13th Gwangju Biennale — Minds Rising Spirits Tuning

Sign up for minds rising journal


Finding a Voice for “Lifeness” in the Gwangju Women’s Resistance

By Jeong Kyung-woon

Baby Graves

April in Jeju is glorious. The wavering of bright rapeseed flowers that cover the vast fields across Mount Halla is mesmerizing. But how many people are aware of this wavering as the movement of countless spirits’ distress?

Another name for Jeju, declared by the Korean government in 2005, is the “Island of World Peace.” The declaration stated that the act of renaming “would sublimate the tragedy of the Jeju Uprising to reconciliation and coexistence.” What happened on Jeju, seventy years ago, in the month where dazzling rapeseed flowers shook?

The incident that took place on Jeju Island on April 3, 1948 is recorded as a tragic event. An estimated 25,000–30,000 people lost their lives, making the devastation second only to the Korean War in terms of the numbers acknowledged as killed or missing throughout Korean history. Triggered by the armed uprising of the Workers’ Party of South Korea in response to establishment plans to create a separate South Korean state, the situation became a massacre when the South Korean government defined it as a rebellion and launched an extensive attack against Jeju residents, despite the fact that the leadership of the Workers’ Party had already fled to the North of Korea. This punitive operation, which began with the false accusation that “90 percent of Jeju residents have left-wing politics,” cost the lives of one-tenth of the Jeju population, and only ended in 1954 when the lockdown in Mt. Halla was lifted. Afterwards, survivors had to endure more than fifty years of barbaric erasure as witnesses to “the history that did not happen.” It took until the early 2000s for a special law to be enacted, and for the President to issue a formal apology for “state violence.”

Inhabitants of Gashiri, in the mountainous area of Jeju Island, remember the incident of April 3 as occurring in the “crazy years.” A punitive battalion arrived in Gashiri when the eviction order was issued in the area, in the fall of 1948. As troops burned villages to the ground, residents attempted to flee to the mountains and neighboring villages. However, they were soon rounded up and imprisoned in schools and warehouses. Soldiers targeted houses where family members were missing, classifying them as “escapee families.” Even if only one family member was found to be missing, the soldiers would drag everyone aged fifteen or over out of the house, to be shot. It was called dae-sal, literally meaning “massive killing” in Korean. During this time around five hundred people—nearly half of the population of Gashiri—were killed.

“4·3 Baby Graves” in Gashiri, Jeju. “She used to come up to people in the street… anybody… And say, ‘I’ll tell you how my children were killed. Which one to begin with?…’ Everybody fled from her. She was crazy, that’s why she could tell…” — Svetlana Alexievich, “The Unwomanly Face of War”

Words and Scars

It was April 2003 when I first met her. I learned about her from a photograph accompanying a newspaper article. In the photo she was on the bed in a patient’s gown, and even in black and white I still cannot forget the intensity of her gaze, powerful eyes framed within her small face. The title of the article was “The Last Partisan, Soon-deok Jeong.”

I finally got in touch with her after asking around, using the newspaper article as my only clue. After a few exchanges back and forth, involving refusal and persuasion, I was at last allowed to meet her, but no more than that. She was refusing all interviews, as she thought that the previous interviews she had given had distorted her story. I didn’t expect anything from her; I was happy to forget the interview—I just wanted to meet her. When I entered the six-patient ward at Nasaret International Hospital, Incheon, with a trembling heart, I recognized her instantly. Current affairs magazines and newspapers that seemed incongruous with the patient’s age and the general mood of the ward were scattered on the bedside table. Eyes full of tension and investigation; her gaze fell on me.

The tension lifted the moment that I told her I was from Gwangju. Immediately the words “Gwangju Democratic Movement” sprang from her mouth. For the next hour or so, I told her about my family member, who had died at the provincial government building on the night of May 27, 1980, and the pain that my bereaved family had suffered through since. Perhaps because of the pain that connected us, she accepted my suggestion for interviews about her life surprisingly easily, and in June of that year, I conducted my final interview with her, over the course of two days. She passed away the following April.

