Reading the Egyptian Revolution Through the Lens of US Policy in South Korea, 1980

Since early 2011, major peoples’ revolutions have swept through North Africa and the Middle East. Most recently, the revolts engulfed Syria and Libya, leading to enormous violence in both countries and a NATO-led bombing campaign in the latter. By far the most important to the United States was the uprising in Egypt, where the military took advantage of a popular insurrection to stage a coup against Hosni Mubarak, a 30-year U.S. ally whose military forces and intelligence services had – and continue to have – extremely close ties to Washington. In August, Mubarak will face trial for corruption and murdering protesters during the uprising that engulfed Cairo’s Tahrir Square for 18 days in January. He could face the death penalty if convicted.

As the mass and social media beamed the so-called “Arab Spring” around the world, analysts and pundits in the United States quickly began comparing the revolts to past uprisings, particularly those during the Cold War, which had shaken U.S. foreign policy. A favorite topic, particularly on Fox News, was Egypt’s purported similarity to the Iranian revolution of 1979, which toppled the pro-US Shah of Iran and eventually led to a Shiite Islamic state hostile to the United States. A few opportunistic neocon voices also compared the Obama administration’s public support for Mubarak’s opponents to Washington’s past actions to pressure Ferdinand Marcos and Suharto to end their dictatorial rule in the Philippines and Indonesia once popular uprisings had already sealed their fate.

But not a single analyst or journalist of note mentioned what remains one of the most significant rebellions against a US-backed tyrant of the past half-century: the student and worker uprising in South Korea in 1979 and 1980, which was mercilessly crushed by the Korean military with the US support. Korea didn’t even make the list of near-revolutions: in mid-February, PBS published a list of “30 Years of Uprisings” that had “brought down governments and transformed societies” or were either “dissipated” or  “crushed.” The list included Iran, the Philippines, the Baltics, China’s Tiananmen Square, the 1997 Kosovo Rebellion against Serbia and the 1998 Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela – but unaccountably skipped South Korea as well as  Taiwan.

The deletion is perplexing. The South Korean democratic uprising of the 1980s was a transforming event in Korean history. It began with the assassination of dictator Park Chung Hee in October 1979 at the hand of his own CIA director, and culminated in an armed peoples’ uprising in May 1980 in the city of Kwangju against the reimposition of military rule by Lt. General Chun Doo Hwan, who put down the rebellion with great force. With Kwangju as its symbol, the uprising climaxed seven years later (1987) in a national revolt that, like Egypt’s, brought millions of ordinary citizens into the streets and forced the military to finally relinquish power. In the end, the Korean citizens’  movement created one of the most vibrant democracies in East Asia and changed the dynamics of the Cold War in Asia by giving voice to a democratic opposition that called for peace and the end of hostility toward North Korea.

The South Korean experience was also a textbook example of how a US administration deals with the toppling of a dictator who has long been friendly and subordinate to US economic and security interests, and how it handles the delicate task of ostensibly supporting “democracy” while taking steps, publicly and covertly, to maintain the essential elements of a system protective of US interests. The United States played a central role in Kwangju by granting permission to Chun to deploy a Korean Army division from the Joint U.S.-South Korean Command to Kwangju to crush the rebellion.

The Carter administration’s strategy as it responded to the Korean events first came to light in a trove of 4,000 declassified documents I obtained over a period of years in the 1990s under the Freedom of Information Act. I released those documents in 1996 and wrote about them in the Journal of Commerce, the daily newspaper where I once worked, and the Korean weekly Sisa Journal.

Those papers, some of which were further declassified in 2005 with the help of the National Security Archive in Washington, provide a perfect lens to illuminate how the Obama administration may have responded to the events in Egypt this year.

Egypt, Like South Korea, A cornerstone for US Policy

Let’s begin this analysis by retracing the recent events in Egypt and its peculiar relationship with the United States. Egypt has long been a cornerstone of US strategy in the Middle East.

