The Dictator’s Daughter Strikes Again

Fighting for Baek Nam-gi, the South Korean farmer-activist

The family of Baek Nam-gi introducing themselves at the "Gwangju Eve" rally in Gwangju, May 17, 1980. Credit: Doraji Baek

The family of Baek Nam-gi introducing themselves at the “Gwangju Eve” rally in Gwangju, May 17, 1980. Credit: Doraji Baek

Seoul—Inside the intensive-care unit (ICU) of Seoul National University Hospital, Baek Nam-gi, a 69-year-old farmer and lifelong political activist, lies in a deep coma. His skull is still partially open after his surgery last November, when he was rushed here after being knocked violently to the ground by a burst from a high-powered water cannon deployed by the police forces of President Park Geun-hye’s government. They were trying to block a massive demonstration of 130,000 people in downtown Seoul protesting Park’s labor and trade policies.

I am here with Doraji Monica Baek, his eldest daughter, a slim, quiet woman who works as an editor for a local publisher of novels. She has asked me to accompany her to the ICU to visit her father. Baek had read my article in The Nation last December about the events that brought her father here as part of her family’s quest for justice. I feel a mixture of sorrow and privilege as we stand quietly by his bed, where he lies motionless except for the deep heaves in his chest as a machine forces him to breathe in and out. I touch her arm, and she places her hand on mine. There are no words at moments like this.

Mr. Baek, whose prognosis is not good, has become a symbol to many Koreans of the increasingly harsh response of the Park government toward dissent. Screenshot 2016-06-02 18.50.10In particular, people are angry and disgusted with police violence and a climate of impunity in which the government refuses to take responsibility for the actions of police officials. In Baek’s case, Park’s government has never apologized to his family and, according to human-rights activists, promoted officials involved in the November incident, including the police commander who ran the operation that day…

Thus begins my latest piece in The Nation, where you can read the rest of the story. But, first, click here to view the incredible footage from the November demonstration, where you can see Mr. Baek being directly targeted by the water cannons, as his daughter charges in the article. Below are some more photos, including a shot of Doraji and I at SNU hospital and several from the demonstration for justice on Monday in Seoul, organized by Amnesty International Korea and other organizations, at the exact spot where Mr. Baek was knocked to the ground. Finally, after the photos I’ve posted more information about Mr. Baek and the issues raised by his injuries, provided by AI Korea.  

Update for Korean readers: I spoke about my visit with Mr. Baek and his daughter in this interview with Voice of the People in Seoul.

tim shorrock and doraji baek

Seoul demonstration for Baek Nam-gi, Monday May 30. Credit: Amnesty International Korea

Seoul demonstration for Baek Nam-gi, Monday May 30. Credit: Amnesty International Korea

Credit: Amnesty International Korea

Credit: Amnesty International Korea


Credit: Amnesty International Korea

Credit: Amnesty International Korea

Credit: Amnesty International Korea

Screenshot 2016-06-02 18.28.09
Screenshot 2016-06-02 18.29.00
Screenshot 2016-06-02 18.29.18

Posted in Korea | Leave a comment

Gwangju: Preserving the vicious nature of martial law, 1980


I spent most of the last three weeks in South Korea, primarily in  Gwangju, Jeju and Seoul. I was invited to Gwangju by the city, along with three American journalists who witnessed the uprising and the final military takeover on May 27, 1980.

On our last day there, we visited a replica of a military prison that was used during and after the uprising. Hundreds of young Koreans who had demonstrated and fought for their democracy were sent here, where they were tortured, placed in extreme stress positions, and beaten before being tried in military courts where General Chun’s martial law commanders acted as judge, prosecutor and jury.

Some 3,000 young people from Gwangju went through this prison, including my friend Lee Jae-Eui, one of the leaders of the uprising and the author of Kwangju Diarya famous account of the events that took place in May 1980 (and sadly out of print). Our guides were three men who survived the prison. DSCN3062They were led by Lee Dong Gye, the man in this picture who led the tour. One of his comrades, the man in the far right in the courtroom picture, can be seen in the old photo of defendants at one of the mass trials; he’s the man with the mustache at the far left. Interspersed are photographs from the events themselves, showing the incredible brutality displayed by the paratroopers sent by General Chun Doo Hwan to Gwangju (incredibly, he denied recently that he had anything to do with this decision, which he was convicted for in the 1990s; he was later pardoned by President Kim Young Sam, at the request of the great dissident leader and president Kim Dae Jung, the man Chun almost killed).

Strangely, the prison is located just a short walk from the Holiday Inn hotel where we stayed in Gwangju. As I walked through, I couldn’t help but remember how the U.S. ambassador at the time, William Gleysteen, once told me how relieved he and other U.S. officials were when the South Korean Army retook the city; in contrast to the paratroopers who did most of the killing in the opening days of the uprising, he said, the regular army troops acted with “restraint.” Well, if this is “restraint,” black is white and war is peace.

