Tim Shorrock at the 5.18 Archives: A Two-Month Project in Gwangju

Photos courtesy of Tim Shorrock 

There are few Americans with as much inside knowledge about the May 18 Gwangju Uprising as Washington, D.C.-based veteran investigative journalist Tim Shorrock. Shaped by his early witnessing of the April 19, 1960 Uprising as a child of missionaries living in Seoul, Shorrock’s career has spanned over three decades. Though not on the ground during May 1980, his three extensive stays in Gwangju during the following decade led to his use of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act to obtain nearly 4,000 declassified government documents related to Gwangju that revealed the U.S. role in crushing the Uprising. Spanning the years 1994–2006 the project was first revealed in a series of articles in 1996, causing furor in South Korea.

Shorrock’s work earned him the title of honorary citizen of Gwangju, presented by Major Yoon Jang-hyun during the May 21, 2015 ceremony at the 5.18 Democracy Square. After visiting the city again last year as part of a group of foreign journalists who had reported on the Uprising, a plan was hatched to integrate his documents into the 5.18 Archives, a UNESCO World Heritage site in downtown Gwangju. From April to May 2017, Shorrock is back in Gwangju, busy at work on the archival project. Gwangju News caught up with the journalist at his office in the Archives building.

“One of the biggest questions I still have is why did the U.S. decide on May 22?” Shorrock said. “Why did they go for the military solution rather than negotiations or wait it out? Why did they consider it such a threat to the Korean military and also to American interests? When you look at these documents and reports, you start putting it together, what might have led to that kind of decision. What I’ve seen a little bit is that some of the reports were completely false. I hope to find some more documents that might help us to understand.”

Working with a 5.18 Archives Korean staff assistant, Shorrock is creating a searchable database of his files, ordered by relevance to Gwangju, that will be available for any future researcher looking to answer these and other question.

Tim with Lee Tong-gye, Gwangju activist who was a member of the Citizens’ Army in 1980

“It will be available and accessible to researchers and that to me is the most important thing. These documents are my life’s work, one of the greatest achievements of my career in journalism. I’m proud to have them here, and I’m glad that they will be accessible. It makes me feel like I’ve really contributed to this city, to understand what happened and have reconciliation with the past and with the United States, too.”

Arriving in Korea during a heated presidential election campaign leading up to the vote on May 9, following the first impeachment of a democratically elected president, Shorrock sees the current political situation as a continuation of the country’s democracy movement. He views the sustained nationwide candlelight street protests of late 2016 and early this year as signals of a shift in a new direction.

“It began a long time ago, with certain key events,” he said. “4.19, 5.18, the election of Kim Dae-jung. This was a mass mobilization. I think it’s a climactic moment. It seems like people here in Korea want to turn away from these military, authoritarian, very right-wing conservative governments they’ve had for the last two presidents. Both the candlelight movement and the election are very important events in that succession.”

Although many Koreans felt a sense of shame during the prolonged impeachment process, Shorrock maintains that from his perspective as an American, the peaceful candlelight movement is nothing short of inspirational. Connecting the Korean protests with the largest demonstration he has ever seen in his home country, the Women’s March on Washington following the inauguration of Donald Trump, Shorrock sees a lot of hope for change. While traditionally ignored or misunderstood by the U.S. press and ordinary citizens, the latest wave of demonstrations helped to shine a new light on Korea. Still, Shorrock was disappointed by the U.S. coverage of the former president’s removal from office.

“To be honest, Americans pay hardly any attention to South Korea,” he said. “All they see is, North Korea, bad. The cynicism and ignorance of Americans towards South Korea is incredible. Apart from a few good reporters, Choe Sang-hun in the New York Times and Anna Fifield in the Washington Post, especially the TV side of the [impeachment] coverage was just hysterical and simplistic.”

In Shorrock’s view, the 5.18 Gwangju Uprising was a Cold War-era uprising on the same level as China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square or Hungary’s 1956 revolt against the Soviet Union. Yet compared to these events, he sees that the story of Gwangju has not received the attention it deserves. Shorrock attributes this to the fact that, rather than a Communist government, people of this city rose up against a U.S.-backed military. These days, with presidential candidates investing more time and energy in Gwangju on the campaign trail, he believes that the area is receiving more of a domestic boost as part of the nation as a whole, after a long history of neglect by the central government.

“Maybe Jeolla and the Honam area is becoming more important as it’s becoming more integrated. A lot of people here don’t want the history forgotten. They want to make sure people understand what it’s all about.”

As an important contributor to this uncovering of history, Shorrock views his journalistic role as bringing out stories that would not otherwise be shared with the public.

“When I was in Gwangju in 1985, people said ‘Please tell our story. Please tell Americans what happened here.’ Then I was a journalist after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005. I heard the same thing from people: ‘Please tell our story.’ I’m always fair in my reporting, but I’m an activist as a journalist. I was ashamed of what happened in Gwangju, and I wanted to expose that because I don’t want it to happen again.”

To hear more from Tim Shorrock, come to his Saturday, May 20 GIC Talk.

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