City of 1 Million Was Focus of Turbulence of 1980 : Kwangju--Many Martyrs to Cause of Korea Freedom

Times Staff Writer

Almost no one in the crowd noticed Lee Chun Kyun the other day as he paid his respects to the memory of his 21-year-old son at Kwangju Public Cemetery.

The attention of thousands all around him on a cemetery knoll popularly called the Hill of Democracy was focused on the coffin of a new martyr, Lee Han Yol, a student who was fatally injured a month ago in an anti-government demonstration in Seoul.

While Lee Chun Kyun gazed silently at his own son’s weathered gravestone, photographers and cameramen jostled nearby to record Lee Han Yol’s burial after an 18-hour funeral procession that drew hundreds of thousands into the streets of Seoul and Kwangju in an unprecedented demonstration of protest against President Chun Doo Hwan and his military-backed regime. Later, sitting cross-legged on the floor of his simple home, Lee Chun Kyun explained the parallels between the two young men.


His son and Lee Han Yol were 21 years old. Both were business administration majors in college. Both grew up in this southwestern city of 1 million, which has long been an anti-government stronghold. And both died as martyrs.

Killed 7 Years Ago

Lee Chun Kyun’s eldest son died seven years ago, shot in the head by a soldier during an insurrection that many political analysts believe marked the beginning of this nation’s current political strife.

Seven years ago, in May, 1980, as anti-government protests swept Seoul, Taegu, Chonju and other cities, the people of Kwangju rebelled against a government they believed had neglected their region and deprived South Koreans of freedom. The demonstrations began as a protest against the increasing hold of the military on government, the tightening of martial law and arrest of political leaders and ended in a full-blown insurrection.

Clerks, teachers, businessmen, parents and grandparents joined students in the uprising. Even some of the city’s police, who were unable to cope with the turmoil, joined the insurgents.

Kwangju’s civilians at first used knives, iron pipes and bottles against the police and their tear gas and guns. Then the demonstrators raided military armories and seized automatic rifles and ammunition. They commandeered jeeps, trucks and buses, and besieged provincial government headquarters. Three days into the uprising, the military estimated that 150,000 civilians were on a rampage.

194 Killed in Uprising

The military and Chun, the military strongman, reacted strongly. Heavily armed paratroopers streamed into Kwangju to crush the rebellion. By official count, 194 people were killed in the weeklong uprising. Unofficial counts put the number slain at several hundred to more than 1,000.


In the May turmoil, the weak regime that had governed in the wake of President Park Chung Hee’s assassination in October, 1979, was shunted aside, and the military took over under emergency measures. Chun, by then firmly in control, was named president that August by an electoral college.

The Kwangju incident has been an embarrassment to the regime ever since, and the scars it left behind here symbolize the degree of healing still left to occur in today’s South Korea.

In interviews with shopkeepers, professionals, office workers, students and foreigners living in Kwangju, it seemed clear that most citizens not only oppose but hate Chun and the former generals who dominate his government. These men, among them Roh Tae Woo, now chairman of the ruling Democratic Justice Party, are blamed for ordering troops into Kwangju.

Nearly everyone describes the emotion with the single word han, which has no simple English translation. Linguists say the word means more than resentment, more than hate and more than anger. They say it describes a hate in the heart that is forcibly suppressed and grows with time into a need for revenge and helps explain why Kwangju’s streets overflowed with anti-government protesters at Lee Han Yol’s funeral, just a few days after the regime accepted all major opposition demands for reform.

‘There Must Be Revenge’

“I think it’s fair to say 100% of Kwangju residents hate President Chun,” a foreign resident said. It is this idea of han. . . . It doesn’t matter what the government says or does now. There must be revenge.”

Everyone interviewed recalled the horrors of 1980.

A 33-year-old cafe owner said he watched the army march into Kwangju from Seoul, 170 miles to the north.

“I was hit in the head with shrapnel from a grenade the soldiers threw into the street,” he said. “ . . . I saw the soldiers shoot people in the streets in cold blood. Military trucks would come by later . . . and take them (the bodies) away.”

Another shopkeeper said: “My wife and I decided to leave the city for our village to save ourselves. As we drove out of town, I saw a van riddled with so many bullets it looked like a bee hive. God knows how many died in that van. And God knows what ever happened to their bodies.”

Siege in Provincial Capital

Lee Chun Kyun remembers each moment of the last time he saw his son alive seven years ago, the day before the young man, Lee Chung Yon, joined thousands of other students in the siege of Kwangju’s provincial capitol building.

“I told him, ‘I have been through the Korean War, and I saw so many people being killed worthlessly,’ ” Lee said. “I told my son, ‘Don’t be killed worthlessly by this government. Stay alive, and you will do more important and meaningful work against the government later.’

“But my son replied, ‘Why is life so precious? At this moment, democracy will only be achieved by spilling more blood.’ ”

When his son’s body was found in a makeshift military morgue several days later, Lee said he felt only sorrow and loss. It was a long time, he said, before he realized the importance of political martyrdom.

Asked if he thought more blood would have to be spilled before democracy comes to South Korea, Lee quickly said: “Yes, of course. Democracy is not a gift. It is something that must be fought for. And in that fight, blood will flow, no doubt. It is only after spilling much blood that democracy shall come to this country.”

Important Turning Point

Lee, a 56-year-old cookie maker, said that last week’s funeral for Lee Han Yol, the latest student martyr, was an important turning point.

“Until now, people have been terrified of the dictator here,” he said. “They cannot say the words which they think. They have had to shrink within themselves and hold this hatred close to their heart.

“But now, these people will join the great democratic movement. And we will achieve justice for what the dictator has done. The flame will burn on until democracy is ours.”

Lee opened a tattered notebook containing Korean poetry that he and his son had written during the latter’s lifetime. The last poem in the notebook, he said, was written to him by his son before he left to join the student rebels.

Entitled, “The Weed,” the poem reads in part:

“A weed that is left by the dictator is also ignored by society.

“Father, you leave the weed alone because you are afraid.

“So who will pull out this weed?

“Life is not worthless at this moment, for each additional drop of blood will help bring democracy.”