Final moments of Gwangju Uprising captured by foreign journalist first revealed

Posted on : 2021-05-07 17:36 KST Modified on : 2021-05-08 13:55 KST
The images, taken by former Wall Street Journal Asia journalist Norman Knute Thorpe, paint a vivid picture of what was going on in South Jeolla Province during the Gwangju Democratization Movement
The photograph, by American journalist Norman Knute Thorpe, shows the dead bodies of Moon Jae-hak and Ahn Jong-pil inside the former South Jeolla Provincial Office after the martial law forces completed their operation to subdue citizens’ army members who were occupying the building on May 27, 1980. (Kim Yong-hee/The Hankyoreh)
The photograph, by American journalist Norman Knute Thorpe, shows the dead bodies of Moon Jae-hak and Ahn Jong-pil inside the former South Jeolla Provincial Office after the martial law forces completed their operation to subdue citizens’ army members who were occupying the building on May 27, 1980. (Kim Yong-hee/The Hankyoreh)

Vivid images from inside the former South Jeolla Provincial Office after it was overtaken by martial law forces on May 27, 1980, are being made public for the first time ever.

Family members of the victims and Gwangju Democratization Movement groups expressed hope that the photos’ unveiling would lead to other as yet undiscovered records of the events of May 18 being quickly tracked down.

A team working in the South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism for the restoration of the former South Jeolla Provincial Office announced Thursday that it would be “marking the 41st anniversary of the May 1980 Democratization Movement with a special exhibition from Friday to July 31 to show May 1980 archival materials donated by former Wall Street Journal Asia journalist Norman Knute Thorpe, which were taken on the second floor of the former South Jeolla Provincial Office annex.”

Around 200 images taken by Thorpe will be shown for the first time in South Korea during the exhibition, including photographs taken in Gwangju and Mokpo between May 21 and 27, 1980.

Attracting particular attention are the roughly two dozen photographs showing the inside of the former South Jeolla Provincial Office just after the martial law forces completed their operation to subdue citizens’ army members who were occupying it on May 27, 1980.

The photograph, by American journalist Norman Knute Thorpe, shows protesters gathered in front of Mokpo Station in Mokpo, South Jeolla Province, on May 24, 1980.
The photograph, by American journalist Norman Knute Thorpe, shows protesters gathered in front of Mokpo Station in Mokpo, South Jeolla Province, on May 24, 1980.

After the suppression operation finished at 7:30 am that morning, Thorpe was the first journalist to enter the premises, where he took photographs of the interior before the martial law forces cleaned up the scene.

The photographs include images of the charred remains of citizens’ army spokesperson Yoon Sang-won, as well as never-before-seen final images of 16-year-old Moon Jae-hak — the youngest citizens’ army member and the real-life basis for the protagonist in Han Kang’s novel “Human Acts” — and his 16-year-old friend Ahn Jong-pil. Also shown is 24-year-old Park Yong-joon, for whom a civic group has recently been developing a commemorative font.

With the permission of the victims’ family members, the restoration team will be screening videos in a special screening room showing the location and names of the victims discovered and scenes of their bodies being moved.

“I was recently visited by staff with the provincial office restoration team who showed me photographs of Jae-hak to confirm [his identity],” said Moon’s mother Kim Gil-ja, 81.

“It was painful to look at the pictures, but I agreed to the exhibition because I thought it might help the provincial office restoration effort and the investigation into May 1980,” she added.

The photograph, by American journalist Norman Knute Thorpe, shows martial law forces carrying dead bodies of citizens’ army members who were occupying the former South Jeolla Provincial Office.
The photograph, by American journalist Norman Knute Thorpe, shows martial law forces carrying dead bodies of citizens’ army members who were occupying the former South Jeolla Provincial Office.

Other rare images on display include ones showing the interior and exterior of the provincial office on May 23, 1980; a demonstration at the plaza in front of Mokpo Station on May 24; and a march through the streets following a national rally for the preservation of democracy held on May 26.

Visitors can also see an image taken early in the morning on May 26 that shows a tense confrontation across a barbed wire barrier in Gwangju’s Nongseong neighborhood between martial law forces and 17 members of the citizen countermeasures committee who staged a “death march” after news that martial law forces with tanks were moving into the Gwangju city center.

The special exhibition came about because of the friendship between Thorpe and Lee Jae-ui, a researcher with the May 18 Memorial Foundation. The two first met when Thorpe met the then-university student Lee at the South Jeolla Provincial Office on May 22, 1980, after arriving in Gwangju the previous day as part of his coverage of South Korea and Japan from the years 1977 to 1982.

Former Wall Street Journal Asia journalist Norman Knute Thorpe (left) poses for a picture with other foreign journalists at a foreign journalists' event in Gwangju in May 2016.
Former Wall Street Journal Asia journalist Norman Knute Thorpe (left) poses for a picture with other foreign journalists at a foreign journalists' event in Gwangju in May 2016.

In 1997, Lee was working as a reporter for a local newspaper when he once again contacted Thorpe, who was then in the US, while he was writing a book titled “May 18 Foreign Correspondent Report” with a civic group. The two of them discussed the photographs taken just after the suppression of the provincial office, and the topic of a possible donation came up.

“Norman Thorpe was a foreign correspondent, and it appears that he was able to enter the provincial office right away with security forces,” Lee said.

“He was capable of analyzing the situation closely — for example, concluding that the cause of the fire that burned Yoon [Sang-won] was a flash grenade, which was still little-known in Korea at the time,” he explained.

“Now that we have had this exhibition, we need to also quickly find the photographs taken by the Defense Security Command,” he added.

Thorpe said he hoped the exhibition would be an opportunity for members of the younger generation to learn about all the difficulties that had been experienced for democracy to take root.

By Kim Yong-hee, Gwangju correspondent

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