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The Former Announcer of the Citizen Army, Ms. Myungsook Cha

This article is for commemorating the 40th anniversary of the May 18 Democratic Uprising. It is an excerpt taken from a series of articles titled "1980 May, the Moment and the People," which was published in the Hankyoreh.

Released by: The Hankyoreh
Written by: Daeha Jeong

Myungsook Cha, the former announcer of the Citizen’s Army, "I'm still asked if I was a North Korean secret agent..."

[The May 18 Democratic Uprising’s 40th Anniversary Special Article Series-1980 May, the Moment and the People: The Former Announcer of the Citizen’s Army, Ms. Myungsook Cha]

Sons and daughters of Gwangju are dying!
A voice of a19-year-old woman that even had the martial law soldiers tremble
Was sentenced to 10 years in prison...brought her father death of shock
Endured one and a half-year imprisonment of torture by reading books
Vindicated her honor in 2013 from being a North Korean secret agent
Now running a restaurant in Andong specializing local dishes
Even former martial law soldiers patronizing her eatery
Having served May 18 related communities
Now wish life free of reflection of the May 18 even for a month

The May 18 Democratic Uprising celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. In May 1980, the people's uprising defended democracy against the New Military Regime, and it changed Korean society. Citizens who experienced the May 18 Democratic Uprising brought the end of Doohwan Chun's military dictatorship seven years later by participating in the June Struggle in 1987. In other words, our democracy owes to the May 18 Democratic Uprising and the June Struggle. While Korea’s democracy grew out of the blood of the May 18 Democratic Uprising, the scars left to an individual, Myungsook Cha, by this historical incident were indelible. The survivors of the Uprising greet the 40th anniversary of the May 18 Democratic Uprising while still tending to the grief and trauma that changed their lives. That's why the Hankyoreh was looking for unnamed individuals in the photos of the May 18 Democratic Uprising to mark its 40th anniversary. Above all, the purpose of this article series is to communicate with the younger generation, who feel that the May 18 Democratic Uprising is part of the distant past.

Wearing a pink polka dot blouse Ms. Cha gazed at her fingertips.

On September 12, 1980, Ms. Cha went to military a court. The New Military Regime which had illegally seized power held a military tribunal to judge those who were involved in the May 18 Democratic Uprising at the Sangmudae in Gwangju (Military Training and Education Command). In the courtroom military police were lined up. It was the end of summer but the air in the courtroom was chilly. As one of the leading street broadcasters at the Citizen’s Army, Ms. Cha was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. She was only nineteen years old.

“I don't know whose blouse was I was wearing in the picture. I was caught in May and my clothes were by then totally messed up. So I think someone gave me the blouse to wear for the trial. (laughs)” I met her on May 11 and she then remembered details of the trial. She was imprisoned in Gwangju Prison and wore a prison uniform with the number 113. Several female participants of the May 18 Democratic Uprising were incarcerated together in the cell.

Ms. Cha was a student at a dressmaking school when the Uprising occurred. She is from Damyang, Jeonnam, and came to Gwangju since she couldn't continue schooling due to her conservative father who insisted that girls shouldn’t go to school. Until then she was known as being tough and hard-boiled. Belonging to a Catholic choir, she learned to play the violin from a professor. She also volunteered to make curtains for the disabled people's monastery. Katarina, her baptismal name, worked diligently while dreaming of becoming the owner of a boutique some day in the future.

But in May that year her life changed. Around 10 am on May 20, 1980, a friend who she was going to meet did not show up. On her way returning to her dormitory, she witnessed the situation in downtown Gwangju. Soldiers were ruthlessly beating protesters. She didn't know much about social matters then but thought that soldiers should not do such things. She felt like she had to help the protesters and let Gwangju citizens know about the brutality of the soldiers. She went to Hakdoing Office with college students and youth whom she met on Geumnam Street, obtained a megaphone and speakers and started broadcasting.

She wore a wig and began to announce, "Your sons and daughters are dying. please come out now and protect Gwangju together!" On May 21, 1980, that year’s Buddha's birthday, she, with Okjoo Jeon (real name: Choonshim Jeon), who was also an announcer for the Citizen’s Army, went to Geumnam Street while push-carrying a cart with two bodies who had been killed by the martial law army near the Gwangju Station. Witnessing the disfigured corpses made citizens furious.

Around May 24, 1980, she was caught at the Gwangju Christian Hospital and was taken to the 505 Security Force under Security Command. "I was hiding inside a closet at someone’s house near Geumnam Street when the mass shooting happened on May 21. I was cleaning dead bodies at the Gwangju Christian Hospital after the martial law forces retreated to the suburbs. It was after I had returned to the hospital from the old Jeonnam Provincial Hall, which later became the Headquarters of the Citizen’s Army." The Security Forces dressed some soldiers in camouflage as citizens, infiltrated them into the protesters in order to create a fake pro-communist actions. They then accused her of being a North Korean spy and tortured her. But she was strong enough not to make false confessions. In July that year soldiers belonged to the Security Forces and the Joint Investigation Headquarters took her to her hometown Damyang. They spread rumors to her neighbors that she was a secret agent who had been trained in North Korea to create a riot in Gwangju. This shocked her father – he collapsed and passed away shortly after of cerebral hemorrhage.

