by Stephanie Park
In any political movement, the act of raising political consciousness among new members is a crucial aspect of spreading awareness and building the movement. “Work classrooms” held for young female workers served this purpose for Korea’s labor movement in the ‘70s, as does the ISC’s own “Korean History, Economics, and Politics Program” for the international solidarity movement today. My first such experience occurred during college with the Asian American Student Union, through which I learned about the historical context and political meaning to the term “Asian American” . Although small, the moment I became exposed to the term’s original radical aims was the beginning of understanding my life and experiences as political and part of a greater story of struggle – in other words, a tipping point.
May 18th, 1980, the start of a ten-day political struggle between the citizens of Gwangju and Korea’s militarized government, held (and continues to hold) a similar function for politicized Koreans. Many attribute the events that transpired there, from the shocking violence that military paratroopers enacted upon innocent people to the city’s revolutionary response and four-day peaceful self-governance before being put down by the government, as a major milestone in the nation’s struggle for democratization. Although the government labeled the event a “rebellion” instigated by activist Kim Dae-Jung and instituted a media blackout to prevent the truth from surfacing, news of the atrocity nevertheless spread, ultimately playing a key role in President Chun Doo Hwan’s downfall and helping to end military dictatorship in Korea. Every year, the city commemorates the date to remember the thousands of lives lost, educate new generations about the heavy price paid for Korean democracy, and to remind those who understand its significance never to forget.
The weekend of May 18th, the ISC group traveled to Gwangju to participate in the city’s commemoration events. We toured the military complex where citizens were detained after the military reestablished dominance, attended a candlelight vigil held in the same spot where citizen-mobilized militia pushed back military forces 34 years ago, spoke with activist Lee Shin, who experienced 5.18 as a child and attributes it to his politicization, and finally paid homage to those who gave their lives at Gwangju (or in the struggles that followed to reveal the truth) at a commemoration service held in the public cemetery. Throughout it all, I found myself continually returning to the same question: “What caused something like this to happen?”
Many scholars have attempted to answer this question, locating 5.18 within various sociopolitical origins. One is the military coup d’etat Chun carried out on May 17th, which enforced martial law across Korea and included the closing of universities and banning of oppositional political activity. Another is the US’ role in setting the stage for and enabling the initial massacre and subsequent government retaliation; such actions contradicted the US’ “commitment to human rights” and exposed its prioritization of neoliberalism and foreign investment over the lives of everyday Koreans, many of whom at first believed the US would intervene to protect them. Yet another is the Jeolla region’s history of underdevelopment and neglect, as well as inter-provincial rivalry’s impact on the underdevelopment of the Jeolla region; in a way, Gwangju became a rallying point for people who “had been alienated politically and economically for a long time” .
Such factors undoubtedly played a crucial role. However, as we marched through the gates of the detention complex pretending to be detainees and listened to tour guides that had been its detainees, and as we walked through the old and new cemeteries hearing of the brutal, heroic, and tragic ways citizens had died, I felt captivated by the amazing display of bravery, selflessness, and solidarity collectively and spontaneously demonstrated by the citizens of Gwangju. Not only did they organize and overcome the military special forces sent to brutalize them, but they effectively self-governed for four days.
What made the difference for the citizens of Gwangju? It was outrage against the government’s injustice that first caused students to protest the morning of May 18th. Firsthand video footage at the 5.18 museum showed masses of students shouting, carrying banners, and defiantly protesting the coup. It was a similar anger which provided the first spark in the mind of activist Lee Shin, nine years later, that caused him to reject his original path towards civil service and to instead become an activist. When asked what caused his political transformation, he described learning of the death of a Chosun University student, who had written an article criticizing the US’ role in the massacre and asked the US to take responsibility. Like many who dared to do so at the time, he was arrested and subsequently tortured to death. However, his death had a profound effect on Lee.
“At that time, I was a student that only knew about studying; I was preparing to become a public servant. I only knew about home and school. But that night was a fateful day. As I was passing the funeral procession at the Provincial Government building, I asked myself why he was killed. I read the book that he wrote. In it he talked about how the US helped massacre Gwangju citizens. I was enraged when I learned the truth. I was 23 at that time. From that time on, I joined the student movement to fulfill the meaning of that student. I worked to expose US atrocities in Korea. I toured 20 American cities to talk about this. November 1st, 1989 was a fateful day for me.”
Similar sentiments fuelled the citizens of Gwangju to come together and expel the military forces from the city. Yet, at the same time, that anger existed alongside something far deeper: compassion, a deep-seated commitment to one’s community, and deeply political love to sustain it all. It was this sense that I felt most drawn to throughout the weekend. How deep did such feelings run? As the death of a student who stayed to participate in the citizen militia’s last stand despite his mother’s pleas to return home shows, these feelings ran deeper than love for one’s family.
As the death of student Kim Bu Yeol, a high school student killed and beheaded for defending a woman being raped by soldiers shows, this feeling ran even deeper than the value for one’s own life. And as the four-day peaceful citizen’s occupation showed, this feeling ran deep enough to overcome the terror and violence created by military brutality, and replace it with an environment where people queued for hours to give blood, prepared humble riceball meals for others, and left bank reserves untouched. Above all, it was a force that inspired Gwangju’s citizens to create and build the society they wanted, in contrast to the police state they had been living under since Park Chung Hee’s dictatorship 20 years earlier.
Emotions play an interesting role in discussions of politics, which is at its core a fundamentally emotionally charged subject. However, we often quantify and objectify it, turning it into an object of study and ignoring its immediate, human impact. In commemorating 5.18, I came away awed by the immense, yet unquantifiable political power of such emotions, which defy such restrictions. Gwangju citizens may have been more dissatisfied than their counterparts in other provinces, but in many ways they were no different. Yet something came into place that fateful day that mobilized an entire city into drastic, defiant action. It wasn’t a cool, removed analysis of the forces at work that drove them to do so; rather, it was seeing those who could have been (and quite possibly were) their children, neighbors, and elders indiscriminately beaten, bayonetted, and shot.
In the same way that last month taught me to reexamine our systematic dehumanization in the face of industrialization, 5.18 taught me the overwhelming potential that can be unleashed when a community refuses to bow to the pressures of neoliberalism, and even the much more immediate threat of violence and death, and instead posits its own humanity and human relations as the value of central importance. Seeing how much the people of Gwangju freely gave to their fellow citizens puts my own privileged yet isolated situation in perspective, and has inspired me to reexamine my own position. What would I be willing to risk, to sacrifice, to commit to building? For or with whom? And for what purpose? To the people of 5.18, I would like to say – thank you for the courage and love you showed in that time. As everyday citizens with simple everyday acts, you have and will continue to serve as a tipping point for those looking to better understand history and ourselves.
1. “The term ‘Asian American’ was first coined by activists in the 1960s. Their intent was to create a pan-ethnic community encompassing a variety of different Asian ethnicities that would come together to address issues such as stereotypes and racial discrimination. To a large extent, this goal of stirring political and social activism within the Asian American community was achieved, as demonstrated by the formation of the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) in 1968 by Berkeley graduate student Yuji Ichioka. Along with the Third World Liberation Front, the AAPA and other organizations pushed for the formation of an Ethnic Studies program on the Berkeley campus.”
2. Korea Democracy Foundation, History of the Democratization Movement in Korea; 2010. 108.