At Gimpo Airport
At last the plane arrived. Yoon could see the cozy, green peninsula – his fatherland.
The crew had Yoon get off the plane first when they arrived at Gimpo Airport. He trembled – he thought he was going to be arrested on site. But he had prepared for that possibility. He walked calmly to the gate. Flashes of light burst out. A crowd was welcoming him home, and among them were countless reporters.
“Please hold your arms up and shout, “Hurrah!”
Yoon looked at the ground. During the press conference, the reporters asked Yoon for a statement. He had nothing prepared.
I am nothing but a fugitive. I don’t deserve fame. I intend to live as I have – like a laborer, like fertilizer.
There was nothing more to say. He went down to Gwangju by bus. The next morning he went to the cemetery[주 1] where his comrade Yoon Sang-won was buried. He knelt there and sobbed.
Korea had changed while he had been away. The streets were packed with cars, and the cities were filled with apartment buildings. The student movement had wilted, whereas the labor movement had grown steadily. Democracy was spreading throughout society. Civic groups had sprouted up in various sectors. Nonetheless, this was not the Korea he had been longing for.
The sky was still blue and mountains were still cozy. But the city felt claustrophobic. I felt like I couldn’t breathe because of the air pollution. And when I met with old comrades again, I could see that they had grown comfortable with the status quo. That, more than anything, made me feel like times had changed.
Yoon returned to L.A. in a week. Ironically enough, he felt like he had returned home from a long journey when he returned to L.A. He was very glad to meet with YKU members again.
And yet on August 18th, Yoon decided he would permanently return to Korea. He went to the vegetable garden of his school and uprooted everything. He knew there would be no one to take care of it once he left. He sent a letter of thanks to the U.S. State Department for granting him asylum and returned his residence permit.
The YKU held a farewell ceremony for him. In front of the members, who tearfully bade him farewell, Yoon pledged:
I will work hard, remembering you, my comrades. For the last 12 years, I lived in America thinking of my comrades in Korea. Now I’ll live in Korea, thinking of my comrades in the U.S.
Yoon felt that something had drastically changed while he’d been away. The people of Gwangju had led simple lives in the 1970’s. But the Gwangju he’d returned to was different. Everyone seemed greedier somehow, like they were all imitating some parvenu in Seoul.[주 2] There was no respect for the value of life. The people themselves didn’t recognize their own shift in attitude – for them, the change had come gradually. But for Yoon, the contrast was stark. He despaired:
I am immensely shocked by the changes in our country. My homeland became a country of no spirit, no soul, no principle, no discipline, no dreams, and even no tears. My country changed into something spiteful and vicious, failing to help the weak and the poor.
Yoon stuck to his old lifestyle. He lived in a room of about 40 square meters. It was a rental apartment provided by the government for the poor.
As always, Yoon also rejected any fame or official titles. His colleagues advised him to meet with Kim Dae-joong – such a meeting would’ve likely earned him a seat in the government. But Yoon was uninterested. In 1994, at Kim Nam-joo's funeral, Kim Dae-Jung came to pay his respects to the poet. Yoon and Kim bowed to each other in reconciliation, but that was all.
Yoon did not even attend memorial events held in honor of the Gwangju Uprising or the commemoration ceremony held at city hall. He only attended lectures on the Gwangju Uprising.
A comrade leaves his side
On February 13, 1994, Yoon received sad news. The poet Kim Nam-joo, his friend and comrade, had passed away. Perhaps his body had been weakened as a result of long term imprisonment. He died of pancreatic cancer. Kim Nam-joo is no less than a brother to Yoon.
One day the poet's wife, Park Kwang-sook, asked her husband. “What’s Yoon like? What kind of person is he?" The poet replied, “He’s the most innocent man in the country. He is 100% pure. There is not a deceitful bone in his body.”
After Kim Nam-joo passed away, Yoon started a fundraising campaign to establish a memorial for him. He persuaded the city to set up the memorial stone in a sunny area of the city park.
It was at Kim Nam-joo’s funeral that Yoon discovered he had an irreversible lung disease. As Yoon walked up the mountain to the grave, he found himself out of breath and unable to continue walking. At the hospital, Yoon was told that he had emphysema. Yoon gave up smoking, hoping that he could at least prevent the disease from getting worse.
After the funeral, Yoon rented a small space on the third floor of an old building. In March, 1995, he hung a sign there – “Korea Future Research Center.”
Many activists from all over the country came to the opening ceremony of the Korea Future Research Center. Every day, the place bustled with people who came to congratulate Yoon and wish him the best. The small space was always tidy, and there was a hot pot of tea ready for visitors at any time.
After opening the Korea Future Research Center, Yoon got married. In a way, the research center was his nest, and he was now ready to have a family of his own. His parents were thrilled to hear the news.
