The Gwangju massacre and South Korean films

Gwangju massacreBy David Walsh:

18 May 2007

Culminating a period of intense power struggles in the Korean ruling elite, as well as years of domestic repression, on October 26, 1979, Park Chung-hee, president of South Korea since 1961—who had established himself as virtual dictator—was assassinated by the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, Kim Jae-kyu.

Over the next several months Gen. Chun Doo-hwan and his cohorts staged “a rolling coup,” which was met by increasingly volatile protests, especially from students.

Following Chun’s declaration of martial law on May 17, 1980, troops attacked students in Gwangju, a city in southern South Korea, when the latter resisted their university’s closure.

Over the next several days, the student protesters were joined by citizens of the city and surrounding areas, including many workers, among them textile workers and miners.

The brutal actions of the repressive forces only escalated.

One participant described it: “A cluster of troops attacked each student individually. They would crack his head, stomp his back, and kick him in the face.

When the soldiers were done, he looked like a pile of clothes in meat sauce” (Lee Jae-eui, Kwangju Diary: Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age).

By May 21, Gwangju was in a state of open revolt, with some 300,000 people having joined the movement.

Arms depots and police stations were looted and their weapons seized.

A militia, known as the Citizens Army, repulsed the army, killing several soldiers. A rival administration arose to maintain order and conduct negotiations with the government. It lasted six days.

On May 27, army units, including Special Forces, were unleashed on the population in an orgy of violence.

No one knows to this day how many died during the events in Gwangju, perhaps as many as 2,000.

The actions were carried out with the full knowledge and support of the Carter administration in the US.

In 1996, Tim Shorrock of the Journal of Commerce obtained documents under the Freedom of Information Act that implicated Washington.

His account makes fascinating reading. …

The Gwangju massacre still weighs heavily on many minds in South Korea.

It continues to preoccupy certain artists and filmmakers.

In 2004, the WSWS covered an exhibition in New York City by artist Hong Sung Dam that in part treated the events.

Lee Chang-dong’s film Peppermint Candy (2000) recounts the life and death of a secret policeman turned businessman who, as a frightened youth, participates in the massacre as a member of the armed forces.

In Im Sang-soo’s new film, The Old Garden, Hyun-woo leaves prison after nearly 17 years for his part as a leftist militant in the events in 1980.

November 2007: big anti war demonstration in South Korea.

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