by Leigh Hellman, ETA
This is part 3 of a 3 part series, published here on Infusion’s website.
Historians remain hesitant to conclusively label the assassination of Park Chung-hee as a coup d’état. For the two months following it, Park’s prime minister stepped into the role of acting president and Major General Chun Doo-hwan—Park’s commander of the Defense Security Command—went about ostensibly rooting out political and military traitors. On December 12th, 1979, Chun ordered the arrest of the ROK Army Chief of Staff and—along with his supporters—violently consolidated his control of the Korean military. This, historians agree, was undoubtedly a coup d’état; it would not be Chun’s last.
On May 17th, 1980, Chun strong-armed an extension of the nationwide martial law imposed after Park Chung-hee’s assassination—closing universities, banning political activities, ordering mass arrests, and further restricting the press—and dispatched troops to ensure “public order and safety” in the wake of multiple pro-democracy demonstrations around the country. Broadcasts went out assuring citizens that this was a natural transfer of power: Stay inside your homes as we pacify any anti-national insurgencies. Do not congregate. Do not protest.
From the barbed wire fences slicing along the Demilitarized Zone to the tropical beaches of Jeju Island, across the sanded-down green mountain ranges that bisect the peninsula five times over, along the craggy coastlines that wind vicious and rocky, in industrializing cities and one-lane villages—everywhere doors closed, shuttered, locked down. Demonstrators reluctantly went home. Lights went out.
Everywhere except Gwangju.
The first known fatality was a 29 year-old deaf man named Kim Gyeong-chul. He was clubbed to death by Special Forces paratroopers on May 18th as he passed by a swelling protest that had begun at the gates of Chonnam National University that morning, but had since pushed its way towards the streets of downtown and right up onto the steps of the Provincial Office. Witnesses recount that when Kim didn’t follow the paratroopers’ directive to get out of the way—a directive he couldn’t hear—they struck him to the ground and didn’t stop swinging until he was dead.
The people of Gwangju and South Jeolla, infuriated by the surge of violence and simmering after decades of oppression, poured into the demonstrations en masse.
On May 20th, the army began firing on civilians (whose numbers now exceeded 10,000). That same day citizens burned down a local news station, enraged by their misreporting of the escalating brutality. By the evening, hundreds of cars-motorcycles-taxis-trucks led a parade of buses toward the Provincial Office. Citizens climbed on the hoods and roofs and waved black-white-red-blue flags that, in their hands, dwarfed them. Over the next seven days, those flags would be used to wrap bodies as they lay in open pine boxes lining the floors of makeshift hospitals and headquarters. Even inside and out of the sunlight, the spring heat still got to them.
On May 21st, the army fired into a crowd of protesters on the steps of the Provincial Office. In response, factional militias broke off from the unarmed citizens. They raided armories and police stations for M1 rifles and carbines. Gunfights between soldiers and militia members punctured the blood and sweat-thick air. The army finally began to retreat from the downtown area after the militias obtained two light machine guns.
Gwangju was declared by its citizens to be a “liberated” city.
In Washington D.C., President Jimmy Carter and his national security team held an emergency meeting to determine the administration’s response to reports funneling in of a crisis unfolding in the southwestern province of Korea:
“We have counseled moderation, but have not ruled out the use of force, should the Koreans need to employ it to restore order.” 1
It’s strange, but the thing that stays with me is the sound. Relatively few video feeds exist so audio tracks are usually run over grainy still photographs instead. A military stormtrooper—baton raised, black combat boots set, visor shut over his face. A cowering man—torn polyester button-up, arms braced over his head, streaks of something dark tracking down his pants. Unnatural puddles in the street. Flatbed trucks stacked high with arms and legs and skulls blown half-away. And in the background sobs, wails, shrieks like the end of the world is here—is now. Is on these streets. Cacophonies of anger, voices breaking at the pitch. The rat-tat-tat of gunfire, in short bursts rather than sustained, controlled commands. But it’s the singing—the flat, off-pitch, half shout-half melody. It’s the singing that bores into my sense memory and infects my synapses as they crack like club against skull.
I don’t know what they’re saying. Between my own pitifully lacking vocabulary and the evolution of regional dialects from then until now, it might as well be a rally of nonsense. I don’t know what they are saying, but I feel it in the sink of my stomach still.
Sometimes I watch documentaries in insulated rooms—in ergonomic chairs where I can reign as the always-disconnected, always-distanced, always-safe Other. Sometimes I watch and cry; I cry ugly and personal like a steel fire and crumble in real-time like an active shooter in a classroom like a jagged scar left on a place and on a collective soul from when history stabbed and tore and it healed up but not quite right again.
I cry and I feel like a fraud. Like an appropriator, like a common thief. Like this is their pain and their trauma and theirs and how unbelievably white and American of me to remake it as all I mine me.
From May 22nd to May 25th, the repulsed troops hung back on the city fringes and waited for reinforcements. From there, they formed a blockade around the city’s perimeter as sporadic confrontations continued to increase the number of causalities. Within the city, settlement committees were formed to support the citizens and communities. Committee and militia leaders clashed over the former’s call for the latter’s disarmament. Radios looped broadcasted warnings to stay off the streets.
On May 26th, the newly reinforced Special Forces battalions reentered Gwangju.
Citizens frantically attempted to delay their advancement as the militias barricaded themselves inside the empty Provincial Office and waited.
The army reached downtown at 4AM on May 27th. Within 90 minutes it was all over.
Chun—who wouldn’t officially take office as the president of the Fifth Republic of Korea until September of that year—and his government called it a rebellion, an insurrection committed by dangerously subversive elements. After his regime—broadly continued through his Major General Roh Tae-Woo’s subsequent presidency—ended in 1993, it became known as 광주민주화운동2. Some English speakers refer to it as the Gwangju Uprising—or the Gwangju Massacre. The only major film3 to feature it as the core plotline was ironically titled Splendid Holiday.
