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Lasting trauma of South Korea’s Gwangju Uprising

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It is 40 years since Choi Jung-ja saw her husband, who has been missing since South Korea’s military dictatorship killed hundreds of people when they crushed the pro-democracy Gwangju Uprising, a scar that burns in the country’s political psyche to this day.

On May 18, 1980, demonstrators protesting against dictator Chun Doo-hwan’s declaration of martial law confronted his troops and 10 days of violence ensued.

But conservatives in the South still condemn the uprising as a Communist-inspired rebellion backed by the North, while left-leaning President Moon Jae-in wants to enshrine it in the constitution.

Choi’s husband was 43 when he left their house in the southern city to buy oil for a heater at the family pub, never to return.

Once the violence was over Choi frantically searched for him, even opening random coffins in the streets covered with blood-stained Korean flags. 

“I couldn’t continue after opening the third coffin,” she told AFP. “The faces were covered with blood — there were no words to describe them. The faces were unrecognizable.”

She still takes medication to deal with the trauma, she said, and curses whenever Chun appears on television.

‘Fuel for the fire’

There is no agreed toll for Gwangju, with reports of secret burials both on land and at sea. The military remaining in power for another eight years offered ample opportunity to dispose of the evidence.

Official bodies point to around 160 dead — including some soldiers and police — and more than 70 missing. Activists say up to three times as many may have been killed.

But the search for justice has gone through multiple twists and turns and Gwangju is one of the most politicised historical events in a viciously polarised country.

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