“Mother! I’ll get married, as you wish. But you must be ready to accept my partner, no matter who she is.”
Yoon made an international call to the U.S. Shin Kyung-hee, who had worked at the community center in L.A., picked up. Yoon immediately asked her to return to Korea. It was a sudden proposal. Shin replied that she needed some time to think. A week later, Yoon called her again.
“Have you made a decision?” he asked her.
“Can you at least feed me and keep a roof over my head?” she asked.
Yoon replied, “By what means would I do that?”
“Okay,” she said. “Fair enough. I’ll return to Korea.”
On April 17, 1995, on a clear, cloudless day, Yoon got married in a gym. He opted for a traditional Korean ceremony, which was uncommon. The officiant called for the bride and bride groom to bow to each other. The guests were all smiles. “Omae![주 3] Who knew Yoon would get married!” The bridegroom was 47 years old. The bride was 34.
Shin Kyung-hee was a YKU member of the Philadelphia branch. According to Yoon, she was a woman who could be content with having little.
When Yoon was in the U.S., his mother’s only wish was to see her son’s face again. When he returned, his mother’s only wish was to see him get married. Now that he was married, her only wish was to have a grandchild. But Yoon never granted her that last wish.
Though Yoon and Shin never had a child, they were a happy couple. Yoon enjoyed singing with his wife. Yoon’s favorite song was “The Light of the Factory.” He often asked his wife to sing “Idiot Adada,” a sad song about a deaf woman. Towards the end of his life, he was learning the song “Springtime Passes.”
The May 18th Memorial Foundation
After returning to Korea permanently in 1994, the first project Yoon began working on was the establishment of the May 18th Memorial Foundation. It was founded in August that year and received acknowledgement from the government in November. Those few months between August and November were some of the most difficult times in Yoon’s life. His efforts were often greeted with suspicion, slander, insults, and threats. Nonetheless, he and his friends held an inaugural meeting on August 30th. The following is the founding statement of the May 18th Memorial Foundation.
Gwangju stands again. May stands again. The May 18th Memorial Foundation has been founded to contribute to our society through solidarity and resistance in the face of injustice.
May 18th is as much of a yoke as it is an honor. May does not belong to anyone – not even the injured, the arrested, or the bereaved. We reflect upon the past and repent for wrongdoings as we pledge to return to the spirit of May, 1980. With humility we stand in front of those who have sacrificed their lives. They smile brightly down upon us.
This statement reflects how Yoon felt about the Gwangju Uprising. For him, May was a yoke, a burden that would haunt him till he died.
The permit for the foundation was granted in December. “I’ll stand firm in the face of hardship, and I will do everything I can to pay my debt to those who gave their lives in May, 1980." Yoon felt he had finally fulfilled the promise.
Another project Yoon took interest in was Theater Tobagi. Park Hyo-seon, the leader of Theater Tobagi, had been one of the protestors at city hall during the Gwangju Uprising. He was a director as well as a great writer. He wrote more than twenty plays, which included a trilogy about the Gwangju Uprising – <May of Geum-hee>, <Peony Blossom>, and <Blue Thread, Red Thread>.
In 1994, Theater Tobagi was about to close down because they could not pay rent for their office. Yoon organized a fundraiser so that in the next year, they were able to have their own small theater.
Yoon invited Theater Tobagi to perform in the U.S., as a way to educate people about the Gwangju Uprising. In 1994, Theater Tobagi performed <Peony Blossom> in major cities in the United States. In 1996, Theater Tobagi went on another tour, this time performing <May of Geum-hee>. Touring around the U.S. was incredibly difficult for the members of Theater Tobagi, but they were met with standing ovations after every performance. The YKU devoted a lot of effort to their success.
Wildfire Night School
"Wild fire” is a reference to the famous last statement in court made by August Spice, given the death sentence; "If you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement—the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil and live in want and misery, the wage slaves, expect salvation—if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but here, and there, and behind you, and in front of you, and everywhere, flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out."
The Wildfire Night School played a pivotal role in the Gwangju Uprising. This night school was founded by Park Ki-soon in 1978, to provide education to workers in factories. The school also offered education to poor students who could not afford to attend school. Dedicated college students volunteered to teach at the school.
On Christmas day of 1978, Park Ki-soon was busy preparing for the school festival. She was exhausted from collecting pine cones, and her body was too deeply asleep to notice the carbon monoxide seeping into her house. Many teachers and students of the night school grieved her death.
Many of the activists who contributed to the Gwangju Uprising were volunteer teachers at Wildfire Night School. Yoon Sang-won and Park Yong-joon were killed by soldiers at city hall. Kim Yong-cheol was arrested at city hall and tortured. He suffered permanent brain damage. Park Kwan-hyun led the torch rally on May 16th and died during a hunger strike in prison. Shin Yong-il led the student movement after the uprising and devoted his life to the democratization of Korea. He died from torture and fatigue in 1988. Park Hyo-seon was the leader of Theater Tobagi.