Our guides had great dignity and only mentioned the U.S. role when asked about it. Prompted by one of the visitors, Mr. Lee angrily recalled how U.S. General John Wickham, who was the U.S. Commander in Chief in Korea during Gwangju, said at the time that “Koreans are like lemmings,” meaning that they’ll follow any military strongman, no matter what. He let that arrogant remark sink in as we contemplated their terrible treatment at the prison. “That was a definite humiliation of the Korean people,” he finally said.

Indeed. I applaud Gwangju for keeping this prison intact and showing it to the world. Click here for a short film from MBC in Korea (in Korean) showing how the prison serves as a lesson to Koreans to never allow this to happen again. The final photo is the celebration on May 17 on the street where the great battles of Gwangju took place in 1980 – “Gwangju Eve” this event is called. Although there is still division in South Korea about the legacy of Gwangju, you can see that the people of this city are proud of their revolutionary heritage, and will never give up their struggle for full democracy and accountability in South Korea.

During the Gwangju Uprising, 165 people were killed, 3,139 were wounded, and 76 went missing. Many South Koreans believe the totals were much higher, and could have reached over 1,000 killed.


 DSCN3073DSCN3065 DSCN3069 DSCN3078 prison6 prison7 DSCN3083 DSCN3087 Guard tower DSCN3089 DSCN3091 DSCN3092 DSCN3097 DSCN3100 2016-05-17 13.22.51 DSCN3103 DSCN3104 2016-05-17 13.24.53 DSCN3106 2016-05-17 13.26.19 DSCN3111 DSCN3112 DSCN3113 IMG_3255
Posted in Asia, Korea, Kwangju Declassified | Leave a comment

Guest Post: South Korea Bans Korean-German from Kwangju

lee jong-hyeon (yi eun-hi)In an extraordinary and undemocratic act, the South Korean government has prevented Lee Jong-Hyeon, a 79 year-old Korean living in Germany to enter the country to attend commemoration ceremonies remembering the May 18, 1980, uprising in Kwangju. He arrived on May 12th and was expelled on May 13th. According to the Hankyoreh newspaper,

Lee had been officially invited to attend the Asia Forum, which [opened] in Gwangju on May 17, organized by the May 18 Memorial Foundation. He had been planning to stay in South Korea until May 19, during which time he would have attended the May 18 memorial ceremony and given a presentation about the democratization movement in Germany since the 1980s. Lee has visited South Korea in 1990, 1994, 2004 and 2010, and this is the first time he has been refused entry.

Today I received a dispatch from Ok-Hee Jeong, a journalist based in Berlin, based on an interview she conducted with Mr. Lee shortly after he returned to Germany. Her story is reprinted here, with permission. It was translated by Ian Clotworthy. 

The South Korean State‘s Fear of An Old Man

By Ok-Hee Jeong

Lee Jong-Hyeon remains in shock. The South Korean native, a citizen of Germany and resident of Duisburg for the last forty years, was detained upon arrival at Incheon Airport and deported back to Germany the next day. The right to enter Korea was refused, in accordance with articles 11 and 12 of the South Korean immigration law, which states, “there is justified concern, that he will harm the state and poses a danger to public life.“ To Lee, that is ridiculous. “How can an old man like me pose a danger to public life?“ he asks.

Lee came to Germany as an immigrant worker in the 1960s. Like many other South Koreans at the time, he worked as a coal miner in the industrial western Ruhr area. Later, he went to college, married a German woman and had two children. This short man with snow-white hair is now a grandfather, and enjoys a quiet retirement with his wife Ursula.

Although well-integrated in German society, his heart has always been  in his homeland. When he left South Korea, the country was under the authoritarian rule of Park Chung-Hee, father of current president Park Geun-Hye. Together with other South Koreans and Germans, Rhee created organizations that campaigned for democracy and peaceful reunification in Korea.

When the dictator Park Chung-Hee was killed by his own secret police chief Kim Jae-Kyu in 1979, there was a new wave of hope among South Koreans, at home and abroad, that the long-hoped for era of democracy would begin. But the hope didn‘t last. In May 1980, the German cameraman Jürgen Hinzpeter captured footage of the massacre in the city of Gwangju after General Chun Doo-Hwan carried out his military coup. In this massacre, hundreds of people were brutally slaughtered; many are still unaccounted for.

Images of the atrocities of that day enraged Lee, and made him rise to the vanguard of the struggle in Germany. He worked with others to exert international pressure upon the Chun military regime and to express solidarity with the South Korean people. It fills the 79-year old with pride, that the South Koreans attained democracy in 1987 with their own power.