Long regarded as the most influential nation in the Middle East, its 1979 peace treaty with Israel made it a major military ally of the United States. From 2001 it would become a major prop in the “global war on terror.” Most of its generals and senior officers were trained at US institutions such as the National Defense University and the Army’s Command and General Staff College. (The curriculum of the latter, according to the Associated Press, includes “instruction in human rights, the principle of civilian control of the military, the US Constitution and other elements of democracy.”) Like South Korea from 1961 to 1987, every Egyptian president since the 1950s has emerged from its military. It currently receives about $1.3 billion per year in US military aid, second only to Israel, and the Pentagon has some 625 personnel stationed in the country to assure peace along the border with Israel and to coordinate weapons sales from General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin and other US weapons suppliers.

Throughout the crisis of January and February 2010, these military relationships were the paramount driving force in US-Egyptian relations. When the peoples’ uprisings in Cairo’s Tahir Square reached a climax on January 26, the Egyptian High Command, led by Lt. Gen. Sami Hafez Enan, the chief of staff of the Armed Forces, was in Washington meeting with US counterparts at the Pentagon; the visit was cut short as the Egyptian Army began taking up positions in Cairo. While denying formal discussions of the unfolding events, Pentagon officials made clear they had broached the subject several times. As Gen. James Cartright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for example, told theNew York Times it was hard to ignore the televised footage from Egypt – and therefore he could not discount “hallway” conversations between Egyptian and US commanders.

As the street protests and confrontations with Mubarak supporters intensified over the following week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen held regular, sometimes daily, telephone meetings with the Egyptian generals. Off the record, they argued (according to the APthat these close ties helped the Egyptian military “keep its soldiers from attacking protestors seeking to topple” Mubarak.

On February 11, clearly under orders from the military, Mubarak finally called it quits, stepped aside and handed executive power to his appointed vice president (and intelligence chief), Gen. Omar Suleiman. Egypt ever since has been under direct military rule, and a period of relative calm has set in while the restive population prepares for Mubarak’s trial and elections later this year. Many of President Obama’s public comments, such as his February 12 appeal to the Egyptian Army’s “restraint and professionalism” further solidified Washington’s ties with the military in a time of turmoil. Yet the situation was far from settled. Even as Mubarak was fleeing Cairo in the early days of the revolt, the Egyptian army was warning workers and newly formed independent unions against work stoppages in a bid to end the biggest wave of strikes in the country’s history, ranging from state-owned textile mills to the public sector to the Suez Canal. In February, the Army used force for the first time to stop a demonstration in Tahir Square. Over the spring, with the state of emergency still in effect, Army police arrested thousands of people for taking part in illegal demonstrations and began trying them before military courts. Many protesters claim to have been tortured, with some female activists subjected to “virginity tests” and other humiliations, according to press reports (See especially “Once the Darling of Egypt’s Revolt, the military is under Scrutiny,” New York Times, April 9, 2011). Much of the public anger was directed against Army Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, a former ally of Mubarak who heads the military’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

On the other hand, that council has moved decisively to shift the balance of power away from the cronies of the past to the democrats of the present. Many observers agree that it is slowly moving to create an environment for the eventual transition to  a civilian democratic system. And activists continue to use that space to press the military to reform Egypt’s security forces, limit executive power and make moves to improve the economic situation for the majority of Egyptians. And in keeping with the popular will, the military is studying the possibility of normalizing relations with Iran, re-evaluatin Egypt’s complicated relationship with Israel, and more overtly supporting the cause of Palestinian rights and independence. (see “Egypt’s Evolving Foreign Policy,” Foreign Policy in Focus).

The situation nevertheless remains precarious. In July, Tahrir Square remains the scene of daily demonstrations and occupations organized by groups demanding the swift prosecution of former Mubarak officials. Anger is particularly strong towards security officials responsible for the more than 850 protesters killed by security forces during the February storm. In the summer of 2011, Egypt may be at the dawn of a new, democratic age – or amidst the calm before a major political storm.

