Long shadow of rapes by South Korea’s mil­i­tary

The Star Malaysia - - Dots -

IT is nearly four decades since South Korean pro­tester Kim Sun-ok was raped by an army of­fi­cer af­ter a crack­down on democ­racy demon­stra­tions, and she still can­not bear the sight of a green uni­form.

Kim was a fourth-year mu­sic ed­u­ca­tion stu­dent in May 1980 when she went out to buy books but in­stead found a body in the street, riddled with gun­shot wounds.

Hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple in Gwangju, a tra­di­tional hot­bed of pro-democ­racy sen­ti­ment, had risen in protest against a mil­i­tary coup by Gen­eral Chun Doo-hwan.

Chun, who was seek­ing to fill a power vac­uum fol­low­ing the as­sas­si­na­tion of dic­ta­tor Park Chung-hee, launched a bloody crack­down, leav­ing more than 200 civil­ians dead or miss­ing ac­cord­ing to official fig­ures.

Kim’s own or­deal – for which South Korea’s de­fence min­is­ter fi­nally apol­o­gised this week – is a mi­cro­cosm of the wider trauma that still en­dures from the decades of dic­ta­tor­ship in South Korea, de­spite its trans­for­ma­tion into a ro­bust democ­racy and the home of K-pop.

Af­ter see­ing the corpse, in­stead of re­turn­ing home, Kim joined protesters at the pro­vin­cial govern­ment build­ing in the south­ern city, help­ing with loud­speaker broad­casts and is­su­ing press IDs.

She left the fa­cil­ity – the demon­stra­tors’ last hold­out – be­fore mar­tial law troops re­took it, but was ar­rested weeks later while work­ing as a trainee teacher.

“Here comes a fe­male com­man­der”, in­ter­roga­tors taunted her when she was brought to a mil­i­tary prison, she said.

In­car­cer­ated for more than two months, she was beaten with sticks, kicked, punched, and forced to kneel for hours on end.

Fi­nally an in­ter­roga­tor sport­ing a ma­jor’s in­signia treated her to a bowl of bibim­bap – a Korean mix­ture of rice and veg­eta­bles – at a restau­rant be­fore rap­ing her at a nearby inn.

“As I was phys­i­cally wrecked by tor­ture, I was un­able to fight back at all and this makes me an­grier now than the fact that I was sub­ject to tor­ture,” Kim said, in her first in­ter­view with for­eign me­dia.

“I still can’t bear see­ing any­one in a green uni­form,” said Kim, now 59. “Just the sight of such clothes sends my heart rate rush­ing.”

The Gwangju upris­ing is a touchs­tone event for the South Korean left.

Af­ter the ad­vent of democ­racy Chun was con­victed of trea­son and cor­rup­tion and sen­tenced to death be­fore the sen­tenced was com­muted.

He was later par­doned with the back­ing of Kim Dae-jung, the first lib­eral to be elected pres­i­dent, who sought rec­on­cil­i­a­tion rather than re­crim­i­na­tion in the face of en­trenched vested in­ter­ests and with a lim­ited power base.

Divi­sions per­sist in South Korean so­ci­ety – con­ser­va­tives view the upris­ing as a Com­mu­nistin­spired re­bel­lion and Chun last year pub­lished a con­tro­ver­sial mem­oir deny­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for the blood­bath, damn­ing key wit­nesses as liars.

De­spite a price of 150,000 won (RM564) it sold more than 20,000 copies.

At the time of the par­don cur- rent pres­i­dent Moon Jae-in was a hu­man rights lawyer and one of the ac­tivists push­ing for wider in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

He made Gwangju a cam­paign is­sue last year and has launched in­quiries into the ac­tions of past mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ships and con­ser­va­tive ad­min­is­tra­tions.

His ad­min­is­tra­tion was look­ing to “re­store the sta­tus of the Gwangju pro-democ­racy protests in his­tory” said Yoon Sung-suk, pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at Chon­nam Univer­sity – Kim’s alma mater – while at the same time us­ing them to shore up its pub­lic sup­port.

Kim her­self was in­stru­men­tal in one of the probes.

Chun’s troops were long be­lieved to have car­ried out wide­spread sex­ual as­saults against women but the is­sue was swept un­der the car­pet as trau­ma­tised vic­tims re­mained re­luc­tant to come for­ward.

Em­bold­ened by South Korea’s grow­ing #MeToo move­ment, in May, Kim told a tele­vi­sion in­ter­viewer about her ex­pe­ri­ences, and an official probe later con­firmed 17 cases of rape and sex­ual as­sault, the vic­tims in­clud­ing teenagers and women un­con­nected to the protests.

On Wed­nes­day, de­fence min­is­ter Jeong Kyeong-doo is­sued a for­mal apol­ogy, bow­ing in regret for the in­flict­ing of “un­speak­able, deep scars and pain” on “in­no­cent women”.

Af­ter rap­ing Kim, the man told her to “for­get what has hap­pened so that you may live on”.

A few days later, she was re­leased and al­lowed to re­turn to her teach­ing job, af­ter sign­ing a writ­ten pledge to keep silent and be­have her­self.

She was un­der reg­u­lar sur­veil­lance dur­ing her 20 years work­ing as a mu­sic teacher, and has suf­fered long-last­ing con­se­quences from the as­sault – even at­tempt­ing sui­cide.

“I’ve been liv­ing through the past four decades like a mute with deep wounds in my mind,” she said.

Kim ap­peared be­fore the govern­ment in­quiry and be­lieves it has iden­ti­fied and traced her as­sailant – adding that un­less he is pun­ished, “a mil­lion apolo­gies would be mean­ing­less”.

“I am grate­ful that my tes­ti­mony served as a cat­a­lyst in in­ves­ti­gat­ing what has been left un­told so far,” she said.

“I de­cided to come out with the truth to put this be­hind me be­fore I die.”

Cam­paign prom­ise: Pres­i­dent Moon is look­ing to re­store the sta­tus of the Gwangju prodemoc­racy protests in his­tory. — Korea Her­ald/ Asian News Net­work

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