On May 17th and 18th, the ISCs Media Team joined in the commemoration ceremonies at Gwangju in the southern province of Jeonnam. After the assassination of dictator Park Chung Hee and a brief period of political liberalization, citizens in Gwangju and around South Korea rose up against General Chun Doo Hwan’s attempts at a coup d’etat. Troops were sent in to squash the rebellion, yet a civilian-formed army held back the troops for nine days. During this time, civilians took over the city and peacefully co-managed it without any traces of crime. The uprising was finally put down on May 27th. While unsuccessful at the time, the May Uprising became a rallying call for democratization during the 1980s, culminating in the June 11th Democratic Uprising of 1987 that brought direct presidential elections.
This year’s event focused on the Park administration’s unwillingness to play the “임을 위한 행진곡”–or the “March for the Beloved”–a song that captures the sacrifice and spirit of the Gwangju Uprising.
Waiting for the 518 bus to go to the occupation at the National 5.18 Memorial Park, we encountered university students marching down the street, drumming while holding banners that read “Amongst Ourselves” in reference to the 6.15 declaration calling for reconciliation, cooperation, and reunification amongst North and South Korea by “ourselves” without foreign influences.
As dusk settled, we arrived at the occupation in the entrance to the National 5.18 Memorial Park. The occupation was in protest of the decision to not play “March for the Beloved” during the official ceremony. “March for the Beloved” was composed for a posthumous wedding between a leader of the civilian army in Gwangju and his bride. Since then it has come to signify the spirit of democratization.
Inside the National 5.18 Memorial Park, preparations continued for the next day’s official ceremony which included a visit by President Park Geun Hye.
Afterwards, we went to participate in the Korean Student Union’s Cultural Night at Jeonnam University. Jeonnam University is an important historical site for the Gwangju Uprising. Every year, college students from around the country gather the night before to commemorate the spirit of the May Uprising and the ongoing struggles.
“March for the Beloved” is written in big block letters. The theme at the Korean Student Union Cultural Night, like all the other events, was around remembering the sacrifices made in Gwangju and the ongoing struggle for democratization as captured in the song “March for the Beloved.”
May 18th, we arrived at the Old Cemetery just across from the National 5.18 Memorial Park. As we enter the Old Cemetery on a trail of banners are the stories and names of martyrs that died for democratization.
When Chun Doo Hwan, one of the generals responsible for the massacre in Gwangju, came with a plaque to remember the May 18th Uprising, he was chased out of the city. His plaque was broken into pieces and buried at the doorstep of the Old Cemetery. Since then, countless activists have spit and stepped on the plaque as they enter to honor those buried in the Old Cemetery.
This is one of the many tombs of democratization martyrs. The Old Cemetery not only contains the tombs of those who died in the May 18th Uprising, but also the remains of those who fought and died for democratization afterwards.
Every year the new and the old come to remember those that came before, fallen comrades, and pledge/re-pledge their vows to the social movement.
The Media Team meets Jeon Tae Sam, Jeon Tae Il’s younger brother. They say that Jeon Tae Il’s self-immolation on November 13, 1970, in protest of the oppressive working conditions of mostly young women in the textile factories of Dongdaemun sparked the labor movement. After his death, his mother, later to be known as the mother of workers, continued to organize many of the young textile factory workers. Jeon Tae Sam assisted his mother, and when she passed away, took her place in organizing workers.
After going to visit the art exhibit “9 bullets,” we had a chance to sit down and talk with Democratization artist and former member of the Civilian Army Hong Song Dam. When we asked why 9 bullets? He answered, “It could have been more. It could have been 50 bullets, but there was only space for nine.” Fair enough. More of his artwork: