Defector Testimonies in a Polarized Society: From Implausible Story to Political Controversy

By and | October 15, 2013 | No Comments

One of two shows that triggered the conflict over historical memory of Gwangju in spring 2013. | Image: You Tube

One of the two shows that triggered conflict over the historical memory of Gwangju earlier this year. | Image: Sino-NK

Like wounded birds, those North Koreans who elude the kleptocratic grasp of their native state tend to be regarded with a mixture of fascination and pity by those they encounter as they arrive to “freedom.” But such individuals are rarely passive. Many come bearing tales of rebellion, the tang aftertaste of gunpowder, a hint of broken windows. Though relatively “welcoming,” only the naive imagine that the institutions of the receiving state are absent of political motivations, either; anxious as they are to use inflammatory stories to propagate particular narrative histories.  

South Korea: a divided nation overshadowed by an authoritarian legacy of its own, hardly prepared to deal with the problematic North Korean “Other.” A state where implausible stories can readily develop into political controversies, granted ample airtime irrespective of the facts, which are, in any case, mostly ambiguous. Earlier this year, a pair of defectors were given the spotlight to defend a highly revisionist account of events they say took place in Gwangju in May 1980. It was an episode that underscored the highly politicized nature of the South Korean media, the divisive socio-historical cleavages in a nation divided, and the problem of rendering defector testimony as a source of reliable information in a nominally free society. — Adam Cathcart, Chief Editor

Defector Testimonies in a Polarized Society: From Implausible Story to Political Controversy*

by Christopher Green and Steven Denney

In South Korea, the treatment of North Korean defector testimony reveals a great deal about the politicized and divided nature of the country’s social and media landscape.  It also underscores the narrative reliability problem that tends to dog stories told by escapees from the North.  The contentious relationship between the two Koreas, not to mention the sharp political divisions that exist between nominally “conservative” and “progressive” politics in the South, make defector testimony an extremely volatile topic.  Recent controversy surrounding allegations of North Korean involvement in the “Gwangju democratization movement” (광주 민주화 운동) of May 1980 shows, above all, how easily the words of defectors can fall into the wrong hands and spawn political conflagration.

Falling into the Wrong Hands: Conservative Claims | In May of this year, two conservative television programs aired interviews with a pair of defectors who asserted that elite members of the North Korean armed forces (tuksubudae; 특수부대) had been involved  in the anti-government protest and violence in Gwangju from May 18-27, 1980. The interviewees defended the assertion, which had already been made in a book entitled Kim Il-sung, Gwangju Incident: North Korean military dispatched to the South.  They asserted that North Korean soldiers had incited the civil unrest by shooting citizens and fostering a general sense of chaos in the city, which ultimately led to the violent suppression of the uprising by South Korean military units.

The sensational new testimony was in extreme contrast to the conventional historical narrative, which has it that the citizens of Gwangju rose up against local government in protest at the authoritarian rule of military dictator Chun Doo-hwan . The event has long been seen as a source of immense pride for the people of South Jeolla Provice, a watershed in the history of the nationwide student movement, and a pillar of the successful fight for democracy in South Korea.

However, on May 13, just days before the 33rd anniversary of the events in Gwangju, Jang Sung-min’s News Tank (장성민의 시사탱크), a program aired by TV Chosun, hosted a former member of the North Korean Special Forces.  The defector claimed that on May 18, 1980, one full battalion of the North Korean Special Forces entered Gwangju and occupied the provincial office–not armed Gwangju citizens, as the history books uphold.  Jang then did a follow-up interview with the defector, during which he described the intervention in greater detail, focusing on how North Korean soldiers had shot and killed many Gwangju citizens.

Two days later on May 15, the newspaper Dong-a Ilbo’s own Channel-A show entitled Kim Gwang-hyeon’s Balanced Views (김광현의 탕탕평평) aired a second interview that backed the claim, adding that the North Korean soldiers who participated in inciting the uprising were promoted as a result, implying that they were rewarded for a job well done.

