The mother of a victim of army suppression of the pro-democracy uprising of 1980 covers her mouth with a handkerchief after paying homage to her son buried at Mangweoldong Cemetery in Gwangju. Photo: AFP

In a grisly discovery that may potentially cast light on the darkest incident in recent Korean history, the remains of 40 bodies have reportedly been found at the site of a former prison in the city of Gwangju in southwestern South Korea.

In May 1980, Gwangju was wracked by pro-democracy demonstrations, a brutal and deadly crackdown by elite troops, a resultant citizen’s uprising – which included an assault on the prison – and more deaths, as the army stormed the city to retake it.

Even today, questions – notably over body count – remain unanswered, and Korea’s left and right wings continue to spar over exactly what happened.

If the corpses are found to be victims of the massacre, that could put further pressure on former President Chun Do-hwan, 88, the ex-general who, after having seized power via coup d’etat in 1980, ordered troops into Gwangju. Chun is today widely seen as unrepentant.

The bloodbath

The remains of the 40 bodies were discovered on Thursday when government workers were moving a graveyard formerly attached to the prison, according to Korean media reports on Friday afternoon. The identities are not known, hence DNA tests will be conducted, according to the Ministry of Justice.

“Currently, it is hard to prejudge whether the remains were related to the democracy movement,” Vice Justice Minister Kim Oh-soo said, according to Yonhap news agency. “But we have to check the possibility.”

Following the death of President Park Chung-hee in October 1979 – he was assassinated by his own intelligence chief – Major General Chun Do-hwan took power via a creeping coup d’etat.

Nationwide demonstrations followed. On May 18, 1980, “Black beret” airborne rangers were deployed to the city of Gwangju, a city known to be restive.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Gwangju in the southwest had suffered from a lack of investment under President Park, who hailed from, and maintained a political base in, the southeast.

The southwest’s leading politician, Kim Dae-jung, had fiercely opposed Park, and Gwangju’s citizens were reputed to be both feisty and anti-centrist.

The rangers went to work with extreme brutality, killing many locals. In response, a rebellion broke out as citizens seized weapons from armories and attacked the soldiers. Troops used the prison as a base, before retreating from Gwangju, which fell under the control of a short-lived provisional government.

With Gwangju out of control, Seoul instituted a nationwide news blackout: Only a handful of foreign reporters managed to infiltrate the city to report what was happening.

Government forces regrouped and reinforced, attacking the city from multiple directions with armored vehicles and helicopters. After a last stand at City Hall, the rebellion was crushed on May 27.

Enduring legacies

For Koreans today, Gwangju 1980 is roughly analogous to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in China. Its legacies are  multiple.

The events, variously known as the “May 18th Incident,”  the “Gwangju Uprising” or the “Gwangju Massacre,” were also the spark that ignited anti-Americanism in Korea. Many Koreans believed US officials had connived in, or given the green light for, the South Korean troop deployment to Gwangju.

After Korea democratized in 1987, facts about Gwangju leaked out. Multiple investigations were held and Chun and his chief crony – General Roh Tae-woo, who in the meantime had also become Korean president – were tried.

The former was sentenced to death and the latter to life imprisonment. However, in a move for national reconciliation, both men were pardoned by one of their former opponents, President Kim Young-sam, in 1996.

To this day it is unknown how many were killed in toto – protesters, armed rebels and troops. The lowest estimate is 144, the highest a vague 1,000-2,000. Most estimates fall around the 200-250 mark.

Identifying the dead

Who do the newly discovered remains belong to? There are several possibilities.

They could be persons who died in the prison over time. They could be victims who were shot in the prison when rebels attacked the facility. They could be soldiers killed during the fighting. They could perhaps even be the remains of North Korean commandos who a minority of far-right pundits allege were in Gwangju.

Don Kirk, one of the handful of foreign journalist to report from Gwangju in May 1980, assessed the likelihood of the various scenarios.

“All the possibilities are there, but my best guess is that they are a number of prisoners who were killed periodically over the years,” he told Asia Times.  “They could be victims of the massacre, they could be government forces, they could be both.”

A report early this year, citing a retired ranger, alleged secret burial of nine protesters at the prison site by the army.

Like the vast majority of persons familiar with the Gwangju incident, Kirk is highly dubious about rumored North Korean participation.

“I have always doubted the North Korean commando story,” he said. “If they had rounded up 40 and killed them, we would have known about it.”

Disinformation both sides

Chun, who had served in the Vietnam War, was fiercely anti-communist. Just before Gwangju, his regime, in fact, concocted a story that an allied country had informed Seoul that a North Korean infiltration unit had disappeared from surveillance, recalled Bradley Martin, now an Asia Times editor.

Martin found that, contrary to Seoul’s assertions at the time, no South Korean ally – ie, neither Japan nor the United States – had reported the disappearance of the unit.

Given the official eagerness of the regime to blame Pyongyang, it seems highly likely that had any North Korean commandos been killed or captured the regime in Seoul would have trumpeted the fact.

Like Kirk, Martin was, in 1980, one of the few reporters to report from Gwangju during the uprising.

Moreover, interviewing defecting military men including a former public security colonel in the years following Gwangju, Martin was told that the North Korean People’s Army had been on alert – but had not had time to decide on intervention in Gwangju before the rebellion was ended.

While the newly discovered 40 bodies may add to the 1980 butcher’s bill, Martin also believes the numbers of dead claimed by some – estimates go as high as 2,000 – are contentious.

“The left wing has always exaggerated the number of casualties and said there are thousands,” he said. Martin personally heard on the final afternoon of the uprising from Yoon Sang-won, the rebel leader, that about 260 had been killed.

“Add that to his own death and that of his comrades in the last stand … and it is far, far short of the thousands the left keep claiming died.” Martin said.

Evidence and Chun

While Roh has, for years reportedly been in poor health and has disappeared from public view, Chun appears bullishly vigorous and maintains a public profile.

Over the last year, as new reports have surfaced about the Gwangju incident – about the use of helicopters as firing platforms during the insurrection, and allegations that Chun himself travelled to Gwangju and personally ordered killings  – public and media anger against the ex-general and ex-president has increased.

Chun has made defiant appearances at Gwangju Court House where he faces charges of defaming a deceased priest in his memoirs. (Not coincidentally, Chun’s memoirs have been banned.)

However, he has refused to attend other hearings, citing ill health: He is believed to be suffering from Alzheimers disease, a condition that impacts memory.

Some Koreans have lambasted his golf trips and lavish dinner meetings, claiming this is evidence that Chun is not as sick as he claims, but specialists say that good days and bad days are, in fact, consistent with Alzhemiers.

Chun, who was responsible for killing more of his own citizens than any South Korean president bar the late Rhee Syngman, who oversaw massacres of leftists prior to and during the Korean War, may consider himself lucky not to be behind bars.

Of the four living former-Korean presidents, two are at large (himself and Roh); one is on bail but under virtual house arrest on corruption charges (Lee Myung-bak); and one is serving a 33-year jail sentence for corruption and abuse of power (Park Geun-hye).

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