An eyewitness report of the Kwangju
Citizen's Uprising in 1980
It was the morning of Monday, May 19, 1980, when I first d news of uprisings in Kwangju and other parts of South Korea. I was in Japan at the time. I immediately thought to inform the ARD Hamburg News Center, knowing that I had to cover this event. Unfortunately, our studio chief was out of the office. As I could not make the decision to pursue the story myself, I tried to call the home office in Germany to receive approval.
The news concerning the events in South Korea came in sparingly. The Korean government had declared martial law and was completely censoring its press under the pretense of political instability. This dearth of information naturally heightened my curiosity. I telephoned wherever I could to try to procure some more detailed information. I finally managed to find some direct links to Korea. After making some inquiries, I was sure that we must leave for Korea at the soonest possible moment. The situation was escalating, and we continued to hear of incidents of student deaths resulting from clashes between student groups and the miliary. I phoned our news-center in Hamburg, informing them about the instability of the situation. It was decided that we would commute from Japan to the Korean peninsula that very day.
I was worried that it might be difficult to get the gathered material out on time to Hamburg since I would be far away from Seoul and the only connection to the outside world, Kimpo airport. This was a complicated situation. I was overwhelmed by the difficulty of the task that lay ahead and did not know how I could manage it. There was no possibility of a satellite transmission like nowadays. The technology was not available. Furthermore, it would have been unlikely that the Korean officials would have permitted a German TV crew access to Kwangju, in view of the complete censorship then in place. But mulling over these problems was fruitless, I was sure that I would find a way!
The main thing was I had gotten the "OK" to cover these news stories. This was the beginning of what would later become the special historical documentary on the citizens uprising in Kwangju. After receiving this approval from my head office in Germany, I packed my film equipment and prepared for my trip. My colleague, film-cutter and sound-man, Henning Rumohr, and I quickly departed with minimal equipment and enough cash for a potentially extended journey. We headed for the Tokyo Narita International Airport and took the next available flight to Seoul.
Everything went smoothly on this day. Even at Kimpo Airport, the custom officers refrained from going through the usual tedious and time-consuming process of double-checking our film and sound equipment. It went so perfectly and quickly this time. It was almost as if the media was being welcomed. It was strange. Never had the paperwork at customs been processed so quickly and without complications. I felt uneasy watching this procedure--might there be a small hope amongst the many governmental officials for political change?
Our driver, Kim Sa Bok, whom I had informed of our arrival beforehand was waiting for us outside. After a brief greeting, we drove downtown to the Chosun Hotel. On the way, Kim briefed us on the current status of the situation. We stayed one night at the Chosen Hotel as it was too late to drive to Kwangju.
The situation being so peculiar, I did not, as is usually the procedure, inform the officials of the Korean Overseas Information Service (KOIS) of our arrival or apply for official accreditation. Since martial law was declared nation-wide--with complete press censorship--I thought that it would be better not to inform governmental offices such as the KOIS of our presence. This way we could avoid being under their control.
Due to the unstable situation, we decided to go through to the South taking the expressway, preferably traveling in the daytime. Our experienced driver, Kim, agreed to this. We left early in the morning on Tuesday, May 20. We left some unnecessary personal things behind in our rooms at Chosun since it was not certain that we would even reach our destination. The latest information before our departure indicated that all routes to the South were totally blocked off and that the military had cordoned off the whole area. However, we were determined and none of the information we had received would hold us back.
Another German correspondent, also from a Tokyo office, joined us for the trip down. I assured him that there was no guarantee of us ever reaching our desired destination of Kwangju. Indeed, signs at the expressway entrance saying "CLOSED" were a warning to us. But this did not hinder our driver Kim from continuing on the empty highway. The deserted highway gave me a strange feeling, I was sure that we would soon be stopped. After driving for about an hour, we began to encounter detour signs; but Kim continued to head straight for Kwangju. With my camera always on alert, I sat in the front to watch out for anything of interest. We kept driving unchecked for a long while. Finally, about 75 kilometers north of Kwangju, we were halted.
After a thorough inspection of the car, the controlling soldiers let us continue. Further on down the highway we received a warning that all traffic was being blocked off at the tunnel about 30 kilometers ahead. When we reached the tunnel, we were stopped by a group of heavily armed soldiers. There were at least fifteen large tanks parked in the opposite lane. This time we had no choice but to follow the instructions of the commander who had his soldiers aim their machine-guns at our car. We were diverted away from the expressway and forced to drive towards a nearby village. It was odd. The countryside was beautiful. We were surrounded by green rice paddies. But I now realized that the last remaining miles to Kwangju would be the most difficult ones. The martial law command was clearly trying to keep the foreign press out of the vicinity of Kwangju.
