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The Movement that Changed Korea


The Role of the Columbans

By Fr. Donal O'Keefe

May 2020 was the 40th anniversary of the Gwangju Democratic Movement, an event that has shaped modern Korea history. Following the assassination of the dictatorial president Park Chunghee in October 1979, the spring of 1980 was a time of great hope and expectation for democracy in Korea. The country was preparing for free elections, and people were holding public rallies demanding change. However, on May 17 martial law was declared, and leaders of the opposition were arrested. This led to widespread demonstrations and rallies especially in Gwangju, the capital city of Jeollanamdo and the home province of the main opposition figure Kim Dae Jung. The army was sent in, the city isolated, news censorship imposed, and the movement was brutally suppressed with hundreds of people dead and injured.

Fr. Donal O'Keefe and Fr. Dan O'Gorman, 2019
Fr. Dan O'Gorman (seated) and Fr. Donal
O'Keefe in 2019

Now, 40 years later, the country is still searching for the truth and for the bodies, and the military commander at the time Chun Doo- Hwan is presently undergoing a trial for his role in the killings.

In 1980, seven Columban priests worked in the city and another ten in the surrounding areas. The Foreign Ministry ordered that all foreigners should leave the province, but the Columbans had decided to stay with the people. Columban Fr. Dan O’Gorman worked in a parish of Yeong Kwang just outside Kwangju city. He and a diocesan priest, Fr. Francis Kim Songyong, were instrumental in getting the news of the suppression and killing out to the world. Last summer I met with Fr. Dan in Ireland, and in January this year I met with Fr. Francis in Korea and heard their story. Their story has the makings of a movie!

While meeting Fr. Dan in Dalgan, he recalled that Monday in May 1980 when he decided to drive into the city to get the latest news about his confreres. “On Monday (May 26, 1980), I decided to drive into the city but only got to the outskirts – Songjungri where I noticed lads on the roofs with guns. I stopped, got out of the car, held up a white handkerchief. Then a few of them came down to see me and said that they were expecting the army to move in and they told me to get out of there… the next thing I heard the tanks coming in so I jumped out of the jeep and went into the house there. The people told me to keep down and lie on the floor, that I would be all right.

Fr. Francis Kim and Columban Lay Missionary Coordinator Anna Hyein Noh
Fr. Francis Kim and Columban Lay Missionary
Coordinator Anna Hyein Noh

A loudspeaker said, ‘everyone inside come out.’ I went out first, and they had their guns on me there. Then I saw that my jeep was turned on its side with two lads behind it from the army with guns. Just then a young guy came out (of another house) and said there were guns inside so the lads came out with their arms up. The next thing the army personnel went after them with their guns, put them up against the wall and beat the heck out of them I said, “why are you doing that? They said they are the enemy. So finally I got into my jeep – the soldiers turned it over – and they escorted me part of the way to Yeong Kwang.”

Fr. Francis, as pastor of Namdong parish in downtown Gwangju, was witness to what was happening in the city. He came out for Sunday morning Mass on May 18 only to hear that martial law had been imposed nationwide the previous night. 

During the following days he witnessed the soldiers arresting people – often for no reason – stripping them down to their underwear and mercilessly beating them with clubs. Testimonies, photographs, and internal records attest to the use of bayonets. This brutality led to demonstrations and further reprisals. The worst day was May 21 when over 50 people were shot dead by the military. The archbishop and the priests found themselves at the fore in trying to negotiate a solution to what was rapidly hurtling towards a major disaster. The younger people had seized guns and occupied the Provincial Office where they laid dynamite which they were threatening to blow up if the army came in.

On Monday, May 26, the word came that the army led by tanks were coming into the city and Fr. Francis, at this stage a spokesperson for the group, led a small band hoping to prevent a major clash. He said, “Let us go to where the military are lining up and so we walked and when we reached them we tried to get the military to back off. Foreign reporters called this ‘the Death March’ because we walked straight to where the soldiers had guns pointed at us and the tanks were lining up. I was prepared to die then. We negotiated with the military for about 4 hours, but it was futile. We returned to the provincial office to report. A decision was made to get the news out to the rest of the country. I was asked to go to Seoul but I was conflicted – I was the spokesperson and now just leaving. But people advised me to go so I sent a message to the archbishop and left.”

“Foreign reporters called this ‘the Death March’ because we walked straight to where the soldiers had guns pointed at us and the tanks were lining up.”

The problem was how to get out of the city – it was under lock down. Fr. Francis went to on the back of a motorbike to the Songjungri where he heard the story about Fr. Dan being there earlier. “There and then I got the sudden feeling that if I get to Yeong Kwang, Fr. Eun (Dan’s Korean name) would get me out. He would be “my guardian angel.” They arrived after dark at the Church.

Fr. Dan then takes up that story: “There was a knock at the door and who was there but Fr. Bangjigo (Francis) Kim Song-yong, with another man – a press man. They said they wanted to go to Seoul. So we got into the jeep and I dressed up Bangjigo. I put some flour on his hair to make him look grey. I had some sunglasses and gave him a leather coat which I had and make him look quite foreign.”

It was agreed that Fr. Dan would do the talking in English if they were stopped and introduced Fr. Francis as a visiting priest who got ill during his trip to Songjungri. Fr. Francis continued with the story again: “We passed through 2 checkpoints each time [with] Fr. Dan speaking English only so we were waved on. But close to the provincial border we were stopped again and there were soldiers and a tank – and also people in a cage – people caught trying to escape. One of the soldiers came up and asked Fr. Dan “Who are you?” You are not supposed to be here – all foreigners are told to get out of the province. 

Fr. Dan replied “I am from Yeong Kwang parish.” And the soldier asked, “Who is that with you pointing at Bangjigo?” “I said it was a man called Jack Quinn. Then they asked Bangigo in Korean and garbled English what was he doing? I said the poor man is not able to speak – he is not well. I said he had just come into the country (in fact Jack Quinn another Columban had entered the country a few days previously). They went away to check and said it was okay. I suppose they phoned immigration or the airport – they knew that Jack was there anyway. After that they said you can go. They also asked who was the other and he showed him his ID from a pro Government Press Publication and they said you are okay too.”

Today, the Gwangju Democratic Movement is seen as a key moment in modern Korean history, a time when the people stood up to an armed dictatorship and laid their lives down for freedom. It was also a time that the Church stood with the people and supported them.

Fr. Francis went on to tell how he got to Seoul and met the cardinal and so the news of Kwangju was sent to Japan and from there all over the world. Fr. Dan went back on the next bus, picked up his jeep and returned to Yeong Kwang. “Why did I go back? I suppose because it was my parish… Banjigo you know called me his ‘guardian angel’ – he went to jail because of his role but was released for the Pope’s visit in 1984 – a fantastic man.”

Today, the Gwangju Democratic Movement is seen as a key moment in modern Korean history, a time when the people stood up to an armed dictatorship and laid their lives down for freedom. It was also a time that the Church stood with the people and supported them.

And, as in all movements, certain individuals will put their lives on the line and play key roles. In May 1980, Frs. Dan O’Gorman and Bangjigo Kim Songyong played their part and contributed in a very concrete way to the society and the Church as we know them today in Korea.

Columban Fr. Donal O’Keefe lives and works in South Korea. 

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