RETURNING TO KOREA:
A Change of Viewpoint
It is most peculiar to find yourself back again where you were half your life ago, and with an entirely different agenda. I was 23 years old and quite naive when I traveled to South Korea under US Army orders in January 1980. At age 46 this May I found myself again traveling there, this time to testify at the commemoration of the Gwangju uprising and massacre of 1980 as a guest of the Korea Truth Commission (KTC).
As a newly-promoted Army Sergeant 23 years ago, I had no idea there had been an assassination and coup in South Korea in 1979, nor that unrest was widespread due to anger at the illegal military dictatorship. I served in the 520th Maintenance Company, 194th Maintenance Battalion, at Camp Humphreys Air Base, Pyongt’aek, 40 miles south of Seoul. In May of that year, I have later learned, the college students of Gwangju, 130 miles south of Pyongt’aek, led an at-first-nonviolent uprising against the dictatorship.
The beating to death of some of the rebels led them to arm themselves and drew the whole city and other cities nearby into the struggle. The people were eventually brutally suppressed by Korean Special Forces and other Korean troops.
It was all so long ago that my memories are incomplete, but I do have some strong impressions of my experiences of May 1980. My unit was placed on high alert status at some point during the Gwang u uprising. For several days we stayed in the Company barracks area instead of going to the Motor Pool to work, and we received lectures and viewed films about riot suppression techniques.
One thing I particularly remember is a big discussion by the command structure about whether the women in the Company would also participate in the riot suppression training. As a non-commissioned officer, I was part of the debate. I think I was the only female Sergeant in the unit, though we had several female Lieutenants. I felt that woman soldiers were soldiers too, and should do whatever job the unit was assigned. This attitude prevailed, and the women took the riot training with the men.
I find it quite ironic that the US Army took me to experiences which can now lend a bit more credence to the contention that the US government was deeply involved in suppressing democracy in South Korea. The US government has always maintained it knew little about what the South Korean government planned or did in 1980.
On the flight this May I read the US government’s “White Paper,” over 20 pages denying any responsibility or knowledge by the US of Gwangju. My experience, as well as growing evidence uncovered by both the KTC and US researchers accessing formerly classified documents, argues otherwise.
My unit was a Rear unit, that is, not intended for front line combat. I assume combat units received riot suppression training, if not more extensive exercises. Riot training for a Rear unit strongly implies that the US was closely involved with events in South Korea in May, 1980, that it feared the whole nation might explode, and that it was planning to control the people by US troops if need be.
The number of civilians killed in Gwangju is still in dispute, and will probably never really be known. I remember hearing it reported as over 2,000, though I do not remember much else being reported to us. In a few days the whole thing seemed to blow over, and we went back to our normal routines. I did not think much more about it at the time.
Later, as a peace activist, I have thought about it quite a lot, and found good information from several activist colleagues. That I and the Korea Truth Commission should find each other, and work together now to demonstrate US complicity with yet another of the world’s repressive regimes, amazes me.
Several years ago, my growing knowledge of my participation in occupation led me to attend the University of Maryland session of a US tour by Korean civilian massacre survivors from the “Police Action” of the early 1950’s. This tour was preliminary to a Truth Commission hearing in New York City in June 2001.
Resumed civilian control and moderate democratization of the South Korean government has let very old and never-before-allowed stories finally be told. The No Gun Ri massacre by US troops on 26 July, 1950, is the one which got a fair amount of US media attention. There were many, though, and the KTC is working to uncover the truth.
I mentioned at the UMd hearing having been stationed in South Korea in 1980 when the Gwangju massacre took place.
One of the Korea Truth Commission members noted my comment and had her colleague look for me later when they could investigate Gwangju. Yoomi Jeong wisely called Veterans for Peace, who knew my story because I had mentioned that the riot training in Korea is as close as I ever got to combat. Yoomi arranged my trip this spring, and translated for me.
On 18 May this year I testified at the Gwangju commemoration rally. I immediately followed the mothers of two 14-year-old girls, Shin, Hyo-Son and Shin, Mison, who were run over and killed last year by a US military vehicle. The driver has of course been absolved, in a US military investigation, of any wrongdoing, infuriating the Koreans.
It was hard to follow the mothers, whose story exactly embodies the ongoing struggle against the US military occupation, and its attendant abuses and carelessness which have resulted in over 100,000 ‘regular’ crimes such as rape, battery, and vehicular assault, along with atrocities like the various massacres during and after the war.
Some of my remarks follow:
“I have come to understand that I was an occupier in South Korea. It is stunning now to realize that US troops are stationed in over 130 other countries around the world, but South Korea has experienced one of the longest continuous occupations. I am sorry for my participation in the suppression of your country and your people’s right to rule yourselves.
I know that my apology does not mean much by itself. Of much more value is my ability to bring you the solidarity of the organizations I work with, especially Veterans for Peace.
We in Veterans for Peace pledge to bring pressure in our own country to expose and end our government’s oppressive behavior. Through our Korea Peace Campaign we will insist that the occupation of South Korea end, and the Korean people be free to accomplish reunification of their country.”
On the day we returned to Seoul from Gwangju, I accompanied Yoomi as she did some more KTC work. We went to a newly discovered massacre site near the city of Masan, in the country outside Oak-Bang village, Yuhyang town, Jinjun township.
Floods in early September last year had washed down the rocks covering many remains. We sat in the sun on the rocky hillside as an elderly couple gave Yoomi testimony. The woman, Sung, Joong Soo, 81 years old, told of the disappearance of her father Sung, Hwan-Young, during the war. She had never known exactly what happened to him.
The whole village knew many were taken away and killed, but they had not known where the killings took place. Her husband Kim, Kitak, 83, had been the village pharmacist, and from his shop door he had seen truckloads of prisoners pass. He said several hundred people were taken.
After the old woman told her tale, we poured plum brandy on the rocks for the dead, and the old man lit a cigarette and perched it on a rock for them. In respect and mourning we knelt over and over and touched our foreheads to the ground below the rock slide. Then we noticed pieces of bones on the ground, thigh bones and broken skulls. One of the skull bones had a small green sprout growing from it, a poignant reminder of the cycle of life.
I was really touched and humbled by the friendliness and gratitude of the people I met in South Korea this May, though it is clear anti-US feeling is running high. The husband of the woman who lost her father to massacre greeted me with, “Thank you” in English when we arrived at the hillside to honor his father-in-law’s bones.
Yoomi told me later that the 8-or-so-year-old daughter in the household where we stayed our first night in Seoul, upon hearing an American was coming, had objected to hosting me. But when I met her the next morning after arriving very late and keeping the household up even later because a photographer had to come take my photo to accompany an article about me, and running her out of her bedroom, she smiled shyly and said, “Anyang haseyo.” (“Hello.”)
As was so often the case around the world, a rabid hatred of Communism long kept the US supporting dictators who opposed it, including the military regimes in South Korea. Korean families have been forcibly split for over 50 years by the division of their country after World War II, and there is still no peace treaty for a war which was never declared. Many Koreans want to reunify and get the occupiers out.
Unfortunately, now US mishandling of nuclear weapons disagreements with North Korea—and the listing of it as a potential next target nation—make it unlikely the Koreans can see their demands met any time soon.
I continue to seek anyone else who served in the US military in May, 1980, in South Korea, especially anyone who was in a combat unit. The KTC would really like to hear your story. Please contact me at email@example.com.
Ellen Barfield, of Hampden, is now back home and can be seen riding her bicycle on the city’s streets, regardless of the weather.
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This story was published on June 4, 2003.