|Kwangju Diary: Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age|
|Writer : 5·18eng Date : 2008-10-02 Hit : 3287|
Jae-eui Lee, Kwangju Diary: Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age (UCLA, 1999)
A Review by
Robert P. Beveridge xterminal (Cleveland, OH) - See all my reviews
How much do you know about modern Korean history? Unless you studied it in school, probably not a great deal. Especially if you're younger than I am; I was alive and old enough to be politically aware during the Kwangju uprising. I don't remember hearing about it on the news at all. Not once. In other words, don't blame yourself for your ignorance. You live in America; your lazy, apathetic media will not educate you. You must do it yourself.
When you do, however, always remember to take everything with a grain of salt. It should be relatively obvious to the average reader of Kwangju Diary that you're not dealing with a fair, objective account of the uprising. (Asking such of the author--who was actually involved in the proceedings, unlike the disinterested-reporter news media--would be far too much.) But still, hearing anything about an event of this magnitude that went all but unreported during its time period (and has been followed up on only sketchily afterwards; the afterword is penned by a journalist who covered the incident, and notes that the New York Times, who gave the incident a great deal [relatively] of coverage as it was happening, has completely ignored follow-ups that strongly implicate the American government in the proceedings). Besides, even allowing for a bit of hyperbole and the emotional state of the author when writing, this is a devastating indictment of the Korean government's actions in Kwangju in May 1980 (and, by implication, an indictment of the American government in May 1980 who allowed it to happen--if only, as the afterword seems to imply, as a sin of omission).
In any case, for those unaware of the incident itself: Kwangju, a city in southwestern Korea, was under martial law, and the citizens didn't like it. It started with student rallies, peaceful demonstrations calling for the end of martial law; it escalated when paratroopers were called in to aid the police in quelling what the government considered riots. Who exactly committed the atrocities is uncertain (though Lee lays the blame for most, if not all, of them at the feet of the paratroopers, which is probably accurate), and the overall death toll is not clear, but it's reasonable to say hundreds of Korean civilians were killed, a number of those tortured beforehand. It's probably not too unreasonable to increase that to thousands. At one point before the final crackdown, Lee tells of a committee overseeing the tallying of the dead, and the number two thousand is mentioned. The death toll itself, though, is not the true indicator of the depths of depravity here; Lee speaks of shallow graves, some unfilled when the military retreated before it had time to bury the bodies. He speaks of bodies left in basements and alleyways, of bodies too destroyed for there to be any identification (in one particularly ugly scene, Lee relates a story, later backed up by other witnesses, of paratroopers attacking a school bus full of activists, killing all but one high school girl).
All that said, Kwangju Diary is not just a list of atrocities; the other, and more important, part is the days of liberation between the day the rebel militia ousted the paratroopers, police, and government and the final paratrooper crackdown that brought the city to heel. Once again, one has to make allowances for the emotional state of the author at the time, which make the waxing poetic on the utopia brought on by communism (though anarchy, being post-state communism, would be a better deion) somewhat excusable. The middle section of the book is a paean to the triumph of the risen oppressed over their oppressors, but in no way does it ever seem to veer off into fantasyland; there are still skirmishes at the borders, impromptu leaders who need to rise and figure out how to ration scarce items like auto fuel, and much planning to be done to try and keep the liberated city from falling back into the hands of a despotic government. There is infighting, there is intrigue, there may even be foreign spies. (Lee discounts the idea that North Korean infiltrators were in the city, but let's face it, government agents did infiltrate the city, and wouldn't the North Koreans have been likely to use civil unrest as a basis for infiltration? Whether the idea that North Korean infiltrators would have been a bad thing or not, from Lee's perspective, is a topic which will remain unaddressed in this review.) A spontaneously-generated communist state born of strife and revolution, Lee wants us to know, has its share of difficulties as well.
Perhaps even more important is Lee's quick, and seemingly unconscious, treatise on how media spin can make even the most sanguine outlook an entirely different beast. Lee repeatedly reports that the media, both Korean and international, refer to the spontaneous demonstrations and victorious uprising as the actions of a mob minority (one wonders how many people actually live in the city, given that the numbers of demonstrators on some days swelled as high as an estimated one hundred fifty thousand). He also stresses that, during the period of liberation, crime in Kwangju was at an all-time low, hardly an indication of mob mentality. Even allowing for the heat of the moment from some of the international journalists, referring to the citizens of Kwangju as a mob is a move calculated to bring the rest of the world's opinions on the citizens of Kwangju to the lowest state possible. Disinterested observers indeed.
Source : http://www.amazon.com/Kwangju-Diary-Beyond-Death-Darkness/dp/1883191033
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