Remains at Gwangju prison site investigated

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Remains at Gwangju prison site investigated

The Justice Ministry is investigating the origins of the remains of around 40 people discovered underneath the old Gwangju Penitentiary last week over a possible connection to the missing victims of a bloody crackdown of the 1980 Gwangju Democratization Movement.

A team of nine investigators are currently crosschecking records of maintenance at the cemetery. Gwangju citizens were shocked last Thursday, when the government and the May 18 Memorial Foundation, the organization established to honor the victims of the 1980 Gwangju democratic uprising, discovered around 40 unidentified remains while working to clear a convicts’ cemetery on the grounds of the old Gwangju Penitentiary.

The May 18 Memorial Foundation announced Saturday that it will ask the Gwangju District Prosecutors’ Office on Monday to open an investigation to determine the origins of the remains discovered in the old Gwangju Penitentiary, which number around 40.

The penitentiary itself was moved to another neighborhood in the city in 2015, leaving behind a graveyard where a total of 111 convicts without family connections were buried. The new remains were found piled up on top of one another without any organization on existing prisoners’ coffins, leading to the speculation that they were victims of the killings that overtook Gwangju in 1980.

From May 18 to 27, 1980, thousands in Gwangju joined a pro-democracy uprising against Gen. Chun Doo Hwan’s seizure of power in a military coup five months earlier, which led the government to dispatch paratroopers for a brutal clampdown on protesters. What resulted was hundreds of deaths, though it is still widely disputed exactly how many citizens were killed that day, ranging from the government’s count of 193 to over 600 according to civic groups.

At least 78 people have been officially acknowledged as “missing peoples,” whose bodies are believed to have been buried secretly in some location, though the number of people reported missing exceeds 448.

One major-ranking officer surnamed Kim who commanded troops during the uprising testified to civic groups that some of the victims’ bodies were secretly buried in Gwangju Penitentiary.

The prison was also where dozens of citizens and civilian protesters were jailed after partaking in the uprising. Soldiers stationed at the prison were also responsible for firing at citizens in a vehicle traveling to another local town, causing several dozen more casualties.

So far, the government has sent the remains off to the National Forensic Service for DNA analysis to prove their origins.

Because the bones of dozens of people were found mixed together, the organization will first have to identify each of the pieces before setting off on a DNA test. The entire process, according to Prof. Park Jong-tae of the Chonnam University’s medical school, is likely to take an entire year.

Park added, however, that the holes found on some of the discovered skulls do not immediately appear to have been inflicted by gunfire, though he said a more thorough analysis was needed to make a conclusion.

BY JIN CHANG-IL, SHIM KYU-SEOK AND CHOI KYEONG-HO [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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