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S. Korean survivors tell of 1980 Gwangju massacre

Published May 19, 2005 9:36 PM

Two young men from South Korea are touring the United States and Canada with information that few here have heard before. They are survivors of the 1980 massacre in Gwangju, in which over 2,000 people, most of them young students, were killed by the South Korean military after an uprising against the Chun Doo Hwan dictatorship then ruling South Korea. Thousands more were injured, tortured and imprisoned.

John Kim, Yoomi Jeong, Kim Hyo-Seok
and Lee Shin sing popular song about
Gwangju Uprising.

Kim Hyo-Seok and Lee Shin were just teenagers when the massacre happened. They lost close friends, and have dedicated themselves to making sure that such a terrible thing never happens again.

They came to the U.S. on the 25th anni versary of the massacre because this is the country that has had the ultimate authority over the South Korean military since the end of World War II. It is the country that allowed a succession of military dictatorships to abuse the people even while nearly 40,000 U.S. troops were occupying the country. And it is the country that explicitly—and this has now been proven— gave the orders that allowed the Gwangju massacre to happen.

Kim Hyo Seok displays photo of student
murdered by army in 1980. She was
eight months pregnant.

And they came here, said Kim Hyo-Seok, to demand of the U.S. government that it “speak the truth, then apologize and pay reparations to the victims.” Kim spent time after the uprising and massacre as a political prisoner. Today he is president of May Light, an organization established in 1998 to promote human rights and peace.

The U.S. government and the establishment media never talk about the Gwangju massacre. But in South Korea, that terrible event marked a turning point in the people’s acceptance of U.S. military occupation. Today, the majority of South Koreans say in polls that the biggest threat to peace in their country comes from the U.S.

Boston activists join Korean
community in commemorating Gwangju.

May 18, the day that the uprising began in 1980, is now a national holiday in South Korea and Gwangju reverberates to demonstrations and rallies calling for U.S. troops out. Since the Iraq War began, a focus of those rallies has also been the demand that no Korean troops be sent to the Middle East.

Kim Hyo-Seok has a book of carefully preserved photographs of some of the young people who were killed in Gwangju. They were women and men, most in their teens. Some of the photos show terrible mutilations by the soldiers.

In mid-May, the tour, which is sponsored by both Korean-American and U.S. groups, went to Lincroft, N.J., Boston and New York City. David Schraeger wrote of the New Jersey meeting:

“The presenters gave a painful description of what happened at Gwangju. They were warmly received by everyone in attendance at the Central NJ Coalition for Peace and Justice, who were deeply moved by what they heard. The CNJCPJ unanimously voted to contribute $200 to help the Korea Truth Commission cover the cost of spreading the word about what happened at Gwangju. As a sign of international solidarity with the Korean people, the CNJCPJ voted by acclamation to make the presenters honorary members.

“Gen. Chun Doo Hwan was a puppet of the U.S. and in May 1980, when the Gwangju People’s Uprising occurred protesting the dictatorship of Chun, who had got into power through a military coup, the hostage crisis was going on in Iran. It appears that the Carter administration was fearful of the same type of popular uprising occurring in Korea and the U.S. sent military reinforcements to support dictator Chun Doo Hwan.”

The New York meeting, held at the UN Church Center, was chaired by John Choe of Nodutdol for Korean Community Deve lopment. The Koreans were welcomed to the U.S. by Sara Flounders, a co-founder of the International Action Center.

In the discussion, Lee Shin explained how strongly the Korean people want peace and reunification, and that Wash ington’s threats against the nuclear program of North Korea are aimed at keeping the country divided through nuclear intimidation.

Where Gwangju tour goes next

* May 20, Fri., 7 p.m., Charlotte, N.C., (704) 554-1016, [email protected]

* May 21-22, Fri.-Sat., Atlanta

* May 22, Sun., Chicago

* May 23, Mon., Evanston, Ill., Northwestern Univ., Harris Hall,
Rm. 107, 1881 Sheridan Rd.

* May 25, Wed., Detroit, 7 p.m.,
Bernath Auditorium, Adamany Library, Wayne State Univ.

* May 26, Thurs., Windsor, Ont.

* May 27, Fri., Toronto, Ont.

* May 28, Sat., Hamilton, Ont.

* May 29, Sun., Buffalo, N.Y.

* May 31, Tues., San Francisco

* June 1, Wed., Los Angeles

* June 2, Thurs., Los Angeles,UCLA,
3-5 p.m., 314 Royce Hall, Center for Korean Studies

* June 3, Fri., Los Angeles, 7 p.m., Korean Buddhist Cultural Center, 4279 W. 3rd St. (at 3rd & Oxford)

For more details, see www.KoreaTruth.org (click on “tour”). For U.S. information, call the Korea Truth Commission at (212) 633-6646
or (917) 225-9615.
For the Canadian branch of the Korea Truth Commission, call (416) 703-7970 or e-mail [email protected].