Unsure of what to do next, Kim consulted with some of the local farmers. We were soon on our way again, continuing along small side routes among the rice paddies. It was not long, however, before we were halted again by soldiers. Every possible way into Kwangju now seemed to be sealed off.
It was at this time that I developed the strategic idea of fabricating a story that we lost our boss in the vicinity and that we were currently looking for him. The ploy worked brilliantly, so brilliantly that its story was later printed on the front-page of No.1 Shimbun (a publication of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan (Vol.12, No.5)): "That a good story, well told, still may work miracles was proven by the German TV crew that parleyed its way past a full-fledged army major and several other manned checkpoints by insisting with those big, blue German eyes that they were not--of course not--going to shoot any film, but that they had to enter Kwangju to extricate their boss who was trapped in a hostile environment. Theirs was a humanitarian mission--not a journalistic one. They kept arguing with the soldiers until they were finally waved through."
After being permitted to pass, we found our way back to the deserted highway. The road was partly blocked of by some make-shift barricades of sand, stone, and other debris probably erected by the rebelling citizens of Kwangju. We easily made our way through these obstacles and were now only a short distance from Kwangju itself.
We proceeded very carefully and slowly, having fixed our German television flag outside of our car. I had brought it along hoping that this sign, prominently displaying the national colors of Germany, would help distinguish us from military cars.
After driving on for a very short time and passing all the barricades, a city bus (without any side windows and decorated with the Korean National Flag and some banners), an obviously captured military truck, and a Jeep carrying five fully armed people approached us. The bigger vehicles were fully loaded with young men and students wearing headbands and armed with no more than sticks or small axes. They were singing. They were welcoming us. We stopped when they pulled up. I climbed into the truck with my colleague, Henning, and we began to film as we drove towards town.
The students on top of the truck were singing the National Anthem of Korea, waving the Taekukki. I felt from them an overwhelming sense of hope. On the bus, the young people wore headbands. They beat their sticks in rhythm with the melody of the song. The bus was followed by the Jeep with its heavily armed, helmeted crew.
When we arrived, we found ourselves at a large place somewhere on the outskirts of the city. We were immediately surrounded by a rather large crowd. Out of the thousands of old and young citizens, one man approached us and in broken English explained to us what had happened the night before. He was nervous. His body trembled, and he was frequently overcome by emotion. He told us that many of his friends were shot the previous night and that the hospitals were filled with wounded, having nearly no space to nurse them. Getting more calm, he then explained that they really had no chance for survival. The military was reportedly using night-seeing devices. There was no possibility to hide or escape from their bullets.
I was overwhelmed by a mixture of anger and sympathy when I was driven to the backyard of the General Hospital of town. There, relatives and friends showed me their loved ones, opening many of the coffins that had been placed in rows. Most of the corpses were those of young students, who all had signs of wounds on their heads attesting to the fact that they had died as a result of brutal beatings. It was difficult to hold back my tears when I saw this. I filmed what I could of this sad scenery. Never in my life, even in my days filming the Vietnam war, had I seen anything like this.
I felt exhausted by what I had seen on my first day in Kwangju. The night came and not one of us dared to go out into the darkness. I heard some shooting from not too far off. It sounded like machine-guns. The night seemed very short. I got up early the next day, rising to the sound of gun fire.
My colleagues had not yet wakened. The sun was rising and the shooting I had heard in the darkness had stopped. On the start of this day I was sure that at least the sun would smile again. It was Wednesday, May 21, which happened to be Buddha's Birthday--usually a happy day filled with celebrations. My mind was cluttered with thoughts--how would these days of uncertainty and grief end? But there was a greater concern now that pressed deeply upon me: what I had seen with my own eyes and what I had documented on film should also be seen by the world. This meant that all my exposed material had to be gotten out to Germany to the news center in Hamburg. What is the value of a story, what is its impact, if it is not being distributed and broadcast to the rest of the world?
I began to count my film-cans, figuring out whether my collected material was sufficient. I was considering departing the city in the afternoon. I tried to telephone the home office again, but the lines were still dead. I assumed that the military had cut them off on account of the martial law regulations regarding press censorship.
The cut-off telephone lines put me in an unusual situation. Due to the technical considerations of developing and shipping, it was extremely unlikely in those days that film crews could ever provide the first run of a story. But since newspaper correspondents were dependent upon telephone communications, I had the unique opportunity to, for once, beat the newspaper headlines. Timing is everything in the news business, and as I was fairly certain that the telephone lines would remain down for quite a while, I decided to try to get my material out immediately. I decided it was necessary to take my material out personally--possibly even as far as Tokyo. I planned to return on Friday to continue my coverage. I learned later from the news center in Hamburg that this had been the right decision.
