Watches, stopped in time, tell of sorrows of Gwangju

Posted on : 2007-05-18 15:04 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Timepieces speak of 27 years ago, when democracy protests turned into horror

On a wall on the first floor of the May 18 Memorial Building in Unjeong district, Gwangju, hang three watches, their hands frozen in time. They all register the month of May.

"I recognize it perfectly...this watch."

Kim Chun-su, 75, stopped in her tracks when she saw one of the watches on display. It had been her son’s, who had died on the streets of the city when the military was brought in by the dictatorship to crush a democratic uprising. He was 17 years old.

In early 1980, pro-democracy protests were sweeping through the nation in the wake of Park Chung-hee’s assassination in November the preceding year, ending his 18-year dictatorial rule. These protests were particularly strong in Gwangju, the seat of South Korea’s southwestern Honam region, traditionally a more politically liberal area.

Park Seong-yong, Kim’s youngest son, had joined the swelling protests early that May. A worried Kim tried to persuade him to stay home that day, as he often returned home late at night. But her son went out, wearing his older brother’s watch to keep the time and telling his mother he was going to find one of his friends. He never returned home.

At dawn the next morning - May 27 - Park was gunned down on the premises of a Gwangju provincial office by government soldiers. At that time, the provincial office served as the last bastion of resistance to the troops’ bloody crackdown on the citizens’ campaigns.

Ten days later, Kim was told her son had been buried on May 30 in a shallow grave in the city’s Mangwol-dong district. She wanted to go and see her son’s body at his reinterment, but others persuaded her not to do so, fearing the shock she would suffer. When she received her son’s belongings, his brother’s watch was not among them.

Two years later, Kim’s husband passed away from alcoholism, consumed with the sorrow of losing his youngest son. On his deathbed, Kim’s husband said, "I wish I could have died in my son’s place."

When in May 1997 her son’s body was moved to the May 18 National Cemetery - named for the date the Gwangju democratic uprising began - Kim found the watch still around her son’s wristbone, and wept: it registered May 31, the day after her son had been buried.

After her son’s death, Kim’s own time has stopped at May 1980: she, once a ordinary housewife, devoted herself to carry on the struggle for democracy and restore honor to the hundreds of victims, who were dubbed by the Chun Doo-hwan dictatorship and conservative press as hooligans and communist sympathizers. As one of the so-called "Mothers of May," Kim has many times felt the sting of tear gas in street protests.

Twenty-seven years later, she still harbors her anger. "People say I must forgive. But nobody has taken responsibility for the soldiers’ opening fire. How can I forgive when I have no one to forgive?"

Diagnosed with uterine cancer last year, Kim is now receiving treatment. "It has been a period of ordeals, What more can I say?"

The other two watches on display also tell of families’ sorrow. One belonged to Jeon Yeong-jin, who was also 17 when he was killed by a government soldier. On May 20, Jeon was beaten up by government solders while he was on his way to a bookstore, but on May 21, he quietly slipped out again to join the protests; by about 2:00 p.m., he had been shot in the head and lay bleeding in the street. His watch stopped that day.

Since then, Jeon’s father Jeon Gye-ryang and mother Kim Sun-hui have also been at the forefront of the effort to restore honor to the victims of Gwangju. Two of his high school classmates, Song Young-kil and Kang Ki-jeong, are now lawmakers in the pro-government Uri Party.

The third watch belonged to Kim An-bu, a 35-year-old construction worker who was killed by government soldiers. On May 19, on his way home from work, Kim was beaten to death. He had planned to go on a picnic with his wife and four children on May 21, the date upon which Buddha’s birthday fell that year. His watch stopped the day after the one he was to spend with his family.

While the government argued that 198 civilians died during the bloody crackdown, some civil organizations led by the families of the victims claim about 2,000 were killed.

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