So far, apart from the disclosure of US diplomatic cables on Field Marshal Tantawi and other figures dating back to pre-revolutionary times, neither WikiLeaks nor the media have disclosed the behind-the-scenes dealing between the Obama administration, the Pentagon and US intelligence and their counterparts in the Egyptian military and security apparatus. That will fall to future historians and enterprising journalists. But we have a possible model for what could be happening in my FOIA documents on South Korea, which portray US decision-making at the highest level of government and the military at a similar crossroad in the Korean democratic upsurge of 1979 and 1980.

In addition to President Carter, the key players in the drama were the late Richard Holbrooke, then Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser. I’ll begin the narrative with a recap of the Korean events; but first, some observations about the comparison.

Obviously South Korea and Egypt today share little in common in their demographics and history. One is an East Asian economic powerhouse; the other the largest country in the Arab world. But there are similarities. Both have histories of colonial rule: South Korea (prior to the country’s division) by Japan, and Egypt by France and Britain. Both have powerful military establishments that were battle-hardened from confrontations with strong adversaries – North Korea and Israel. For decades, their respective militaries ruled the nation, and both maintained close ties with the Pentagon, relationships that run deep at all levels, from the high command to their special forces. There was one big difference, however. Unlike Egypt, South Korea’s military was hardened by fighting on the US side, first in the US-Korea War, then in the US-Indochina Wars. But above all, there is a unique command structure. Since 1978, South Korean forces are commanded by a U.S. general with a South Korean as deputy commander, making the ROK the only country in the world in which a foreign general holds such a position.

The command structure explained by US Forces Korea

And, as in all revolutions, there are strong commonalities. In both cases, the sparks were years of brutal police state tactics, labor repression an economic downturn that hurt and enraged the working class. That is the context for understanding South Korea’s upsurge in 1979 and 1980.


By the fall of 1979, Park Chung Hee, a general who was trained in the Imperial Japanese Army, had ruled South Korea with an iron hand for 18 years. Although the country’s export-oriented industrial economy had made huge leaps during those years, government decisions to invest in heavy industry, such as steel and shipbuilding, had led to overcapacity at a time when the world economy was slowing down as a result of the Arab oil embargo. In the late 1970s, runaway inflation bit deep into workers' meager wages, sparking a rise in labor unrest.

Park’s “Yushin,” or “revitalizing,” constitution, unilaterally imposed in 1972, allowed Park to rule the country virtually by decree. But with the growth of the industrial labor force and student population, mounting organized opposition challenged the dictatorship. Dissidents were routinely arrested and tortured. By 1978, students, intellectuals and Christians were pressing for a more open political system including direct elections for president. Meanwhile, the oppressive conditions in the low-wage shoe, garment and textile industries led workers to secretly organize unions. As Park's secret police broke up their meetings and arrested and brutalized their leaders, frustration mounted.

In August 1979, tensions reached a boiling point when a group of female garment workers organized a sit-in at the offices of the opposition New Democratic Party headed by Kim Young Sam.  After two weeks of tense negotiation, Park ordered riot police to storm the building. Protesting workers and lawmakers were brutally beaten, and one young woman worker was killed, reportedly after being thrown out of a window. Afterward, an agitated Kim Young Sam, in an interview with the New York Times, denounced Park and called on the United States to cut off all ties with the dictator. A few days later, Kim was expelled from the National Assembly. William Gleysteen, the US ambassador, was briefly recalled to Washington to protest Kim’s expulsion.

The actions against Kim Young Sam, who later became president, sparked widespread demonstrations in the port city of Pusan, his home town, and the nearby industrial zone at Masan. For the first time, industrial workers joined students in the streets in mass demonstrations. This time, Park sent Army tanks and Special Forces to put down the unrest. In the midst of the turmoil, on October 26, 1979, Park was assassinated by Kim Jae Kyu, the director of the Korean CIA. Kim later explained that he shot the dictator because he feared Park’s brutal tactics would spark a revolution. The military responded to the assassination by extending martial law throughout the country and dispatching troops to occupy Seoul and other large cities. The Carter administration warned North Korea not to intervene and quickly dispatched aircraft carriers and early warning aircraft to the Korean peninsula to back up its threat. These events set the stage for the Korean Crisis of 1979 and 1980.

