Kwangju and After

James Fenton

In 1980 I had, for personal reasons, to revisit Thailand. I hadn’t wanted to. Indeed I had often vowed that I would never go back to the Far East. Also, I was absolutely determined never again to work as a foreign correspondent.

But there I was, staying at the Trocadero with several other journalists, and the conversation turned to South Korea. It seemed that the students had armed themselves and had managed to throw the army out of a city called Kwangju – an extraordinary event, an improbability, armed insurrection in one of the most authoritarian countries in the world.

Before long, the journalists’ luggage began to appear in the hotel lobby, and anxious trips were made to travel agents. I watched all this with superior detachment. As far as I was concerned, they could keep South Korea, that terrifying place. It had one of the world’s most efficient secret services. It crushed dissent at home and pursued it ruthlessly abroad. Its power struggles were bloody. Its soldiers had been the most detested foreign troops in Vietnam. It was a place to avoid.

A Letter to Our Son