South Korea's Gwangju women long forgotten

Hong Kong Catholic rights advocate is helping give a voice to Korean women abused in 1980 military crackdown
South Korea's Gwangju women long forgotten

Members of the Hong Kong Justice and Peace Commission visited the 'May Mothers' in Gwangju, South Korea, who formerly protested against military rule. (ucanews.com photo)

ucanews.com reporter, Hong Kong
South Korea
December 17, 2018
As the '#MeToo' campaign sweeps the globe, some South Koreans have been inspired to expose specific mistreatment of women and girls who nearly four decades ago demonstrated against dictatorial ruler Chun Doo-hwan.

Researchers have obtained testimonies from female dissenters about gang rapes and other sexual abuses as well as humiliation in the form of women and girls being forced to urinate in public.

Victims of sexual assaults are alleged to have included a 10-year-old girl and a woman who was pregnant.

In recent years, South Korean authorities have apologized for such rights violations, including torture and killings.

Political leaders, including Chun Doo-hwan, as well as various members of the security forces, were punished.

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But while the general nature of atrocities against women have long been in the public domain, researchers say the detail on gender-specific rights violations is only now coming to light.

In what was to become known as the Gwangju Incident of May 1980, students and citizens in the southern city of Gwangju protested against ongoing military rule. The government sent in troops who opened fire. The death toll has been estimated at more than 600 during 10-days of clashes.

On a trip to Gwangju, the Justice and Peace Commission of Hong Kong Diocese (JPC) met women's rights activists who have been collecting testimonies from women abused at that time.

Jackie Hung, the JPC project officer, said progress is slow because there are only a handful of women involved in the probe.

She said although Korean officials and non-government organizations had continued to collect information related to the 1980 crackdown, the individual stories of many female victims have largely been ignored.

Hung believed that this state of affairs reflects a deep-rooted view among many Koreans that females are inferior to males.

As a result, many former women protesters had suffered in silence fearing others would not believe their accounts of what happened to them.

But as the so-called '#MeToo' campaign against sexual harassment and abuse in 2017 started spreading around the world, such Korean women have been emboldened.

Hung notes that as well as violent rapes, women are now telling of being ridiculed through the malicious public displaying of feminine hygiene products.

In May, Kim Sun-ok was inspired by the campaign to expose her story to a TV reporter. She told of how she was arrested for participating in the protest and repeatedly tortured. Later, a major raped her and caused her to become pregnant, Kim said.

Due to the conservative attitude of the society and the opposition of her daughter, she has not publicly disclosed the incident for many years.

Her story, though, when revealed, caused great concern in Korea.

On Nov. 7, Jeong Kyeong-doo, the defense minister of South Korea, publicly apologized on behalf of the government and the military on television.

He admitted there were cases of sexual assault, sexual harassment and sexual torture against women by the martial law soldiers.

Among those cases, at least 17 were gang rapes. The victims were between the ages of 10 and 30, including secondary school students and pregnant women.

Although he promised to set up a committee to investigate the incident, including sexual violence, Kim declined to accept his apology and called for the perpetrator to be penalized. "Otherwise, it would be useless to apologize a million times," Kim said.

Back in 1980, she had contemplated suicide, her father was dismissed from his job and her depressed mother died. "What should they do to compensate my life?" she asks now.

In the trip to Gwangju, Hung met a priest who told her that many people in Gwangju still face unfair treatment in society.

The people of Gwangju are moving ahead by trying to improve their lives.

However, they, and supporters such as Hung, still want the women abused in May 1980 to finally be able to speak out.

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