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 the rebels, firebombed, crushed to death, beaten up, and thrown in the river? For the ruthlessness of the army had been matched, when it could be matched, on the rebel side. And whenever such an incident had taken place, there would have been someone in the crowd—as the crowd perfectly well knew—making a note, watching out for the ringleaders, marking the identities of those heroes of the moment who, for once in their lives, acted in such a way as to reveal their true sentiments, in defiance of the consequences.

Lee Jai-eui does not gloss over the question of what Kwangju did. He describes some of the circumstances that led him to compile, with an underground committee, the Kwangju Diary during the years of the repression that followed the uprising:

I was a junior at Kwangju’s Cho*nnam University in May of 1980. I joined the uprising, not because I possess unusual courage or an uncommon sense of justice, but because I happened to be in the middle of a massacre, like so many other Kwangju rebels. At first, I was struck with horror. Slowly, the anger burning in my heart drove the horror out. It was not long before I found myself in the heart of the uprising.

It started when volleys of machine-gun fire ripped through the heart of the city. A young man fell right next to me. He writhed and groaned. When the gunfire ceased, a few bystanders and I carried him to a hospital. Someone howled, “Enough is enough!” Almost naturally, we sought to arm ourselves. I was a drop of water in the riptide of the angry crowds.

Throughout the uprising, I experienced how bitter isolation could be. All communication with the world beyond the city was cut off. It was almost impossible to take a step outside the city because of the military’s cordons. We, the insurgents, struggled to end the isolation by spreading the word of the uprising to the rest of world. Who would know our truth, if we were all killed? How would history remember us? I fought my pessimism throughout the insurrection.

I was fortunate enough to have survived the many crises of the uprising. But I was arrested and tortured. In prison, I felt tormented by the fact that I had survived. My survival was an outcome of the fact that I dodged the final moments of the uprising, the climax that signed the death warrants for so many.

Lee Jai-eui rejects certain libels of the day, as for instance the charge that the rioters were drunk; but when the demonstrators arm themselves with wooden staves, steel pipes, and kitchen knives, he tells us so. When they raid a police station, he can give us (astonishingly enough, considering the conditions under which this account was drawn up) the details of their haul: 94 carbine rifles, 25 handguns, 151 pellet guns. He goes into such details partly because the purpose of his underground group of writers is to inform his country about exactly what happened, but partly I think because the book, which as an illegal publication was known (after its subtitle) by the nickname Beyond, Beyond, aims to provide material for a crucial discussion among the underground of its day.


If Kwangju is taken to be a failure (and the insurrection was after all defeated with great loss of life), it was important for the underground to understand why it had failed, and whether there were things that could be done better next time. Time and again during the narrative one hears little snatches of this debate. The activists were hampered, for instance, by the fact that so many of their leaders had been arrested or killed early on; those left behind felt the lack of someone to turn to for advice. More than that: there was no broad-based organization around which everyone could unite, although what sort of organization might have been formed is not made clear.

The predicament however is simple enough to grasp. Seeing the early massacres of the students by the soldiers, the people had joined in the street fighting, and had succeeded in forcing the military to withdraw from the city. They had then armed a militia, and the activists had done their best to spread the uprising not only through the province of South Cholla (in which they had some success) but also in other parts of the country. In this latter attempt they failed. The isolation of Kwangju, together with arrests and repression in Seoul, had prevented it. So the city was left with a small, admirably armed and motivated, but utterly illegal militia, and the pitiless reality of the future to face.

At this point, had Beyond, Beyond been written by, say, Thucydides, we would have been treated to long and well-constructed speeches by the participants, analyzing the alternatives available. As it is, we are told in some detail how the broad argument went. On the one hand, there were those on the citizens’ committees who said that, in view of the eventual inevitable outcome, the illegally seized weapons should be handed in immediately. On the other side were the more radical activists who said that handing over weapons would be a betrayal of the gains of the people.

The radicals persisted in arguing that if the city could just hold out a few more days, if the rest of the country was made aware of the massacre, and if international pressure was brought to bear, then the United States would come to see that the choice for it was between supporting an unpopular military clique and supporting the pro-democracy forces (whose reforms would be seen to coincide with American interests). In a debate reproduced in Lee Jai-eui’s book, which seems to derive from some contemporary record, the students (who are on the “defeatist” side of the argument) ask: “Do we have a chance to win this fight? If there is any chance, I will fight, I will continue the uprising.” The activists reply: “There are many kinds of triumph. Those who laid down their lives understood this very well.”

