[Exclusive] Unearthed memo suggests Gwangju Uprising missing may have been cremated

Posted on : 2024-05-17 17:08 KST Modified on : 2024-05-17 17:08 KST
Of note is that the sites mentioned in the memo correspond to locations where witnesses testified to seeing the bodies of those killed during the massacre
A newly discovered memo in Gwangju’s municipal burial records for May 1980 has the word “cremation” written next to “Jiwon neighborhood” and “prison” (Gwangju Prison), corresponding to two sites where many of those who went missing during the events of May 1980 were suspected of having been located.  Caption 5-2: Kim Seung-sik, who was a staff sergeant in the 3rd Special Forces Brigade in May of 1980. (Jung Dae-ha/The Hankyoreh) 
A newly discovered memo in Gwangju’s municipal burial records for May 1980 has the word “cremation” written next to “Jiwon neighborhood” and “prison” (Gwangju Prison), corresponding to two sites where many of those who went missing during the events of May 1980 were suspected of having been located.  Caption 5-2: Kim Seung-sik, who was a staff sergeant in the 3rd Special Forces Brigade in May of 1980. (Jung Dae-ha/The Hankyoreh) 

Documents concerning the processing of dead bodies in the wake of the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement of 1980 have revealed a memo with the word “cremation” written on it. This could be a clue on what happened to persons that went missing during the uprising and massacre, and has led to calls for renewed investigations on whether or not the Gwangju municipal government cremated the bodies of missing persons. 

The Hankyoreh reviewed the “cremation” memo, which was contained in Gwangju city government documents that had been submitted to prosecutors. The memo was scanned and in the possession of Jeong Su-man, the former chairman of the May 18 Bereaved Family Association. The memo was written with a water-based felt-tip pen on coarse paper. It contains language like “Jiwon neighborhood,” “prison,” and “contact cremation-undertaker association,” as well as phrases like “self-transport” and “park cemetery,” revealing a clear relation to the processing of dead bodies. There are also specific figures relating to the numbers of bodies, like “5,” “6,” and “28 bodies,” as well as specific times such as “12:15” and “11:00.” 

Kim Seung-sik, who was a staff sergeant in the 3rd Special Forces Brigade in May of 1980. (Jung Dae-ha/The Hankyoreh) 
Kim Seung-sik, who was a staff sergeant in the 3rd Special Forces Brigade in May of 1980. (Jung Dae-ha/The Hankyoreh) 

Organizations related to the Gwangju Uprising are keeping a close eye on the note since it may provide a clue to the whereabouts of the remains of 73 victims who have been recorded as missing, as their bodies were never found even after they were recognized as having died during the uprising and massacre in the city in May 1980. 

Of note is that alongside the word “cremation,” “Jiwon neighborhood” and “prison” (the former Gwangju Prison in the Gakhwa neighborhood) correspond to locations where witnesses testified to seeing the bodies of those killed during the massacre. There are many testimonies that state that people saw bodies at Gwangju Prison, but the whereabouts of those bodies are still unknown. 

A daily log from Gwangju’s Dong District Office.  
A daily log from Gwangju’s Dong District Office.  

Several people have testified to seeing bodies at Gwangju Prison. Kim Seung-sik, 69, a former staff sergeant in the 3rd Airborne Special Forces Brigade, met with the Hankyoreh in Haenam, South Jeolla Province, on May 7. During our interview, Kim said he had “unloaded 13 bodies from a military truck that arrived at Gwangju Prison on the afternoon of May 21, 1980.” 

Another staff sergeant from the same brigade surnamed Yoo told the May 18 Democratization Movement Truth Commission that “under the orders of one of my superiors, I buried nine bodies in a pit on the night of May 21.” 

The novelist Hong In-pyo, 78, who worked at Gwangju Prison at the time, told Hankyoreh in 2020, “I saw soldiers of the 3rd Airborne Brigade bury three civilian bodies when the sun started to head west in the afternoon of May 21.” He also said, “After a couple of days, I saw three or four bodies being flown out by helicopter.” 