Jeong Soon-deok
1933 Born in Naewon-ri, Sancheong-gun, Gyeongsangnam-do.
1949 Family fled due to the government’s eviction order around Sogaeryung in Mount Jiri.
1950 Married a tenant farmer. Due to the outbreak of Korean War in June, a month after her marriage, her husband became a partisan. After constant assaults by soldiers who asked about her husband’s whereabouts, she went into Mt. Jiri to find her husband and became a partisan.
1952 Husband died during the Great Suppressions.
1954 Started “the three members unit” (Eung-jo Lee, Hong-ee Lee, and herself) after most of the partisans in Mt. Jiri were killed by the Great Suppressions.
1961 Eung-jo Lee died.
1963 Arrested in November. Hong-ee Lee was shot dead. Soon-deok Jeong was captured alive, but shot in her right leg, which then needed to be amputated.
1964 Received a life sentence. Submitted a conversion letter to renounce the ideology of North Korea.
1985 Released from prison on a special pardon given on Korean Independence Day.
1985–1988 Lived in the Catholic church-run Kkottongnae or “Flower Village.”
1989–1994 Could not settle down and moved around a lot.
1995–1999 Helped with chores at the “House of Rendezvous,” residence of the “unconverted long-term prisoners” loyal to the Northern regime.
1999–2004 Hospitalized due to a hemorrhagic stroke.
2004 Died in April.

There are no words when faced with the awful enormity of a life decided by history. Soon-deok Jeong could not stand back; history as she lived it was a phantom that possessed and penetrated her whole existence, incapacitating resistance. There was no other way to explain it and, ironically, the eviction order issued in Mt. Jiri, which set in motion the events of her tragic life, was directly linked to the Jeju incident of April 3. When the army gathered in Yeosu to suppress the Jeju uprising, some of the left-wing soldiers revolted and then hid in Mt. Jiri; the eviction order sought to flush them out. By the time her village had been burned down as a consequence of this order, the life of the mountain girl had already been thrown into a twisted orbit.

But it was her body itself that captured me, more intensely than the distressing events. At the time of our interview, only her right arm was damage-free. Her right leg was shot and amputated when she was arrested, and the left side of her body had been completely paralyzed by a stroke. Before engaging in questions, we placed a pillow in the empty space where her right leg used to be, and tied her whole body to a wheelchair with a string to help her sit up and balance. Throughout the two-day interview, she repeated the same movement dozens of times, pulling up her fallen left arm with her right hand.

What were the scars written across her frail body trying to tell us? What might they communicate, beyond the threshold of too painful to even consider? Perhaps they speak to her father’s vain promise to send her to school in the event of national liberation from Japan? Or, to feelings of resentment held against her parents for marrying her off, to lessen the financial burden she represented as a daughter. They may reveal anger, against the divided country that wiped away her entire youth, and sadness about the families who turned a blind eye to her after her release from prison. Was she disappointed about the attitudes of the unconverted long-term prisoners—whom she called sonsaengnim, a term of respect which literally means “teacher”—who were not friendly to her, because she had written the letter of conversion?

Unfortunately, I could not find the answer to these questions in her retelling of her life. In factual statements, restrained emotions, and a voice shaped by thirteen years as a partisan. Her language was exactly that of warriors; it detailed memories with astonishing clarity, yet for all its transparency it concealed more than it revealed. It could at times be perceived as deliberately evasive. But as clear and ordered statements poured from her mouth over the course of two days, additional narrative issued from her empty, paralyzed body. Her body exceeded her words. To identify the ghost, the stories untold, I had to return to Gwangju, as the site of our first emotional connection.

Female students on the street in Gwangju, 1980, Photo by Lee Chang-seong, Provided by May 18 Memorial Foundation

Resistant Bodies

So the pain. It’s beyond the imagination of anyone who hasn’t experienced it. Even now, when I have the dream, I wake up around two or three in the morning, and I cannot go back to sleep. The nightmare is so painful and impossible to describe. The armored vehicle came in even to the provincial office, you know. Dreams like that. Terrified in those dreams. I fight in those dreams somehow and then wake up somehow. Then I can’t go back to sleep again. It’s really hard to explain such experiences. (From an interview with the author conducted 2009. The interviewee was in her twenties and working as a counselor at the time of the May 18 Democratic Uprising.)

Over the course of thirty years, wouldn’t some of her memories have blurred? This period is at least long enough for a generational shift to have occurred. But soon I realized that this perception was wrong. In 2009, the memories of the May 18 Democratic Uprising, as held by the twenty-seven women whom I interviewed, were still entangled with feelings of fear, astonishment, anger, regret, avoidance, silence and despair. For them, May 18 was still in progress. What is it that keeps them so awake, and still howling in pain?