Establishing the Cherokee Communication Channel

For Carter and his national security team, South Korea was one piece in a global crisis triggered by the Iranian revolution of 1978 and the collapse of the Shah, America’s key ally in the Middle East. Just two months before Park was assassinated, Iranian radicals had seized the U.S. Embassy in Teheran, sparking the hostage crisis that haunted the administration until, literally, Carter’s last hours in office. Tensions were simultaneously high with the Soviet Union, which had invaded Afghanistan in December 1979.

Carter’s increasingly hard line was also reflected in South Korea. In June 1979, the president came to Seoul to strengthen U.S.-South Korean military ties. Carter formally announced cancellation of his campaign pledge to pull all U.S. ground forces out of South Korea. Just one week before Park’s assassination, and in the midst of wide-spread unrest in Pusan and nearby Masan, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown was in Seoul meeting with Park’s top generals and unveiling a plan to sell South Korea 36 F-16 fighter jets, deploy new squadrons of A-10 bombers and transfer two artillery battalions to augment U.S. Army helicopter units. The moves, the pro-government Korea Herald reported, would “reinforce deterrence against aggression by North Korea” and “provide tangible evidence of the United States’ steadfastness and resolve.” 

But Park’s death and the ensuing political chaos in Seoul disrupted the administration’s carefully laid plans. In the months following the assassination, tensions erupted between the martial law authorities in the ROK Army and the democratic opposition. It was led by Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung, the symbolic leader of the dissidents who had recently been freed from house arrest. The dissidents and their supporters among Koreans in the United States saw Park’s death as a golden opportunity to push for the complete dismantling of Park’s hated dictatorial system and a return to electoral politics (in the last presidential election, in 1971, Kim Dae Jung narrowly lost to Park and was nearly killed in an automobile accident that most Koreans assumed was planned by the KCIA. Later, he was kidnapped from his hotel in Tokyo and almost executed at sea before the United States, through the CIA, intervened to keep him alive).

The growing unrest alarmed the Carter administration, which feared that a political confrontation between the generals and the rising opposition could undermine the military alliance with Seoul and spark another regional crisis for the United States. In this context Carter and his national security advisers created a tight circle of experts to monitor and influence the situation in South Korea. Their classified communications channel was code-named Cherokee. Many of the cables I had declassified were part of this channel and became the basis for my 1996 reporting. A few years ago, I succeeded in further declassifying a dozen more of the Cherokee cables, and I report on them here for the first time.

The secret channel was established by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance on November 6, 1979, about two weeks after Park’s assassination. The text reads as follows: [passages in square brackets are my explanations]:

  1. Secret, Entire Text
  2. In order to assure candid high-level exchange of information and recommendations on evolving ROK political situation and how USG can best encourage positive outcome, we are establishing a privacy series with this message.
  3. Direct Washington distribution will be controlled by S[ecretary of State] and will include only S[ecretary Vance], D[eputy Secretary Warren Christopher] and EA [East Asia – Holbrooke]. In turn, EA will hand carry to NSC [National Security Council, where the intelligence liaison was Donald Gregg, the former CIA Chief of Station in Seoul] and will, as necessary, inform other key officials.
  4. Embassy [in Seoul] should not use this channel for normal reporting of events, but only for those messages requiring unusual sensitivity in handling.
  5. In order to distinguish from other NODIS [no distribution – one of the highest classifications possible] traffic on Korea, messages in this privacy series should be slugged NODIS CHEROKEE and begin subject line with the two words “Korea Focus.”