Hong In-pyo, who was a guard at the Gwangju Prison in May 1980. (Jung Dae-ha/The Hankyoreh) 
Hong In-pyo, who was a guard at the Gwangju Prison in May 1980. (Jung Dae-ha/The Hankyoreh) 

At least 17 bodies disappeared from Gwangju Prison. On May 31, 1980, the Martial Law Headquarters announced that 28 people had died in the vicinity of Gwangju Prison in its investigation into the Gwangju incident, but only 11 bodies in total were found, with eight on the grounds of Gwangju Prison and three in the field in front of the prison. Even if we keep the calculations simple, this means that out of the 13 bodies Kim Seung-sik unloaded, 10 are missing. 

Jiwon, a neighborhood located on the way out of Gwangju to Hwasun, saw heavy casualties at the hands of the martial law forces during the unrest. The May 18 Truth Commission found that 13 people  — Yang Min-seok, Chae Su-gil, Kim Jae-hyeong, Kim Jeong, Kim Hyeon-kyu, Son Ok-rye, Koh Yeong-ja, Kim Nam-seok, Kim Yun-su, Kim Chun-rye, Park Hyeon-suk, Baek Dae-hwan and Hwang Ho-geol — were killed when troops opened fire into a minibus in Junam village at 11 am on May 23, 1980. Hong Geum-suk was the only survivor. 

Heo Yeon-sik, the head of the fourth investigation division of the May 18 Truth Commission, said, “We confirmed through soldier testimonies and military data that there were 17 people on the minibus, but only 13 bodies retrieved.” 

However, many believe that there was another minibus shooting. Kim Jong-hwa, 77, who worked as a florist in Jiwon at the time, told the Hankyoreh in May 2021 that “soldiers shot at a minibus from 8:30 to 9:15 am on May 23, and I saw 10 bodies.” 

The minibus Kim witnessed at the time flipped over as a result of the shooting, while the minibus Hong Geum-suk and others were riding stayed upright. This suggests that they may have been separate incidents. 

There are 73 people who have been recognized by the government as victims of the massacre in Gwangju whose bodies have still not been found. The May 18 Memorial Foundation conducted an excavation in 2020 to investigate the alleged mass graves in Gwangju Prison but failed to find the bodies. 

Heo, the director of the commission’s investigation bureau at the time, stated, “Some brought up the possibility of the bodies having been dumped into the sea, but we confirmed that was not feasible.” 

Excavations of unmarked graves at Gwangju Prison in 2020. (Hankyoreh file photo)
Excavations of unmarked graves at Gwangju Prison in 2020. (Hankyoreh file photo)

Now, the only option left is the possibility of cremation. The May 18 Democratization Movement Truth Commission said, “Although two soldiers acting under martial law were indeed cremated at the Jeonju crematorium in North Jeolla Province and three victims of the uprising were cremated at Gwangju’s Ilgok crematorium on May 28 with the consent of their families, there is no evidence of a mass illicit cremation of human remains.” 

However, the three civilians killed in the unrest and then cremated at Ilgok crematorium — Kim Myeong-suk, Oh Se-hyeon and Ham Kwang-su — were not killed anywhere near Jiwon or Gwangju Prison. That begs the question of where all of the bodies that people saw at the two locations disappeared to.  

Jeong Su-man, the former head of the May 18 Bereaved Families Association, commented, “The fact that the word ‘cremation’ appears in a 1980s Gwangju burial record could provide evidence to bolster the theory stating that the bodies were cremated. It is necessary to closely investigate the Mudeung Cemetery and relevant officials from the undertaker association, which were entrusted with managing city cemeteries at the time. 

By Jung Dae-ha, Gwangju correspondent; Kim Yong-hee, Gwangju correspondent 

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr

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