popular book called The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies. And now he has released The New Koreans. Last December, in the wake of the first successful steps toward impeachment, when the demonstrations were near their strongest every weekend (and, as throughout the entirety of the movement, non-violent and all-ages), Breen published a piece in Foreign Policy titled “In Korean Democracy, The People Are A Wrathful God.” (http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/12/19/in-korean-democracy-the-people-are-a-wrathful-god/) In it, he refers to Korean public opinion as a “beast” and claims that
““[I]f Korea’s democracy were as law-based as that of the United States, the process would have been like the two long years of Watergate investigations. She would have hung on until her term ended in February 2018.
So, what is the nature of this people power?
In Korea, when popular feeling pushes past a certain limit break, it warps into a beast that is powerful enough to rip through decision-making and the established law.
Koreans call it “public sentiment.” This is as tame an expression in Korean as it is in English and does not convey the underlying phenomenon. A more accurate phrase would be “the emotion of the masses” or “mob passion.” But these have negative connotations, and public sentiment for Koreans is anything but negative.””
TS: That’s the guy—he’s a PR guy—he’s not a journalist. He claims to be a big expert on Korea, but you know, his job is writing public relations.
SM: But that ties into something important. People like Euny Hong and Michael Breen, they’re able to write these opinions and have them be widely shared as thoughtful and important views on Korea to the outside world. Hong wrote a book about the rise of K-Pop, and now she is a valued voice on Korea for major news outlets like CNN. Michael Breen writes pop culture books about Korean culture, and he gets a hearing in major papers and publications like Foreign Policy. Neither of them is scholars.
TS: Right. So what’s your question?
SM: But they’re widely read by foreigners, here and outside Korea. What makes them legitimate sources to western media? What does this say about the western world’s accepted Korean narratives, and the level of outside comprehension of what’s really going on here? And what would you tell people to read? Where would you tell people to look?
TS: I guess I would tell them to start with The Korean War, by Bruce Cumings. And get an understanding of why this country was divided, how it was divided, what the war was all about, and what’s happened since then. Understand the role of Japanese collaborators in the earlier South Korean governments, and how that led into today—and the remnants of that system that we saw up until recently.
But, if people want to read these pop culture people, they’re not going to learn anything about the real Korea. Especially foreigners living in Korea. Instead of reading that kind of crap, they should go and talk to real people. You can go and talk to real people out here in the streets. You can find all kinds of people who have incredible stories of what they’ve gone through, and what they’ve lived through. Not only in Seoul, but in Gwangju and other cities around Korea. Go to Gwangju and meet people who lived through the uprising, and lived through decades of repression, and fought against it.
People here have a very proud history of fighting repression and building their own democracy. Step by step. And that’s what folks should be reading. And they should be out there on the streets talking to people. Learn some Korean. Get out there!
“THE LONG MEMORY”, “BODIES ON FIRE”, “THE PROPAGANDA WORKS”
SM: Before starting this interview, you and I just had a jam session where we shared a whole catalogue of old Americana folk songs. Besides investigative journalism and the democratic movement in Korea, you are also a musician, and folk music history is one of your passions. Let’s bring some of that thought into this conversation.
American folk icon Utah Phillips said the “Long Memory” is the most radical idea in the U.S. He was a soldier in Korea, who later became a well-known organizer, anarchist, and song-sharing storyteller. You knew him personally. Phillips always said that the “Long Memory” is something we can’t afford to let go of. And so he preserved history in song, and talked about Korea almost everywhere he went.
Can you talk about the “Long Memory” in the U.S., versus the long memory in Korea, and maybe Japan? How could this concept be helpful [especially to Americans and other western foreigners] for understanding Korean history and current Korea/US/Japan relations?
TS: Well, you have this history that shapes and informs the decisions being made today. The Japanese Prime Minister’s grandfather was a war criminal in Manchuria, who fought against Kim Il-Sung, who was Kim Jong-Un’s grandfather. And this whole historical legacy here—that’s never even mentioned in the U.S. press.
Like I said before, Americans and the press as a whole seem to view the U.S. as some kind of innocent bystander when it comes to Korea. In terms of history, there’s no long memory of how the United States obliterated North Korea in the bombings during The Korean War. Or how people in Korea remember that. Very little is written in the mainstream press about the roles that the U.S. has played in places and events like the Jeju Uprising in 1948, or the Gwangju Uprising in 1980—which I’ve written a lot about--where the U.S. decided to side with a military dictator instead of the people who fought the dictatorship.