Yoon made a memorial to commemorate these teachers of Wild Fire Night School. The memorial shows their faces, carved in stone, as the stars of the Big Dipper. Yoon also established the Wild Fire Prize, which was given to devoted activists.
Was Yoon a nationalist? This is a difficult question to tackle. Yoon led the Korean unification movement and set up many programs to teach immigrant Koreans about their heritage. He set up the Korean Future Research Center. But at the same time, he also promoted international solidarity. Jeong Seung-jin’s portrayal of Yoon gets us a little closer to the truth.
People say Yoon is a unification activist, but I think that’s not true. He’s an activist for the weak and disenfranchised.
Yoon’s ideology and spirit are hard to pin down. It’s probably best to analyze his principles through his thoughts on the Gwangju Uprising.
On May 18, 2004, Yoon led a special lecture called “The Spirit of May.” He began the speech with these remarks:
Those who try to commemorate the uprising of May 18th must first define the spirit and principle behind it. Without establishing what the principles were, there’s no point in commemoration. What can we do to continue and develop the spirit that drove us to protest? We can’t answer this question without defining what this spirit is.
People often say that the spirit of the uprising is about 'democracy, human rights, and peace'. But democracy, human rights, and peace are universal values. If we define the spirit of the Gwangju Uprising through universal values, we actually define nothing about it. That’s almost like saying the uprising was based on no thought at all, no ideology.
No one had expected such sharp criticism. When everyone else was pleased with trite platitudes, Yoon relentlessly sought to define the conviction that led to the Gwangju Uprising. He continued, in his speech, to speak of resistance and solidarity. “The massacre caused anger. The anger led to resistance and protests. The uprising in May was about resistance, first and foremost.”
Then, he asked, “What made people stand up against injustice? What empowered them?” Yoon believed it was solidarity. He used the Korean word daedong[주 4] – “That means we think of each other as family, as one. When the citizens were fighting, they cried, “Let’s die together, let’s join those who have given their lives to this cause.” That’s what solidarity is.”
Resistance and solidarity were the principles that guided Yoon’s life. Im Kyung-kyu, a member of the YKU, once said, “Yoon wanted to make the whole world one family. He wanted everyone, no matter where they were from, to feel like they were a part of one community. He always said ‘Let’s do right by others. We’re all brothers, regardless of ethnicity.’”
Jeong Seong-jin, a leader of the New York branch, said, “Yoon's spirit, in the long run, is the spirit of Gwangju. To inherit the spirit of the Gwangju Uprising is to inherit Yoon’s spirit.”
Learn your roots
Live with integrity
The mottos that Yoon hung on the walls of his school were, in essence, the spirit of resistance and solidarity behind the Gwangju Uprising.
The Progressive Party
Yoon emphasized the need for a progressive party. He stressed that Korea was the only country that didn’t have such a thing. His dream for a future progressive party was ambitious.
A party of firm policy, of transparent democracy, and clear responsibility. A party of true morals, a strong independent party that runs independently from any other organization, funded by membership fees. A party for the people, people from all walks of life. A progressive party that advocates for the rights of workers and farmers. A party that promotes culture and arts, a party that has a vision for the nation’s future in the long term. A party that responds to the cries of the weak and trampled all over the world.
Yoon wasn’t an idle thinker. Once he had an idea, he immediately took steps to make it happen. He made an organization as a stepping-stone to the progressive party he dreamed of. It was called the “Haemaji,” meaning “greeting the sunrise” in Korean. But Yoon was uninterested in pursuing a career as a politician himself, and Haemaji did not last long.
In January, 2000, Yoon greeted the newfound progressive party. He had great expectations of the Democratic Labor Party of Korea. In 2004, the Democratic Labor Party elected ten lawmakers. Yoon exclaimed that it was the best news he’d heard in his life.
But almost immediately, Yoon lost faith. The sycophants of the conservative party, who had always blocked the progressive party at every turn, now wanted in. They joined the Democratic Labor Party and took control over the party’s leadership. Yoon resigned as the advisor of the Democratic Labor Party.
The movement for a progressive party in Korea faced new barriers and obstacles, but Yoon could not join the fight. This time it was his failing health that forced him to come down from the stage. He had to leave the future of Korea’s progressive party in the hands of history.
The last visit to America
The YKU continued to be active for ten years after Yoon left the U.S. and then it was decided that it would be dissolved in 2004. Activist groups in Korea rarely lasted more than five years. It was incredible that the YKU had survived for nearly twenty.
