Witnessing Gwangju ~ By Paul Courtright
(Hollym, Seoul, 2020, ISBN #978-1-5659-1495-7)
Review by Hyun Kyung Hong (Spring 2020 issue)
Paul Courtright’s Witnessing Gwangju is an American’s account of the tragic May 18 Gwangju Uprising that took place four decades ago.
His memoir revisits the 13 days of fears and gunfire during the student-led pro-democracy uprising in the southwestern city in 1980 when the author was working as a Peace Corps volunteer with the leprosy resettlement center in Hohyewon in South Jeolla Province.
He frequently travelled 30 minutes back and forth to Gwangju, as well as to other neighboring cities, on business trips.
Courtright said the publication of his first-hand experience of the protests and military’s brutal crackdown on protesters during the turbulent days is an overdue job that was necessary for him to heal wounds and also to better inform people outside Korea of the significance of the incident.
“Telling my story of 5.18 was important for me —- partly to bring some closure to a traumatic period in my life,” he said in the author’s note of the book. “I hope that, as a foreigner who lived in the area at the time, my story will also help the healing still needed in Gwangju and the surrounding towns and villages.”
The notes and letters he wrote during and after the 13 days from May 14 to 26 helped him reconstruct his vivid memories of the days full of fear and violence in the southern city in the book.
He defies some far-rightists’ allegations and suspicions about the popular protests.
There are people in Korea today questioning whether it actually happened; it happened. Some were saying that it was a communist insurrection, orchestrated or supported by North Korea. No, it was not. Some called it a riot by unruly students. No, it was not.
Former President Doo-hwan Chun, who took power through a military coup weeks after the assassination of President Chung-hee Park and was in power when the May 18 Uprising occurred, claimed it wasn’t a “homegrown” pro-democracy movement.
Chun, in his 2017 book, Chun Doo-hwan’s Memoir: Days of Chaos, claimed some 600 North Korean soldiers were involved in the Uprising in Gwangju. “The Gwangju Uprising was an urban guerrilla warfare conducted by the North Korean special forces,” he claimed in his memoir. “It is an open secret among North Korean defectors that North Korea was involved in the incident.”
In a vivid sketch, the author revisits the appalling scene he and two Koreans in hanbok, who accompanied the U.S. Peace Corps volunteer on their trip to the southern coastal city of Suncheon, witnessed together at the Gwangju bus station on May 19.
He says he felt a tense atmosphere at the bus station as soldiers in full camouflage and helmets were everywhere. “There were some loud thumps and a woman’s voice pierced the air.
‘They’re killing him! They’re killing him… Everyone froze. We turned around. The young man was on the ground, unmoving. Blood pooled beside his head. The soldiers stood over him, their posture still threatening. One soldier turned and maced us. There were no movement or words coming from the stunned crowd. ‘Leave the area! Now!’ barked the soldier.
Witnessing Gwangju published by Hollym, Korea, features several photos taken by Robin Moyer during the uprising. In 1980, Moyer was in Seoul on assignment for Time magazine and went to the southern city to cover the tragic story.
The book is the latest retrospective work shedding light on the turbulent democracy movement in Korea. Koreans were pitted against each other in the brutal repression. Soldiers, who were mobilized by the military government to crack down on the protestors, fired at fellow citizens, killing many and injuring many others.
The Gwangju Uprising became the prelude to a flurry of nationwide democracy protests.
Back in the 1980s, students often took to the street, chanting “Terminate dictatorship, Yankees go home.” The police fired tear gas canisters to disperse the crowds.
A wave of films, books and theatrical plays zooming in on the chaotic 1980s has been in vogue since May 2017 when President Jae-in Moon took power.
In the movies like 1987 and Taxi Driver, student activists are portrayed as heroes and the military leader Doo-hwan Chun is depicted as a villain who brutally repressed the democracy fighters to stay in power.
Despite the coincidence of publication, Witnessing Gwangju differs from other liberal-leaning book projects.
Besides his account of the traumatic 13 days, Courtright’s memoir also gives a peek into the cultural scene of Korea’s deep south in the 1980s. He said he came to understand the cultural meaning of the local vernacular nunchi (intuition or “reading the eyes”), while interacting with the southerners.
“In some situations in Korea, words masked the real intention of the speaker …on a number of occasions, by observing the speaker’s eyes I found it possible to interpret the spoken ‘yes’ to actually mean ‘no,’” he wrote.
Courtright describes Gwangju as his home away from home. There was no bathing facility in my village, so I used a bathhouse near the Gwangju bus station,” he wrote. “Best of all, Gwangju had great food. …In centuries past Gwangju was known for its gangsters, rowdiness and fantastic food. The gangsters and the rowdiness had become history but the food was still considered some of the best in Korea. As far as we were concerned, there was no better.”