The family in Forgotten Country flees South Korea in the tumultuous wake of what many South Koreans consider to be the worst tragedy in Korean history since World War II - worse even than the Korean War. Indeed by all accounts the event that took place in May of 1980, known as the Kwangju Massacre, when hundreds of students and private citizens of a university town (also known as Gwangju or Gwangju Metropolitan City) were slain by the Korean military, is widely acknowledged as a national tragedy.
It all began as a demonstration against the military dictatorship of General Chun Doo Hwan who had dashed any hopes of democratic elections upon the assassination of South Korea's previous leader by declaring martial law and imposing strict reins on the press. Pro-democracy students took to the streets in protest on May 18 and were met with armed military resistance. As sympathetic citizens and other university students witnessed what was happening on television, thousands more joined the protesters.
The students, many of whom had recently completed their one-year mandatory military service soon took arms in defense. Other young men in the midst of their obligatory military service, regardless of their sympathies, were called upon to violently oppose the pro-democracy crowds. Shots were fired and bombs were detonated over the next ten days in the formerly bucolic rural town and the immediate surrounding area. Tighter clamps were put on freedoms until ultimately, anyone even heard uttering the name Kwangju risked being arrested.
In the end, the estimates of fatalities from the Kwangju Massacre range from the South Korean government's official tally of 200 dead to unofficial counts by witnesses who insist the dead number upwards of ten times that sum. As democracy subsequently began to take a stronger hold in the nation, the government eventually paid reparations to the families of about 200 civilians killed during the protest.
To read accounts of the Kwangju Massacre, click on the New York Times article entitled "The People of Kwangju Recall 1980 Massacre" or visit the Flying Yangban blog.
This article was originally published in March 2012, and has been updated for the
March 2013 paperback release.
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