SM: The U.S. decided to?
TS: The U.S. did, yes. And there’s no acknowledgment of this. It’s like short-term memory. It’s like the only thing they ever remember is last week’s missile testing, and this idea that somehow the North Korean government and Kim Jong-Un are a bunch of crazy people—an unpredictable regime—when actually the U.S. government can usually predict what they’re going to do. It’s very clear what they want, why they’re building nuclear weapons.
There’s a history of this conflict between the U.S. and North Korea which no one seems to delve into. The U.S. line is accepted almost totally and uncritically by most of the U.S. press. I mean, how about the agreements between North Korea and the U.S. in the 1990s? We have to remember that they [NK] froze their nuclear program for eight years under an agreed framework. The United States always says North Korea breaks the agreements, but the U.S. broke that agreement.
TS: When Congress intervened, in the late 90s. So there’s no acknowledgment of any of this history, you know, not even the last ten years. It’s just as if this all just crisis happened in the last couple of weeks or something.
SM: In the current framework, what is the significance of the escalated U.S. war games preparations?
TS: Well, they’ve been doing this for years. The significance now is that they’re practicing, you know, regime change, “decapitation” strikes. And last time, during one of the exercises, they sent in Seal Team 6 here to participate in these exercises—the same team that killed Osama Bin Laden. They’re doing run-throughs, they’re doing practice-runs of toppling the North Korean regime, killing its leadership, and doing first strikes on their nuclear facilities. And so of course when the North Koreans see this their fear is ratcheted up. They see these carrier groups, of nuclear submarines. And it’s not a game. It’s seen as a direct threat.
SM: Is there a way out of this escalation “game”?
TS: I believe there is a way out. And I think the South Korean government now believes it too. The way out is through dialogue and interaction with North Korea. Not just the North Korean government, but the North Korean people. I mean, if the North Koreans are going to change their thinking in any way, they’ve got to be meeting people from the outside and having dialogue. Talking with them, engaging with them is the way to do it, rather than just pure military.
And, you know, it hasn’t been a one-sided thing. For the last 8 years in the U.S., before Trump, basically the idea was that North Korea was going to fade away somehow. Eventually, it would just go away, and collapse from its own inertia.
It’s not going to collapse. It’s a very strong regime. Even though it’s a dictatorial regime, it still has popular support there and it’s not going to collapse anytime soon. So going on that precept is ridiculous. It’s a prescription for failure, which is what we have right now.
SM: It seems that Moon Jae-In really believes unification is not only possible, but could be a reality in his lifetime. Shortly before he was elected, Moon—who grew up the child of North Korean refugee parents— told the press that one of his dreams is to be able to take his mother to see her hometown in North Korea before she passes away. And he went even further, saying that in the future, unified Korea, he hopes one day to live with his mother north of the DMZ, and volunteer his services in his later days.
SM: Now, here’s someone who talked openly on the campaign trail about wanting to one day live in North Korea with his mother. And suddenly he is President of South Korea. As a journalist who has been deeply involved in social justice movements in Korea, when you hear that—what is your response? Is Moon being realistic? Is this a pipe dream?
TS: I think what he’s talking about seems realistic.
SM: Is reunification possible?
TS: Well, I think that some form of it is possible. Unification is a dream people have, but there are different concepts of what it means. I think we should take seriously the idea that Kim Dae-Jung formulated many years ago along with Kim Il-Sung and the North Koreans—which was some kind of confederation. It’s a scenario that would require de-escalation, of course, in the military tensions. But you’d have some kind of federation where you started doing things jointly. And attempts have been made to head this direction. For example, at one point they did have a single Olympic team. That’s no longer happening. The idea is that you would have efforts where you’re acting as one nation and you could have kind of a federation where you slowly build economic and social ties, and move toward integration over a period of time. But I don’t think anyone thinks there can be some sort of sudden unification.
I think that the U.S. idea is that, yes, it will be unified—but under U.S. control. U.S. control of the Korean conservatives here in South Korea.
