The truth about Yun Sang-won and the Gwangju uprising in 1980
GWANGJU, South Korea–It’s disconcerting to have one’s reporting corrected and revised decades after the fact by someone who wasn’t there and who has an historical axe to grind. But apparently it’s happening all the time in South Korea, which even now – 36 years after the fact – has yet to come to terms nationally with the meaning of 1980’s horrific Gwangju massacre and courageous citizen uprising.
In my case the perpetrator is a South Korean right wing activist and Christian preacher, living in California, whose Facebook page carries this observation: “Today I seriously ask if it is possible that we can proclaim the truth of God while we are telling a lie about history.”
Indeed. But I’m getting ahead of the story: When a group of power-grabbing generals led by Chun Doo-hwan forced extension of martial law to all of South Korea on May 17, 1980, pro-democracy student demonstrators in most cities halted their protests. Not those in Gwangju, which was home to dissident politician Kim Dae-jung.
The generals dispatched a “black beret” paratrooper unit, with considerable killing experience on the US side in the Vietnam War, to the southwestern city. The soldiers went on a murderous rampage, beating, bayoneting or shooting not only actual student demonstrators but anyone else they thought looked suspicious.
Horrified by the ongoing carnage, in which the official toll would rise to 165 killed, 75 missing and 4,400 injured, arrested and/or tortured, non-student townspeople joined an uprising that forced a temporary military retreat to the outskirts of the city.
Outsiders were slow to realize the extent of the chaos because the South Korean press under martial law was kept from reporting it. German ADR Television filmed much of it. But in the United States the May 18 eruption of Mount St. Helen’s in the state of Washington dominated the news.
When I passed through the surrounding army ring to enter the city on May 26, reporting for the Baltimore Sun, the signs of death were overpowering. Wailing mothers clung to their children’s closed coffins, lined up in an auditorium. Across the street, in a breezeway of the provincial headquarters building, 15 open coffins held unidentified bodies that were bloating and turning purple.
The anonymous spokesman
Inside the provincial building the spokesman for the uprising held a press conference with several of us who had come down from Seoul. For some reason the spokesman decided to focus on me, seldom taking his eyes away from mine as he passionately put forth his group’s positions. Returning his gaze, I sensed that this man was conscious of his own impending death.
The spokesman, who refused to give his name, made two main points. First, he asked that we convey to US Ambassador Willliam Gleysteen a request for American mediation between the rebellious citizens and the government. I noted that down, privately doubting there would be time for such a request to be considered before the overwhelmingly powerful military struck to retake the city.
When I pressed the spokesman to explain how the rebels expected to cope in that event, he put forth his other main point. “We will fight to the last man,” he insisted calmly, still looking into my eyes. He added that the rebels had enough dynamite and grenades to “blow up the city.”
The military reentered the city early the next morning and the spokesman and several die-hard colleagues were shot. He was found dead, surrounded by ashes – a fire seemed to have broken out. Feeling some personal connection with him, I was devastated and wrote an emotional piece for my paper, focusing on the still anonymous spokesman.
The government versions
The military government, embarrassed by international attention to its brutal suppression of Gwangju citizens, put forward two false versions. In one, opposition politician Kim Dae-jung and his political allies had led the insurrection. Never mind that Kim had been under military arrest at the time.
In the second government version, North Korean agents and sympathizers in Gwangju had led the struggle. There was zero evidence for this. Indeed, I found and reported solid evidence that the government had concocted the theory and spread it in a disinformation campaign.
Meanwhile, left-leaning westerners sought to shift part of the blame for the initial and final South Korean military crackdowns in Gwangju from the southern generals to officials of the United States government. They noted the spokesman’s unmet request for US mediation and also noted that under an agreement governing US military protection of South Korea the overall US military commander in the country was supposed to have “operational control” over most South Korean units.
I had spoken regularly with civilian and military US officials in South Korea and knew they’d been blindsided by the sudden emergence late the previous year of Chun and his cronies and by their subsequent reign of terror capped by astonishing brutality in Gwangju.
Fast forward to 1993. Even after 13 years, the dead young spokesman haunted me and I wanted to know more about him. In Seoul, still, no one seemed to know of him, but I learned that his name was Yun Sang-won.
Lifting the veil
I traveled to Gwangju to interview surviving fellow anti-government fighters and Yun family members to fill out Yun’s story for a magazine article that later became a book chapter. They explained that although he used the title spokesman, in fact he had become the top leader of the insurrection during its second and final stage.
Included among the information they provided were items that directly countered the left-wing or the right-wing revisionist version of history – or both.
Those survivors told me that Yun, defying the reentering soldiers’ order to throw down arms, had emerged from his office with weapon in hand. After a soldier shot him in the kidney area, one of his mates picked up the still breathing Yun and wrapped him in a curtain. A grenade exploded and burned the curtain, causing the fire that left the ashes shown in his final photographs taken by western newsmen.
