Korea’s violent road to democracy

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Korea’s violent road to democracy

Every year in May, Korea is forced to look into its history and remember the events that took place in 1980 in Gwangju. Alternately called the “Gwangju rebellion,” the “Gwangju people’s uprising” and most recently the “Gwangju democratization movement,” the 10-day clash between protesters and the military left hundreds dead, with accounts varying. “The Kwangju Uprising: Eyewitness Press Accounts of Korea’s Tianenmen” ― the title uses an alternative romanization of the city’s name ― is a collection of pictures and writings by journalists, both domestic and foreign, who were there during the bloody events.
What is apparent is the genuine pain that these journalists felt at witnessing what happened. Bradley Martin, an American, writes that having seen the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the trial of China’s Gang of Four, the social unrest that followed Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the Gwangju uprising, the event that stands out most in his mind is Gwangju. What was it about Gwangju that left such a deep impression? According to these reports, the excessive violence used against the initially unarmed demonstrators; the intense hope that the activists harbored; the civil obedience of the citizens of Gwangju, despite the chaos, and the incredible human suffering.
Under the censorship that accompanied martial law in Korea in 1980, Korean journalists were in an especially difficult predicament: they had to play the part of impartial observers with the full knowledge that much of what they were photographing and writing would never appear in newspapers. These journalists were forced to compromise their integrity, using officially sanctioned jargon in their final reports. Years later, their accounts can finally be read.
Though the journalists who contributed to this volume constantly wax lyrical about the virtues of truth, the final product of editors Henry Scott-Stokes and Lee Jai-eui is good, and necessary, but ultimately one-sided. Were the soldiers given specific orders to retaliate in such a violent way? If so, by whom, and why? While the reasons behind the soldiers’ gross misuse of power are touched on in the epilogue, it is a facet of this story that is still, more than 20 years later, not well understood. An account from the other side, through the eyes of a soldier, would shed considerable light on an event still in some ways relegated to the dark.


The Kwangju Uprising
Henry Scott-Stokes and Lee Jai-Eui, Editors
M.E. Sharpe,
$23.95


by Elizabeth Feola
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