But I think eventually this confederation idea could happen. I think it’s possible. As a starting point, you could have much more of the kind of economic exchanges that Moon Jae-In is talking about, in medical teams, cultural exchanges, sports exchanges, and things of that nature.
SM: So you see the path to reunification running more through economics and culture, rather than military?
SM: Do you see a peaceful reunification as possible with a U.S. military presence in the South?
TS: Well, that’s a hard question to answer. But yeah, I do think so. I mean, if there’s going to be an eventual peace agreement to end the Korean War, which there should be at some point—it’s still an armistice—there will have to be a grand negotiation about a lot of issues. And one of those issues—they talked about this years ago, when the chief of staff of the North Korean army came to visit the White House—is eventual U.S. troop withdrawal. But all these things are subject to negotiation. Subject to negotiation with China. Subject to negotiation in North and South Korea and the United States.
But, I think the U.S. will have to give up its policy of nuclear strikes. It will have to stop this pattern of publicly planning for attacks on North Korea, and it will have to stop always making North Korea the enemy. It will take a different kind of thinking to resolve this.
SM: The Korean War, in the U.S. Whenever it’s covered at all in schools it’s usually just a few lines. And often it’s called “The Forgotten War.”
SM: And so, we were just talking before this interview about the irony of there being massive and passionate debates and fights about the history and saving history right now in the U.S. And many of those arguments are being used by right-wing extremists to defend keeping Confederate icons in place, supposedly to preserve history and culture.
TS: In the U.S., right.
SM: And yet the U.S. cultural memory seems to be almost zero about The Korean War. Why is it a “forgotten war” for most U.S. citizens?
TS: Well, it’s a “forgotten war” because the U.S. lost—we lost.
It was a draw. Nobody won.
A couple years ago, Obama called it a great victory for the United States. He was the first president to ever say that. Nobody said that previously. That used to be a right-wing line of thinking, that the U.S. won the Korean War.
But it was a draw. Nobody won. The Korean people lost. The border stayed the same. And so I think the U.S. wants to forget it because we lost. Tens of thousands of American soldiers died in that war. It was a terrible, terrible war. And 3 to 5 million Korean people died in that war, including probably 3 million killed by U.S. bombs in North Korea.
We don’t have a glorious story to share about Korea. The history of that terrible U.S. bombing is something that you almost never read about in the United States’ press. Very rarely, every once in a while, someone will write something, reflecting on it. But, it’s something that’s certainly never taught in schools.
For example, if you go to Washington and visit The Korean War Monument, what do you see? Basically it’s a bunch of American soldiers walking through a green field. And when I see that, I see in the distance a thatched roof house on fire. And people shooting flamethrowers inside. And people running out with their bodies on fire. And they’re farmers, you know. Because that’s how a lot of the war was fought.
The ferocity and the horrors of that war are hidden under this idea, this kind of “forgotten war.” But I think, mainly, it’s [not talked about] because it was a stalemate.
SM: No winners.
TS: You know, the U.S. said, we’re gonna roll back communism. And they went and invaded North Korea. The Chinese came in. And there were terrible losses suffered by the U.S. Marines there. And so there’s no triumph in that. The only war we can really talk about that we won decisively was World War II.
SM: And the story of U.S. sacrifice and bravery in World War II dominates our collective narrative.
Now that Trump is in office, has the U.S. approach and policy towards North Korea changed significantly from what it was in past administrations?
TS: I think it’s more of the same. However, this ratcheting up of the military in the last few months has made it a much more dangerous situation. Also, this loose talk of pre-emptive strikes and this kind of thing has greatly alarmed North Koreans. They’ve said they’re going to respond. It’s really raised the tensions in ways that didn’t happen during Obama’s administration.
But the basic policy is still the same. They’re still not talking directly to them.
SM: That’s what I was wondering. Is the current policy toward North Korea more Republican or Democrat, or is it just the standard—
TS: It’s the national security policy for both parties. I did an article before the U.S. election last year, about Hillary Clinton’s North Korea policy. Basically, her advisors were calling for pre-emptive strikes. She was calling for something similar to the policy Trump is following now. So if Hillary Clinton had won, I don’t think the situation would be much different at all. In fact, some of the same people would be in place. So, I don’t think it’s changed much.
