This is the second in a series of blogs by Paul Courtright who is on a personal revisit in Korea.
The Seoul sky was tinged with Mongolian dust on May 4th when my plane touched down. It was good to be back.
Settling into my hotel in Seoul I figured that I would have a few days here to see friends, talk to students at Yonsei and Heart to Heart Foundation, and start the process of diving back into Korean language—the first goal of my three weeks here in Korea.
The second goal of my time in Korea was to be back in Gwangju to make sure I had accurately captured the sounds, smell and feel of the place in my book. I’m about two-thirds the way through my second revision of a memoir of 13 days around the Gwangju Incident and my plan is to have it ready for publication at the end of the year.
Was I in for a shock! Within the first couple days I learned two things:  the story of the Gwangju Incident has not been captured. There is no accepted narrative of all that happened.  The Gwangju Incident has become a politically contentious issue.
Unbeknownst to me, the news media has been clamoring for stories about the event. Although it was not part of my plan, when I arrived colleagues asked if I would talk to the media. Three interviews (two newspaper and one TV) have been completed and it looks like there might be more down the line. I have found it hard to say “no.”
How to tell the story? There is no single story. The Gwangju Incident happened over a number of days, involved thousands of people, and covered an area much bigger than Gwangju. No single person could witness it all. The only way that the Gwangju Incident can be told is by capturing the stories of hundreds, if not thousands, of people in Gwangju as well as the surrounding towns. Damyang to the north and Naju to the south both have to contribute. I can only tell my story—it is just one small piece of a much bigger story.
More than once I heard that the stories of foreigners in Gwangju are critical—because foreigners are “considered objective”. I don’t know how true that is. I have to admit that I was profoundly shocked that the military would kill civilians.
President Moon has requested the establishment of a bipartisan (or non-partisan) commission to do a deep dive and compile the full story of the Gwangju Incident. If this can be successfully undertaken then there is some chance that that, by the time of the 40th anniversary in May of 2020, the next steps to healing the old wounds can begin. I am hopeful.