In 1980, in one of the most horrific events in the history of modern South Korea, at least 165 civilians were killed during a pro-democracy uprising in Gwangju. Max Kim tells the story of Choi Byung-moon, one of the special-forces soldiers deployed to crush the demonstrations, and zooms in on an incident involving an attack on a minibus, which killed all but three people on board. Two of those three survivors were later executed; the fate of the third person, a girl who Choi encountered among the dead, is unknown to him for decades. A low-ranking soldier at the time, Choi believed he was simply doing his duty, but later began to “feel burdened by a deepening sense of complicity,” writes Kim, “both as a cog in a larger machine of killing and later as a silent witness.”
But in 2020, Choi received a phone call that challenged everything he remembered from that day. The girl, he learns, is alive. Or is she? As the truth unravels, Kim weaves a moving story of regret, the unreliability of memory, and the freedom from closure.
On a frigid day in December 2020, Huh and his team met with Choi at a chicken restaurant in Incheon, a port city west of Seoul. Over shots of soju, Choi began to tell them, at first a little cautiously, what he’d seen in Gwangju, eventually turning the topic to an incident that sounded familiar to Huh. “He told us that he’d saved a young girl and handed her off, but that she had probably been taken to a military camp and executed,” recalled Huh. “He had believed this version of events his entire life.”