It’s the fundamental nature of American policy that’s got to change. In Washington, there has to be a move toward engagement, toward really resolving the Korean War and the roots of this crisis—which, you know, go way back. Until we deal with that, there’s going to be this continuation of tension and crisis, month after month, year after year.
SM: Meanwhile, to circle back to the U.S. media question: in recent weeks two polls came out, and we saw the percentage of polled U.S. people who said that we should bomb or be aggressive with North Korea, and then we saw—
TS: They couldn’t find it on the map.
SM: Yeah, we saw it lined up with another stunning statistic. In general those who could find North Korea on a map didn’t want to bomb it.
TS: Yeah, and those who could didn’t want to attack it.
SM: And something that maybe shouldn’t have been surprising but still shocked me: that was more or less a bipartisan pattern. Democrats and Republicans who couldn’t find it generally wanted to bomb it. You know?
TS: Yeah. It’s just pathetic. It just goes to show you that the propaganda works.
PART 3: FROM THE DONGHAK REBELLION TO GWANGHWAMUN SQUARE: ROOTS OF DEMOCRACY, MEMORY & THE POWER OF SONG
SM: I’d like to ask you a little more about your thoughts on the connection between old or radical movements and what’s going on today in Korea. For example, the Donghak Peasant Revolt—this is going back even further in the “long memory” that we discussed before. When I was in Gwangju last year I noticed that one of the memorials to the student radical printing press—
was named after “Nokdu Janggun” or the green-bean general Jeon Bongjun. The “Nokdu Bookstore.”
TS: Yes! That was in the Archives.
SM: So even that name, used by a student-led press in the Gwangju Uprising, is a direct reference to a famous and much older movement—the Donghak Uprising. And another example of the “long memory”: Nan Young and I were in Gwanghwamun this past Spring and Winter, and when one farmer labor leader spoke, his speech was a list of demands that was directly placed in a lineage of struggle, openly referencing Donghak Rebellion history—
SM: So he was connecting the Donghak struggle to the Candlelight Movement, to this historical moment. And not only that, but the famous Gwangju memorial song was often sung in Gwanghwamun at the rallies. It seemed in many speeches that the people in Gwanghwamun saw the Candlelight Demonstrations as directly connected to the past struggles, an outgrowth or fruition of the unfinished aims of past movements—this concept of the Korean move toward justice that spans generations. You know, the fight that’s evolving, and everything built on the past. I’d like to hear your thoughts on that. What do you see here? What is the significance of Gwanghwamun as it connects to Gwangju? How does it connect to older, historical struggles?
TS: Well, I mean I think it’s just a continuum of what began in the late 50s, and 1960, for starters. It’s a continuum. Like you said, people understand the roots, the historical roots of rebellion here, anti-government rebellion against the authoritarian government. And it goes way back, especially in a place like Gwangju that’s been a historical center of rebellion against central governments. I mean, that’s where the March 1st Movement began, in Gwangju, against Japanese colonialism. And so, there’s this sense of history here.
When I interviewed Moon Jae-In two days before the election, he referred to that. I asked him, what do you think the significance [of the Candlelight Movement, Park Geun-Hye’s impeachment, and the election] should be for Americans? And in his answer he shared about this historical continuum. He talked about the line from 4.19, 1960, going to the October Busan/Masan Uprising in 1979—which he participated in as a student—to Gwangju, to 1987 democratic, the final democratic push here, through the Candlelight Revolution.
All these things are seen as part of a continuum by I think a majority of the people here. And so they see this long line of two steps forward, one step back, and sometimes two steps back. But [always] it’s moving forward. And that’s what the Candlelight Revolution was about. You know, it’s continuing this democratic tradition and making Korea more democratic. It’s still got long ways to go, just like we do. But they’ve gone a hell of a long way.
Korea’s come a hell of a long way. And Koreans haven’t forgotten how hard they’ve had to fight, and how much they’ve suffered, for each democratic victory.
SM: Many people in Korea feel that you have contributed to this long movement. Some of your research has proven very significant in unearthing the shameful role played by the U.S. behind-the-scenes in the Gwangju Massacre, led by Chun Doo Hwan. Can you explain the significance of the “Cherokee Files”?
TS: Well, the Cherokee Files are one segment of about 4000 documents I got declassified. The Cherokee documents were documents on what they called the South Korean crisis, from the time of Park Chung Hee’s assassination basically through the end of 1980—through the December 12th coup (“12/12”) within the military, and the declaration of martial law on May 17th, 1980, and the Gwangju Uprising, and on through the period after that when the U.S. basically endorsed Chun for president.