With that, the Carter administration began a series of diplomatic cables that became, after they were declassified under FOIA, my own private WikiLeaks of sorts long before the term Wiki was invented or the Internet existed. Many of them were written from Seoul by U.S. Ambassador William H. Gleysteen, a veteran diplomat who grew up in China as the child of missionaries and served in the Ford Administration as Deputy Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

Gleysteen, who passed away in 2002, granted me two long interviews in 1996. From the first day of the crisis, he told me, Korea policy was handled by a small group of officials from the White House and State Department. In addition, the CIA and the Pentagon were “brought in at high levels.” The secrecy, “a normal proclivity in a crisis,” was necessary to deal with the complex military, economic and political issues at stake in Korea, he explained. One can imagine a similar network of officials today, under the leadership of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Obama’s intelligence adviser John Brennan, monitoring – and trying to influence – their military allies in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East.

In a revealing aside, Gleysteen told me that the Korean crisis of 1980 was one of the few times in his career when inter-agency policy ran smoothly. One reason for that, he said, was because both the State and Defense departments had good access to President Carter, who “was following events as a telegram reader.” At the White House, “you just pushed the Korea button and the door opened,” he recalled. Yet, strangely, the events in South Korea and the horror of Kwangju don’t rate a single mention in Carter’s detailed memoir of his presidency, White House Diary – an omission I find disgraceful for a man who continues to position himself – quite rightly – above all by his accomplishments after leaving the Oval Office – as a peacemaker in Korea and a champion of human rights and democracy. 


The first documents of interest in the Cherokee series contain the secret minutes of the first meetings between the Carter foreign policy team (led at first by Cyrus Vance, with Brzezinski playing an essential role) and the Korean government (led by figurehead president Choi Kyu-ha and foreign minister Park Tong-jin) after the Park assassination.

These meetings established what would become firm U.S. policy over the next year: Ambassador Gleysteen led an effort to help the South Korean generals and the (unelected) civilian politicians running the government maintain political “stability” while counseling the opposition movement to “moderate” their demands for open presidential elections and an end to Park’s emergency decrees, and to keep a lid on public protests.

This plan turned out to be chimerical. It was also the height of political arrogance: continuation of the dictatorship without Park, and continued US dominance, was hardly attractive for a well-educated and industrious people who had lived through 18 years of draconian police-state rule and had gained political maturity in the anti-dictatorship movement. Moreover, it was clear to those who crafted the policy that the dissident movement had every right to claim a mandate: as Gleysteen admits in one NODIS cable inMarch 1980, the opposition would “win decisively” if an open, fair election were to be held at that time. Specifically, said Gleysteen: in a cable entitled “Yet another assessment of ROK stability and political development,”

Prevailing opinion is that the NDP [opposition party] would sweep any election conducted in the near future because of a natural reaction to the Yushin period…The NDP’s rather unquestioned advantage is that it would probably win decisively if a popularity contest were conducted in present circumstances, and its great liability is the undisguised distrust of the military leaders (though not necessarily the troops).

The first cable on the post-assassination meetings, “Korea Focus – Secretary’s Discussion with Foreign Minister Park Tong-Jin November 3, 1979,” shows the extent of disarray within the Korean government at the time and underscores how the Korean authorities, from the beginning of the crisis, tried to preserve the status quo while recognizing the deep public dissatisfaction with Park’s rule. And they starkly illustrate South Korea’s complete dependence at the time on U.S. military support and strategic assistance. Consider these comments from the foreign minister, which were excised in the first cable I obtained but included when I asked for further declassification in 2005. Speaking of the South Korean population, Park said (italics are mine):

Their first concern is the maintenance of national security against the North, and then stability at home in politics and economics. Whatever changes may occur in the future, they want to see them made peacefully and in an orderly manner. They see that there are three evils to be avoided:

  • No political reprisals against those who have worked for President Park under the Yushin Constitution and being identified with the previous system. If the opposition forces take over, this danger exists.
  • A military takeover. The Korean people do not want to see this.
  • The previous Yushin system blindly followed and preserved is also something people want to avoid.

How to avoid these is the big question. To help you understand and analyze the situation, Mr. Secretary, let me list a number of influential sectors in our political system:

  • The Armed Forces
  • The forces of the opposition political groups
  • College students and intellectuals

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