By Charles Montgomery
When I first came to Korea, I was under the strong guiding hand of my best friend Ed and his wife. She was from Gwangju, and so it was that many of my first experiences in Korea occurred there, the city where I met my first “Korean family” with whom I set out to tour the region. They quickly whisked me to the Gwangju 5-18 Memorial Park, which sprawls across over 200,000 square meters and contains a library, cultural center, education center, the Daedong Plaza and Owoldae Tower, and a variety of memorials, sculptures and monuments. Laced with footpaths, the park also contains the Mugaksa Temple — a Buddhist temple for the military, oddly enough.
The park is a vast and solemn memorial to a tragic incident in modern Korean history. The Gwangju Democratization Movement (also known by UNESCO as the May 18 Democratic Uprising, in honor of the day it began) took place seven months after the 1979 assassination of Park Chung-hee, president of South Korea since 1961. In the political confusion that followed, the local democratic movement in support of democracy rode on the back of a nationwide one, growing to such an extent that, in mid-May, the new President Chun Doo-hwan declared martial law across all of Korea.
In South Jeolla-do, of which Gwangju is the capital, this law involved the jailing of 26 politicians, including eventual Nobel Prize Winner and president of Korea Kim Dae-jung. Gwangju had a tenuous relationship with Seoul in the best of times and was also a historical nexus of political revolt, so even inside Korea it was one of the locations least likely to be happy with these actions by Chun’s government. In response, students began to mass at the closed gates of Chonnam National University. 200 students and 30 paratroopers initially clashed there, but the violence soon increased and quickly spread downtown.
When the protests became too much for the police to handle, over 500 more paratroopers were called in. They quelled the initial protests using tactics including clubbing and bayonetting; one Gwangju resident was clubbed to death during the battle. Events intensified over the next two days, with the army killing more civilians and residents burning down a radio station which had been broadcasting pro-government versions of the local events. May 20th saw the famous “taxi uprising,” in which infuriated taxi drivers led a pro-democracy parade, ferried wounded to hospitals, and used their cabs themselves as both barricades and weapons.
Just after noon on the 21st, the army fired on protestors again, and protestors ransacked local police stations and armories. Protestors acquired two light machine guns at the height of the battle, and eventually the military retreated from central Gwangju. From the 22nd to the 25th, Gwangju was “liberated,” and set up local governments and negotiating committees. At the same time, upon news of the events in Gwangju, local uprisings flared up and died down in other regions. On May 26th the army had been reinforced and was ready to re-enter the city. Democracy supporters prepared for one last stand, but on the 27th were decisively defeated in a 90-minute battle which began at about 4:00 a.m.
The Gwangju Democratization Movement was over, but its effects linger in the Korean psyche to this day, and as is traditional in Korea, what is made of the movement is largely depends on one’s political stance. That even affects casualty estimates, which, according to the BBC, the government put at 200 and other sources between 1,000 and 2,000. A few brilliant pieces of translated Korean literature centered on the Democratic Movement have been published, and we will discuss them here in two weeks. But as far as I know, only one non-Korean author has written a piece of fiction about this event: William Amos, whose book The Seed of Joy has recently been released on Amazon as a paperback and on Kindle.
“Paul Harkin, a US Peace Corps Volunteer from Indiana, comes to Korea on his first trip away from home.” says the book’s Google blurb. “The Peace Corps gives him more than he ever bargained for — from a comically inept public health official, to violent political strife in the cities, to a hard winter in a leper colony. But when he falls in love with Han Mi Jin, a troubled, politically active schoolteacher, he defies the Peace Corps, the United States government, and the Korean martial law authorities to take up her cause. Caught up in the bloodshed of the Gwangju Uprising of May, 1980, he wrestles with love and loss, freedom and responsibility.”
If anything, that description undersells how well the book deals with the actual details of the uprising. Intrigued by how a U.S. citizen would know about this event and why they would write an entire novel about it, I was lucky enough to catch up with Mr. Amos online and discover he is nearly a next-door neighbor, as he and his Korean-born wife now live in Boise, Idaho. He joined the Peace Corps and was sent to South Korea a year after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Upon his return, he attended Loyola University of Chicago School of Law, during which time he clerked for a Korean lawyer in Chicago. In the years since graduation from law school, he has worked as a federal investigator, a technical writer, a project manager, and a medical writer. He lives in Boise with his Korean-born wife. We sent a few messages back and forth, and he graciously consented to this interview.
