Monday marks the 29th anniversary of the Gwangju Democratization Movement. What have become of the vegetable sellers, truck drivers, high school students and tea room employees who stood up against the guns of the military dictatorship on that day in 1980? Many of them ended up taking their own lives unable to escape the shackles of torture and brutality. At the request of the May 18 Memorial Foundation, the research team headed by psychologist Dr. Cho Yong-beom from the Life Rights Action Center has conducted a psychological analysis and profile of 10 suicide victims.– Editor

All names used in this article are pseudonyms.

[Year 2009] Jin-seo, age 17, is currently studying pastry-making at a juvenile detention center. She was sent there last summer for her involvement in an assault on a peer she took part in with friends. She lived together with her grandmother, aunt and younger sister in Mokpo in the South Jeolla Province, and in the beginning of April of last year, she went home less and less. She had little spending money, but what she had she spent freely. When her grandmother and other adults at home asked her where the money came from, she would talk back and hurl insults at them.

Psychology experts were concerned that she had a behavioral disability, and that it might develop into a personality disability. “I hate being compared to my little sister, who everybody thinks is so sweet. I want to fix this, but I cannot and that frustrates me,” Jin-seo said.

Her sister Min-seo, 14, has a level 1 physical disability due to spinal muscular atrophy, a rare disease. She has been unable to walk since suffering from a fever at the age of seven months. The 57 year old aunt and who looks after Min-seo said, “It breaks my heart just to see it.” If Min-seo has one wish, it is to see her father once again. “I could be happy if I had my warm-hearted father by my side,” she said.

[2004] In Busan’s Sinjeong-dong in October 2004, Choi Gyu-yeong took his life by drinking insecticide. This came after he attempted to borrow one million won from a second cousin named Kim and was refused. Kim recounted how Choi looked out at the road the day before he died and said, “The spirits of the demonstrators are swarming by the side of the stream. They are calling for me.”

In 2003, Choi started drinking at home, day and night, some two to three bottles of soju per day. When drunk, he would say things like “I can see the dead,” or he would place his head against the wall and lower it repeatedly and say, “I made a mistake.” He would also often hold his younger daughter and cry. He began drinking to forget the pain caused by the aftereffects of torture, but it turned into poison for him.

Park Ye-bun, 77, was organizing the items left behind by her dead son when something made her catch her breath. She discovered her son had been carefully preserving a photograph of the wife who had divorced him some years before. “He must really have missed her,” the mother said.

[1998] Choi had agreed to a divorce citing financial difficulties. The younger daughter’s diagnosis with a level 1 disability placed a further burden on their already desperate situation.

At one time, Choi ran a manpower office. He started up the company with the 4.6 million won he received in compensation in 1990 for an injury in his lower back caused by a beating inflicted during the Gwangju massacre. Within a year, a worker he employed fell to his death. The settlement cost him 7 million won. Choi tried to borrow money to get the business going again, but he only grew deeper in debt. He went to work at a construction site, and he also worked as a taxi driver, however, his back was always giving him problems. He could not work continuously. At the time of his death he was unemployed.

Amid all of this, Choi took care of his two daughters. If his older daughter said she wanted chicken, he would never fail to buy it for her, even if it meant he had to beg drinks off of other people. His younger brother Nam-jin, age 43, expressed his regrets. “If my brother had been in a situation where he had hope and could work, he would never have ended up dying.”

[1980] On May 18 of this year, citizens in Gwangju and throughout South Jeolla Province held a demonstration calling for the lifting of martial law and the resignation of the military administration of Chun Doo-hwan. Choi, then a junior at Mokpo Deogin High School, participated in the “demo” with his friends.

But suppression by the martial law army forced him to take refuge on a nearby island. Thinking that the situation had quieted down, he returned home on May 28 and was captured by police. The police did not ask him any questions. They simply started beating him. “Nobody knew why they were being beaten, and they never stopped. It was enough to make you wonder if they had taken drugs or something,” said Lee Jeong-hu, director of the Mokpo May 18 Association

Choi was then taken to the military base, where the beatings continued. “Right from the time Gyu-yeong got back from the military base, he was unable to use his lower back properly,” Lee said.

Choi was released on July 15. His mother recounted, “Gyu-yeong would sit there blankly, without saying a word, and then constantly check whether the door was locked. Whenever he wanted to say something, he would start trembling.” He went back to school, but teachers and friends at the school stayed away from him, calling him a “demonstrator.” His damaged back also made it difficult for him to remain seated in the classroom. He ended up dropping out.

[1964] Choi Gyu-yeong was the third born of four children. A young man with a solid build at 173 cm and a disposition that hated losing, he liked sports and studied hard. “He was the best son, always worrying about his hard-working mother,” remembered his sister, 14 years his senior, who took care of him while their mother was working at the market.

He is said to have had the kind of character that placed a priority on doing the right thing. High school friend Kim Jun-sik remembered him as “someone who was always good at expressing himself, who had a strong sense of chivalry and was always saying, ‘If it is not right it is not right.’” Choi had such a strong sense of leadership that he took on the position of regiment leader for the high school military training corps.

Unable to bear witnessing injustice, Choi did not remain silent about the tragedy that took place in Gwangju in May 1980. Whose responsibility was the misfortune that befell him and his family after that?

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