Smoke rises over the city of Gwangju and pro-democracy protesters mass in the street as a military helicopter flies overhead in this photo from May 1980. Photo: AFP

SEOUL – Every year, on May 18, Kim Tae-geun wakes up early on what is, for him, the worst day of the year.

“It’s a day I cannot forget, ever,” Kim – not his real name – told Asia Times. “I wish I could delete it from my calendar.”

Forty-seven years ago, in 1980, he and thousands of comrades – “black beret” airborne troops of South Korea’s crack special forces brigades – were deployed to the southwestern city of Gwangju with orders to suppress demonstrations. But the violent tactics they deployed, far from suppressing the protests, generated an armed uprising.

In an event that casts dark shadows across South Korea’s polity and society to this day, approximately 200 persons – estimates vary – were killed in a week-long uprising by pro-democracy activists against a Seoul government led, at the time, by an unelected general operating in the shadows.

“Every May 18, I remember the victims – many victims,” Kim said, his voice breaking as he spoke to Asia Times.

But it is not only the dead civilians – beaten, gunned down and even knifed to death in street battles – who flit across Kim’s mind. The villains of the story have also suffered. They are traumatized and have been widely demonized.

“Every year, I get calls on this day from my seniors, my team members, my friends,” said Kim. “It has been four decades now, but my friends have been living like devils.”

Kim requested anonymity for fear that if his identity was revealed, he would be hounded and shamed by activists and finger pointers, both online and off. Even his own family have suspicions.

“My daughter always asks me, ‘What is the true story?’” he recalled. “Everyone is a victim.”

Kim might like to have the event erased from memory. But given the long reach the events of 1980 have over South Korea’s polity and society, that is not an option for the political leadership.

On Wednesday, the newly minted president of South Korea, Yoon Suk-yeol, joined by a large entourage of conservative lawmakers, traveled from Seoul to Gwangju to join the annual commemorations.

But there are those who believe it was not solely the South Korean government and military of the day that was culpable. US generals at the time exercised considerable control over the domestic military, leading some to implicate Washington in the quashing of the uprising.

US President Joe Biden arrives in South Korea Friday for a three-day visit. He is expected to summit with Yoon, discuss North Korea and also map out his wider Indo-Pacific trade strategy.

David Lee Dolinger, a former US Peace Corps volunteer based in Gwangju in 1980 who attended Wednesday’s commemorations, urged Biden to add a fixture to his itinerary.

“My message to Biden is he should come to Gwangju to the memorial cemetery and pay homage in a speech,” Dolinger, whose book Called by Another Name: A Memoir of the Gwangju Uprising, was published in Korean and English on May 12.

The pain of 1980 endures for Dolinger, who joined today’s commemorations in Gwangju, as it does for Kim, for did not.

“There are areas of the cemetery I avoid,” Dolinger, who spoke to the leaders of the uprising before they were killed, told Asia Times via telephone. “I just don’t want to see the pictures on the gravestones.”

A black beret-wearing soldier beats a protester in Gwangju before the situation escalated to open battle. Photo: WikiCommons

The not-so-distant demons of yesteryear

The timing of the Gwangju commemorations and Biden’s visit is, of course, a coincidence – but there is a political coincidence, too.

Yoon and Biden both represent the parties in power at the time of the Gwangju Uprising. The US at the time was led by Jimmy Carter of the Democratic Party, while South Korea was led by General Chun Do0-hwan, who would go on to lead the ancestor of Yoon’s current conservative machine, the People Power Party.

In May 1980, South Korea existed in both a power vacuum and a state of hopeful upheaval. Following the assassination of the authoritarian president and ex-general Park Chung-hee in 1979, democracy beckoned.

But amid a “Seoul Spring,” another general, Chun Do-hwan, was quietly amassing power.  When protests erupted in the capital, demanding representative governance, Chun successfully put them down.

However, discontent simmered on in Gwangju – a gritty provincial capital in the southwest. The southwestern provinces were traditionally known for their feisty populaces, who had been largely overlooked in South Korea’s zero-to-hero industrialization.

That process had been overseen by the assassinated Park – who hailed from the rival southeast – in the 1960s.

Chun, a veteran of the deadly counter-insurgency operations of the Vietnam War, dispatched his most fearsome troops to silence Gwangju. That prompted an armed insurrection which saw civilians raiding armories and even commandeering armored vehicles.

The airborne troops were driven from the city. For a week, Gwangju was controlled by a citizen’s committee.