Forty years ago this May, the city of Gwangju had become an isolated island. The borders of the city were barricaded, telephone lines were cut off, and supplies of daily necessities could not be imported. The crackdown of martial law, which began with batons and bayonets on May 18, was enforced with guns, helicopters and armored vehicles the next day. Countless citizens were injured and killed. The city was in chaos, and the hospital was flooded with patients and dead bodies. The army gave the name “Great vacation” to this gruesome human hunt. Citizens began to arm themselves. On securing weapons, the “citizens’ army” fought a street battle with martial law forces in Geumnam-ro street, and the troops eventually withdrew from the city on the afternoon of May 21. The famous “civil self-governing community” was created from May 21 to 26. During this period, commonly called the “liberation period,” civil power was created instead of governmental authority, civil autonomy instead of disorder, and civil friendship and solidarity instead of destruction and looting. But this did not last very long. Early on May 27 a voice rang out into the dark: “The martial law troops are coming in. Citizens! Please don’t forget us.” That night, no one in Gwangju slept; all had to watch and listen to the painful last stand. At around four in the morning, the situation was over, after an hour of battle between the citizen’s army and the martial law forces. It is still unclear how many people were in the provincial government building that night, and how many lives were lost.

Women were everywhere in the next ten days of bitter grief. Based at the provincial office and at the YWCA office, women engaged in street broadcasting, the production and distribution of handouts, writing posters by hand, nursing and transporting injured people, fundraising, cooking, handling dead bodies, and preparing funerals. On the streets, young girls appealed for the blood donations needed to treat the soaring numbers of wounded people, and countless prostitutes joined the blood donations as well as cleaning and shrouding the deceased, while housewives and market merchants made rice balls to feed the civilian army.

Women from all backgrounds took part in street struggles; one-third of demonstrators were women. Given their high levels of participation, the damage done to women as a group was also devastating. During the uprising, women were punished naked on the streets in broad daylight, their breasts were cut off by bayonets and bullets, they were raped in back alleys, and a woman eight months pregnant was shot to death. Immediately after the uprising, the arrested women were subjected day and night to indiscriminate beatings and torture. They faced unspeakable sexual violence. War crimes were carried out under the rule of law, and women’s bodies were treated as defenseless sites to be violently occupied.

Nevertheless, what is clear is that the women’s bodies were also forming a “resistance leadership.” The bodies that came out into the streets did so under the women’s own initiative, and not in response to anyone else’s demands; the body of a high school girl who died on her way back from blood donation; the back of an old lady who was willing to bear a red bruise as punishment for hiding a young man; the voices of street broadcasters that spread until dawn on the last night; the hands of female merchants who hung cauldron pots instead of stalls; those countless hands making ribbons, writing posters, breaking gravel stones for protesters, and those bodies stained with torture and beatings. We cannot deny that each and every “body” was part of the “resistance leadership.”

When we had the terrible mess for the first time, we ran out of blood. […] Students were queuing up at the entrance to the hospital, where I was working, all the way to Yangnim-dong. There was a girl from ○○ Women’s High School among them. I took her blood and she left. She left, and less than an hour later, I saw her in the hospital again, shot dead. You can imagine how sad we were, can’t you? The wee girl came back dead even before the blood she’d donated had cooled down. She was in her school uniform, that’s how we knew she was from ○○ Women’s High School. (From an interview with the author conducted in 2009. In the 1980s the interviewee was in her forties and working as a nurse.)

Guns and Rice

Whether big or small, all kinds of narratives will be made around an event that passes like a storm. The May 18 Democratic Uprising is no exception. Since May 1980, countless narratives poured out of Gwangju through the struggle for recognition and memory. In the early days the narratives were filled with anger and resentment at state violence. But as time went on retellings began to shift towards the “hero narrative”—this was part of the process of the event gaining recognition, as part of official history, by the state. The “citizens’ army” was at the center of the hero narrative. To be exact, the official narrative centered men with guns.

Shortly after the uprising, Gwangju fell into a dreadful silence. Due to the deaths, arrests, and escape of those who had participated in the movement, and under government surveillance and pressure, the protesters were forced to keep quiet. But what made Gwangju more painful was the prevalent feeling of shame—among citizens who could not go to the square because of fear, citizens who were left as witnesses, citizens who came out to the square but did not hold a gun, citizens who had guns but who escaped the provincial office on the last night, and citizens who remained and fought to the end but survived. Everyone was surrounded by survivor’s guilt. The nearer to the face of death, the heavier the weight of shame, the more firmly closed the lips of the living. So when those mouths finally began to open up and form words, the heroic narrative of a civilian army whose members had resisted the forces of martial law unto their death, was naturally and gratefully accepted by the citizens of Gwangju.

