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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Kwangju anniversary

Tomorrow is the 25th anniversary of the Kwangju Uprising, or at least of the day in May 1980 when demonstrations against the military dictatorship began in the city in Korea's Chôlla Province. By May 21 the demonstrators had liberated the city and driven out the paratroopers sent to crush them. The free city of Kwangju only lasted a few days, until the early hours of May 27 when it was retaken by government troops. The number of dead is still unknown, but is certainly in the hundreds.

To mark the anniversary Far Outliers is posting a series of fascinating extracts from Linda Lewis's Laying Claim to the Memory of May:

1. Linda Lewis on Contested Memories of the Kwangju Uprising
2. Kwangju: "Tienanmen before CNN and the fax"
3. Escape from Kwangju
4. Confucian Sanctification of Rebellion in Kwangju

Meanwhile, over at Dogstew they already have a post up about Kwangju and a speaking tour of North America to mark the occasion (not much use to me unfortunately...), plus some discussion underneath.

Tim Shorrock, the journalist who helped to reveal the US government's role in the Kwangju tragedy, also has some stuff on his blog about the anniversary, hopefully he'll post more soon. If you want to read his original scoop from the mid-nineties, you can here, with follow-up here.


At May 17, 2005 7:23 AM, Anonymous Antti said...

You might also want to include a link to a photography collection from Kwangju in May 1980 called "518 Reporters' Club" at Daum ( It's in Korean, but one doesn't need to subscribe to Daum in order to browse the archives.

At May 17, 2005 1:31 PM, Blogger kotaji said...

I want to post a link, but when I go to the website the pictures won't open. Is this something going on with my computer or is the 518 Reporters' Club site having problems?

At May 17, 2005 1:34 PM, Blogger kotaji said...

Actually, I've just found a notice on their site saying that they've had to temporarily close down, I think due to lack of server space. Quite bad timing really.

At May 17, 2005 2:06 PM, Anonymous Antti said...

Yes, all it would have taken was to read the text that surely was there when I checked the site address. (Indicative of how I can't - and perhaps ever won't - perceive hangul as I do the Latin characters, in a quick look.)

The pics are truly impressive, so let's hope the pictures will be up soon.

At May 17, 2005 3:25 PM, Blogger kotaji said...

I know exactly what you mean about hangul. Words don't leap out at me - my eyes just skate over.

At May 18, 2005 10:15 PM, Blogger matt said...

Hey, this is Matt from Two Koreas - Thanks for the kind words. I know I've seen your name amongst comments on the Marmot and Oranckay, but didn't know you had a blog of your own, and a good one at that. I've been working on some pieces about Kwangju myself, and I've been digging through the Shorrock declassified stuff, Memories of May 1980 (which has a lot of documents, like testimony by paratroopers), Laying Claim To the Memory of May (an absolute must-read, as I'm sure those excerpts have convinced you), and the reminiscences of foreign reporters who covered the uprising, which can be found here.
(These articles make up the bulk of the book 'The Kwangju Uprising: Press Accounts of Korea's Tiennamen.') I also own Kwangju Diary, but lent it out 3 years ago and have yet to get it back. I'm sure you know, but has a ton of photos; the daum site tends to have more colour photos. I've got an almost-complete piece on the background to Kwangju on my other blog here. (just wanted to get the damn thing up).

At May 19, 2005 10:12 AM, Blogger kotaji said...

Thanks for those links Matt. I think it's useful to get lots of links on this subject in one or two places. Also very impressed by your background piece on 1979-80, especially on the "puma sat'ae" which I must admit I'm very ignorant about.

In case you're interested, I had a lengthy discussion on my blog a few months back about democracy in South Korea, mainly focusing on Kwangju.

At May 20, 2005 9:10 PM, Blogger matt said...

That was an interesting discussion; the question of the US role is a difficult one. I find 'responsibility' to be too harsh a word, but the US most certainly played a role - one filled with so many 'but's and 'however's that it's difficult to assess. For example, under the joint command, Korea could use its paratroopers without US approval, but Chun brought up the possibility of using them to Gleysteen despite not needing to (underlining how often they were meeting during this time) and Gleysteen approved of it; of course, he, (and the Carter administration) never expected the troops would massacre students and civilians; the same troops hadn't killed anyone during the Bu-Ma uprising. There are other examples, and most of them are as elusive. I'd like to read Wickham's book at some point, just to get his point of view.

As for other Kwangju Sources, if you use emule, search for these anniversary specials:

[KBS] 518 광주 민주화운동 특집 - 역사를 넘어 정신으로 (2001)

Kbs 518 광주 민주화운동 특집 - 광주항쟁 그 후 20년 (2000)

Mbc 518특선 3부 2004.5월 광주

다큐 2004.05.20 2004 오월 광주

(by the way, you can also find the SBS TV show about english teachers: 그것이 알고 싶다.ep327.050219 )

These have a lot of interviews with survivors, relatives of the deceased, and witnesses. Even though I can't understand a lot of Korean (the Korean subtitles on the Jeolla-do dialect help), some of the stories of the people being interviewed/discussed I recognized, having read about them over the past few years. Linda Louis and Bradley Martin appear in the one listed first.

If you're interested, I cobbled together an article on the escalation of violence during the first few days of the Kwangju uprising; I'm off to Kwangju tomorrow to visit the cemetery and explore a little (I've never been there).

At May 23, 2005 3:30 PM, Blogger kotaji said...

I can't say I've ever used emule, but if it's a good source for this sort of stuff, perhaps I should have go. I assume it's a p2p thingy like SoulSeek or Kazaa.

Thanks for the link to your article too, it looks good, although I admit I haven't had a chance to read it all yet.

On the subject of US culpability in the Kwangju massacre, I think it is sometimes necessary to try to see the wood for the trees. As a historian I obviously believe it's important to look at the fine detail of what happened and assess the evidence. But it's also necessary to take a step back and analyse the events at a different level (I would also argue we need some sort of theory here - ie a theory of imperialism, but that is probably something to save for another time).

So while the documents do not look favourable for the US in terms of its complicity in what happened in Kwangju, it is still possible to say something like, "well they couldn't have known what would happen etc". But we need to look at the broader geopolitical structures that lay behind all this. At the root of it is the cold war and the US's consistent political, financial and military support for regimes that tortured and killed their own people, so long as they were strategically useful in the confrontation with the USSR (I certainly wouldn't argue that the Soviets were any different in this respect). What I'm saying basically is that the whole situation that arose in May 1980 had been shaped by a history and an environment created by US imperialism and US rivalry with the USSR.

Even if Carter himself was absolutely disgusted by the events, which is quite likely I suppose (although I'm sure Reagan certainly wasn't), the logic of the situation meant he could do little about it and I'm sure he knew this.

Anyway, my conclusion to this ramble is that while I believe close study of the actual events is essential, I think it can become a bit pointless and diversionary to start saying "it could have been different if the US government could have done this or that". To me this represents something of a misrecognition of where the sources of these events are. While I'm obviously not denying the immediate causes of those events or the roles of the particular agents involved, it should be understood that events like Kwangju really stem from deeper structures, broader conflicts and longer term developments.

At May 23, 2005 3:52 PM, Blogger kotaji said...

By the way Matt, I hope you had a good time in Kwangju. I visited a few years ago and liked it a lot. There are some good places to visit nearby as well like the Soswaewon garden and that temple with the lying Buddhas that I can't remember the name of.

Good luck understanding the bus drivers...


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