We always hear: the victors write the history. Certainly, for many years after the Gwangju Uprising the official history was written by the Chun Du-Hwan government. It should come as no surprise that the government narrative did not reflect the fact that they perpetrated the massacre. And since then?
It is unfortunate that in the intervening years there was no investigation to fully capture the uprising. Now there is a push to get a complete historical record. Although Gwangju was the epicenter, Naju, Mokpo, Damyang and other Jeonnam towns were also involved. To capture the full story, interviews will be needed with thousands of people—only then can the full breath of the event be understood. Each of us who were witnesses actually only witnessed bits and pieces of the much larger picture.
On Tuesday I got a taxi in the small town of Nampyeong, about 15 km south of Gwangju, to go to the leprosy resettlement village I lived and worked in from 1979-80. Along the way, my taxi driver, who was about my age and from Nampyeong, and I got into conversation about 1980. He was surprised that I knew the leprosy village since the village no longer exists. He told me that his brother was killed during the uprising. Soldiers fired upon his vehicle on the road between Nampyeong and Gwangju. My photographs of bullet-ridden vehicles had appeared in the Gwangju newspaper just that morning, along with my interview. Was his brother in one of those vehicles? Has his story been told?
Last week in Seoul I met a Canadian historian and mentioned to him that, as the first PCV to get out of Gwangju (the day before the military re-took the town) I’d gone immediately to Seoul to give my account to the U.S. Embassy. Unfortunately, that official debriefing never took place and was limited to my contact with the Peace Corps office. My historian friend said that that’s not what the cables from the US Embassy to Washington DC said. That shook me—something wasn’t right. He and others understood that I’d debriefed the US Embassy about what I’d seen in Gwangju. He sent me a copy of the cable and it reads: “Four Peace Corps Volunteers could not be reached. (We have talked with PCV Paul Courtwright)” (sic) In fact, given the date of the cable and the wording, I realized that it was just an acknowledgement that I had contacted the Peace Corps office after I got to my village--after taking a back way, over the hills, to get out of Gwangju. This was not a debriefing. The take home message: the terseness of cables leave them open for multiple interpretations.
The Jeonnam provincial capital building has been retained as a museum and it was really helpful to go and see it after over 38 years, particularly because it’s one of the settings in the memoir I’m writing. During the uprising I wrote down everything that happened—not for the sake of posterity but because it was the only way I could get some sleep at night. Even with my notes however, some things were forgotten. I thought the building was just two stories—it is actually three stories. I had to go over the hills separating Gwangju from where my village was located and I had lost track, in my mind, of some of the terrain. Being back in my village and traveling the short distance—only 15 km--between Gwangju and Nampyeong helped me remember the “feel” of the land. Needless to say, the trees have grown since then and some of the area is now filled with apartment blocks.
There are still some aspects of the story of the uprising that remain unclear. I’ve heard that the Korean military had plans to bomb Gwangju—is that true? While the early cables from the US Embassy to Washington DC present an ill-informed perspective of what was going on in Gwangju the later cables are much better informed, balanced and objective. What happened in between these two times?