A Wound Unhealed in Korea

<i> Sanford J. Ungar, dean of the School of Communication at American University, has been in Korea under the auspices of the International Human Rights Law Group. </i>

Lee Han Yol, the latest martyr in Korea’s struggle for democracy, was brought home to this provincial capital for burial the other day, and his fellow townspeople by the hundreds of thousands poured into the streets to pay their respects.

They also reminded the government of their bitter grievances growing out of the Kwangju uprising seven years ago. Unless dealt with soon, this could blow apart South Korea’s current, much-touted efforts at reconciliation and affect the long-standing alliance between South Korea and the United States.

This was no routine political demonstration by radical students and fringe elements the Seoul government often warns about. On the contrary, it was as if an entire city--almost half of one, actually--turned out on a torrid summer evening to send the world a message.


The square in front of South Cholla provincial headquarters and nearby streets were packed with farmers, bank tellers, office workers, children, Buddhist monks and Catholic priests, the blind, the old, even wealthy men and women wearing the latest Korean fashions.

They carried portraits and banners and heard tributes to Lee, an economics student at Seoul’s Yonsei University, who suffered fatal injuries when an exploding tear gas grenade pierced his skull during a demonstration on June 9. They shouted “down with the military dictatorship” of President Chun Doo Hwan.

But mostly, as they waited for Lee’s funeral cortege to make the 200-mile journey here from Seoul, the people of Kwangju used the occasion to proclaim that they had not forgotten--and could not even begin to forgive--what happened here in May, 1980.

That is when, in reaction to the declaration of martial law by Chun (who was consolidating power after the assassination of longtime strongman Park Chung Hee), Kwangju was the site of protests culminating in a popular insurrection.

Kwangju, and the Cholla region generally, have always been considered different from the rest of Korea. This is symbolized by the fact that even today, when an airplane flies into the Kwangju airport, passengers must pull down their window shades--supposedly to avoid any compromise of the U. S. air base nearby.

Cholla people, ethnically the same but with a distinctive accent, are said to have a more spontaneous disposition and hotter temper than other Koreans. And they are therefore often the focus of prejudice--outsiders in a closed political and social system. Kwangju itself, with a population just under a million, has benefited less than other cities from South Korea’s “economic miracle.” In 1980, the people of Kwangju stood apart for their severe reaction to martial law by a government they did not support. For several days, a “people’s government,” relying on weapons eagerly turned over by the local police, ran the city. In the process of regaining control, the military killed--depending whom you believe--somewhere between 200 and 2,000 people.

The “Kwangju Massacre” is remembered by most people here as the worst event in Korea since the Korean War of the 1950s. It is said that the government forces sent by Chun, first to put down student demonstrations and later to retake the city, behaved far worse than the North Koreans did in the Korean War or the Japanese did during their long colonization of Korea or in World War II.

According to one journalist who covered the events for a Pusan newspaper, the paratroopers deployed--trained to operate in North Korea and to take no prisoners--clubbed and bayonetted many students to death in the streets of Kwangju in broad daylight.

Others claim that entire busloads of people attempting to enter or leave the city may have been killed.

But the problem is that no one knows exactly what happened in Kwangju. There is no official government version, because Chun, his Cabinet and military leaders have refused to regard the incident as anything but a routine exercise in upholding law and order.

Roh Tae Woo, Chun’s military-school classmate and handpicked successor, never even mentioned the Kwangju issue during his recent dramatic announcement of an eight-point plan to move South Korea toward democracy by writing a new constitution and holding direct presidential elections--long demanded by the opposition.

Yet, for political, emotional, cultural and religious reasons, the longer the questions about May, 1980, go unanswered, the more serious they become. The Kwangju Massacre is now the subject of lilting protest songs and extraordinary rumors, some contributing to the growth of anti-Americanism in Korea.

Chun Kie Ryang, who lost his oldest child, a son, in the uprising, is president of the Bereaved Families Assn. of Kwangju. He says an exact count of the dead--the obvious first step toward any resolution of the matter--has been impossible, because of lack of cooperation and intimidation from the authorities.

Many people, he says, were warned that if they officially reported the death of a son or daughter in the Kwangju uprising, they would lose their jobs or have a hard time obtaining the many permits necessary for daily life in South Korea.

Near tears, Chun Kie Ryang related the story of one man who was told he would be fired from the public prosecutor’s office here if he insisted on registering the death of his two sons. When he finally summoned the courage to report the deaths last year, six years after the fact, he was told he would have to prove they were no longer alive before they could be taken off the city’s official family register.

If and when an accurate count is established, the question will be what to do about it. Some of the people of Kwangju have demanded government compensation for their children’s deaths or, at the very least, a monument to their memory.

But Hong Nam Sum, an elderly Kwangju lawyer who has represented the families and who himself spent 20 months in detention after the uprising, says the most important thing is to restore the victims’ human dignity--to have a government apology for their deaths and their official recognition as “patriots fighting for the good of their country.”

At the other extreme are Korean dissidents who demand that their country, like Argentina, formally charge those responsible for past atrocities--specifically the Kwangju Massacre and cases of torture--and put them on trial.

This is especially touchy now, since no one doubts that the man who made the decisions about Kwangju in 1980 was Chun Doo Hwan--and, although he has agreed to step down early next year, he is still president. Some speculate that Chun may refuse to leave office unless he has an explicit promise on this matter.

For their part, both leading possible opposition candidates for president, Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung, have said that while they favor a full inquiry into the Kwangju Massacre, they too reject reprisals. (That is a controversial position for Kim Dae Jung because he comes from South Cholla province and was sentenced to death by the Chun regime in 1980 for allegedly inciting the people of Kwangju to violence. He was only pardoned last week.)

Then there is the U. S. link to the Kwangju affair. It has been widely alleged in Korea that the troops responsible for so many deaths entered this city under the auspices of the Combined Forces Command that dates back to the Korean War, with the explicit permission of Gen. John A. Wickham Jr., then U. S. commander in Korea.

According to a recent statement in Seoul by William H. Gleysteen, U. S. ambassador to South Korea in 1980, this was not so. Gleysteen said that the United States was consulted by the Koreans only in the final phase and then endorsed a decision to send an experienced Korean army division into Kwangju to re-establish order.

But the continued absence of any official U. S. government statement denying responsibility for the Kwangju Massacre--or any expressions of sympathy for its victims--has fueled rumors that the real orders came from Washington.

When Chun Doo Hwan was the first head-of-state to be received at the White House by Ronald Reagan after his election as President, it reinforced the impression among Koreans that the United States approved of how the crisis was handled. Indeed, many trace the resurgence of anti-Americanism in Korea to that visit.

In a Confucian society like Korea, respect for the dead is crucial. Ignoring the dead is sacrilege. That seemed part of the message during the demonstration here on the occasion of Lee’s funeral.

As they sang about the events of May, 1980, the people of Kwangju warned: “The dead still have not closed their eyes.”