The city was blockaded by troops, while a nationwide information blackout was installed. Only a handful of foreign reporters were able to report from Gwangju. Finally, on May 27, massed army units stormed in.

After a hopeless last stand by hardcore rebels in Gwangju’s provincial office building, an uneasy silence reigned.

Kim recalls chaos and bloodshed: A young officer being shot, and a black beret sergeant – out of ammunition – charging into a crowd and bayonetting a man to death.

Dollinger recalls parents identifying bodies in the city’s overflowing morgue, appalled that their children – mostly in their early 20s – had died for reasons they could not comprehend.

The event’s scale and violence could not be suppressed for long.

Stories leaked out, influencing South Korean students who, un-cowed, started a campaign of protests against Chun, who transitioned from general to president.

Their demonstrations morphed into mass “people power” protests in Seoul in 1987, pressuring Chun to agree to a fully representative plebiscite. South Korea became a full democracy that year – and has been debating the events in Gwangju ever since.

Post-democracy, Chun went into internal exile in a temple and was sentenced to death – a sentence subsequently overturned via presidential pardon. He went on to live a quiet retirement in a walled-off villa in central Seoul, widely reviled, before dying last year. His memoirs remain unpublished.

In addition to the domestic trauma, Gwangju also led South Koreans to question their key ally.

The United States at the time retained fresh memories of the 1975 overthrow of the South Vietnamese government and was then, as now, wary of North Korea. Chun – who controlled the media at the time – let it be known that Washington acquiesced in the movement of the troops who ended the uprising.

“Gwangju was a crystalizing point,” Dolinger’s co-author, Matt VanVolkenburg, told Asia Times. “It led to frustration with Korea’s role in the partnership … it shattered hopes, and left the students very disillusioned.”

As a result, a small hardcore of student activists turned hard left – embracing Marxism and even pro-North Korean radicalism – while a much broader sense of anti-Americanism took shape throughout society in the 1990s.

That sentiment peaked in 2002 after two schoolchildren were killed in a road accident by South Korea-based US troops, infuriating locals who lacked any legal control over the GIs.

Former South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan in 2020. Photo: AFP

Research, blame, reconciliation

Today, the Gwangju protesters are considered heroes of the national pro-democracy movement and are officially memorialized with a museum and a cemetery, and have been portrayed admiringly in both film and literature. 

But questions still hover over the events of 1980 – such as over the number of dead. Most estimates are in the low hundreds, but some rise to the thousands. 

And questions are not restricted to South Korea. In recent years, journalists and scholars have trawled through reams of declassified US documents, digging deep into what Washington knew, did not know, did and did not do, at the time.

While it is clear that there was considerable disarray among the US government and its various military, intelligence and diplomatic arms, Dolinger is convinced the US must accept some responsibility.

He recalled his emotions in Gwangju at the time.

“I was in a lot of pain to see what everyone was going through, but also I was almost ashamed to be an American – they thought America would step in to protect them,” Dolinger, who is today a senior vice-president in a biotech firm, told Asia Times.

“They thought they had a just cause, that they would be supported by the US government – they were telling journalists to tell the US ambassador to intervene.”

In his book, he writes that Washington “was far more involved in decisions related to the suppression of the [Gwangju Uprising] than it is willing to admit.”

He has encountered pushback. He says US diplomats and other citizens have confronted him and told him he is wrong. Still, he believes an apology is merited.

“Even if the conclusions I have drawn from the declassified documents and my personal experiences are wrong, the US government should still apologise because, directly or indirectly, we played a role in what happened and the subsequent outcome,” he wrote.

Given that the killing was entirely Korean-on-Korean, Kim, the former black beret who is now a usually upbeat Seoul entrepreneur who sometimes meets old comrades for weekend rock climbing expeditions, is less convinced of America’s responsibility.

“Did they do something wrong? They watched Chun Do-hwan? They supported Chun Do-hwan?” he asked. “Let us be ourselves. We are Koreans. This is a Korean matter.”

Kim, who has distant family members he has never met in North Korea, compares the brutalities of 1980 to the ongoing division of the peninsula: Events undertaken in rarified political realms, far beyond the reach of ordinary people, which unleashed terrible furies among those ordinary people.

In this light, Kim, who says he has clients and employees from Gwangju, suggests reconciliation at the human level.

“We have been hiding away for decades,” he said of his fellow black berets. “I hope we can initiate a get-together with civilian victims and soldiers. It is a sad story, but we need to make a story for the future.”

Follow Andrew Salmon on Twitter: @ASalmonSeoul