Before we left, we decided to try to film a few more sequences in Kwangju. After having a simple breakfast, Kim Sa Bok, our driver, brought us to the former provincial government building in the center of the city.
The building had been taken over by the students and uprising citizens as a kind of command office. Access was restricted. It seemed to be currently in use as an organizational point for the distribution of food, drinks, and other supplies. I noticed numerous big trucks and jeeps entering and exiting the compound. Military machinery and weapons were being stockpiled on the left side, near the entrance of the guard's booth. Two young people wearing fire helmets and armed with rifles stood sentry. They had a list at hand. Trucks which wanted to get in just blew their horns and were then given clearance to pass. In front of the building, numerous people were gathered, probably exchanging the latest news. Many of them lined up along the wall or around the sign boards to read the handwritten notices of the latest information.
A blue truck with about four dead bodies lying on it's platform came in. I followed until it stopped at the side of the building. When I looked into the backyard of the complex, I saw some corpses lying in a row on white sheets. The newly arrived dead bodies were carefully unloaded and put next to their comrades. There did not seem to be any friends or relatives present. Maybe these were the victims of the previous night's frays. Some of the dead bodies being unloaded were greatly deformed. I was overcome by a feeling of sickness.
I went back to the front of the building. Hanging down the middle of the building were long blue banners with big white hangul lettering saying: "Hopefully into the Eighties." It sounded very cynical to me. The friendly young man who had translated the slogan for me was also happy to tell me that virtually the whole city of Kwangju was under the control of the uprising students and citizens.
When looking for a tall building from which to take some general overviews of Kwangju, we passed by the decimated television station of MBC-TV CH9. Signs of a big fire were evident at all of the windows. I recorded this building to document the results of the first days of the uprising.
As we continued our search for a tall building, we met two Americans who were working for Amnesty International. They gave us a statement on film regarding what they had seen in the first two days of the uprising. Their statement, filmed on the roof of a nearby building, impressed me by its account of how roughly the citizens of Kwangju had been treated by the military forces in the days leading up to this incident.
It would be necessary to leave Kwangju soon if we were to reach Seoul during the daytime. My colleague and I decided to film only two more spots: one of an open food market and the other of a large barricade near an overpass where we could see some military tanks in the distance. Unfortunately, even with my telephoto lens, it was impossible to see clearly what was going on there. Consequently, I filmed only the immediate vicinity of the huge barricade constructed out of large, long tree trunks. There was and a totally burnt out military truck, evidence that there had been riots there in the days before.
The images we took of the open fruit market were just like those we would have taken in peaceful days. There was nothing abnormal as evidence of the current situation of grief and uncertainty. Every fruit and food was available there. There were no shortages. Market life seemed to go on as usual. After having a quick drink in the market, I sorted my latest exposed material, putting it back into the original cans and boxes. Of course I handled everything with great care: hiding my exposed material in its original packaging, trying to make it look like unexposed material. The five most important reels from the day before I put under my T-shirt in the hope that I could save this material if the rest were confiscated.
We took the same route out has we had taken coming in. Taking the highway, we managed to pass all barricades until we finally came upon the military controlled area. This time we were checked very carefully and were forced to get out of our car while they inspected our belongings. They looked closely at my "originally" wrapped materials. After finding nothing wrong, we were permitted to pass. The rest of the check points were easier to manage, but the trip took us more time than we had expected. We arrived at our hotel in Seoul at nearly 11 o'clock. It was too late to leave for Tokyo.
Early next morning I booked a first class return flight on Japan Airlines. I hoped that my status as a first-class passenger would give me a better chance to get my material out in my carry-on luggage. As it turned out, I made the right choice.
The film was packed in a big metal can, in between cookies, and wrapped up nicely in a strong golden metal foil with lot of green ribbons so as to be decorated as a wedding gift. The wrapping was so impressive that it actually made it through the security checks of the officers. Once on board the plane, I realized how much luck I had had on this last stage of the procedure and was relieved to have gotten all my film reels out safely. I returned to Tokyo and immediately handed this present over to my office. They forwarded it to our news center in Hamburg. The footage aired several times in Germany, as well as on Eurovision, and even in the United States.
I returned to Seoul three hours later, the afternoon of Thursday, May 22.
When reading this statement (which I also received a Hangul copy of, handwritten and signed by Mr. Kim), it occurred to me to place a copy of it in my luggage to show to the people in Kwangju. But I had to take care to hide it carefully, so that it would not be found in a security check.
