The Heroes of Kwangju

Kwangju Diary: Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age

by Lee Jai-eui, translated from the Korean by Kap Su Seol and Nick Mamatas
UCLA Asian Pacific Monograph Series, 172 pp., $14.95 (paper)

The Kwangju Uprising: Eyewitness Press Accounts of Korea’s Tiananmen

edited by Henry Scott-Stokesand Lee Jai-eui, with a foreword by President Kim Dae-jung
M.E. Sharpe, 239 pp., $37.50; $10.95 (paper)

For ten days in May 1980 the capital of South Cholla province in South Korea, Kwangju, was the scene of a bloody uprising. The last full day of the uprising, Monday, May 26, was my own first full day as a reporter in South Korea, and I spent it in and around Kwangju, a city supposedly sealed off from the rest of the world. Why I was allowed in, I still do not know; either I was very lucky in meeting a persuasive and determined taxi driver who wished for personal or political reasons to visit the uprising himself, or I was being used by the secret police in order to insert one of their own observers or operatives. At the time, either explanation seemed possible. I was nervous and distrustful of those around me, and quite unsure how to proceed.

Normally when one arrives in an unfamiliar culture, there is time to learn some basic useful identification skills: What does a policeman look like? A traffic cop? A soldier? How do people gesture when they are angry or impatient? What happens to their voices? One absorbs this kind of information, much of it unconsciously, over days, weeks, and months. But Kwangju, when I stepped out of the car, was not just an alien culture: it was a world turned upside down, and in a panic of uncertainty over how to right itself again. It was a city that had had the temerity to arm itself and to throw out the troops of the martial law regime. And this uprising had taken place, this commune (to use a term employed by some of the participants) had raised its head over the parapet, not in the context of some shambolic or comic-opera petty tyranny, but in the super-efficient and super-ruthless military dictatorship of South Korea.

The first thing to learn, in such a setting, was not what a policeman looked like, but what a student would look like in a policeman’s stolen outfit; what the militia looked like, and how they would behave. And if I was nervous and distrustful, how much more so were the leaders and the participants in the uprising, who knew that there were spies and army operatives at work in the city, snatching the students and workers and taking them off for torture, sabotaging the commune’s defenses, preparing for the reprisals which everyone was aware were overdue? The massacres which had prompted the uprising were only a few days old; the bodies were only just being found, and had not yet been buried. But now another massacre was on the way. And not only, perhaps, a massacre. The city itself had set itself up for punishment.

For years afterward, while the full story was being unsuccessfully repressed by the authorities, people would ask the question: What had Kwangju suffered? How many had been killed, wounded, tortured, imprisoned? Another question might be: What had Kwangju done? How many soldiers had been, when the battle favored …

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