13 May 2005

Kwangju: "Tienanmen before CNN and the fax"

DURING THE FIFTH REPUBLIC--that is, the presidency of Chun Doo Hwan (1981-1988)--it was difficult even to speak of the Kwangju Uprising, let alone do research or attempt to write about what had happened. Lee Jae-eui tells of his apprehensions and fears as he and a few friends in 1985 began work on their definitive account, Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age; they covered the windows at night so no one could see in and arranged secret signals with their families should the authorities be watching.

While in a retrospective gaze these precautions seem almost quaintly cloak-and-dagger, Lee's concerns were very real. As he says, "Any publication criticizing the Chun Doo-hwan regime was completely banned. Of course, 'the truth about the Kwangju uprising' was told in an incomplete and distorted way. Given the conditions, documenting the uprising was like belling a cat" .... Indeed, in May 1985 the publishing house where Lee's volume was being printed was raided, copies of the unbound book were seized, and both the publisher and the "cover author" (Hwang Sok Yong) were arrested; it was not until 1987 that the book could be openly sold.

Information about the Kwangju Uprising circulated underground, but harassment of publishers and print shops; raids on bookstores; and confiscation of videos, books, and other "subversive" materials found at such places as churches and the offices of student and activist groups were commonplace through much of the 1980s. In fact, restrictions on the press and the suppression of free speech were (remarkably) even more severe under Chun Doo Hwan than under his predecessor [Park Chung Hee]. As one report on human rights noted, "Were the press free, President Chun's policies, practices, and indeed his very authority would no doubt come under close scrutiny, and political opponents would be able to get their message to voters. To have a free press would be to invite political competition. This is something the South Korean government is not willing to permit" (International League For Human Rights 1985:49).

An incomplete, yet still deep and fearful, silence surrounded the "incident" of May 1980 and its larger implications. Even outside Korea it was difficult in the 1980s to get the scholarly community to confront the Kwangju issue and to discuss it openly. Nowadays I often characterize 5.18 as "Tienanmen before CNN and the fax"; the comparison is painfully apt in the sense that although there were indeed many political analysts, academics, and "friends" of Korea concerned at the time about human rights abuses under Chun, in the absence of "reliable" accounts, there were others who simply found it more convenient to believe the government's version of events in Kwangju.
SOURCE: Laying Claim to the Memory of May: A Look Back at the 1980 Kwangju Uprising, by Linda S. Lewis (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2002), pp. 75-76

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