‘Shot, stabbed, piled on a truck’: Mystery of missing dead at Gwangju Prison

Posted on : 2024-05-17 17:15 KST Modified on : 2024-05-17 17:15 KST
Decades later, the remains of 73 of those killed during the bloody suppression of the 1980 democratic uprising in Gwangju have yet to be found
Martial law forces corral Gwangju citizens into military trucks during the events of the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement of 1980. (Hankyoreh file photo) 
Martial law forces corral Gwangju citizens into military trucks during the events of the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement of 1980. (Hankyoreh file photo) 

There are still 73 people who were confirmed to have died during the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement whose remains have yet to be recovered. They have simply been recorded as “missing persons.” These missing persons have been a major issue since the government first announced the official death counts from the 1980 massacre in Gwangju. Many people did not trust the government figures, and anticipated that the actual death count was much higher. The general consensus was that many of the people that were killed by martial law forces were simply “disappeared.”  

In the Gwangju folk song “May Song 2,” there is a lyric that says, “Why did they shoot them, stab them, pile them on a truck? Where did they go?” 

What happened on May 21, 1980, when an airborne brigade transported people detained at Chonnam National University to the Gwangju Prison, is an important backstory to this song.  

“They piled us on trucks as if we were luggage. There was no room between individual bodies at all,” says Kim Byeong-jun. 

Kim, 65, spoke to the Hankyoreh over the phone on Tuesday. “Soldiers tied my hands behind my back, so I couldn’t move,” the Gwangju native said.  

“I was stepping on other people, but there was no way to avoid them or stand them up,” he added. 

Kim Byeong-jun, who was detained at Chonnam National University and transferred to Gwangju Prison via military truck on May 21, 1980. (Jung Dae-ha/The Hankyoreh) 
Kim Byeong-jun, who was detained at Chonnam National University and transferred to Gwangju Prison via military truck on May 21, 1980. (Jung Dae-ha/The Hankyoreh) 

That day, troops of the 3rd Airborne Brigade breached a lecture hall at Chonnam National University, where over 200 civilians (120 according to military records) were detained. The troops shoved the people into a cargo truck and a military transport vehicle and transported them to Gwangju Prison, 4 kilometers away. The vehicles were escorted by troops who traveled on foot, making the journey take much longer than it would ordinarily take by car.  

After loading them in the trucks, soldiers sprayed their prisoners with CS powder, a type of tear gas, to neutralize any potential resistance.  

“My arms were so covered in tear gas powder that they became burned and formed pus-filled wounds,” Kim recalled.  

One person aboard, unable to breathe, broke a window.  

“As soon as a window broke, knives and bayonets stabbed through,” Kim said.  

Kim was detained after protesting aboard a vehicle on May 19. He was released 49 days later.  

“There were 108 of us who survived and walked out of the prison. We later formed a collective called the ‘108 Association,’” Kim said.  

There were several witnesses who saw dead bodies. At around 4 pm, the Special Forces troops arrived at Gwangju Prison. Kim Seung-sik, 69, who was a staff sergeant in the 3rd Airborne Special Forces Brigade at the time, shared his recollection of the events with the Hankyoreh on May 7, during an interview that took place in Haenam, South Jeolla Province.  

Aerial view of the former Gwangju Prison. (Hankyoreh file photo)
Aerial view of the former Gwangju Prison. (Hankyoreh file photo)

“The military transport vehicle arrived at the prison on May 21, in the afternoon. Troops fished out 12 bodies from the truck,” Kim recalled. 

The next day, an additional dead body was removed from the truck. The person had died from a gunshot wound.  

“An intelligence officer took photos of all 13 corpses, including their faces,” he added.  

Another man, surnamed Yoo, who was also a staff sergeant with the 3rd Airborne Brigade, addressed the May 18 Democratization Movement Truth Commission. 

“I was ordered by my superior to transport the corpses as soon as the night fell, under the moonlight, on May 21. We used two wheelbarrows. I heard they dug three holes, where they buried two bodies each, and another hole where they buried three bodies,” Yoo said.  

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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