1980 | Gwangju

There is a reason this blog is called Iconic Photos, not Iconic Images or Iconic Moments. I believe that a single well-placed photograph can be better and impactful than a video clip. In its simplicity and focus, in its emotional intensity, and in its ability to leave before and after of a captured frozen moment to the viewer’s imagination makes the photograph a powerful tool.

It is the perfect medium to communicate horrors of a moment without visceral blood and gore. For instance, two traumatic moments from Vietnam War: immolation of Quang Duc and Execution of a Viet Cong guerilla were captured on film, but those film clips are rarely reproduced these days, whereas the photos became the moment that epitomized the war in Indochina. There are exceptions of course. Michael Buerk’s apocalyptic tones over the Ethopian famine; Brian Hanrahan counting the fighter jets out and counting them back in, Valery Giscard d’Estaing’s monarchial farewell and his successor’s equally grandiose inaugaration day were film moments that were historic.

What follows is a similar case.


It was 1980 and it had been turbulent few months in South Korea.

In October 1979, there were pro-democracy protests in Busan and President Park Chung Hee, who had been the country’s dictatorial supremo for 18 years, was assassinated by his own security chief. In December, Major General Chun Doo-hwan staged a coup d’etat, arresting the army chief of staff on allegations of involvement in the assassination.  In May 1980, another coup followed, once again led by General Chun, who forced the Cabinet to extend martial law, shut down parliament and the universities, ban political parties, further curtail the press, and arrest student leaders and politicians.

The next day — May 18 — students and residents rose up in Gwangju, a midsize city in the south of the country.

Hearing news of the unrest, Jurgen Hinzpeter, a reporter based in Tokyo for the German broadcaster ARD, and his sound technician Henning Rumohr, flew to Seoul. Using a driver arranged by an acquaintance, they headed south, ignoring ‘closed’ and detour signs at the expressway entrance, bypassing military checkpoints via through rural village roads, and finally making up a story that Hinzpeter’s boss was stranded in Gwangju and needed a taxi pick-up.

Hinzpeter was among the first foreign reporters to reach Gwangju. The New York Times remembered: “After the troops started killing protesters, residents had begun to arm themselves. A ‘citizens’ army’ sped through the streets in commandeered military jeeps and trucks, carrying weapons and munitions stolen from police stations, as people on the sidewalks chanted against the dictatorship.”

With local news censored by the government, Hinzpeter and the handful of other foreign correspondents were the main reporters covering the uprising. As telephone lines had been cut, some reporters walked miles to nearby villages where phones were still working to file their stories. As for Hinzpeter, he wrapped his exposed film in its original packaging to ensure that soldiers at the checkpoints think it had not been used.

Before flying out to handdeliver the footage in Tokyo, he hid it in a large can of cookies, which was gift-wrapped and ribboned to disguise as a wedding present. On May 22, the footage was handed in Tokyo and Hinzpeter flew back to South Korea on the same day. By now, things were escalating. The army has withdrawn to the rural outskirts of Gwangju, but only to wait for reinforcements. The final assault, which came on May 27 was bloody — officially, 200 people were killed; unofficially, it was ten times higher. The junta blamed “vicious rioters” and “communist agitators”.


I considered myself well-read, but I haven’t heard about Gwangju Massacre until I watched a movie last month (more about that later). Gwangju was an important moment, but in the words of British historian G. M. Trevelyan, writing about 1848, it was a turning point where history refused to turn.

Hinzpeter’s footage, viewed outside the country, was a revealation, but in Korea, Gwangju marked a different shift. The Korean troops sent to Gwangju were at least nominally under American command (South Korean forces remained under the United Nations Command set up for the Korean war until 1978 and then replaced by a Combined Forces Command, led jointly by Americans and South Koreans. Even today, South Korea only has control of its military during peacetime, and the United States would take over in wartime), and the massacre ignited anti-American feelings previously unknown in a place where fifty thousand Americans died fighting the Communist North, and those feelings never really went away.

As for General Chun, his rule continued for seven more years, buffeted by periodic student demonstrations and bursts of repression. In 1988, with Seoul Olympics looming and South Korea’s international reputation on line, he finally relented to free elections – knowing that his deputy, a man also stained with the blood of Gwangju killings, would handily win, as the opposition vote would be split between two dissident candidates who despised each other as much as they disliked military rule. That prediction came to pass, but by the end of South Korea’s long democratic overhaul, in the late 1990s, both Chun and his deputy were convicted for their roles in the coup and the Gwangju massacre. Both were pardoned and released from prison less than a few months.


Now onto the movie I mentioned earlier. In 2017, a movie was made about Hinzpeter ‘s trip to Gwangju but focusing on the taxi driver who took him there. He had given his name to Hinzpeter as Kim Sa-bok (a fairly uncommon name) but Hinzpeter failed to locate him subsequently. For “A Taxi Driver,” the filmmakers tried to contact every older South Korean named Kim Sa-bok but that none turned out to be the driver. Following the film’s critical success, the driver’s identity was confirmed by his son, who revealed that his father died of cancer in 1984.

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