It is 40 years since Choi Jung-ja saw her husband, who has been missing since South Korea’s military dictatorship killed hundreds of people when they crushed the pro-democracy Gwangju Uprising, a scar that burns in the country’s political psyche to this day.
On May 18, 1980, demonstrators protesting against then-South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan’s declaration of martial law confronted his troops and 10 days of violence ensued.
However, conservatives in the South still condemn the uprising as a communist-inspired rebellion backed by North Korea, while left-leaning South Korean President Moon Jae-in wants to enshrine it in the constitution.
Choi’s husband was 43 when he left their house in the southern city to buy oil for a heater at the family pub, never to return.
Once the violence was over Choi frantically searched for him, even opening random coffins in the streets covered with blood-stained Korean flags.
“I couldn’t continue after opening the third coffin,” she said. “The faces were covered with blood — there were no words to describe them. The faces were unrecognizable.”
She still takes medication to deal with the trauma, and curses whenever Chun appears on television, she said.
There is no agreed toll for Gwangju, with reports of secret burials on land and at sea. The military remaining in power for another eight years offered ample opportunity to dispose of the evidence.
Official bodies point to about 160 dead — including some soldiers and police — and more than 70 missing. Activists say up to three times as many may have been killed.
However, the search for justice has gone through multiple twists and turns and Gwangju is one of the most politicized historical events in a viciously polarized country.
At the time of the Gwangju Uprising, Chun’s military regime described it as a rebellion led by supporters of then-opposition leader Kim Dae-jung, who comes from nearby Sinan, and pro-Pyongyang agitators.
Kim was arrested, convicted of sedition and sentenced to death, but the penalty was commuted under international pressure and he was granted asylum in the US, before being elected president himself in the 1990s after the restoration of democracy and winning the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize.
Chun was convicted in 1996 of treason over Gwangju and bribery and condemned to hang, but his execution was commuted on appeal and he was released following a presidential pardon.
He still denies any direct involvement in the suppression of the uprising.
Today, Moon — who as a student took part in other anti-dictatorship protests — regularly highlights Gwangju, promising to reopen investigations into it and calling for it to be included in the constitution.
South Korea’s opposition seeks to paint Moon as a Pyongyang sympathizer, and Hannes Mosler of the University of Duisburg-Essen said the right sought to use Gwangju to discredit liberals by linking them to the “absolute evil” of the North.
“North Korea lies at the heart of polarization strategies in South Korea,” Mosler said. “Once a fake narrative is built around the Gwangju Uprising that connects it with North Korea, this provides the fuel for the polarization fire to burn further and further.”
Moon’s Democratic Par tlast month won a landslide election victory largely on the back of the government’s successful handling of the COVID-19 epidemic in the country.
While the city of Daegu was at the center of the outbreak, it is the last stronghold of the right and Moon’s party lost every one of the seats there.
The remains of about 40 people were discovered last year at the site of a former prison in Gwangju, where 242 relatives of missing people have given DNA samples in the hope of identifying corpses that have yet to come to light.
Among them is Cha Cho-gang, 81, whose son never returned after setting out to sell garlic at a market in the city, aged 19.
“My husband died three years ago,” she said. “His last wish was to bury our son’s remains before his own funeral.
“I have the same wish, but I don’t know if it will ever come true,” she added.
‘SPIKES’: Rudy Giuliani at a hearing asked about voting data in Pennsylvania, with a witness saying that 570,000 votes they selected were for Biden and 3,200 for Trump US president-elect Joe Biden on Wednesday said that Americans “won’t stand” for attempts to derail the US election outcome, as US President Donald Trump called for results to be overturned. Biden said in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, that Americans “have full and fair and free elections, and then we honor the results.” “The people of this nation and the laws of the land won’t stand for anything else,” he said. However, Trump is challenging the results, with lawsuits under way in several states. “We have to turn the election over,” he told a hearing in Pennsylvania. “This election was rigged.” “All we need is
‘POLICE EVERYWHERE’: A law that would criminalize the publication of images of police officers was passed by the National Assembly and awaits Senate approval Violent clashes erupted in Paris on Saturday as tens of thousands took to the streets to protest against new security legislation, with tensions intensified by the police beating and racial abuse of a black man that shocked France. Several fires were started in Paris, sending acrid smoke into the air, as protesters vented their anger against the security law, which would restrict the publication of police officers’ faces. About 46,000 people marched in Paris and 133,000 in total nationwide, the French Ministry of the Interior said. Protest organizers said about 500,000 joined nationwide, including 200,000 in the capital. French President Emmanuel Macron late
A CAUTIONARY TALE: Bookseller Lam Wing-kee speaks of the danger that his adopted home Taiwan now faces and the ordeal of his detention in China Lam Wing-kee (林榮基) leaned forward in his chair, answering quickly and sharply to issue a warning to the people of his new home, Taiwan. “Be ready now,” Lam said. “We should be more alert as citizens, we should get ready,” the 64-year-old Hong Konger said. “If they can take Hong Kong back, the next place, I feel, is Taiwan.” Late in Taipei at Causeway Bay Books Mark II, on the 10th floor of a nondescript building, Lam, a wiry, gray-haired bookseller, was sitting at his desk with a bemused gaze behind thin oval glasses. The desk was neat, but crowded with books and a
Not enough beds and not enough doctors: a skyrocketing COVID-19 caseload is pushing hospitals in the Balkans to the cusp of collapse, in chaotic scenes reminding some medics of the region’s 1990s wars. After nearly a year of keeping outbreaks more or less under control, the nightmare scenario that the Balkans feared from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic is now starting to unfold. In hard-hit Bosnia-Herzegovina, one doctor described the distress of having to juggle the care of multiple patients whose lives were hanging by a thread. “The situation reminds me of the war, and I’m afraid it could get even worse