South Korean military crackdown with arrested students. (Photo: Rauli Virtanen)

This article forms part of our series on cultural and historical repression around the world, and the challenge it poses to the international community.

“Young people sacrificed themselves for change in society, for democracy, for human rights, for truth and so on. Their energy was the focus, or rather the centre of change. Today’s younger generations are not as interested as they were in the 1980s,” reflects Professor Shin Gyonggu, the volunteer director of the Gwangju International Centre in South Korea, which marked its 20th anniversary in 2019. As he describes it, the centre, part of Unesco´s “Memory of the World” programme, seeks to safeguard humanity against collective amnesia. Gyonggu estimates that about 10-20 per cent of South Korean youth are not aware of the Gwangju uprising.

This historical context is important. The older I get, the more disturbed I am about historical amnesia and the willingness of society to let such memories slip. Such forgetfulness is not happening just in South Korea but also in Europe, Africa and elsewhere. I have to keep reminding my readers that when I started my career as a foreign reporter in 1970s, Western Europe lived under military dictatorships in Portugal, Spain, and Greece, which today are bastions of democracy, but at the cost of much suffering to their citizens of that

Visitors at exhibition at the Gwangju International Centre in memory of the 1980 uprising. (Photo: Rauli Virtanen)

A student rebellion against martial law

South Korea was also a military dictatorship when I first approached Gwangju with world-renowned war photographer Eddie Adams on 25 May 1980, nearly 40 years ago. Adams, who died in 2004, won over 500 awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for his iconic photograph of the execution of a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon.

On 18 May, students from the local Chonnam University led a rebellion against the martial law regime of then strongman Chun Doo-hwan, who had staged an army coup on 12 December 1979, overthrowing the country’s civilian government. A military blockade prevented traffic and communications into and out of Gwangju.

The soldiers holding a roadblock outside the city denied us entry. Adams, who had also covered the Korean War, quietly pulled the commanding officer aside and said: “Listen, I was here during the war when you were a little boy, and I gave you your first chewing gum.” It worked. The soldiers let us pass and we entered the city before the nightly curfew.

By then, scores of people had already been killed by paratroopers. However, the core of students holding the Provincial Hall, the city’s main government building steadfastly refused to surrender. Amid the chaos and din, we could hear loudspeakers appealing for blood donations. By the time night fell, the army loudspeakers were warning the few foreigners in English not to go out into the streets. The soldiers were under orders to shoot.

The next day we visited the sports gymnasium where coffins were displayed. I counted 56. On the top of each coffin lay a photograph of the student or civilian victim inside. Those not yet identified were laid outside a nearby state building where groups of people of 15 were allowed to approach in order to identify the bodies. Students collected money for a mass funeral.

Woman mourning victim of the 1980 ‘riot’ as the government first referred to the protest.  (Photo: Rauli Virtanen)

At around 4 a.m. on Tuesday 27 May, I heard shooting and the sound of helicopters. The final phase of the military operation to crush the revolt had begun. It took roughly two hours for the students in the Provincial Hall to surrender. With the break of dawn, I walked to the square to photograph the military detaining suspects, primarily those who had survived the final battle.

Refreshing one’s memories of Gwangju

I am now back in Gwangju to refresh my memories and to give some of my photographs from 1980 to the International Centre’s archives. During the martial law years, some of the Korean reporters who had taken photographs had hidden them, but dug them out later. It was only in 1988 with the change of government that they dared exhibit their photos.

My principal aim is to find out how the uprising, which had been obfuscated for so long, is being handled in South Korea. The exhibition is impressive, and I am happy to see so many young people visiting it despite the central authority’s continued hesitancy to acknowledge the “We have no clear statistics of the casualties,” explains Gyonggu. “The official statistics claim 186 killed, and those who died during the attack at the Provincial Hall is officially 17. But some military personnel personally told me that of there were nearly 200 dead with around 100 killed on the last day, and not just 17…”

Exhibit at the Gwangju International Centre. (Photo: Rauli Virtanen)

Students offered bravery, sacrifices and their stories for people to remember

In China, Tiananmen Square is considered taboo by the Beijing government – a position that it seeks to enforce not just through intimidation or arrests, but also by blanket blocking of the name ’Tiananmen’ or even its date, on the Internet. In 1980 students protested in Tiananmen Square in what Beijing officially refers to as the “June 4th incident”. This, too, resulted in a massacre with troops firing assault rifles and tank rounds at the demonstrators. Several hundred to several thousand people are believed to have been killed, with thousands more wounded. The Beijing government continues to ban all references to it.

The Gwangju uprising, observes Gyonggu, was also taboo under the Seoul military government, though not as much as in China. The Korean students’ bravery and sacrifices, together with stories and images of the events, changed public perceptions, especially among young people. “That is why mass participation [in reform movements] began in 1980,” Gyonggu says.

For the family members of the Gwangju victims, or martyrs as they are referred to, the whole incident acted as a stimulus. “They staged demonstrations everywhere and made a crack in the military rule. Since then, students have demonstrated every May, both here and throughout the nation.”

U.S. State Department dispatch referring to the Gwangju ‘massive insurrection’. (Photo: Rauli Virtanen)

Changing attitudes, but not quite…the truth is only allowed to proceed so far

Gyonggu says the military regime initially referred to the Gwangju uprising as a “riot”. It then changed the official label to the Gwangju “incident”. “It was more useful than the word ’riot’,” he says. “Not very positive but more neutral.” The government persisted with this description until 1988, when the National Parliament officially re-named it to “18 May democratization movement”. This is now the official name, but the activists still like to call it the Gwangju uprising.

“The reason why Parliament called it the ‘18 May democratization movement’ is that the revolt was not limited to Gwangju alone, but affected the entire country. Furthermore, South Korean activists did not like referring to it as ‘Gwangju’ because the military government sought to contain it officially as a localized uprising. In reality, it was a democratization movement for the entire nation,” says Gyonggu.

By 1988, attitudes had officially changed, but only to a point. There was a parliamentary hearing that exposed what had happened to the general public for the first time. Yet, as he points out, even then, it was “not the complete truth”. The conservative government was still not willing to go the whole way with the hearing. Twenty years after Gwangju, South Korea – now under a civilian president – decided to hold a truth commission. Yet, once again, military influence prevailed. President Kim Dae-jung, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, proved more interested in promoting national reconciliation than truth finding.

“Today, in 2019, the new government wants to have another truth commission, but the conservative party is refusing to cooperate. But this year [2019], we will have parliamentary elections and the conservatives may agree beforehand, because they know that otherwise they will end up being a minority,” Gyonggu says.

There has also been a lot of fake news relating to Gwangju, such a fabricated stories of 600 North Korean soldiers coming to the city to kill people. Even despite the Center, Gyonggu remains worried about the future. “People are losing interest in the past, in the past movements and uprisings. This is not good, but we have to persevere,” he says.

Rauli Virtanen is an award-winning Finnish freelance journalist, author and documentary film producer. He has covered conflicts since the Vietnam War and has visited 194 countries. He has written for major international media such as The Independent, Svenska Dagbladet and The Baltimore Sun.