But as the narrative of men holding guns became legend, women’s mouths remained closed. The only testimonies heard were the cries of bereaved mothers; most women remained silent about what they had done during the uprising. Compared to those who fought with guns, and to those who were killed or injured and disabled, their acts had already become unimportant. The standard of recognition, based on whether resistance had been carried out with or without guns, made everything women did independently of the citizens’ army seem less worthy. The gun divided citizens along a strictly gendered line.

Women didn’t do it because men asked them to do or not to do it. They created the content for the street posters and banners, and prepared for the protests. Women were heavily involved in communications. They didn’t hold guns. They can’t. Men didn’t give guns to women in that situation. It’s just a matter of ‘with or without guns’. (Gwangju Jeonnam Association of Women’s Groups (2000) Woman, Subject, and Life. In the 1980s the interviewee was in her twenties and practicing theater.)

If it’d been our job to fight with guns, we’d have done it. We did our job because it was what we needed to do, simple as that. (Woman, Subject, and Life. In the 1980s the interviewee was a teenage student.)

Since then, women’s various forms of struggle have all been converged as the simple emergency food “rice balls,” which mostly women made and supplied during the uprising, and even when the rice balls have been later used as a symbol for commemorative events of the uprising, women’s voices have not been admitted. When the women’s protest was trapped in “rice balls,” it was evident that the women themselves had been forced to keep quiet. While men organized themselves into highly visible political and social networks based on May 18, most women hid themselves after the uprising in their individual daily lives.

“The open mouth of the gun” and “the closed mouth of rice” are two images through which one can understand the difference between the narrative of the hero and the narrative of the absentee. The absence of a voice means the absence of a history. The women, who began talking about their experiences in 1999, nearly twenty years after the uprising, were staring painfully at the lack of their history, which had been erased from recognized accounts of May 18.

It’s been almost twenty years now, but nothing has been recorded of what we have done, no reflection on what women did. It was all done by men, all were men. (Woman, Subject, and Life (2000). In the 1980s the interviewee was a worker in her twenties.)

Now, as we mark the fortieth anniversary of the May 18 Democratic Uprising, there are still virtually no women in the public history of the commemorative event. Only a small number of documents created by the collaboration of several female researchers and private-sector women’s organizations have been circulating. One example of sporadically produced material is an oral life history interview, in which I participated in 2009. When I organized the interview, I thought that the “language of rice,” which had been squashed by excessive kneading, might be the “open language.” The “language of rice” could be used to demonstrate how absurd the boundaries were between dead or alive, holding or not holding a gun, between a woman and a man.

Käthe Kollwitz, “Mutter mit totem Sohn”, 1937/38, installed in the Neue Wache in Berlin https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neue_Wache


The twenty-seven female interviewees consisted of some who were actively involved in the uprising (and thus received government compensation) and some who were not. The latter included housewives, high school students, nurses, and workers—mainly merchants who made rice balls. While transcribing the interviews, the workers’ voices caught my attention; they were not involved in the organized movement at the time. While most of those who actively participated in the uprising focused on the progress of the incident, based on their personal situations, their emotional state (angry, resentful, guilty, and so on) during the movement, and the legitimacy and meaning of their acts, others had compassion instead of guilt or shame about the dead and thought they did what they did simply because it was “what they were supposed to do.” On some level, they were thinking of the wounded and dying civilians as their children, or as their little brothers and sisters.

I knew they were protesting but didn’t know why they died […]. They fought a lot which made my heart ache for them [jjan-hada]. They fought with gravel and a stick while the others held guns. The fellas [students] would all die, I thought, so I helped them prepare gravel. Absolute madness. Poor kids [jjan-hada]. They were in such pain. I was not scared, not at all. I was not scared of dying at the time. My heart hurt [jjan-hada] to see those babies dying. (From an interview with the author conducted in 2009. During the May 18 Democratic Uprising the interviewee was a housewife in her forties.)

Could you imagine how burnt and painful the hearts of those who lost husbands and children are. Their matters were all mine. It’s not just their business. […] I mean, they are my little brothers and sisters, my sons and daughters, I always thought that way. That’s why I felt so heartbroken [jjan-hada]. (From an interview with the author conducted in 2009. During the May 18 Democratic Uprising the interviewee was a merchant in her twenties.)