And the Cherokee Files were just a subset, and these were the files, these were the documents. They include cables—communications between 6 or 7 officials within the U.S. government who dealt most closely with South Korea. It was a secret channel, involving people at The White House, people like Ambassador Gleysteen here, and then-U.S. General Whickam, and Robert Brewster who was the CIA station chief, and a few people at the Pentagon. Some of these Cherokee documents, they said things and then a message would be sent to Gleysteen in Korea and he was number 6 of the 7 people who read it. So it was a very closed, very secret channel. But they aren’t the majority of the files. There are maybe 300 or 400 Cherokee files among the larger set of files. So it’s just a segment, not all of them are the Cherokee files.
SM: I see.
TS: They are part of what were the most secret communications at that time. And also “Cherokee”—they sometimes use “Cherokee” in other countries for other situations, for high-level communications, in both intelligence and diplomatic discussions.
SM: I’ve heard that it’s a common practice in foreign wars to refer to the enemy or the land that you’re attacking as “Indians” and “Indian Territory.” Or “Indian Country.” And I was curious about that.
TS: I guess so. You know, somebody from the JTBC TV brought it up in a recent program. He played this song sung by Cherokees—Amazing Grace. Then he asked the Korean people to think about the historical and social significance of using the name “Cherokee” for files that show U.S. support for a Korean dictatorship rather than the people struggling in Gwangju for democracy. And I think that’s very profound.
SM: What are the implications there, in your opinion?
TS: Well, I don’t know. I don’t really know the origins of how they started using this word. But basically, in Gwangju the Korean military treated the Gwangju people like enemies. Many of the Korean generals that were responsible for Gwangju served with the U.S. in Vietnam. And in Vietnam they treated the Vietnamese like enemy people. They’re responsible for a lot of atrocities, and they treated the Gwangju people just like they treated the Vietnamese people— like enemies to be defeated. But they were their own citizens. So I think it’s that kind of mentality, you know, carried through generations of American wars, you know—
SM: Including “Indian Wars”, right?
TS: Including Indian wars. The first so-called counterinsurgencies in the U.S. were planned military campaigns against the Indians. Using military force, evacuating them, clearing them out, putting them in camps, literally herding the Indians into special territories, and using social programs to try to buy them off, just like they tried to do in Vietnam. And like they’ve done during many of our wars.
SM: Like the plot to assassinate Osama Bin Laden. During the operations the code name for Bin Laden was Geronimo, one of the most famous Native American chiefs who maintained a sustained and legendary resistance against the U.S. colonial forces in North America.
TS: They use these [kinds of names] a lot. Like helicopters, Kiowa, Apaches. They use these names a lot. And you know, they seem to think that it gives them some kind of an imprimatur of glory to American weapons. But they’re really using names borrowed from people that they slaughtered, in the Great Plains and other parts of the United States. And that whole history is also buried in America.
SM: You’ve been working in Gwangju, but you’re heading back to the U.S. now. What’s next?
TS: I don’t know. What’s next for me? I mean I’m going to keep writing and doing what I do. I’ll keep writing about Korea. I’m going to continue to look into getting documents and investigating what really happened in Gwangju. And of course, Moon Jae-In said on May 18th that the Korean government’s going to investigate who is responsible for the bloodshed in Gwangju, and the massacre there. And to do that, they’re going to have to get documents from the United States. I’m working already with the Gwangju 5.18 archives, and the city government, which I was working for this year. They may want to help the central government here with those kinds of requests. Because there are some documents, I think, that they are going to have to get from the United States.
So I hope to be able to at least identify what they should ask for. Because there are certainly going to be clues and evidence—in, say, for example, communications between the U.S. generals here with the Korean coup plotters and coup leaders, the people who led the initial assault on Gwangju. And then there’s the later, you know, takeover, and crushing the Uprising.
I’m a journalist. I’ll keep on writing about privatized intelligence and American foreign policy. And I hope to be back in Korea sometime soon.
SM: Were you the only independent western journalist Moon Jae-In granted an interview in the final week [of the presidential campaign]?
TS: I guess so.
