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[Exclusive] Former Peace Corps member Courtright recollects Gwangju Uprising

It has been 39 years since the May 18, 1980, Gwangju Democratization Movement -- or Gwangju Uprising -- where hundreds of citizens in the city, located some 330 kilometers south of Seoul, were killed in a deadly military crackdown during the authoritarian regime of Chun Doo-hwan, who came to power in a military coup in 1979.

While the official figures put the number of deaths at 165 over a 10-day period, it is thought that the actual number of those killed could be three times higher.

Even the basic details about one of the most important events in the country’s modern history remain in the dark to this day, with some continuing to hold on to rhetoric that the citizens who protested for democracy were insurgents sympathetic to communist North Korea.

US missionaries and foreign journalists who witnessed the event are vital eyewitnesses, many of whom have spoken about the brutal military crackdown in Gwangju.

Paul Courtright, an epidemiologist, is also a witness who lived through the Gwangju Uprising during his stay here as a member of the 48th Peace Corps Korea group, treating Hansen’s Disease patients in small villages near downtown Gwangju.

“There is a small little town of Nampyeong. … Right on the main street where buses pass, where people were gathering and all of a sudden a bus transits. On the side of the bus it said ‘Free Kim Dae-jung’. It was occupied by students who were traveling from Gwangju to all the other towns,” said Courtright in an interview with The Korea Herald last week.

“It just struck me, here was a small little village in the middle of nowhere, but was fully engaged. Everybody was in the streets and supporting people demonstrating against the military,” he added.

Courtright lived in South Korea between May 1979 and November 1982. He spent 1 1/2 years in Naju, about 30 kilometers southwest of Gwangju, and Hohyewon, a small village located midway between Gwangju and Naju.

He recalled a moment on May 21, 1980, when after a heated discussion, a crowd demolished weapons they had taken from a police station to prevent the soldiers from using them.

“The people in that town (Nampyeong) were neither students nor agitators. They would have been the first to rise up against any North Korean engagement,” said Courtright.

“They were ordinary citizens, yet they were there defending themselves.”

Military government controls media

While the bloody crackdown was taking place in Gwangju, people outside the city either knew little of the uprising or believed it was a riot as President Chun aggressively censored broadcasters and newspapers.

About 1,000 journalists were dismissed between May 20-27, 1980, because they refused to publish news reports, protesting the dictator’s ban on reporting about the massacre in Gwangju, according to a council of journalists who were dismissed in 1980.

After watching television channels broadcast false news about the situation in Gwangju, members of the Peace Corp in the city felt the need to reach the US Embassy to clarify facts, according to Courtright.

“The TV (news) that we were getting in Gwangju was being fed from Seoul. It was talking about ‘impure elements’ and North Korea’s influence, which wasn’t true,” he said.

Members of the Peace Corps, including Courtright, were also referred to as “impure elements” by the military government as it was eager to prevent news of the massacre from spreading and was uneasy that members had translated for foreign reporters.

“It stunned me to sit down with my Peace Corp friends here in South Korea who were not in Gwangju. They believed the government story. They said ‘that’s what we heard.’ The media was controlled,” Courtright said.

“That was their (military’s) narrative. So it took quite a while talking with my friends to say ‘no that is not correct.’”

While telephones worked in Gwangju, the military government had blocked all telecommunication links to the rest of the country, isolating the city.

Dr. Paul Courtright speaks in an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul last week. (Lee Sun-hye/ The Korea Herald)
Dr. Paul Courtright speaks in an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul last week. (Lee Sun-hye/ The Korea Herald)

Bullet holes, blood, but no bodies

With the aim of getting to the truth of the Gwangju Uprising, President Moon Jae-in, in mid-April, requested the ruling Democratic Party and the main opposition Liberty Korea Party to launch a special fact-finding committee before May 18.

The nine-member committee, which was initially slated to start work in September 2018, has not yet been formed due to conservative Liberty Korea Party’s nomination of controversial far-right individuals, whom Moon has refused to accept as members.

On May 19, 1980, Courtright witnessed for the first time violence at a bus station in Gwangju, where he had arrived with two patients to transfer to another bus to get to a hospital in Yeosu.

“The first time I saw violence was on Monday, May 19. There was a young man who was killed, right there in front of us by a couple of soldiers,” Courtright said.

“The other thing that has always baffled me and still don’t understand … (On May 22, 1980) when I came across the soldiers (between Gwangju and Nampyeong), there were a number of buses and cars that were full of bullet marks. They were completely bullet ridden and there was blood everywhere,” he noted.

“I just thought ‘where are the people who were in the vehicles? Did the military take them away? What happened to them?’ Some of the vehicles were being used to create a road block (by the military), so I guessed they are the ones responsible for what happened to the vehicles and people. That has never been clear to me.

“It was really, extremely disturbing to see vehicles that were full of bullet marks. These were the same buses that I saw the previous day in Nampyeong (with) ‘Free Kim Dae-jung’ and other banners.”

South Korea has yet to establish the fundamental facts of the incident, such as the number of people killed and where the bodies were buried, to name a few unresolved issues.

Chun Doo-hwan’s narrative lingers

In late February, some 200 citizens -- family members who lost their loved ones in the uprising and citizens -- gathered in front of the National Assembly to protest remarks made by a far-right political commentator and controversial Liberty Korea Party lawmakers on the May Democratization Movement.

“The first time I heard that it was still a narrative, I was frankly shocked. I thought back in the 1990s the whole story was well understood. That everybody knew the full history of what actually had happened -- the question of a riot or of North Korean influence was never, never the case. There was no evidence of that whatsoever,” Courtright said.

“I am still shocked that there are people who say things they clearly don’t know. It is not a reflection of reality.”

“The thing about the Gwangju Uprising is that it happened over many days over a large area, and affected many people. Not every witness saw everything. So there are many stories around the incident, and there is no one story. That is what needs to be captured, in a way that everybody fully understands exactly what happened.”

After leaving South Korea, Courtright went on to receive a doctorate in epidemiology from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1988, and holds a master’s in public health from Johns Hopkins University.

Courtright co-founded South Africa-based Kilimanjaro Centre for Community Ophthalmology, the biggest ophthalmic research and community ophthalmology training center in Africa.

By Kim Bo-gyung (