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1980 Gwangju Uprising revisited

Kim Chan-ju

Sep. 14, 2017

A South Korean film that has become a local box office hit is part of a new wave of reflection on a dark chapter in history.

Hundreds of people died during clashes with the military during the Gwangju Uprising in 1980. The incident is being revisited and reconsidered not only on the big screen, but also in a government investigation.

People who witnessed the traumatic events are sharing their stories with visitors keen to learn about the pivotal era.

Popular movie “The Taxi Driver” tells the true story of a taxi driver who helped a German journalist get to the frontlines of the armed revolt. It has been a blockbuster in South Korea, winning an audience of millions, and has been submitted in the Oscars’ best foreign language film category.

More than 100,000 people took to the streets in Gwangju, south of the country’s capital Seoul, in pro-democracy protests almost four decades ago. Soldiers opened fire, leaving more than 200 dead and thousands injured.

Many people are still looking for answers, and it is a political issue that divides the country. Those who support former conservative governments tend to shy away from the issue, but supporters of Moon Jae-in's current liberal government say historic wrongs need to be re-examined.

Last month, Moon ordered an investigation to look at how the military behaved during the uprising. A key part is an examination into whether helicopter gunships were used to fire upon a building where civilians were holed up.

That building is a stop on a special taxi tour program that is proving popular among visitors interested in finding out more. One of the drivers in the local government-run program, Cho Seong-soo, can still remember the brutality. “I saw a mother and her child stabbed with a soldier's bayonet and carried away by people trying to help them. It was so miserable and upsetting that I decided to join the protesters,” he says.

Cho has been a taxi driver for decades and is well-placed to help his passengers learn. “I've been involved with Gwangju victims' activities for more than 30 years, so I can explain what happened better than other people,” he says.

“I was detained and tortured by the military,” he continues. “Even now, I sometimes wake up suddenly in the middle of the night."

Cho says he is hopeful that the current government will get to the bottom of what really happened in 1980, and find those responsible. For his part, he plans to keep giving tours to people who want to know more about what he saw.