Though the YKU dissolved, their community centers in L.A., New York, and Chicago continued to be active. They became much bigger than they had been when Yoon led the YKU and they became very influential in the Korean immigrant society. In 2005, Yoon began to prepare for the end of his life. It was becoming impossible to climb a flight of stairs, and he depended on an oxygenator. He was more or less confined to his house. In 2006, he made a final trip to the U.S. to meet with his colleagues.
During his trip, Yoon confessed that he had been wrong on a few matters. First, he conceded that the North had nuclear weapons and retracted his previous claim that North Korea was a peaceful country. In the past, Yoon had also believed that North Korea was not responsible for the outbreak of the Korean War. But based on the data released by the Soviet Union, he admitted that the Korean War was a result of North Korea’s invasion. He corrected his erroneous views publicly. To the last, Yoon was an honest activist who was always ready to readjust his views based on evidence. Jeong Seung-jin gives an account of what happened after the last time Yoon met with the YKU.
Then the meeting finished, and I picked him up at the hotel by car. Yoon said that he would not come here again. I dropped him off in front of the hotel and saw him cry in front of the elevator. He wasn’t that kind of guy – he never cried in public. But I saw his shoulders heave as he stood in front of the elevator.
That night was the last day of his stay in the United States.
After returning to Korea, Yoon was frustrated by the many obstacles he faced. The hope he’d put into the progressive party fizzled out, and the world in general had a long way to go before achieving the kind of solidarity Yoon dreamed of. Yoon’s efforts were constantly met with suspicion and slander. So was his life a failure? That’s not for us to say one way or another. All we can do, as his friends, is talk about how much we miss him.
Hong Hee-dam: The last time I saw him was in a sterile hospital room, after he’d passed away. He looked transparent, peaceful. I could see his hands poking out beneath the blanket. I felt like he’d become a spirit now, like he could still talk to us. This planet is beautiful, because people like him trod on it.
Choi Kwon-haeng: There was a poet hidden in the man. Sometimes, when I remember Yoon’s passion, his talent with words, and his insight into history, I think Yoon must have been Homer in a former life.
Kim Hee-taek: He’s the one that made me reassess the youth movement, so, in retrospect, meeting him was a turning point in my life. His face still lingers – the sparkling in his eyes that spoke of truth.
Choi Dong-hyun: We, who plotted the secret passage to America, met at Masan on April 30 in 1981. Yoon said he would fight or die. He wanted the world to know about the Gwangju Uprising. He resolved to become a thread in the tapestry of Korea’s democratization and dedicate his whole life to fight against military dictatorship.
Moon Kyu-hyun: There wasn’t a speck of dishonesty in him. He wore his heart on his sleeve, and he always did as he said he would. He was filled – no, overflowing – with love for his country. He was always burning with passion. I remember how much he used to cherish the dirt in the vegetable garden behind our school. It was soil from Gwangju. I don’t think I could ever forget him.
Lee Kang: My youngest son was accepted into Seoul National University in 1998. Yoon encouraged him, saying, “You’ve done so well! Growing up without a mother must have been hard on you, but you’ve studied so hard.” He even gave him a million won to help him out with tuition.
Lee Kil-joo: I used to say “Ugh, smoking again!” when I caught him. He always smoked with his head hanging low, his hands closing around the cigarette butt as if he was trying to hide it. I’d say it again if I saw him now – and probably, like always, he would just shake his head, smiling. He was a man who could make me smile shamelessly.
Choi Yong-tak: The YKU was a remarkable group. Devotion – that’s the word that comes to mind. They always said, “Our brothers and sisters shed their blood in Korea, so we ought to shed our sweat ten times, twenty times over in America."
Kang Wan-mo: He was a Jesus that walked among us, a Lenin of Korea. That’s the kind of man he was to us.
A man who lived selflessly all his life. A man who was devoted to something bigger than himself. A man who kept his country-boy heart pure. This man is still with us. The dreams he left unfulfilled are our duty and our honor. Kim Nam-joo’s poem, “The Fighter-2,” is dedicated to Yoon.
fell on the earth of mankind
would fall fighting for freedom.
But he knew too
that his death wouldn’t be in vain.
Yes, every drop of blood he shed
seeped into the Mother Earth
the tree of liberty will bear fruit.
His descendants freed, picking the fruit,
will talk about the blood, the tears he shed.
- The National Cemetery where the martyrs of the Gwangju Uprising were buried
- In 1977, Korea’s GDP per capita was about 1,000 dollars. By 1995, the GDP per capita was about 10,000 dollars. Many rich people lived in Gangnam, Seoul at this time. Their hedonistic lifestyle had made its way down to Gwangju.
- This is an exclamation of surprise unique to the rural dialect of Cheonnam Province.
- Daedong is a confucian concept similar to commune, a world of equality. It is written in Chinese characters, 大同, which means a great solidarity.