In Gwangju, it’s still just 5.18.
Due to heavy repressions of freedom of the press at that time, an accurate record of casualties during the period of May 18-27 does not exist. Figures released by Chun’s government in the wake of the massacre put the death toll at 144 civilians, 22 troops, and 4 police killed (with 127 civilians, 109 troops, and 144 police wounded). Local social justice organizations assert that at least 165 civilians were killed—with 76 still missing and presumed dead—and clarify that more than half of the reported troop fatalities were due to a documented incident of friendly fire.
Foreign press sources—some of whom were assigned to Gwangju in 1980—and activists claim that 1000-2000 civilian fatalities would be closer to the truth.
There is a semi-circular room tucked into the earth, to the right of the rows and rows of graves. Inside there is nothing but an empty podium flanked by yellow and white silk flowers and one continuous wall of portraits. The newer ones are in color, but as you follow right to left they fade into a blurred grayscale—full-sized versions of the gravestone miniatures.
Solemn, smile-less faces stare out of frames edged around the top corners with black ribbon—photos of the dead. One for each body they could collect from the unforgiving May swelter, for each body they could hastily bury in the mass graves dug out in what was then nothing more than rural fields flung far from the city center. One for each body they could reconstruct, to re-inter here. One for each body they could identify. Old, wrinkled women and sunburned men with vast bald spots. College students and laborers with gazes full of fury and righteousness. High school students, middle school students who died with their school uniforms on. A nine year-old. A two-year old.
Koreans smile and laugh and seethe and pull ridiculous, hammy faces in real life; I always wondered why—for official portraits—they sit blank and void.
“What do you know about 5.18?”
“It was a big deal. Chun Doo-hwan—******* Chun Doo-hwan—attacked us.”
“몰라.”4 They shrug. “It was a long time ago.”
My father-in-law is a South Jeolla man, through and through. He’s coarse and prickly like overused steel wool. He swears loud and loose for emphasis and shuffles out of the apartment once every thirty minutes or so for a cigarette. He tried an e-cigarette once but didn’t like the taste, so he complained belligerently about it until his oldest son—my husband—took it back to the store and demanded a refund.
“우리 며느리, 알았냐?”5 His dialect is strong and I learned to nod along congenially before I learned how to politely ask him to say it again. It took a while—much longer than it did for my mother-in-law—but now he speaks slower, catches himself and substitutes in an easier word when I start to blink fast against the rising panic of can’t-understand. He wants to communicate, even if he tends to say everything in the same hostile pitch and tone so that “I love you” sounds more like “Let’s take this outside.”
“네, 아버님. 알겠습니다.”6
When I asked my husband for childhood photos, he quirked an eyebrow. “Why?”
I crossed my arms. “So I can scan them. So you can have a record of your memories. So you can remind yourself what it was like growing up.”
“Okay.” He nodded, grinned, placated me. “If you want.” Then he rolled over and went back to watching a video of a snake fighting a squirrel on his phone.
I leafed through the old photo albums he gave me as I perched on the end of the bed; a subtitled American police procedural was halfway through a day-long marathon on the TV. It was mostly off-center snapshots of two little boys in matching blue shorts climbing scraggly trees and posing precocious with arms slung around each other. There are some pictures of the family at his grandmother’s rundown country house, shots of him as a baby inside their first cramped apartment. Some with the Jindo puppy he had as a kid, before his father made a deal with him and his younger brother to get rid of it in exchange for something he can’t remember now. School picnics, holidays, graduations. A few of just his mom and dad on short trips of their own, and a series of his mother hiking up a mountain with five or six other spunky-looking women in neon activewear.
There are older photos too, photos taken long before my husband was there to stand in front of the camera. Wedding pictures, one uncle in his school uniform and another in his army fatigues, polyester pantsuits and resentfully tight perms. Towards the back of one dusty album is a cluster of washed-out shots featuring a lone young man with a shaggy pompadour, a turtleneck shirt, and defiantly flared pants. He straddles a motorcycle, he poses at the top of an outdoor stone staircase. He doesn’t smile, but his face isn’t blank.
It took a few minutes before I realized that this was the man who became my father-in-law or, conversely, this is the man my father-in-law once was.
I eased out one of the shots, slid it slow so it didn’t tear through anymore than it already had. I saw my father-in-law leaning bold against a sleek black four-door and it was strange but I thought of the singing.
The date stamped in the bottom right corner reads 3/1980 and I wonder.
Leigh Hellman was a 2008-2011 ETA at Gwangju Boys’ High School in Gwangju, Jeollanam-do. After her grant ended, she taught for two years at Gwangju National University of Education and then returned to the States to complete a Master’s Degree in English/Creative Writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She currently lives with her husband in Chicago, where they are both relearning how to build a cross-cultural home. Leigh’s work has been featured in—among other publications—Fulbright Korea Infusion, American Book Review, and Hippocampus Magazine.
- Carter Administration, Policy Review Committee Meeting Minutes (May 22, 1980) ↩
- ‘Gwangjuminjuhwaundong,’ literally’“Gwangju Democratization Exercise” (the Gwangju Democratization Movement) ↩
- The English title is, appropriately, May 18. ↩
- ‘Mulla.’ “Don’t know.” ↩
- ‘Uri myeoneuri, arassnya?’ Literally, “Our daughter-in-law, understood?” (“Daughter-in-law, do you understand?”) (informal speech) ↩
- ‘Ne, abeonim. Algessseubnida.’ Literally, “Yes, Father. Will understand.” (“Yes, Father. I understand.”) (formal speech) ↩