The implications of this formulation are unambiguous: If the activists are wrong in their calculation that the insurrection will spread, or wrong in their reading of the international situation, they will nevertheless be proved right in the long run, as long as they die a glorious death. The activists, by this stage of the uprising, are insurrectionists. They rely on the insurrection to breed further insurrections, either in the immediate future or in the long term. If they cannot hold the city, they must at least defend the Province Hall, even though the latter course means dying. “To complete this insurrection,” says one insurrectionist, “someone has got to defend Province Hall with his life!”


This was all the insurrectionists were left with, that Monday in May. They had had no sleep for days. To call them marked men would be an exaggeration—they were marked children, marked youths. Their names, their faces were known. They had made their fatal witness. They were the children of the people, but the support of the people was slipping away from them, just as the defeatists were slipping away from them, not because anyone had changed his mind about the cause, but because they could not stomach the denouement.

And the defeatists were well within their rights. They had not, as it were, signed up for the full insurrection. The glorious death on offer was not part of the small print of some contract that they had failed properly to read. They had intervened, as a crowd, on seeing—early in the previous week—the brutality of the paratroopers. After that, they had wanted an apology from the government, and compensation. They were motivated only, says Lee Jai-eui, by pure conscience and a modest sense of justice. Martyrdom was too much for them to seek, even if they had been able to do nothing when it sought them out.


I left Kwangju that afternoon, since I was unable to pay off my driver without returning to a bank in Seoul. It was a decision I regretted both professionally and morally, for it certainly felt like an abandonment. The next morning the uprising was over, and by that evening the foreign journalists who had witnessed the last hours were back in the capital at the Chosun Hotel. They told how the students had continued, through the night, to call the people out onto the streets, and how the defenders of the Province Hall had been either killed or brutally rounded up.

Among the journalists there was much talk about the press spokesman for the insurrectionists we had met the day before, how impressive he had been, how he had clearly known that he was about to die, and how indeed they had found him killed, true to his word, in the defense of the building. I sat at a nearby table listening to one of the American reporters talking about the impression this unnamed character had made on him. Suddenly the reporter began to weep uncontrollably—to suffer what one of his colleagues called (it was the first time I had heard the expression) a crying jag. This man must have been Bradley Martin of the Baltimore Sun, who tells us in The Kwangju Uprising that, having written an article about dead spokesmen of the insurrection, he went out with other correspondents and got drunker than he had ever been before, stumbling “screaming from bar to bar, cursing Chun Doo Hwan and the other new military rulers of South Korea.”

The man who had made such an impression on Mr. Martin turns out to have been, though officially only the spokesman, in fact the organizing force behind the radical insurrectionists in their last phase. His name was Yun Sang-won. He features in Lee Jai-eui’s account as the man who succeeded in packing the committees and setting the radical agenda for defeat, and it is very interesting to read Mr. Martin’s account, based on a later visit to Kwangju, of Yun Sang-won’s background, education, and beliefs. For it is by no means clear that either his education or his beliefs fitted him out for the precise role he was eventually to play.

Yun Sang-won was the son of a peasant farmer whose family derived their living from one hectare (ten thousand square meters) of rice paddy. Educated at a Catholic school in Kwangju, he converted to, and subsequently seems to have lapsed from, Catholicism. (The Catholic Church later provided a haven in South Korea for political dissent in the Eighties.) At Chonnam National University in Kwangju he was a political science major, in his own later words a “simple and naive democrat with a zeal for social justice.” After his sophomore year, he completed his three years of national service in the army, before returning to a university scene which, we are told, had changed. Simple opposition to President Park Chung-hee and the corruption of his dictatorship was no longer enough. The students, Mr. Martin tells us,

were searching for a more all-encompassing, progressive worldview. South Koreans were not yet reading the original Marxist texts—which were still largely unavailable in the country—but it was possible to nibble around the edges of the canon. Yun and others devoured Hegelian philosophy, Third-World radical texts, and Western books on economic history and capitalist development.

