Photograph at twilight of the ancient monument Great South Gate aka Namdaemun aka Sungnyemun aka Southern Gate with traffic swirls in central downtown Seoul, South Korea

About South Korea in National Geographic Magazine

In anticipation of the 1988 Summer Olympic Games scheduled for Seoul, National Geographic Magazine assigned Nathan Benn to photograph South Korea. Between February 1987 and January 1988 Nathan shot 1070 rolls of 35mm film. National Geographic staff writer Boyd Gibbons wrote the story and the text and photographs were published in the August 1988 issue of National Geographic Magazine.  The South Koreans” story was summarized on National Geographic’s title page as, “Aggressive, highly competitive, and reluctant to compromise, South Koreans push their economy forward, while keeping a wary eye on their kinsmen to the north.” A photograph of furry lemurs from Madagascar was chosen for the magazine’s cover.

The prototypical “country story” in National Geographic typically highlights a nation’s culture, geography, festivals, and economy. When National Geographic editors assigned Nathan and Boyd to produce a story on South Korea, the country was a model of prosperity and modernization. The upcoming XXIV Summer Olympic Games would validate South Korea as one of the tigers of Asian economy. Furthermore, the U.S. had no better friend in Asia than South Korea. ROK President Chun Doo-hwan was the first head of state to visit Ronald Reagan in Washington as soon as Reagan became president.

The real South Korea political situation was more complex. Koreans were still angry over the Gwangju massacre of 1980, when Chun ordered a bloody attack to protect his military dictatorship from rebellion.  Over 200 Koreans were killed at Gwangju and a thousand wounded, and Chun maintained power through an authoritarian and corrupt regime. Due to corruption, human rights abuses, and political suppression by Chun’s regime, antipathy grew among Koreans despite rapid economic growth. March 3, 1987 was the first day of months of protests and violence that eventually resulted in political reform and real democracy. In 1996 the South Korean courts sentenced ex-President Chun Doo-hwan to death for treason, mutiny, and corruption related to embezzling millions of dollars. 

Nathan was very lucky to be in South Korea in 1987 during the anti-Chun, pro-democracy turmoil and regime change. April and May saw daily battles between students with rocks and Molotov cocktails facing off riot police armed with tear gas weapons. By late May and June the streets of Seoul and other cities were choked with CS teargas powder and the country was near martial law. Pro-democracy protestors bravely took huge personal risks and the world watched closely to see if another Gwangju massacre would result.

Fortunately, in June 1987 vice president Roh Tae Woo announced political reform and free elections. Opposition leader Kim Dae Jung was released from months of house arrest, and Korea finally stepped towards democracy.

Nathan’s photographs of violence between pro-democracy demonstrators and police proved to be uncomfortable for National Geographic editors, who were under pressure from the conservative National Geographic Board to soften editorial content. The magazine published a 25-page story by Boyd and Nathan, containing six pages of photographs addressing the historic political events of 1987. Eleven more pages on Korea were given over to a sentimental and non-political view of Kyongju, a Korean province photographed by H. Edward Kim, an ex-editor of National Geographic living in Seoul. Nathan was disappointed with the magazine, but he is very grateful to have been witness to a heroic and successful struggle for democracy against a totalitarian regime.

This blog contains the original layout for an article on Korea’s political events of 1987 titled “Korea: A Legacy of Conflict”. The National Geographic editors initially intended that the political story would compliment the traditional culture/geography/economic story of South Korea. However, the editors decided to drop this approach and instead run Mr. Kim’s Kyongju story.

Nathan is extremely appreciative for the support and friendship from Koreans and photographers in 1987, including his interpreter and photographers Tony Chung of Reuters and Tony Suau, who taught him how to keep cool in a gas mask.

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