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US military commander in S. Korea during Gwangju uprising dies

May 19, 2024 - 10:52 By Yonhap
US Army Gen. John Adams Wickham Jr., also former commander of the South Korea-US Combined Forces Command (CJ Entertainment)

Gen. John Adams Wickham Jr., the US military commander in South Korea during the 1980 pro-democracy uprising in Gwangju, has passed away at age 95., a US website providing obituaries and memorials, noted on Friday that Wickham had died on May 11 in Oro Valley, Arizona.

Wickham was the commander of the South Korea-US Combined Forces Command from 1979 to 1983, a particularly tumultuous period in South Korea.

During Wickham's time here, a military coup led by future President Chun Doo-hwan occurred on Dec. 12, 1979. Then on May 18, 1980, demonstrators in the southwestern city of Gwangju took to the streets to protest against Chun's junta.

Amid a bloody crackdown by the South Korean military, Wickham consented to the deployment of the South Korean 20th Army Division in Gwangju in May 1980. In an interview with Yonhap News Agency in 1996, Wickham said his responsibility was to defend South Korea from outside attacks, not to maintain law and order in the country, and added he approved a legitimate request by the South Korean military at the time.

In his 1999 book "Korea on the Brink," detailing his time in South Korea, Wickham wrote that he had told Defense Secretary Harold Brown that the US "must recognize the reality of control by Chun and his associates" and that Washington was "in no position to unhorse Chun and his group."

"While we can work with Chun in shaping political development that is minimally acceptable to the United States, we must recognize the limitations on our leverage and therefore resist adopting actions, which could jeopardize fundamental US security interests in the ROK," Wickham wrote, referring to South Korea by its official name, the Republic of Korea.

"We of course know that it is in the US interest to maintain peace and stability in the region, hence we must continue to improve our combined military capability in the face of a North Korean threat, which is growing qualitatively," Wickham continued. "War must be deterred. As a consequence, our leverage with Chun and his group must be largely in areas other than the military."

Wickham walked back some of his comments in 2007, prior to the release of a South Korean film based on the Gwangju uprising, titled "May 18." He sent an email to the film's distributor, CJ Entertainment, claiming that the Chun junta had not informed the US of the use of military force in Gwangju at the time, and that Wickham himself raised issues with high-ranking South Korean officers immediately after he found out.

Wickham, appointed the chief of staff of the US Army in 1983, retired in 1987. He is survived by his wife, Ann Prior Wickham. (Yonhap)