Yun’s library was preserved by his parents, and Mr. Martin notes a selection of the English titles, which I reproduce, since it gives such a vivid suggestion of what might come the way of an inquiring mind in provincial South Korea in the mid-Seventies:

George Lichtheim, The Origins of Socialism (a pirated edition); Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy, Monopoly Capital; Samuel P. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies; Jack Gray and Patrick Cavendish, Chinese Communism in Crisis; John M. Hertz, Political Realism, Political Idealism; Maurice Dobb, Political Economy and Capitalism; George Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness, Studies in Marxist Dialectics; Sidney Verbin, Small Group and Political Behaviour (this book had been checked out of the local US Information Service Library and never returned); Alexander Worth, Russia: The Postwar Years; R.N. Carew Hunt, The Theory and Practice of Communism.

This list reminds Mr. Martin of his own books “back in the innocent days of the early 1960s, when an interest in socialist ideas had been considered a normal phase for any American university student with compassion and a reasonably searching mentality.” The benevolent intention here seems to be to protect the owner of this library from accusations of communism. But socialism of some kind seems to have been rather more than a “normal phase” for Yun Sang-won.

By my calculations, he would have entered the army around the same time as the Paris Peace Agreement extracted American forces from Vietnam, and would have returned to university in the year of the fall of Saigon, for he graduated two years later, in 1977. He was thus too young, but only just too young, for there to have been any question of his serving in Vietnam himself (where the behavior of the Korean troops, incidentally, inspired a particularly intense loathing among the Vietnamese). On the other hand, he was of precisely the age group for whom Vietnam would have been an issue.

His contemporaries in the political underworld divided into three points of view. The first, according to Mr. Martin, believed that the important thing was to become a worker. The second believed that workers, salaried people, and students should unite, regardless of class, to form an armed resistance movement based in the rural areas. These people formed the South Korean National Liberation Front, and their leaders were arrested in 1979.

Yun belonged to a third group who believed that the key to the future lay with the working class rather than with the peasants, but that, for the intel-lectual, becoming a worker was not, of itself, enough. What mattered was the organization of labor. On graduating, he spent some time working in Seoul in a large bank, following the course for which his education had prepared him. But then, feeling that he had proved to his father that he had made good use of the opportunity he had been given, he gave up his good job and went to work in a styrofoam factory. He was committed to doing something for the nation, and he chose the life of a labor orga-nizer, setting up a night school for workers and in due course, in 1979, helping to organize a textile workers’ strike and sit-in, whose fate became bound up with the political fortunes of the democracy movement and of Kim Young-sam—the opposition leader who eventually became president. In mid-October that year there were large demonstrations in the cities of Pusan and Masan, and on October 26 the redoubtable President Park Chung-hee, at dinner with the head of his own CIA, was assassinated.

Over the next few months, while the democracy movement attempted to profit from the situation and introduce reform, a power struggle took place within the military, which only resolved itself when Chun Doo-hwan installed himself and his military classmates in the key positions of power. The last of the great Seoul rallies of the democracy movement took place on May 15. The demonstrators were calling for the end of martial law and the resignation of General Chun from the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, which he had recently taken over. After this rally, the demonstrators split over tactics, and the majority chose, on May 16, to call off the demonstrations and to wait and see what would happen next.

Yun Sang-won was outraged at this climb-down by the opposition, and his outrage must have seemed only too justified by the events of the next day. For on the evening of May 17, the crackdown began in earnest with the arrest of student activists and political leaders in Seoul, the dispatch of paratroops to Kwangju, and the extension of martial law throughout the whole country. Undoubtedly the crackdown would have taken place whatever the position of the democratic forces. What people like Yun thought was that there should have been a fight to the bitter end. The opposition should never have stopped to wait and see. There should have been “pockets of resistance,” wherever they had any strength.

No sooner had he formed this view than the opportunity arose for him to act upon it. For the massacre began in Kwangju, and, amazingly enough, the uprising followed. And, although Yun and his friends had little hope that this uprising would breed other uprisings, or indeed that the United States would rein in the forces of General Chun, nevertheless they held out this hope to the people, in their desire to keep them at the barricades. Those who wanted to hope could hope. To those who were prepared to die, the invitation was plain: the completion of the insurrection lay in death and defeat.

And, you could say, the outcome proved him right. The insurrection was not forgotten, the rallying cry was heeded over the years, and the dictatorship was eventually brought to an end. The youths who defended the Province Hall told each other that night, as the people failed to come out to defend them, that they would meet again in the next world. I do not think they did so, but they seem to have stayed as presences in this world, and to have left in many of us the desire to be true to the fleeting glimpse we had of them that day.

This Issue

February 22, 2001