The rice balls that fueled a revolution

 
A lunch of rice balls, kimchi and sweet danmuji radish that Hannah ate at Gwangju’s May 18 National Cemetery last year. (Drawing by Adam Oelsner)

A lunch of rice balls, kimchi and sweet danmuji radish that Hannah ate at Gwangju’s May 18 National Cemetery last year. (Drawing by Adam Oelsner)

A fist of rice.

That’s my literal translation of the Korean word for rice ball, jumeokbap. Round, wrapped taut in sheets of black gim, these hefty, baseball-sized bundles of rice are a popular snack for Koreans on the go. This name — fist of rice — seems so fitting when I think of the way that jumeokbap fed a “citizen’s army” of protestors during the 1980 Gwangju Uprising.

The southern city of Gwangju, in Korea’s South Jeolla Province, is my father’s ancestral hometown. I returned to Gwangju last May to conduct research on the 1980 pro-democracy protests that descended hellishly into a dictatorship’s massacre on civilians.

Koreans commemorate the Gwangju Uprising on May 18, the Sunday that “aggressive black-beret special forces troops arrived to quell the demonstrations” led by students opposed to martial law, the journalist Don Oberdorfer writes in “The Two Koreas.” Horrified by the military’s indiscriminate violence on unarmed protesters, ordinary people also took to the streets, forming a 30,000-strong citizens’ army. Together, these civilians succeeded in pushing the military outside the city limits, holding them off for a few days.

When I visited the May 18 Memorial Foundation’s museum last May, I saw a striking piece of art depicting triumphant protesters receiving handouts of jumeokbap from a grateful woman.

대동세상 (The Union World) by Hong Seongdam

대동세상 (The Union World) by Hong Seongdam

Called “The Union World” in English, or 대동세상 (Daedong Sesang) in Korean, it was created by the artist Hong Seongdam. I copied this (slightly Konglish-y) explanation of the artwork down from the museum:

During the Uprising, Gwangju mothers gathered in alleys, prepared cauldrons and made fire. As if they were treating their own families, they prepared rice balls, cooking with love and care, putting them in nickel silver basins and waving at and delivering rice balls to the Citizens’ Army members passing by in vehicles.

The mothers patted the young Citizens’ Army on the back, fed rice balls to them and asked questions worriedly, “How are you doing at the Provincial Office?” or “All you all right?” Even the paratroopers’ rifles and bayonets could not destroy the Gwangju citizens’ solidarity of sharing food with another one.

Back in 1980, the citizens’ hold on their city didn’t last. A deadly military siege on Gwangju followed, a “swift and effective” assault on the city, Oberdorfer writes. Once the military retook the city, 240 were dead, according to a 1995 official government estimate, although activists counter that the massacre left more than a thousand dead. It was a seminal trauma on South Korea’s path to democracy.

Last year on May 18, I went to the May 18 National Cemetery on the outskirts of Gwangju to see how the city would mark the occasion. It was a solemn, rainy day, and I felt moved by the music and speeches of those who survived the fallen Korean patriots.

May 18 National Cemetery, Gwangju

May 18 National Cemetery, Gwangju

After the ceremony, I walked among the burial mounds with my news assistant, Kathy, interviewing families and citizens who gathered to pay their respects. Once Kathy and I were ready to wrap up our somber morning, we headed to cemetery’s exit, where women from the Korean Red Cross beckoned to us. “Come have lunch!” they said, waving us over. We tried to demur, but they were so earnest and warm-heartened, we couldn’t say no.

Fittingly, they served us small styrofoam trays that held two jumeokbap each with kimchi and sweet, yellow danmuji radish on the side. They insisted that we cap off our meal with a makgeolli toast in paper cups. After such an emotional morning, the simple meal, so similar to those of the Gwangju citizens who had come before us, felt soothing and grounding. As a daughter of Jeollanam-do, I’m grateful to mark this May 18 with this memory.