“I just couldn‘t believe it, when I was refused entry at the airport,” Rhee told me. “My son called the Germany Embassy in Seoul from Berlin, but the staff there said they could do nothing, that it was an internal matter for South Korea.“ Rhee felt also abandoned by his chosen homeland of Germany. In addition to disbelief, there is a mix of anger and sadness in Rhee‘s voice. “How can a government behave like this? What was my crime? I suspect, the refusal of entry has something to do with my visits to North Korea.“

He remembers the expulsion of the Korean-American activist Shin Eun-Mi from South Korea after being accused of glorifying North Korea one year ago. Her crime: mentioning that North Korean beer was delicious and that the Nakdong river was clean, in a public talk. She made those remarks in a series of talks about her travels in North Korea, which South Koreans may not visit.

For this, she was branded a North Korean sympathizer, and ordered to leave the country for five years. The accusation of being a North Korean sympathizer is taken seriously in this divided country, where anti-communism used to be a favorite tool of the Park and Chun dictatorships as they sought to silence government critics.

“The first time I visited North Korea was a conference with sixty other Koreans from abroad. Later in 1994 I was there, because my brother, who lived in North Korea, had died. During the sunshine policy of [former president] Roh Moo-Hyun‘s government in 2007, I was there at a summit of North and South Korea, with hundreds of other representatives present. But that can‘t be the reason [I was expelled this time]. I also visited South Korea in 2007 and 2010, and had no problems with entering the country. But what has happened now? he wonders.

In South Korea, the sociologist Kim Dong-Choon of Sungkonghoe university says, “our young democracy has been in retreat for 8 years, because politicians with the orientation of the 1970s cold war ideology are still in power. I think that Rhee‘s role is significant and very symbolic, so Park‘s government has used this measure to make an example of him.“

Rhee finds these developments to be worrying, and sees the refusal of entry as a further sign of the regression of democratic values. “People sacrificed their lives for democracy in our country, and now it is being hollowed out, piece by piece,” he says. But the 79-year old comes across as unrelenting. “The democracy of my homeland was so hard-won, that I cannot simply stop fighting for it! Never!” he told me.

Ok-Hee Jeong is a Berlin-based German journalist. Her articles were published, among others, in ZEIT Online, taz, FAZ (Germany) and in WOZ (Switzerland).

Posted in Korea, Kwangju Declassified | Leave a comment

My Gwangju FOIA Documents Get a Home – In Gwangju

mayor yoonThis week I agreed to donate my entire collection of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) documents on U.S. policy in South Korea from 1979 to 1980 to the city of Kwangju. Mayor Yoon and I worked out the agreement on May 18 after I held extensive discussions with his human rights staff. The process will take a while, but eventually the city’s archive – which just opened last year – will get all 4,000 pages of declassified documents from the State Department, the Pentagon, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council and the CIA. They will be open to researchers and eventually copied in PDF format so anyone can search them. I’m very proud that they will find a home in the great city of Kwangju, the scene of a massive uprising against military rule that lasted from May 18 to May 27, 1980. This was a great accomplishment for me, and I thank Mayor Yoon and his wonderful staff for their assistance. I was invited to Kwangju this week for the commemorations along with three reporters who were there at the time of the uprising: Norman Thorpe of the Asian Wall Street Journal, Bradley Martin of The Baltimore Sun, and Donald Kirk of the London Observer. To get a take on what they observed, read Martin’s extraordinary story about his last interview with Yoon Sang-won, the leader of the uprising who died on the night of May 27, 1980, when U.S.-sanctioned South Korean forces sent from the DMZ retook the city and ended the 10-day rebellion.




Posted in Asia, Korea, Kwangju Declassified | Leave a comment

Reflections on The Intercept’s Snowden Archive

At long last, The Intercept has decided to “broaden” access to the massive trove of NSA documents leaked by the whistleblower Edward Snowden. Here’s my initial thoughts on this momentous decision, written hastily from South Korea. Thanks to Lauren Walker of The Daily Dot for calling my attention to this story. 

The Intercept’s decision to unlock access to these NSA documents is long overdue. Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers to every paper that would take them in 1971, and the Snowden documents should have been exposed to the same light.

This archive has badly needed the scrutiny of people who understand the NSA in a historical and economic context. That’s particularly true, from my perspective, of the few journalists who have reported on NSA’s relationships to its operational contractors such as Booz Allen Hamilton, which employed Edward Snowden when he leaked his trove.

But I have mixed feelings about this announcement. Even in the small trickle of documents printed in The Intercept, I’ve seen their in-house experts miss important revelations, particularly about the contractors involved in NSA intelligence gathering. By refusing and delaying access to experts in critical areas of intelligence and acting like each successive release from their reporters was a major scoop and a reflection on their own greatness, The Intercept did a disservice to journalism and the public.

Still, I can only applaud the fact that Glenn Greenwald has listened to critics such as myself and the people at Cryptome, and I look forward to going through these newly released documents. This is an important moment in the history of national security journalism.

Tim Shorrock

Gwangju, South Korea

May 17, 2016


Posted in Archives, Intelligence | Leave a comment