The Sabuk incident and reconciliation
In April 1980, when the new military authorities were looking to seize power, 26-year-old poet Choi Seung-ho was teaching at Sabuk Elementary School in Gangwon. The poems that won him the Today’s Writer Award two years later were being written in the remote mining town. He wrote “Snow Storm Advisory” while in Sabuk:
On the snowbell trees and over the chimney of a remote house burning woods,
In the white mountains and valleys winding like a tsunami,
The snowstorm brings white martial law.
The poem mirrored the tense and violent atmosphere at the time, and it took great courage to mention martial law at all. Another poem, “Sabuk, April, 1980,” depicts the Sabuk incident:
Stones of hatred and detestation are thrown.
The stones are scattered around the street.
Dark shadows are colliding, growling
and tearing each other.
Choi witnessed the large-scale bloodshed triggered by the discord surrounding the labor union leader election at the Sabuk Mining Center. He had accompanied his students home and spotted Kim Sun-i, wife of the union leader, tied down by ropes and beaten by a group. Several police officers took refuge in the school, and he helped them change into tracksuits and escape the angry miners. After the crisis was settled, the martial law authorities arrested the miners on strike and tortured them severely. Many of the students at the elementary school said their fathers went missing suddenly. Choi recalls that he had witnessed violence from both sides.
Around the same time, JoongAng Ilbo reporter Tak Gyeong-myeong was in the middle of the Sabuk incident. He was taking photos when the military arrested the organizers of the strike, and he was beaten up with the butt of a rifle and passed out. He was taken to the authorities and suffered terrible torture. One of his ears lost hearing, and he still suffers from psychological trauma. He attempted to write about the torture in the newspaper, but the military authorities’ censorship controlled the news. The JoongAng Ilbo printed the section assigned for his article as a blank column, and Mr. Tak was dismissed forcibly. Seven years later, the JoongAng Ilbo reinstated his position.
Now 70-year-old Tak recently concluded a meaningful project of bringing “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” to those involved in the Sabuk incident. Most of the people that had been involved in the case are now in their 70s or older. Tak published “Sabuk Incident: Reconciliation after 33 Years.” It, too, is a masterpiece.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Noh Jae-hyun