A Different Sort of Uprising: Backlash | The claims made quite a stir and elicited a strong backlash from the left, precipitating the publication of a number of vitriolic op-eds and editorials in the two main progressive dailies (the Hankyoreh and Kyunghyang Sinmun). Professor Kim Dong-chun , a famed progressive scholar and social scientist at Sungkonghoe University, attacked the alternative narrative, declaring it to be unsubstantiated nonsense; in effect, “bar talk.”  Professor Kim wears his heart on his sleeve: He is on the record saying that attempts to strip the Gwangju movement of its historical significance to Korea’s democratization are akin to fascism and reserves special vitriol for those who write for the website Ilbe (Daily Best; 일간 베스트), an online message board for conservative dissidents, wherein the Gwangju uprising is referred to as nothing more than a “riot.”

However, it was not just those to the left-of-center who were calling foul on this occasion.  Even conservatives were put off by the seemingly distorted mythmaking. In what must count as an indication that it had all gone much too far, even stalwart right-wing columnist Cho Gab-je denounced the claims in an article entitled Intervention by North Korea special forces in Gwangju is something I cannot believe!  As former chief editor and president of Chosun Monthly and a firm advocate of South Korea obtaining its own nuclear deterrent, Cho’s boasts sound like conservative credentials.

Yet, in one of a number of articles he wrote on the “tuksubudae incident” (특수부대 개입설), he listed seven reasons why claims about North Koreans infiltrating Gwangju are almost certainly false; his rebuttals were based on everything from official statistics to basic, well-known facts about what took place on those 10 days in May.

Eventually, the backlash from all sides of the political aisle became so universal and so negative that both Channel-A and TV Chosun were forced to issue public apologies, immediately before they received a stern warning from the Korea Communications Standards Commission (KCSC) that punitive measures would be taken if anything similar were to occur in the future.

"Daily Best", a South Korean conservative dissident website, and lightning rod for political controversy. | Image: Sino-NK

“Daily Best,” a South Korean conservative dissident website and lightning rod for political controversy. In this image, the author is contemplating “points of doubt” about the “standard narrative” of the Gwangju uprising of May 1980. | Image: Sino-NK

The Apology Isn’t the Point: Aftermath | That the story received considerable attention domestically is due more to its sensational message than its plausibility.  The revisionist re-telling of the Gwangju uprising seems to defy logic.  But to focus exclusively on content would in any case miss the much bigger picture.  Not only does the entire episode paint a fairly grim picture of the polarized South Korean political scene, but it also does absolutely nothing to inspire confidence that South Korea is working to come to terms with the existence of its northern neighbor.

First, though the average South Korean conservative voter would be unlikely to believe the claims made, it is telling that the two programs that aired the interviews are affiliated with the twin-pillars of conservatism in Korea: the Chosun Ilbo and Dong-A Ilbo.  That the two media giants proceeded to air the interviews, knowing full well that such revisionist (and doubtful) story-telling would infuriate a sizable portion of the population, indicates the extent to which media institutions and social structures in the South breed and encourage this kind of rogue testimony for political use.

Secondly, it reinforces the view held by many progressives that their view of Korean history, especially the history of the democratization movement itself, is under constant assault by wealthy conservative schemers with a revisionist agenda. To proud leftists, use of the word “riot” (폭동), instead of “democratization movement” (민주화 운동),  is a political tactic intended simply to discredit the legacy of 1980 and progressive thought more generally.

But just as importantly, the controversy that inevitably surrounds stories like this vastly over-complicates the process of rendering defector testimony into a credible source of information about North Korea.  This is extremely unfortunate since it is the kind of information that South Korean society badly needs.  Many academics and journalists already view such testimonies with suspicion, automatically dismissing them as fabricated and unreliable.

Unfortunately, where a single South Korean outlier can be dismissed as a lone wolf with a vivid imagination, a couple of defector testimonies, no matter how absurd, retain the ability to color the public’s view of a whole community.

* This essay first appeared in the Summer 2013 edition of Korean Quarterly, and is republished here with full permission.

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