The pain continued. Another fabricated investigation was conducted at the Gwangju Prison. She was locked in a solitary cell for a month, wearing leather handcuffs tied to a belt. "My left wrist was all rotten like a lump of frozen meat, it was completely black." It was books that saved her from the hellish situation. Inside the prison, she read books that her friends had sent. She was sentenced to ten years in military prison for violating martial law and was released in December 1981 with a suspension of execution.

She met a man of the same age, her future husband, in Seoul in 1985 at Sillim Catholic Church. He was a staff member at Children's Center at the church. They became acquainted while teaching the song “A Frog Boy” to a group of children. In 1986, they married at Taehwadong Catholic Church in Andong, Gyeongbuk. Her husband is the eldest son of a family that practiced Catholicism for five generations. Her father-in-law, one of the founding shareholders of the progressive newspaper The Hankyoreh, was proud of his daughter-in-law. The family was financially stable. It was the first time for her to be happy.

A crisis came in February 1989. "Who is Choonshim Jeon?" her husband asked after watching the National Assembly hearing on the May 18 Democratic Uprising. She replied "I worked with her during the Uprising. Don't ask anymore." Her husband was hurt by neighbors, who claimed that the May 18 was a riot caused by communists. He who had been so sweet to her became reticent. "It was unbearable that my husband didn’t talk to me, event about the May 18 at all. Aren’t words, even bitter ones, better than a stifling silence?" But inside her husband was struggling, too. Finally, she unavoidably had to announce, “I’ll leave home with the kids.” But her father-in-law said to his son, "Hey, you should leave home not she." Ms. Cha said, "Now I feel sorry for my husband whenever I think about that time. Jacob (her husband's baptismal name) must have really suffered then."

During the difficult times she received much support from the members of her church. At that time, most of Catholic priests in Andong were graduates of the Gwangju Catholic University, so they understood the reality of the May 18 Democratic Uprising. She was also encouraged by her acquaintance, Father Sewoong Ham who she had met at a Catholic church in Seoul. The Father gave monthly spipend to survive from May 1982.

She had led her life while raising children as if she had nothing to do with the May 18 Democratic Uprising. She, however, came out into the world in 2001 as a person of merit for the May 18 Democratic Uprising. Since then people told her that she should testify about the truth of the Uprising. But her two children didn't want their mother to be seen publicly either on television or in newspaper. Instead, she asked teachers at the school where her children attended to teach students the history of the May 18 Democratic Uprising. One day her son told her that one of his school mates had told him that "I'm proud of your mother." Her two grown sons are now the source of her pride. She received a judgment of acquittal for all the charges related to the May 18 Uprising at a retrial held at the Andong Branch of Daegu District Court in 2013. She said, “I am so happy with this judgment. I reclaimed my honor in front of all, including my sons.”

In 2003, she opened a restaurant in Andong that specializes in dishes from the southern province such as skatefish and cockle. It has served civil society activists in the region as gathering place. Sometimes former martial law soldiers who were in Gwangju in May 1980 also patronize her restaurant. One day a former soldier was drinking alone and said, "Nobody understands me what it feels like when you keep your military boots on for day."

A few years ago, she met one former martial law soldier in Jeju that the May 18 Memorial Foundation had arranged. He said that he works as a building guard and he couldn't face Ms. Cha. After a while he finally collected all his courage and asked, "Were you a really North Korean spy then?" She laughed and replied, "At that time, the soldier recollected, “We got afraid when female voices were echoing throughout the quiet downtown. See, we soldiers were waiting for orders of retreat, but we were kept standing in front of the former Jeonnam Provincial Hall.” So, Ms. Cha said, “It was then I thought that the soldiers were also victims of the May 18 Democratic Uprising."

Since 2008, Ms. Cha, the chairperson of the May 18 Comrade Association's Daegu & Gyeonbbuk Branch Office, has held events such as "Sharing Rice Balls" and lectures on the May 18 Democratic Uprising. She has also worked on projects along with the Korean Teachers & Educational Workers' Union. She regularly visits the May 18 National Cemetery with Andong citizens. She has continued volunteer works, such as offering briquettes to the needy and visiting long-term political prisoners. Referring to this, her husband would joke, "You three, the mother and sons, are so much the same? You just give out things to others!" All these activities were acknowledged when she was awarded the third Gil Wonok Women's Peace Prize in June in 2019.

Ms. Cha doesn’t regret her actions of the May 1980, but now and then wants to take a step back from the May 18 Democratic Uprising since she is afraid that people may think her May 18 related activism as some kind of "privilege". Her hope this year is to take a trip to a place where no one knows that she was involved in the May 18 Democratic Uprising. "I just want to fly freely. Maybe going to India…visiting a Hindu temple... and live a life of anonymity even for a month."