I also similarly packed the uncensored Western and Japanese newspapers which I had brought back from Japan. On my short stopover in Narita Airport, I had picked up as many papers as I could, since I was myself so eager to read unfiltered information on the situation in Korea. I was lucky enough to have succeeded in getting the papers through customs at Kimpo.
Local Korean papers carried only threatening warnings and remarks issued by the Martial Law Command. For example, the headline of the May 22 edition of the Korea Times read "Six Killed--Riot Demonstrations Grip Kwangju Area for 4 Days--Martial Law Forces to take Necessary Steps on Riots." The paper also showed a photograph of the Martial Law Commander General Lee Hui Sung. He was appearing on National TV-KBS to deliver a statement warning that the martial law forces would "retain the right to take measures necessary for their self-defense against violent acts undermining national security and order."
The implications of this statement were clear. I was sure that this military hardliner already knew when these threats were going to be carried out. Indeed, threats of this nature must inevitably lead to confrontation. It was exceedingly unlikely that the military would give in or become rational. The chances of an immediate move to a more democratic form of government or for the adoption of a democratic constitution were very low.
After having studies all these articles with great interest, I felt certain that a bloody confrontation, however unfortunate, was the only possibly outcome for the citizens of Kwangju. Consequently, I decided to set out for Kwangju once again, determined to document these events on film.
An official governmental notice from KOIS dated May 23, probably issued specifically for foreign correspondents, was placed under my room door at the Chosun Hotel the morning before I left for Kwangju. I read it immediately. I could not confirm, not having seen many casualties, the first sentence of this report which claimed that there had been no casualties resulting from clashes between the rioters and the military. However, I was sure that the casualties were not, as mentioned in the notice, caused by the reckless firing of weapons among the rioters. This seemed extemely unlikely since using and handling weapons is nothing unusual for young people. They learn it in a kind of military drill at school. The notice claimed that the high death toll was the result of a general chaos that had beset the city. These obvious falsifications made me more eager than ever to prove their inaccuracy by documenting the truth with my camera.
We started for Kwangju at 10:30 in the morning on Friday, May 23. It was another sunny day. This time, however, I was not very hopeful about being able to reach the city. The military had been strengthening its forces surrounding the city...I assumed that the military cordon must be perfect at this point, I was very pessimistic about our chances of getting through.
To my surprise, the whole trip went rather smoothly. We had the good fortune of being able to join a Red Cross Convoy (3 cars which were transporting medicine, blood plasma, and other supplies to the provincial capital building) for the first 200 kilometers. We were winked through at all the check points.
But about 26 kilometers from the city, we were stopped and were forced
to break away from the convoy. Luckily, the soldier on duty spoke English.
With a copy of the front page of the May 18 Korea Herald, I was able to
convince him that foreigners were permitted to travel freely despite the
martial law. He was a little bit shocked when I showed him the cover article in
which the decrees of the martial law were printed out: "The freedom of travel
for foreigners will be insured to the maximum." He took this paper and talked
to one of his comrades. He came back smiling and let us pass, disregarding
the fact that our driver, Kim Sa Bok, was Korean.
At the end of the rally, the whole crowd sang the National Anthem. Everyone was deeply moved, but there was also a tension in the air belying the uncertainty of what the future would bring. Would the military listen to the proposals of the citizens of Kwangju?
The students stuck to the appeal of the committee to hand in their weapons. In front of the provincial government building, two people from the citizens committee collected the armaments. There were piles of light machine-guns on the platform.
The next morning, Saturday, May 24, I started off by going to the office of the organizing committee. The office was located on the second floor of the provincial government building. I was trying to find out if they had had any contact with the military. In the office was the only working telephone line in Kwangju. It was a direct line to the military authorities. So far the line had been silent. The committee of students, teachers, a priest, and other citizens of Kwangju entered the small conference room around 11:40 am. They were all wearing their sashes. The spokesman of the committee, an old man, was sitting near the telephone. He started to try the connection. It took quite a while until the other side answered. The spokesman then explained that the previously looted arms were being collected, and that there would be no possibility for a solution to the problem as long as shooting continued. Another member took over the receiver and asked the military commander to do nothing until having phoned again. He repeated: "If there are any questions, please call again." These were the last words through the hotline to the military. When he hung up, the clock on the wall read 5 minutes to 12 o'clock...a fitting omen.
The telephone line was never used again. The hope for political
reformation was weakened and finally destroyed by the military dictatorship
in the storming of Kwangju in the early morning of Tuesday, May 27, 1980.