Learning Our Still Present Past

written by: Kim Tae-ha
translated by: Dae-Han Song
edited by: Kelly Jarman

I had the opportunity to attend two back to back events by the ISC about democracy and human rights in downtown Seoul, South Korea. Sounds boring right? However, these events were engaging and new for two reasons.

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First, we learned these subjects along with foreigners. Secondly, we learned history that we’d not been taught at school.

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My education killed off any interest I had in history even though I studied liberal arts programs in middle and high school.  My teacher taught us history in a tedious manner. She would furiously write on the board for 10 minutes; we would transfer that knowledge in our notebooks; then, we would memorize it. That was the entire class. I kept wondering, “Why did I have to memorize these dates? What was their significance?” 

The Gwangju May 18 Democratic Uprising was simply
two lines in a textbook we had to study for the test. 

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However, studying this material together, and listening to someone that had been a part of that history, I realized this wasn’t simply a story in a textbook. Afterwards, as we discussed over food, the foreigners in our table asked my opinion as a Korean. Have you ever been embarrassed at not knowing your history? I did that day. I could only respond that the history was new, interesting, and that I wanted to learn more. All I knew was two lines long: on May 18, 1980...the Gwangju Democratic Uprising...President Chun Doo-hwan...As hard as I thought, I couldn’t add more to the conversation.

When I got home I was inspired to learn more and discovered the webtoon “26 years.” The webtoon is about the impact of the Gwangju Uprising on the next generation. The author asked “How much did others like me in their late 20s know about this? How about those younger? Did they know anything?”

"Forgetting is a scary thing. It creates a future where those that massacred are forgiven."

“As Koreans, as people living in this moment of time, for our parents’ generation that experienced this - we need to remember this history and share it with others so as to not repeat it.

We haven’t forgotten the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising, 
And we haven’t forgiven either. 

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The second event took place at the Democracy and Human Rights Memorial Hall. I didn’t grow up in Seoul and did a lot of sightseeing when I moved here, but I had never heard about this museum before.

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Even if you knew where the Memorial Hall was, you could easily just past by without noticing it. That’s because it didn’t appear “interesting.” If some places carried out all type of marketing these days to attract people, this place was silent. 

Before entering the building, our guide gave us an introduction outlining what the building was used for. As I listened, the building began to morph into a horror house. 

How many must have been dragged here
hearts filled with horror and dread. 
How much blood must have flowed.
How scary must it have been.
How much must people yearned to go home
How much must people yearned for their loved ones.
How much...must they have wanted to come out alive.

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The red slits that ran across the building were windows made so that no one could see in or out and no one on the inside could escape or even take their own life.

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This is the inside of the rooms behind the windows. It is all painted red. These were the bare minimum facilities for those brought here after calling for democracy. In reality, they were used for torture: turned over and dunked in water, hot spicy soup poured into your nose and mouth, being deprived of sleep. 

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Spiral staircases like on the left photo were often used in the West for design and space saving purposes. However, in this building, the spiral staircase was used to disorient those detained and to instill fear in their hearts. At the end of the staircase, each of the detention rooms has a number, but a floor number is not written anywhere, so the prisoners don’t know what floor they are in. 


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On the wall of the torture room were the insults the prisoners endured. Even before the pain, if I had been them, I would have been frustrated by these insults: “I was just fighting for democracy, but now I had to suffer being called a commie. Why did these people not understand my intention?” The frustration, the torture would have driven me to give a confession, even if false. If you look at it, the sacrifices they made were for their country, their descendants, the future of Korea. That they suffered through pain and fought for democracy makes me pay my respects to them. 

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Park Jeong Chul died from being tortured for fighting for democracy. If he’d been alive he would probably have had a child that would be the same age as me. I thought about how during this summer heat he would probably take his family to trips abroad or to the beach.

How scared must he have been. He might even have yearned for a calm and happy life like any other. However, sacrificing it all, he died for democracy. We must continue forward. But, we mustn’t forget. Lest this repeat. Those that gave the orders are not asking forgiveness, nor do they feel its need. They are just waiting for time to pass and people to forget. 

We mustn’t forget.