Hong Sung Dam, Leaflets of Warriors 1, 1985 Woodcut
The Gwangju Massacre of May 1980 was an important moment in Korea’s history, a turning point for Koreans on the peninsula and in the U.S. It was an episode that sparked the democratization movement in Korea, as it exposed the reality of its military dictatorship – and the true relationship of the U.S. government and military to South Korea and the Korean people. The impact was felt by many Korean Americans as well, and in that way, led to the eventual founding of Nodutdol.
In 1980, trade unionists, students and ordinary people all over South Korea had been protesting for months for worker’s rights and democracy after 19 years of military dictatorship. The previous dictator, Park Chung Hee had been assassinated and Major Chun Doo Hwan had just taken power in a coup and began to brutally suppress the democratization movement.
In Gwangju, the sixth largest city in south Korea, people rose up against the Chun Doo Hwan dictatorship in May 1980. The dictatorship sent in military forces and paramilitary groups into the city, resulting in over 2000 casualties and several hundreds of people, including children, were massacred in the streets, and then thrown into mass graves. For many years, this was suppressed history, and mention of the uprising and massacre was dangerous. Only in 1997 were Chun Doo Hwan and others convicted of their crimes, and in 2002, finally, a memorial cemetery was built to honor those who fought and died for democracy. For Koreans, this devastating episode revealed the true face of their government, and helped to give birth to a nation-wide movement for social justice in South Korea that eventually led to the first democratic elections in 1987.
Moreover, this tragedy changed many South Koreans’ view of the American role there. South Korea’s military has essentially been under U.S. control since 1954, due to their defense treaties and the Combined Forces Command (a combined U.S.- South Korea military command, led by a US general) For Korean troops to be sent to Gwangju, the U.S. military command would have had to direct such, or at minimum, acquiesce to such a plan. In fact, the U.S. authorized the Korean Army’s 20th Division to re-take Gwangju – as acknowledged in a 1982 letter to the New York Times by then-Ambassador Gleysteen. The U.S., however, continues to deny foreknowledge of the initial deployment of Korean Special Forces, who began the massacre.
Horrified by the events that took place on the days following May 18, 1980 and yet inspired by a city that rose up in the face of absolute repression, many Korean Americans began a journey of learning about and contributing to the struggle for the democracy in South Korea. South Korea is no longer a dictatorship, but the sight of military troops and tanks killing innocent people have been etched in the minds of millions. It turned a generation into activists and fighters who continue to fight today against the dangers of military power, for reunification, for social and economic justice, both in South Korea and the U.S.
Nodutdol remembers the legacy of the Gwangju Massacre and in this issue of enews, we decided to share some of the art and poetry that came out of that time period. For more information about the Gwangju Massacre, please visit our website and click on resources and download the KEEP files.
Hong Sung Dam, Dog Food, 1988 Woodcut
We Must Enter The Bright World You Opened For Us
by Kim Yong-T’aek
Shedding your warm blood,
breaking the chains of oppression and tyranny,
you opened wide the bright, blue sky,
casting off entirely our flesh, bones, and blood,
our impure blood,
under dazzling sunlight
our naked bodies
a new world opened in radiant joy
You whom we can never forget,
advancing among blood-splattering bullets,
leaping over falling brothers
into black darkness
ah, weeping, screaming,
while the hot bullets once shot
brought flowers into bloom,
flowers deeply engraved in our breasts
flowers that shed light
on that world where humans came after living human lives
on that world where humans will have to go after living human
we can hear it all
see if all
though we shut our eyes, block our ears
Their flowers blooming at the end of a sound of shooting.
no matter where we look
you are blooming, dazzling flowers,
fresh bright flowers that open wide the hills.
If we go out into the fields,
wild flowers at mother’s side
opening up paddy-fields and meadows.
If we go down to the river,
bright flowers opening every bend in the meandering stream.
If we go out into the streets,
undulating human flowers in every street.
Onward, ever onward,
let’s press on, opening up a good world.
Onward, ever onward,
the sun shoots aloft,
the southern land, scorching like a fireball,
scorches the bodies which tread and roll there,
the dry clay moistened with spittle sticking…
toward Kwangju, toward Kwangju
with May’s white sunshine blazing
onward, onward onward onward.
Piercing the ocher colored clay
bamboo groves here and there
wide meadows here and there
high mountains here and there
you who come bearing lotus lanterns
you people of the land
onward onward onward onward
mouthfuls of dusty clay
with your drought-burned faces
piercing through the dusty wind, the harsh dusty wind
crossing red rivers
climbing over red mountains
passing red meadows
smashing false history
you blossomed with the blood red of azaleas.
giving light to the yard of Chon Pong-Jun’s hatched house in the fields of Kobu
and the blood-red-hued hill path, glaring angry-eyed
onward, ever onward.
Swallowing once again red earth, onward to the land of the burning cuckoo’s song
that sticks in the burning throat,
to the land that now opens bright anew
land of democracy
land of the common folk
land of unification
land of liberation
land of freedom and hope, overflowing with love
passing beyond darkness
onward to my land
with no one falling
that does not rise again
no one leaving that does not return again.
Onward onward onward ever onward
to resurrection, the land of resurrection.
Straightening what is bent
raising up what is pressed down
onward onward to a bright world,
Onward ever onward to liberation’s land.
Translated by An Son-Jae, Chung Sngyong, Rhyu Simin, et al.
Memories of May 1980: A Documentary History of the Kwangju Uprising in Korea. 2003, Korea Democracy Foundation, Seoul, South Korea