They told me that Yun had expected all along to die in the final chapter of the uprising. His death and those of other holdouts would, he believed, contribute to a strategy of establishing “pockets of resistance” and eventually help bring democracy. The country had indeed achieved democratic rule in 1987 when, after another round of intense protests, military dictator Chun Doo-hwan stepped down and an election was held to choose the new president.
Contrary to what leftist revisionists seemed to assume, his friends told me, Yun had not expected the United States to intervene and save their lives. He had made that last-minute, public request as a gesture to try to boost the morale of fellow prospective martyrs, giving them hope.
As for the right-wing military government’s theories, Yun’s friends told me that he had never met Kim Dae-jung and that he had been highly critical of North Korea’s policies toward the South, its ruler’s personality cult and the plans for a Northern family dynasty. Government agents inside the city, they said, were the ones who had started rumors that North Korean agents were present – and the government agents had been caught in that lie.
Fast forward yet again, to May 2016. Gwangju’s mayor invited me and other surviving foreign correspondents for a 36th anniversary commemoration. Arriving, I was shocked when Koreans showed me that my book chapter on Yun was being misquoted in right-wing accounts of the events of May 1980.
One right-wing activist, Kim Dae-ryeong, had published a Korean-language book on the subject. He also holds forth on Facebook.
I had written that Yun’s strategy was a sort of “symbolic suicide.” Yun had presented to the government a dilemma, as one supporter told me: “If you do not have the guts to kill more people, you surrender yourselves. And if you do have enough guts, then you prove yourselves barbarians.”
Kim Dae-ryeong, the right-wing propagandist who also describes himself as a “mission theologian” and goes by the Americanized name Daniel Kim, twisted my words. True to his own belief that the people who led the protests were the villains of the Gwangju story, government forces the heroes, he had me writing that Yun was not shot by a soldier but literally committed suicide, using a grenade.
I’ve messaged Kim Dae Ryeong on Facebook, decrying this “lie about history” and demanding a retraction. He has not replied. Since he has since added additional Facebook posts in favor of his own view of the uprising, I assume he must have seen my message.
North Korean source
Around the time I interviewed Yun’s friends and family in 1993, I separately met in Seoul a North Korean defector, Kim Jong-min, who had been a colonel in the Ministry of Public Security. In an interview with a South Korean newspaper, the contents of which he confirmed to me, Kim said he and his security and intelligence colleagues in Pyongyang had learned of the Gwangju massacre by watching Japanese television. But they had done nothing beyond putting their own military on full alert, Kim Jong-min said, because they’d been taken by surprise and lacked sufficient time to prepare a response before the insurrection ended.
“At the time we thought that everyone there was being killed,” Kim Jong-min said. Some North Korean officials, watching television, “felt that we could not simply sit back and watch this and instead must charge on down. If the Gwangju incident had dragged out just a little bit more, then it was possible that the problem could have become a lot more complicated.”
Regardless of such testimony, South Korean right wingers remain determined to persuade their countrymen that the former military government’s widely discredited charge of a North Korean conspiracy at Gwangju was true. Their current focus is on a song, “March of the Beloved,” which has become the theme song of Gwangju people who commemorate May 1980.
Critics of the song allege that the words “the beloved” were intended as praise of Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s president until his death in 1994. They get this from the fact that the song’s lyricist once visited North Korea and met Kim Il-sung, who was worshiped as “the beloved and respected leader.” Also, a 1991 North Korean film used the music as background.
Actually, Gwangju people told me, the term “the beloved,” at the time the song was composed in 1982, was intended as a connubial reference to a couple united in a posthumous “spirit marriage.” The families of Yun Sang-won and Park Gi-sun, a deceased woman who had worked with him teaching in a night school for workers, arranged a ceremony that year so that the previously unmarried young people could enjoy companionship in eternity. Today they share a tomb in the city’s May 18 Memorial Cemetery.
That explanation doesn’t wash with rightist presidents of South Korea, who appear to dislike the hero status achieved by martyrs from a region that has traditionally supported their left-wing political opponents. The previous president stopped the official scheduling of crowd sing-alongs of “March for the Beloved” in favor of presumably more easily controlled performances by a choir.
That policy has been maintained under the current president – herself the daughter of a general who took power in a coup d’etat, became president and ruled the country for 18 years until his October 1979 assassination set off the political turmoil that culminated in the Gwangju uprising.
As we aging news correspondents sat in the second row awaiting the start of a national memorial service at the cemetery on May 18, last week, we witnessed a scene in which families of some of the 1980 victims engaged in a shouting and shoving match to block Minister of Patriots and Veteran Affairs Park Sung-choon from participating. Park on the previous day had offended them by issuing an order continuing the choir vs. sing-along policy. He left before the ceremony started.
A few minutes later almost everyone in the crowd, declining to leave the task to the appointed choir alone, joined in singing “March for the Beloved.” Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn conspicuously stood mute.
Bradley K. Martin has focused on Korea and other parts of Asia as a correspondent and historian for almost four decades. He is the author of “Yun Sang-won: The Knowledge in Those Eyes,” a chapter in The Kwangju Uprising: Eyewitness Press Accounts of Korea’s Tiananmen.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.