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.”

Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Cheri has been an editor at Longreads since 2014. She's currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.