SM: That’s a great honor. Why did he grant the interview to you?
TS: He was familiar with my reporting in Gwangju. He actually thanked me for my reporting. I was very honored to hear someone say that, of his stature. I was incredibly honored that he would say that to me.
But you know, he lived through this period. He was familiar with what happened, with what the U.S. role was. In fact, the interview was set up by somebody who had worked on his campaign who was actually from Gwangju, and who helped him get familiar with my work. And I think he wanted, you know, he wanted to meet with me. I mean he chose to do the interview. He did also interview with Anna Fitfield of the Washington Post about a week before he talked to me. And he also spoke to Time Magazine, I believe. But you know, obviously they made a decision that they’d like to have someone who really understood Korea and its democratic past to talk to the president. And he made a bid.
The longest part of the interview was when he talked about this continuum, this history. He presented the Candlelight Revolution as being part of this long, historical struggle for justice in Korea. Not the final conclusion of all the struggles, but the result of all these years of the democratic movement. And it’s different—but it’s part of that. So I think they clearly wanted to talk to someone who understood that. And I think he knew I understood that.
SM: It’s a testament to your work for decades now.
TS: I’d like to think so. You know, I really appreciated that honor.
SM: Well, thank you.
TS: You’re welcome.
SM: And tying it back into a song, since we just started with a jam session:
One of the first things that Moon Jae-In did in office, was to make it required for officials to sing the March of the Beloved—the famous song commemorating the martyrs in Gwangju. Can you tell me a little bit about what that means? And why would officials resist singing it?
TS: Well, you know basically, the conservative government and right-wingers here are trying to undermine Gwangju however they can, because it’s the only incident in South Korea’s history after the Korean War where people took up guns against the military. And so they want to discredit the Gwangju Uprising. They want to discredit the Gwangju Movement as much as they can. And so they said this song was pro-North Korea, pro-Kim Il-Sung, which is hogwash and bullshit.
And the government told officials not to sing it. So, you know, like when I was down there, I saw Moon Jae-In, before that talk at the cemetery, where he joined in with the song. I saw him twice at rallies at Gwangju where people sang it. People of Gwangju sing this song very proudly, loudly and often. And he sang it both times at the rallies I saw, with his fist raised, like everybody else.
SM: What is the significance of this moment? Of the new president singing that song, with his fist raised?
TS: Very significant! It’s a huge break from these right-winger governments we’ve had here, that the Korean people have had to suffer through. It’s an act of reconciliation is what it is. It’s embracing the Gwangju Uprising as part of South Korea’s democratic history, and making it a permanent part of history. That’s why it was so important. It’s very significant that he did that. And the reaction in Gwangju was just joy and relief! After that ceremony so many people were crying and weeping. Because it meant so much to have a leader of the country—the president of the country—give them this recognition. He was officially recognizing the sacrifice that they made for democracy. For this republic of Korea.
During the Gwangju Uprising, the citizens in the uprising raised the Korean flag— the flag I see flying out there [looking out hotel window].
SM: The national flag.
TS: They were fighting for South Korea. That’s what they were fighting for—South Korean democracy. And all the caskets there had Korean flags draped over them. So the survivors of Gwangju who fought the government see themselves as part of the South Korean nation. And he is embracing them. And making them and their struggle a permanent part of the [South Korean] nation, and that’s extremely significant. And I think that it’s going to have a lasting contribution.
Tim Shorrock is an independent American investigative journalist who grew up in post-war Korea and Japan and has covered human rights struggles in East Asia for decades. He writes regularly for US publications such as The Nation, Mother Jones, and Washington Post, and is often featured on Democracy Now!. He has interviewed many workers, activists and high profile figures in Korea over the years, including president Kim Dae-Jung and, most recently, Moon Jae-In just days before he was elected president. Shorrock currently writes a regular column for Newstapa, as an international voice on Korea/US relations.
Shorrock was made an honorary citizen of Gwangju for his academic and journalistic contributions to the citizens' struggle for truth and justice after the 1980 massacre—most notably for proving US complicity with the South Korean government in the murder of Gwangju civilians, by uncovering and sharing the "Cherokee Files" with the world.
His most recent book is Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing. In addition to journalism and activism, Shorrock is a folk and roots musician in the US, where he leads a band called Leaky Lou and The Whistleblowers.