The Misery and Confusion of Kwangju
Media Unprepared for Uprising’s Death and Mayhem
I have been looking back at the events in Kwangju 30 years ago. To do so, I opened a copy of The Kwangju Uprising, edited by me and Lee Jai Eui, and published a decade ago by M.E. Sharpe in the United States. By chance, I hit on the contribution by Lee Jai himself. That was where the book fell open in my hand. It all seems like a terrible dream. I find that I have forgotten much, if not all the details. But then, as the words click through my brain, as it were, I recognize turns of phrase that came from me, as I edited Lee Jai’s copy. There is a particular use of English here, a phrase there that must have originated in my brain, as I sifted through and rewrote Lee Jai’s words.
Yes, his copy needed editing. Then the content emerged. The reality he describes is – or was – utterly heartbreaking. I want to say this one thing, if I say nothing else. We were not used to murder on the streets, to deaths on our beat. Not a single person died on the street or in detention in the years leading up to just before Kwangju. Nor was there any case of reported injury. Back in the summer of 1979 there was a bizarre case of arson. Government agents set fire to the downtown headquarters of the New Democratic Party, headed by Kim Young Sam. The opposition party building was gutted. I remember going to see the ruins of the building.
There were no reports of casualties. My point is this: There were strict limits to how far the government would go. At the end of the day, the henchmen of Park Chung Hee, the long-lasting president (1961-79) were bound by limits, or they set such restrictions for themselves. We never imagined a single student death. Or a demo on the campuses that lead to fatalities. Somehow, the government avoided creating casualties. Just one death in those months – leading up to Kwangju in May 1980 – would have been massive international news. Just one person dying. As it was, we had plenty to report – many of us traveling from Japan to cover Seoul – but, again, not a soul died. What this meant, in my experience, was that we, the foreign press, and, of course, the domestic Korean press (subject to heavy censorship under martial law), had to come to grips in Kwangju in mid-May with the sudden obscene reality of hundreds of people dying on the streets.
We were totally unprepared for this. These days, with the onset of terrorism, and especially post-9/11, we have become used or hardened to ghastly images. Our media are trained to go for the blood on the streets. We are inundated with death on a daily basis, no, on an hourly basis. It is as if we need a diet of bloodshed, as if we were all vampires. Thirty years ago, there was much less blood on the streets, it seems to me. But for those of us who were there, in the city, all that changed in May l980. We became accustomed to thinking the unthinkable. Utter violence in front of our faces, done for us, specially prepared for the media, became our daily fare. To be sure, we had been prepared for this by Vietnam, year after year, full as it was of photographers. But we of the press, speaking for myself, had got the idea that Vietnam was a ghastly exception. Kwangju was different. It came massively out of the blue. It was like you or I walking into the neighborhood konbini in Japan to pick up a carton of milk, and suddenly being served a pickled human head or something.
Kwangju – and for this the press was unprepared – was simply impossible to digest. On the spot. At the time. This is why The Kwangju Uprising was called for. You don’t normally get journalists gathering 20 years after an event, to record their memories. We have always had our say. If we have missed something our editors ask for it, they spot the missing sentence, as it were. Kwangju was so far beyond the world as we knew it at that time – as seen from my newspaper’s head office at West 43rd Street – that my editors at The New York Times did not know what to ask me to do. The New York Times is – or was – a magnificent, well-oiled news machine. When something big happened, the editors would hit the story with bodies, with my colleagues. To cover Kwangju we had a clutch of notables. They were Fox Butterfield, coming in from Beijing; Henry Kamm, up from Southeast Asia; Jim Sterba, pulled in from God knows where at that time – he was a rover. And there was my ignoble self, as the bureau chief, supposedly in charge and making great calls on the story.
