Reclaiming Our History



Stepping between the raised mounds of the graves, I wondered if my visit was invisible to those under my feet. Could they feel my American bones weigh across their earth? Did they feel the shame on my shoulders as I occupied their space? Was my occupation different from those other American predecessors? Or did I invade once more? I offered a sincere, quiet apology. I left it hanging in the air for those who needed it. I wished peace for the many victims of oppression, compassion for the soldiers used to kill their own brothers and sisters, and forgiveness for those who have sincerely asked for it.

I’d gone down to to Gwangju to learn about the strength of its people in resisting and fighting the Chun Doo-Hwan military dictatorship. Yet, in the process, I learned about US foreign policy under the Carter administration. Although I was familiar with American overreach, the extent of US occupation in Korea became clear in the American decision to allow paratroopers stationed by North Korea to squash the uprising. At a point during the uprising, news that a US navy ship was arriving at Busan brought hope to the people of Gwangju: They thought the US was coming to support their struggle for democracy. Yet, this hope was shattered by the realization that the US was there to support the dictatorship. I felt ashamed at my US citizenship. The depth of US hypocrisy, claiming to value freedom and democracy around the world, yet acting against those values in so many instances throughout history made me critical of my country. These days, patriotism and brainwashing appear synonymous. Yet, if I love my country, it is with the hope that it will one day change its hawkish foreign policy.

First and foremost, the Gwangju trip was about respecting the lives of so many who had given their life for a cause. In the old cemetery[ref]Before the new official cemetery was built by the government, the bodies were buried at the old cemetery The old cemetery was part of a local cemetery where the bodies of the dead were brought and disposed of by the government. Now, buried in the old cemetery, are the bodies of those that their families refused to move to the new cemetery, and the bodies of those that fought for democracy and to expose the truth of the Gwangju Uprising.[/ref], I was awed by the many faces staring back at us. If you're a Westerner and have never been to a Korean cemetery, you may get a sense that they celebrate the lives of the deceased more than American ones do. Photographs of faces, some smiling, some serious, gaze back in a final testament to what they had accomplished in life, a reminder to do more with one’s own. The faces implore onlookers to live a more meaningful life, and the young ones especially remind visitors how precious time is.

The half smoked cigarettes, dried fish, soju bottles, empty cups, and sweet buns laid in front of the graves represent a communion and sharing with the departed. Even after one of us passes, we are never done with our conversation, our work, our duties to one another. Looking at the photos of the buried, I thought how fiercely alive they were! Their sacrifices magnified the weight of the unfinished work before us. They remind us that Korean democracy and American democracy are still works in progress and need people with passion to improve them. We can learn from one another in this struggle, for one flame can spark another across time and nation.

Chun Doo-Hwan and Roh Tae-Woo, both found responsible for the massacre of their own citizens, were freed after serving only a year of prison. Chun lives peacefully protected in a large house in Yeonhui-dong, not far from my own home, still claiming innocence for his actions. Thankfully, the people of Gwangju have protected the history of what happened in 1980. Preparations are still underway to preserve the past for visitors to learn about the history of Korea’s democratization movement. My hope is that younger Koreans will become interested in the truth of what happened. I also hope that the government can step up its efforts to locate the missing bodies of the many massacred. The figures for those killed vary widely, from 200 to 2000. Interviewing soldiers involved in the disposal of civilian bodies is important in locating the mass graves still left uncovered, and putting an accurate figure on the number killed is important for rectifying the lies of the dictatorship, lies that still remain in the discourse today.

Furthermore, another lesson from Gwangju lies in the brutality of the military system and methods of warfare. South Korean soldiers fired upon their own people, with the orders that they were fighting a Communist threat. They were told that North Koreans had entered Gwangju and were responsible for the uprising. The nationality of the people should not have excused the tactics they used. Highly trained paratroopers fired upon pregnant women, young children, and people with their backs turned and fleeing. The Communist threat from the North used as a tactic of oppression against the people of Korea is painted in red on the streets of Gwangju. I hope the Korean people recognize this and end the continued manipulation perpetrated by the government. This is why people’s history in any country is so important: so that people can see through the fear-based propaganda and see who the protectors and oppressors are.

written by Andrea Shnitzer (Open Lecture Operation Committee)

[Note: The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the International Strategy Center.]