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Without spoiling anything, tell us about your book.
The Seed of Joy is a fictional account of a US Peace Corps volunteer who lives in South Korea during the turbulent years of 1979 and 1980. The assassination of President Park Chung Hee and the Gwangju Uprising serve as the historical events that bracket the story. The main character, a naive young man from Indiana, falls in love with a Korean woman who violently opposes the Park — and forthcoming — regimes; through her, he is drawn into the student democracy movement and takes part in the tragic Gwangju Uprising. Many of the details of life as an expat in Korea come from my own experiences in Peace Corps/Korea, as I was a volunteer there at the time the story takes place. My life as a volunteer was far less dramatic, though. Aside from getting stuck in a major demonstration and riot in Seoul, it was the smaller things that struck me: the dearth of news, the arrests in public of college-aged men and women, and the tanks and armed troops that were stationed on city streets, to name a few.
Have you read any of the Korean books about Gwangju?
No, I haven’t. I wrote most of The Seed of Joy while hardly anything was being written in Korea about the Gwangju Uprising, much less in English translation. One of my first dates with my wife, who is Korean, was showing her an early documentary from Korea about Gwangju and having her interpret it for me ten years after the fact; she was horrified at what she saw. The first popular depiction of the Uprising that I saw was the Korean drama Sandglass, in the 90s. That program gave me some vivid suggestions of what the Uprising looked like — the beginnings of a visual vocabulary, if you will.
The Chun government really clamped down on information about Gwangju. How much did you have at the time and where did you get it?
We volunteers had very little information while it was going on. No news came out of Gwangju through the Korean media. Even AFKN (the US Armed Forces Korea Network) couldn’t tell us anything. We knew something was happening, and that it was huge, because we’d seen demonstrations — some violent — elsewhere in the country. A lot of the information came out after the fact. Volunteers who were in Gwangju during the Uprising came back up to Seoul and told other volunteers what they’d seen and done.
Articles from Time and Newsweek — which were ripped out of local editions — were brought in from outside the country and copies posted in the Peace Corps office in Seoul. Of course, the local media showed exactly what the Chun government wanted them to show. I went to a movie after the Uprising and saw a newsreel of happy young people sweeping up the “mess” that the rioters had made in Gwangju. By that time I knew that it was all nonsense.
The Peace Corps story is really interesting particularly the tension between your Korean handlers and Western staff and the notion that you were not to be involved in anything political or controversial. How much of this is real and how did it play out?
Peace Corps volunteers have to be completely neutral on any point of political controversy. We were forbidden to play any role in protests or act in such a way that could be construed as taking sides, especially with those who opposed the government. We could talk about politics privately with our Korean friends as long as we made it clear that we were speaking for ourselves, not for the United States government. Some volunteers did break the rules. One got involved with some dissident friends and their activities, and was sent home. For the rest of us, we were frustrated at seeing oppression going on openly all around us while being unable to say or do anything about it.
The Western characters play semi-heroic roles in your book. Is any of this history, or is it a literary way of getting them to the center of the story?
It’s both. Several of the volunteers I’ve spoken with really did rise to the occasion in Gwangju. Many of them helped bring the wounded to hospitals and served as the West’s eyes and ears to events that were poorly understood at home. And that’s really what I wanted my characters to be: witnesses and interpreters for a mainly Western audience who otherwise would know little about Korea or the Peace Corps experience. This influenced how I worked out the plot of the novel: I made a timeline of major historical events and then worked on getting the characters to the right places at the right times. This often involved putting them right in the thick of the action.
You came to Korea before many Westerners did, as part of the second wave of Westerners in the Peace Corps. How different was Korea then, both from the U.S. at the time and Korea now (if you have much knowledge of that)?
