Buried beneath a park in the wealthy district of Sangmu, Gwangju, there is a massive black marble plaque that bears the names (and dates of birth for identical names) of some of the 2,000 people killed during the 1980 Gwangju pro-democracy rebellion against Chun Doo-hwan’s military government.
Grey concrete walls and floors project a solemn and cold atmosphere, as do the giant rock murals depicting significant events up the point when the army retook the city from the civil militias on May 27, 1980. Outside the caved memorial, on ground level, rises an enormous statue of two well-built men – not entirely in keeping with the physique of Korean men thirty years ago – dragging an injured comrade away from danger.
Republic of Korea Army General Chun Doo-hwan took control of the government following a coup d’état in December 1979, igniting months of political and social unrest. Universities were closed, martial law was extended to cover the entire country, political activities were forbidden and press freedom was further curtailed.
The uprising began with three days of fighting between the citizens of Gwangju and the army before Chun’s forces retreated, blocking off the city. Once reinforcements arrived from across the country, the army re-entered Gwangju and crushed the rebellion in 90 minutes.
Carved in white letters on the black marble is the name Park Gap-soo, a name shared by two victims of the uprising. And it is because of the identical name that we learn something very interesting about one of these men.
The younger Mr. Park, born in 1953, celebrated his 27th birthday two weeks before the uprising. Given that this rebellion was started by students defying the nationwide closure of universities, probably most of those killed or injured fitted his 18-30 age profile.
The older Mr. Park was born in September 1894. Information is scarce on-line, especially in English, and every material I have read does not go into much detail about the casualties. But how did a man approaching his 90th birthday die in this uprising?
What we can do is look back on a life that has seen more turmoil and chaos, politically, than anyone born one hundred years after him will ever experience. Later this year, South Koreans will vote in a successor for President Lee Myung-bak. In spring, they elected their new government.
Mr. Park never saw much freedom or democracy in his country. Born into the Joseon Dynasty, he spent most of his early childhood living in the Great Korean Empire, the absolute monarchy under Emperors Gojong and Sunjong, which included land in modern day North and South Korea, plus Russia and China.
In August 1910,Korea was annexed by Imperial Japan for 35 years. Most forms of Korean culture was banned and in the classrooms across the peninsula, where once Mr. Park would have sat, the Japanese flag peered over the chalk board.
Following Japan’s defeat in World War II, Korea was divided across the 38th parallel and this partition was rubber-stamped when the 1950-53 Korean War was brought to a close by way of a peace treaty. At this point, Mr. Park was fifty years old, and would have seen his country invaded by Japanese, North Korean and Chinese forces, plus thousands arriving from, primarily, the US, to drive the communists northwards.
Syngman Rhee became the first president of South Korea in 1948, with his brutal and corrupt dictatorship book-ending the Korean War. Under his command, 60,000 civilians and rebels were massacred on Jeju Island. In 1960, Rhee resigned in disgrace, paving the way for 3 republics and 4 different Presidents up to the Gwangju uprising.
Did Park Gap-soo pick up arms to repel the Japanese? Where was he when the Kim Il-sung’s forces invaded South Korea in the summer of 1950? If he was ever given a vote, would he have supported Syngman Rhee’s despot government? Did he die an innocent by-stander in Gwangju, or was he standing – aged 85 – shoulder to shoulder with his militiaman, freeing the city from decades of authoritarian rule?
Was he a simple man, or a forgotten hero of South Korea?
We can only speculate on how Park Gap-soo lived his life, but is it possible that this old man spent the first fifty years of his life fighting the foreign invaders of his country, but died, in his 80’s, fighting for the freedom of his people from fellow Koreans?
When the next generation of Korean voters head to the polls for the December Presidential election, hopefully a few will remember the sacrifice those named in a Gwangju underground memorial made for their country.