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Na Kyung Taek’s Photos Exposed a Bloody Crackdown. His Identity Was a Secret.

It is an iconic image — a black-and-white photo of a blood-splattered student being clubbed by a paratrooper medic. It was the first photo to slip through the military cordon around Gwangju, South Korea, in 1980, exposing the brutal suppression of what would be known as the Gwangju Democratization Movement.

But for years, the identity of the photographer — an unassuming man named Na Kyung Taek — remained a secret.

Mr. Na dared not take credit for the photo and other unsettling images from Gwangju for fear of the military junta and its leader, Chun Doo-hwan, whose crackdown there left hundreds killed or missing in the darkest chapter in South Korea’s long struggle against dictatorship. Mr. Chun’s rule ended in 1988, and now many in South Korea support a Constitutional revision to sanctify Gwangju’s role in the country’s democratization. Still, most have never heard of Mr. Na.

Mr. Na, 75, sounded indifferent to the lack of recognition during an interview in Gwangju, where he was a photojournalist for four decades until his retirement in 2007. But he was still haunted by what he saw that fateful spring.

“South Korean democracy began in Gwangju,” he said. “I just did what little I could for its citizens.”

Mr. Na was born in Naju, near Gwangju, in 1949, a farming family’s only son with five elder sisters. He joined Jeonnam Maeil, one of the two Gwangju daily newspapers, in 1967 after high school.

When then-President Park Chung-hee visited the region amid drought and it happened to rain, the two dailies blared identical front-page headlines praising the military strongman as a “rainmaker.” The editor of Mr. Na’s paper bragged that his headline was bigger than his rival’s.

“Our newspaper had three photographers but two cameras,” Mr. Na recalled. “When one of us came in, another took the camera and went out.”

When Mr. Park’s 18-year rule ended with his assassination in late 1979, Mr. Chun, another army general, seized power. The next May, Mr. Chun banned all political activities, closing schools and arresting dissidents. When people in Gwangju rallied against martial law, he sent in tanks and paratroopers.

Mr. Na was attending a Sunday Mass in a suburb on May 18 when people from Gwangju were reporting a commotion. It was the beginning of a 10-day uprising during which soldiers shot protesters and citizens fought back with stones and rifles stolen from police stations.

Mr. Na found the city center so thick with tear gas that he could not take any pictures; he had no gas mask. The next day, he saw a radio station car on fire. Under martial law censorship, local media vilified the protesters as “violent mobs” but did not report military brutality. Angry citizens later torched two TV stations as well.

“I was as afraid of protesters as of soldiers,” Mr. Na said. “When they saw a reporter, there was murder in their eyes.”

Mr. Na hid on the fifth floor of a building and took pictures of what was unfolding down on the street: a civilian made to kneel before armed soldiers, a man and woman with blood streaming down their heads as they were dragged away by paratroopers, and the student cudgeled by a paratrooper wearing a medic’s red-cross armband.

Mr. Na rushed to his evening newspaper, only to find it unable to publish anything about the crackdown. When reporters put together a bulletin, editors confiscated and destroyed its typesetting.

“We saw citizens being dragged away like dogs and slaughtered, but could not report a single line about them,” said the reporters’ joint letter of resignation.

Mr. Na and a sympathetic editor decided to hand over his photos to foreign news media.

Tony Chung, a photographer for the American news agency UPI, was in Seoul when two reporters from Gwangju furtively approached him. They were carrying two envelopes, one for Mr. Chung and the other for The Associated Press in Seoul. Each envelope contained photographs taken by Mr. Na and Shin Bok-jin, a photographer for the other Gwangju daily, Jeonnam Ilbo.

There had been sketchy reports about “riots” in Gwangju, Mr. Chung, who is retired and lives south of Seoul, said by telephone. But the photos contradicted the government by bearing witness to military atrocities.

Mr. Chung didn’t know who took the photos and didn’t ask. The photographers’ identities had to be protected for their safety, he said.

The first of the several photos Mr. Chung transmitted abroad was that of the club-wielding medic. The government’s information minister accused him of propagating a “fake” photo, and an intelligence agent warned Mr. Chung to watch his back at night. Mr. Chung was not intimidated and years later, in 1987, his photo of a student killed in an anti-government protest, taken for Reuters, helped propel South Korea’s democratization to its climax.

“Those photos from Gwangju told the truth, compelling foreign journalists to rush there,” said Mr. Chung, 84.

In 1980, although his newspaper had closed, Mr. Na continued to take pictures until more journalists, including Mr. Chung, arrived in Gwangju. Together, they captured the city in indelible images. Citizens gathering around people killed by soldiers. The burning of “Chun Doo-hwan the murderer” in effigy. The commandeering of military jeeps and trucks. Paratroopers moving in with armored vehicles, and surrounding and bludgeoning students cowering on the street. Protesters lying dead in blood. Mothers wailing over rows of coffins.

Mr. Na spent nights hiding inside a bullet-scarred building, hungry and fearful of army snipers. Protesters once grabbed him by the collar, asking “what kind of reporter I was, not publishing what I saw.”

“I didn’t know how to make them understand that I wanted to leave a record with my camera, even though I could not publish my photos,” he said.

Today, the pictures by Mr. Na and Mr. Shin, the photographer for the other newspaper, who died in 2010, remain virtually the only images capturing the early days of the turmoil, said Jang Je Geun, an editor of three books of Gwangju photos.

The uprising ended on May 27, when paratroopers stormed the city hall, where the protesters, including high school students, took their last stand with a rifle and a few bullets for each. As the early-morning attack began, a female student named Park Young-soon appealed through loudspeakers on the roof: “Citizens of Gwangju, please don’t forget us.”

By the official count, nearly 200 people were killed in Gwangju, including about 20 soldiers, half of them by friendly fire. Civic groups have suggested that the toll was much higher.

Mr. Na’s newspaper reopened six days after the blood bath ended, but still could not mention the events. When the paper carried a poem describing a city “abandoned by God and birds,” most of it was redacted by censors. Mr. Na and other reporters visited the victims’ graves and laid flowers in apology.

Mr. Na hid his negatives in the ceiling of his apartment because the military was looking for the source of the picture of the baton-wielding paratrooper. When officers visited his home demanding copies of all his photos, Mr. Na kept sensitive ones hidden.

Gwangju inspired a wave of protests across South Korea, forcing the government to agree to democratic reforms in the late 1980s. The photos Mr. Na hid were finally shown in public exhibitions and used as evidence when Parliament investigated the military crackdown. But it was not until 1990, when the Catholic church honored him for his courage, that Mr. Na was identified as their source.

In 2011, an archive on the Gwangju uprising, which included 2,000 photos by Mr. Na, was inscribed into Unesco’s “Memory of the World” program that aims to preserve important documentary heritages around the world.

Married with three grown-up daughters, Mr. Na worked at a health center for the elderly for several years after leaving journalism. But he is never free from the pain of Gwangju.

Today, the old military disinformation — that the Gwangju “riots” were instigated by “hooligans” and “Communist elements” — is still amplified online by right-wing extremists. Mr. Na spends his retirement giving lectures and attending photo exhibitions to help set the record straight.

Looking back, Mr. Na has one regret.

On the fourth day of the uprising, he found himself amid paratroopers, with his cameras hidden under his shirt. He heard a captain repeating an order that came through the radio to shoot into the crowds. Mr. Na fled for his life, and no one took pictures of the mass shooting.

“I should have taken out my camera,” he said, “although if I had, I probably wouldn’t be here.”

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Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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