We all were affected by culture shock in a big, though somewhat unexpected way. By the time I served there, in 1979, Korea was no longer a third-world country, for the most part. The Peace Corps/Korea program was at least ten years old by that point, and the challenges experienced by previous volunteers had abated somewhat by then. For example, I worked in the tuberculosis control program at a municipal public health center. All my coworkers were public health professionals — nurses, doctors, and the like. I was the least experienced person there.
So we were living in a culture that was very modern on the outside, but still steeped in tradition on the inside. I loved the transportation system — it was easy to get just about anywhere by bus or train — and and I admired the Koreans’ spirit of self-sacrifice and hard work. I went back for a visit in 2010 and was blown away by the changes. Some of it was sad — Korea seems to have succumbed to the Western ideal of personal automobile ownership, for example, and the traffic everywhere is horrendous. On the other hand, the standard of living is much higher, and the country is now governed by a vibrant, messy, effective democracy.
And now the question you must have known you were going to get: were you really naked when you heard the news of Park’s assassination? Inquiring minds want to know.
Yes, I was! Houses didn’t have hot running water back then. If you wanted to take a bath, you went to a bathhouse, where you could get squeaky-clean using all the hot water you wanted. I had come up to Seoul on the evening of Park’s assassination and, of course, nobody knew about it until the next day. I went to a bathhouse near the Peace Corps office that morning, and, just as written in the book, I heard the news from a fellow volunteer while I was lounging in the tub. I felt doubly naked.
Coming out of the bathhouse, I saw what I hadn’t noticed before: Korean flags hanging everywhere and a shocked quiet among the people. Even the traffic seemed less bustling than normal. And, like the character in the book, I went out straight away to gawk at all the tanks on the street corners and the funeral shrine being built on the grounds of the capitol building.
How long were you in Korea?
My time in the Peace Corps was fifteen months, which is well short of the customary two years. I was sent home early for medical reasons. Years later, I went back for a few weeks in 1987 and for just over a week in 2010.
What were your overarching feelings/impressions of Korea?
It was the contrast between Korea and my home in the States that shaped most of my impressions. The first thing that struck me was the beauty of the countryside. Coming from Wisconsin, where the landscape is relatively flat, I was enthralled with the wooded mountains that just seemed to pop out of the ground everywhere. The hillsides covered in pink flowers in the spring and the gorgeous reds and yellows of the leaves in autumn astounded me.
The people were amazing — generous, friendly, hard-working. I was taken aback by the lack of personal space, something the Peace Corps trainers had warned us about in advance. It wasn’t just the crowded cities that took some getting used to; it was also the tendency of Korean men — friends and strangers alike — to plop themselves down just inches away when talking to me. I became accustomed to it eventually, of course, and was fine with it, but it was quite an adjustment at first.
The strictly hierarchical social order threw me for a loop, too. I quickly learned when to bow, and to whom, among other things, but I was pleased to see that, despite the stodginess of the system, my Korean friends were easy to connect with. Overall, I still look at my time there as the best, most interesting months of my life.
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As someone who came to the Gwangju Uprising and its history through friends, history, and literature, it was impressive to me to learn that Mr. Amos was only in Korea for slightly over a year. The Seed of Joy not only seems to catch the history and spirit of the Gwangju Democratic Movement, it also captures subtleties of Korean culture and the interaction between Korean culture and so-called “foreigners” with a roving and intelligent eye.
The book is not without its minor flaws (the framing structure and a sometimes obvious foreshadowing come primarily to mind), but those are insubstantial in the face of the much larger picture that Mr. Amos draws: one that catches both the joy and tragedy of a critical ten-day period in Korean history, one that paints a detailed picture of several loving but doomed relationships, and one that manages to capture an entire social system trapped in amber of its own production.
For a book from a completely unknown author, The Seed of Joy has a decent list of reviews on Amazon, many from Peace Corps volunteers of that era who boggle at how well Mr. Amos has caught the tenor of that time. It is good book for fans of recent history, romance, battles, and good storytelling in general, and one very interesting for me to read, particularly in light of the Korean fiction about this event that has been translated. And that is what we will turn to in two weeks, with a look at how Korean authors have weighed in on Gwangju.
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Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University. You can read more from Charles Montgomery on translated Korean literature here, on Twitter @ktlit, or on Facebook.