Not on your life! I had no idea, what to do, or where to go. Unable to decide, I stayed in my hotel in Seoul – handling reports, sending my local Korean resource, Shim Jae Hoon, to Kwangju in my place. I shoved Jae into a car – a taxi – and had him leave Seoul and head for Kwangju, five hours away, with Philippe Pons of Le Monde, to see that no harm came to Jae. It was a strategy of self-abnegation, but I had greatly underestimated the scale of what was about to burst open in broad daylight with heavily armed troops firing on civilians in the streets. We hadn’t got cameras in place, the networks were slow to arrive, so the really heavy damage was done before the TV folks could get a hold of it. Nonetheless, Jae was in the thick of it, with Philippe. Faithful to instructions Jae called in his story that then led Page 1 of the paper in New York. I can still recall, as if it happened half an hour ago, how Jae panted on the phone, as he dictated his story to me from outside Kwangju.
What was most memorable of all, he could not dictate, and we could not report, and, of which there were no photographs. I am talking about the mortuaries at the hospitals – which Jae and Phillippe checked out – with the bodies piled on top of each other. Remember! We had not seen a single casualty by gunfire in Korea for decades. Now, all of a sudden, here were these readymade corpses slammed together like so many proverbial sardines. Jae just made one or two casual mentions of this matter of the mortuaries in the days that followed. And then he shut up, never to revert to the topic. Nor did he tell me again, something else that we didn’t report. How our car was caught in the streets of Kwangju in daylight, and surrounded by a chanting, rocking crowd, singing out “New York Times, New York Times, New York Times.” Somehow, the word had spread, that this newspaper of ours was on the side of the citizenry and really cared, and was throwing itself into the conflict. Jae told me of this, when he got back to Seoul. But his very first reactions were what grabbed my attention.
“They are carrying scythes,” he said, shouting out his words to me on the phone, as I noted down his eyewitness report, for that Page 1 lede in America. The citizens had picked up anything they could find, any piece of old metal, anything like a club. And they were storming through the streets in their thousands. We got the story for one day, and then we lost it, somehow. It is as I say, we could not raise our brains – I speak for myself – to the point where we were able to convey the whole truth. The violence surpassed us and passed us by. Totally. But it sort of embedded itself in our beings. Thus, 30 years later, I find nothing odd in going back to Kwangju again. You see, these events were different. You can’t imagine, or I can’t, going back to say the fall of Saigon in l975, and running a bunch of stories in Number 1 on that historic event. The same goes, say, for Tiananmen. By and large, the media had their say at the time. They got their report done. Kwangju? Not so; the reckoning is still coming in.
I would like to close with these words from Chapter Two of our book, headed Operation “Fascinating Vacations” (the name the South Korean military gave to their Kwangju massacres), written by Lee Jai Eui and edited by me. Here Lee Jai is describing his decision to flee the city and save his life:
“I sneaked out of the city on May 24, abandoning my post in the militant student group running – or attempting to run – the city. I had been put in charge of an operations room on the first floor of the [Provincial Hall] on May 22. My reasoning was that if I died there, nothing would remain. Everything I had stored up in my head would be lost forever. Naturally, I was under pressure from my family, who wished me to make my escape. But the central fact was fear. On the first evening at my post, on the evening of May 22, I sat in the operations room, smoking a cigarette and summing up on paper, or trying to, what we students were doing for the citizens. As I sat there, struggling with the text, a still, small voice tempted me, saying, ‘Leave all this, if you want to achieve anything, should you want anything to remain. You are so isolated. You are so alone. Kwangju is cut off from the outside world. No one will ever know what happened.’ ”
Today, Lee Jay has shortened his name to just that. He came to Tokyo the other day. He gave me his meishi. He is director of the Jeonnam Nano Bio Research Center. He has joined the 21st Century, as it were. Still, he has his memories. Did he choose the harder path? As for me, Kwangju was a turning point. Within a month, I found myself in North Korea, visiting with the leadership and shaking the hand of Kim Il Sung. Can you imagine?
But that is another story…❶