SEOUL – It is nearly four decades since South Korean protester Kim Sun-ok was raped by an army officer after a crackdown on democracy demonstrations, and she still cannot bear the sight of a green uniform.
Kim was a fourth-year music education student in May 1980 when she went out to buy books but instead found a body in the street, riddled with gunshot wounds.
Hundreds of thousands of people in Gwangju, a traditional hotbed of democratic sentiment, had risen in protest against a military coup by Gen. Chun Doo-hwan.
Chun, who was seeking to fill a power vacuum following the assassination of dictator Park Chung-hee, launched a bloody crackdown, leaving more than 200 civilians dead or missing, according to official figures.
Kim’s ordeal — for which South Korea’s defense minister apologized on Wednesday — is a microcosm of the trauma that endures from the decades of dictatorship in South Korea, despite its transformation into a robust democracy and the home of K-pop.
After seeing the corpse, instead of returning home, Kim joined protesters at the provincial government building in the southern city, helping with loudspeaker broadcasts and issuing press IDs.
She left the facility — the demonstrators’ last holdout — before troops retook it but was arrested weeks later while working as a trainee teacher.
“‘Here comes a female commander,'” interrogators taunted when she was brought to a military prison, she said.
Incarcerated for more than two months, she was beaten with sticks, kicked, punched and forced to kneel for hours on end.
Finally an interrogator sporting a major’s insignia treated her to a bowl of bibimbap — a Korean mixture of rice and vegetables — at a restaurant before raping her at an inn.
“As I was physically wrecked by torture, I was unable to fight back at all, and this makes me angrier now than the fact that I was subject to torture,” Kim said in her first interview with foreign media.
“I still can’t bear seeing anyone in a green uniform,” said Kim, now 59. “Just the sight of such clothes sends my heart rate rushing.”
The Gwangju uprising is a touchstone event for the South Korean left.
After the advent of democracy, Chun was convicted of treason and corruption and was sentenced to death, though the sentence was commuted.
He was later pardoned with the backing of Kim Dae-jung, the first liberal to be elected president, who had a limited power base and sought reconciliation rather than recrimination in the face of entrenched vested interests.
Divisions persist in South Korean society. Conservatives view the uprising as a Communist-inspired rebellion, and Chun last year published a controversial memoir denying responsibility for the bloodbath, damning key witnesses as liars. Despite a price of 150,000 won ($135), it sold more than 20,000 copies.
At the time of the pardon, current President Moon Jae-in was a human rights lawyer and one of the activists pushing for wider investigations.
He made Gwangju a campaign issue last year and has launched inquiries into the actions of past military dictatorships and conservative administrations.
His administration was looking to “restore the status of the Gwangju pro-democracy protests in history” said Yoon Sung-suk, professor of political science at Chonnam University — Kim’s alma mater — while at the same time using them to shore up its public support.
Kim herself was instrumental in one of the probes.
Chun’s troops were long believed to have carried out widespread sexual assaults against women, but the issue was swept under the carpet because traumatized victims remained reluctant to come forward.
Emboldened by South Korea’s growing #MeToo movement, Kim told a television interviewer about her experiences in May. An official probe later confirmed 17 cases of rape and sexual assault, the victims including teenagers and women unconnected to the protests.
On Wednesday, Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo issued a formal apology, bowing in regret for the inflicting of “unspeakable, deep scars and pain” on “innocent women” who were raped and subjected to “sex torture” by soldiers cracking down on protests against Chun’s military coup.
After raping Kim, the man told her to “forget what has happened so that you may live on.”
A few days later, she was released and allowed to return to her teaching job after signing a written pledge to keep silent and behave herself.
She was under regular surveillance during her 20 years working as a music teacher, and has suffered long-lasting consequences from the assault — even attempting suicide.
“I’ve been living through the past four decades like a mute with deep wounds in my mind,” she said.
Kim appeared before the government inquiry and believes it has identified and traced her assailant — adding that unless he is punished, “a million apologies would be meaningless.”
“I am grateful that my testimony served as a catalyst in investigating what has been left untold so far,” she said.
“I decided to come out with the truth to put this behind me before I die.”