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Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2000

Kwangju: a turning point for South Korea

THE KWANGJU UPRISING: Eyewitness Accounts of Korea's Tiananmen, edited by Henry Scott-Stokes and Lee Jai Eui. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2000, 268 pp. $18.95 (paper).

"Covering the Kwangju uprising -- and writing of it in the aftermath," a Korean observer writes, "I was stuck for words. A reporter is supposed to be able to write. I couldn't get down on paper, for myself even, what I had seen. Some events, some actions, resist words. They beggar description." For Korean and foreign correspondents alike, the days of the Kwangju uprising were filled with both action and horrible suspense.

The uprising, which took place in May 1980, marked a turning point in Korean history -- toward freedom and away from tyranny. According to the editors of this book, it can be viewed as the origin of an idealism that lives on in Korea to this day.

The book recreates the unfolding events of Kwangju through eyewitness reports by leading Western correspondents, as well as Korean participants and observers.

The uprising weighs as heavily in the minds of many Koreans as the Tiananmen Square incident does in the minds of contemporary Chinese. One observer, Kim Chung Keun, writes that it "sprang to life in response to grassroots-type, basic, simple questions such as what is the nation, and what should the national army be to us?" After the assassination of President Park Chung Hee, student protests were brutally suppressed by the military and police. During this time, Kim Dae Jung, now president of South Korea, was imprisoned and sentenced to death. Kim himself wrote the foreword for this book.

He describes how he was dragged from his home in Seoul by armed soldiers and interrogated at the headquarters of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency over a period of 40 days. He was finally approached by a Martial Law Command officer and asked to cooperate or face capital punishment. Left to decide his fate, he was given a pile of newspapers, upon reading which he learned of the series of demonstrations that had broken out in Kwangju on May 18. The demonstrators had demanded his release and requested an end to martial law. After struggling for 10 days, they were eventually silenced by the army, at the cost of many lives.

After reading these accounts, Kim tells us, he lost consciousness. But although he was weakened by his ordeal, the demonstrators' example gave him the strength to refuse to cooperate with his captors. "I preferred to die in the name of democracy and for the sake of the Korean people," Kim says.

He was tried on a charge of treason, found guilty and sentenced to death. (The sentence was commuted to life in early 1981, and he was later freed.) It wasn't until three years later that he was shown a video of what had happened at Kwangju and realized the full horror of the uprising.

In response, Kim spells out the principles of the Kwangju Democratization Movement, in the name of which so many people died: human rights, nonviolence, a mature citizenry and a peaceful attitude. He ends on a positive note. Justice, he says, was eventually done and the outcome was a victory for democracy.

"The Kwangju Uprising" includes confessions, accounts of personal conflicts and moments of introspection -- all inevitably subjective at times -- as well as reporting.

All the contributions share a sense of horror and helplessness at the events that unfolded in Kwangju. Many reporters struggle to articulate, even 20 years on, the violence they saw or experienced.

An issue that is raised in many of the reports concerns the controversial question of U.S. accountability. Many South Koreans, among them the student leadership at the time, believed or hoped that the United States would intervene in Kwangju -- that it was in the interests of the U.S. to see democracy prevail in South Korea, and that the U.S. would not want to see instability in the region.

"Surely," one South Korean reporter writes, "the Americans would want to restrain Chun from cracking down with further bloodshed, thereby giving the U.S. a bad name."

American assistance was not, however, forthcoming, and the democratic movement in South Korea essentially developed without Washington's support. There was, in response, a strong movement of anti-American sentiment, particularly among young Koreans, and it wasn't until later in the 1980s that U.S. policy toward South Korea shifted and a reassessment was made of the events of 1980. For many, it is clear that this delayed response remains a sticking point in U.S.-Korean relations.

This collection also reminds us of the different experiences of the Korean press relative to those of the foreign correspondents who were assigned to cover the events in Kwangju. Few of the latter were in physical danger, except briefly, and their stories were published uncensored. But the domestic press was forced to operate under martial-law censorship and journalists were not allowed to tell their readers that their reports were censored. Indeed, their reports were not just censored, but forcibly slanted to the perspective of the military rulers. Many of the Korean journalists contributing to this book express their ongoing guilt and regret at the positions they were forced to take and the principles they were forced to compromise.

Ultimately, though, this book leaves us with a sense of hope that democracy has prevailed and that the efforts of the many who died in Kwangju in the name of democracy, peace and freedom were not in vain.

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