When I cooked rice and brought in a big plastic bowl, they gobbled the rice balls. So I did this for seven days. At the time, I felt my heart ache for them [jjan-hada], as though they were my children. (From an interview with the author conducted in 2009. During the May 18 Democratic Uprising the interviewee was a merchant in her sixties.)

If you have an eye for detail, perhaps you would notice that there is a common word used in the statements. It’s a Jeolla-do dialect “jjan-hada.” Like in many other dialects, it is a word that shines on the page, heavy with myriad subtexts and incompatible with words in standard language such as “pitiful” or “sorry.” In the interviews, this word referring to a broken hearted state cropped up from time to time. A housewife who prepared gravel for young people in spite of knowing nothing, because she felt they were like “her children” and “did not feel scared of dying”; a peddler who spent her day’s earnings to feed the young protesters; an old lady who made rice balls in the handcart she used to sell items to feed the citizens’ army. What moved them was the heartache they felt towards “their children.” Their hearts did not only go out to the citizens’ army.

Soldiers were standing at every corner of the alleys, so my heart was pounding. When I was cooking my breakfast, I said “Would you like some rice?” because those guys seemed not to have eaten for hours. I said “Would you like some rice?” and they replied without hesitation that they would never eat food from outside. (From an interview with the author conducted in 2009. During the May 18 Democratic Uprising the interviewee was a merchant in her thirties.)

I bought food at the store and fed those students and came back home. […] When I got back home, a bunch of combat police were stood at the front door. […] So I hung a duvet in front of the door to cover it, washed my bloody clothes in the kitchen and hung them out to dry. Then I cooked rice and soup in big pots because I thought the cops might be hungry as it was around dinner time. They ate well. (From an interview with the author conducted in 2009. During the May 18 Democratic Uprising the interviewee was a housewife in her forties.)

How could this be explained? The merchant who offered rice to the soldiers lost her cousin during the uprising, and the housewife who fed the policemen had just been back from the provincial office—the citizens’ army base—after cleaning and shrouding the dead bodies. Those who were closer to death than anyone else offered rice to those regarded as “enemies.” To their eyes, the frenzied soldiers running after the citizens’ army were also just hungry “kids.” Here, where the boundary between “enemies” and “allies” collapsed, I felt that the women’s voices that had been trapped in “trivial rice balls” were buzzing and wriggling. The innate power of “rice” was talking to me.

I would like to call this power “lifeness.” The “perspective of rice” presented by these women was not something that could be rationally explained through recourse to the social construct of “motherhood.” It is the perspective of a being that does not ignore another being; a being that is constantly paying attention, approaching, feeding, and rescuing. Before a lived perspective such as this all dichotomies and borders crumble away. Beyond the separation of enemy and ally, the distinction between those who held guns and those who did not becomes trivial. The violence of these boundaries is revealed: also among them are the aggressively wielded left and right ideologies encircling the woman sleeping beneath the earth in Jeju, embracing her two children; lives made unlivable by harshly enforced terms of identification (gender, nation, race, class, and so on). The hollowed body of Soon-deok Jeong records this violence, as do the mouths of the Gwangju women—forced shut by the narrative of guns. Those who lose “lifeness” are those who create monstrous suffering.

The seven-day “Gwangju community,” which is often recalled as an uncommon world historical formation and event, remains a source of huge pride for Gwangju citizens. The community is seen as the realization of a long dreamed of “Great Unity.” The community is widely believed to have been an autonomous community, forged out of “friendship and solidarity” between “equal individuals.” The world we hoped for and were so eager to realize back then may have been a world full of “lifeness.” A time of dreams that grew and blossomed but were cut short. The recollection and restoration of this time can perhaps only begin if we accept ourselves as monsters.


Jeong Kyung-woon is a professor at Graduate School of Culture, Chonnam National University. She graduated from Chonnam National University, and holds BA, MA, and Ph.D. of Arts. She is teaching about Mythology, Semiotics, and Culture and Arts Education. Her studies and researches have been focused on oral life history about the modern and contemporary history of Korea, and issues about female participants in the May 18 Democratic Uprising in Gwangju. Her interests span Neoliberalism, communities, commons, youth cultures, and alternative cultural movements. She published “Lives of Gwangju Women and May 18 Democratic Uprising”, “Borders of Communities,” among many others.