Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

South Korea seeks to bind wounds after squashing 10-day city revolt

The tumultuous ten days of Kwangju are over, but it is going to require a mighty effort by all South Koreans to bind the wounds. "The Kwangju incident should serve as an occasion for all people to reflect on their actions so that such a tragedy is never repeated in this country," says Information Minister Lee Kwang Pyo.

"With the country divided in halves, we suffered a fratricidal war," he says. "We should endeavor to overcome and settle any problems in the spirit of harmony and compromise, and we appeal to all people for self- restraint and self-respect."

About these ads

This city of 800,000, however, still has very much the air of a place under alien military occupation. This reporter had to pass through ten military checkpoints and wait four hours before entering the city proper.

Equally strict checks are enforced on cars and motorcycles leaving the city. "We hear bad elements are trying to run away," says one fresh-faced, helmeted soldier at the Yongsan Bridge just outside the city.

Traffic is sparse on the city's wide thoroughfares. Most shops are still shuttered, although here and there doors are open. In general, soldiers are much less conspicuous than on May 27, the day paratroopers stormed the provincial headquarters, the die-hard student's last stronghold. Still, cars and taxis are being searched at various barriers, and citizens abruptly break off conversations with journalists when they see military patrols approaching.

Soldiers ring the plaza in front of the provincial headquarters. Tanks and armored personnel carriers guard main streets. The windows of the YWCA, where much of the students' printing activities went on during the demonstrations, are peppered with bullets. The interior is in disarray. A girl passserby tosses a card into a journalist's car.

"If you want to know the true story of what happened, call this number," she had scribbled in Korean on the card.

"We were waiting for the Army to come and restore order," says a couple squatting on the sidewalk in front of their still shuttered store.

"Did you join the demonstrations?" they are asked.

About these ads

"Oh yes," comes the answer. "Practically all citizens of Kwangju did.

"At first, on the 18th and the 19th, we didn't pay much attention to the demonstrations. There, the students go again, we thought. But then, on the 20 th and 21st, there was so much brutality by the paratroopers, and so many people were killed, that we just had to show our feelings. We saw the killings ourselves, on this very street."

"Then why are you glad the soldiers recaptured the city?"

By this time a fair-sized crowd has gathered.The couple looks at each other, at the crowd, and mutters, "There are some things we can't speak about. Not now , at any rate."

The remarks are contradictory, but one senses the fear many citizens feel over a law- and-order breakdown and the seething indignation over military behavior not likely to subside soon.

The ten days of Kwangju began May 18. Students at Chonnam National University took their demonstrations to the streets, demanding an end of martial law and a more rapid transition to democracy. They defied police and troops. The protests and violence increased day by day until May 21, when martial-law authorities ordered troops to leave the city center. This left the provincial headquarters building in student hands.

Barricades were erected and armories raided. Up to 4,000 weapons were reported stolen by students and other youth. A citizens committee tried to negotiate the peaceful surrender of the city on the basis of no reprisals. But talks broke down when student hard-liners refused to give up weapons or abandon two major demands: an end to martial law and the dismissal of military security commander Lt. Gen. Chon Doo Hwan, widely regarded as South Korea's new strong man.

General Chon and martial-law authorities said the students had been infiltrated by North Korean agents. They expressed fears that if the Kwangju rebellion continued, North Korea would be tempted to stir up trouble elsewhere.

Finally, government forces counter-attacked on May 27. Within a couple of hours all student-erected barricades were dismantled and occupied buildings retaken. Officially, 17 rebels and two goverment soldiers were reported killed. Many citizens of Kwangju believe the death toll much higher.The total tally for the ten-day period: about 280.

The government has promised a wide- ranging relief program, offering $8,000 to those with houses more than 80 percent destroyed. More remarkably, private contributions from around the country have been pouring into a fund opened by the respected newspaper Dong-A Ilbo.

For South Korea, as for Kwangju, the immediate future is shrouded in gloom. Neither President Choi Kyu-ha nor General Chon shows signs of readiness to tackle the root cause of the upheaval: the demand for a rapid transition from 18 years of authoritarian rule under the late President Park to a more democratic, open, and responsive system.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.