From Criminal to Heroine: Telling Untold Stories of Women who Galvanized Gwangju

For decades women human rights activists have been actively participating in social movements and playing a vibrant role for protection of human rights. Women social activist from all over the world proved that they are not socially inferior to their male counterpart but are real change agents who are always standing against social injustice globally.

In the 20th century women social activist played a vibrant role in achieving the right to vote. In 1913 American women social activists performed advocacy, struggled, and faced various injustices but, in the end, they gained women suffrage.

Ms. Jeon Choon-shim shwoing Picture of 518 Gwangju Democratic Uprising

On May 18, 1980, women of Gwangju did not remain as submissive victims in the Uprising but played vigorous roles as agents of resistance by printing news bulletins, issuing admission tickets for the public, gathering essential information, sharing with respective designers, broadcasting public massages, participating in negotiations, and motivated common public opinion for the Gwangju Uprising. Gwangju housewives voluntarily collected rice and did fundraising for the Uprising. Gwangju prostitutes appeared in hospitals and donated blood for the injured citizen.

During the ten days of the Uprising, women like Jeon Choon-shim played a historical role in the Uprising. Choon-shim was the youngest and beloved child of her family. And her father was the police chief of Yooleumyun, Bosung. She always remained active in social movements and was a dance teacher in Gimje, Gwangju. It is the untold story of a girl who was known as a heroine of Gwangju by citizens but military intelligence agents labeled her as a “Spy” for North Korea.

A Voice that Roared and Awakened Gwangju

Today, in developed countries and in South Korea young people take democracy for granted but, in contrast, 1980 authoritarianism was fully in-charge along with all of its brutalities in South Korea. Jeon Choon-Shim could have lived a peaceful life if she listened to the advice of a taxi driver who told her that “If you go there (Gwangju) now, you will be killed by the paratroopers”. But she took a bold stance and decided to visit Gwangju to uncover the truth.

“When I arrived at Chungjang Street, I was shocked to see the shoes of citizens and students who had run away and were beaten by paratroopers like a dog,” said Choon-shim. “I was so furious seeing this injustice that I immediately participated in the demonstration.” It shows that she couldn’t believe that Korean soldiers were torturing and killing their own people.

The regime paratroopers and citizens of Gwangju called her a heroine of the Uprising. Before the Uprising she knew nothing about making any motivational speeches, but May 18 changed her life and gave birth to a natural orator. Her voice was full of appeal, and she started broadcasting the messages using an amplifier that she purchased with her savings throughout the city . She was the main speaker, and her magical voiced so fascinated several people that they joined the resistance. Due to her magical and motivational voice, military intelligence agents code-named her “Peony Flower”.

A Representative for Peace Negotiation

On May 21, 1980, when she was broadcasting she heard that two dead bodies were found at Gwangju train station and she took both dead bodies in a handcart to the provincial Hall Gwangju. She showed both dead bodies to a military colonel in Gwangju and asked the colonel who killed them. The colonel replied “Where did you get them? We didn’t kill them. A spy did”. There she negotiated with the military and people allowed her. “I asked the Colonel to let me meet with the martial law commander, and he asked me to go inside the Provincial Hall. I coordinated with citizens and asked them “Do you want me to go inside and talk with commander”, and the people agreed. She met with the Gwangju Governor and negotiated with him.

She urged the Governor first to pull the army out of Gwangju because the citizens are scarred. Secondly, she asked to share update information about how many students were arrested and their status. Third, she asked to make accurate and impartial media reports about the Gwangju situation.

Also, she rescued soldiers and police officers who were captured by the citizens. She urged citizen that “they are the same as us and we have to protect their rights”. 

The struggle of Jeon Choon-shim revealed Gwangju women’s courage and strength. Even though the martial law army committed violence, sexually assaulted and killed many women she was firmly standing against injustice for all during the Uprising and never gave up fighting.

From Speaker to Victim of Bloody Torture

On May 24, 1980, Choon-shim was grabbing a megaphone from a jeep to cry out, “Fellow citizens, join us. How can you sleep? The soldiers are killing our brothers and sisters. Let’s fight together until the end!” Several people heard the pain of her voice as the regime forces stormed the Gwangju provincial hall and suppressed the Gwangju Democratic Uprising.

She had several tormenting stories, such as – “At one point I was in a stationary car. I was eating a strawberry and a bullet flew past and killed the car’s driver. Since then she has never eaten strawberries”.

On May 27 Choon-shim was arrested by police after the Uprising was ended by regime troops. She was subjected to brutal psychological, physical, and water torture for weeks. The military Intelligence agents accused her of being a “North Korean Spy” with the secret code name ‘Peony Flower”. Choon-shim shared her painful memories: “They beat me severely, pricked my knees, and my body was torn. They forced me to defecate in open ground before soldiers, and it was a humiliation”. Due to the torture, she was internally bleeding and so they transferred her to Yangmin Hospital. She was then sentenced to 15 years. But she never retreated and the following year she filed an appeal at the higher court and received a special pardon. But in reality, she was never pardoned and forgiven by the regime: “I could not got a decent job in my life, and whenever I got a job, I was fired after a few days for no reason”.

Beloved to Street Laundry Girl

Once released from jail, she temporally stayed with her brother. Later, she went to Seoul in 1983 and got a dance teacher job for a short time. However, after a few months, the owner of the dance institute asked her to leave because the National Security Department was making trouble for him. Choon-shim went through miserable days, and she ran a vending cart, did laundry for bargirls, and lived in a damp basement room.

“These agents some time took pity on me and laughed on me, saying that a heroine of Gwangju should not live like this. If you cooperate a little with us, we will make you rich”. But she never submitted and stood with a strong will to overcome her physical, physiological, and financial situation.

Once Again a Heroine of Gwangju

After the June Democracy Movement in 1987 shook the military regime of Korea, the truth was disclosed before ordinary people of Korea. The Korean democratic government held a legal trial of military tyrants about the massacre that took place in Gwangju, and they found the regime guilty. The leader of the regime served detention and surrendered themselves to human rights and democratisation.

Though life has not been easy for Choon-shim and she still feels great sadness, trauma, and pain about what happened in Gwangju, she is proud that she never surrendered to the tyranny. She is living in Seoul with her family, but the Uprising in Gwangju radically changed the meaning of life for her. People of Gwangju still consider her as a heroine of Gwangju and never forgot her speeches during the May 18 Democratic struggle.

After experiencing such great sacrifices, trauma, deaths, and brutality, the people of Gwangju proudly stand with the May 18 Spirit. The city of Gwangju is now known as the city of human rights and democratisation in Korea.

Meanwhile, the role of women in the Uprising was highly vibrant, but it was not adequately documented due to various factors. The first factor was to keep them safe from atrocities by the brutal regime. Secondly, most women remained silent due to their physical and psychological trauma. Thirdly, the activities of women were never considered as unlawful so these were not fully documented.

However, presently the May 18 Memorial Foundation is tangibly documenting the role of women during the May 18 Democratic Uprising, publishing a book entitled the “May 18 Democratic Uprising and Women”. The book documents the role of women, resistance, and their post-traumatic situation. In other words, the women’s experience during the May 18 Uprising has become a kind of catalyst that has awakened them to a new way of living.

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