By A.T.

On this May morning at the 34th People’s Commemoration
We are full of color
Red spilled blood
Black death and cherished memory
Yellow ribbons of hope
Green spring explosion of life
Sitting between the graves
Fists raised to the fallen martyrs
Feeling their blood, tears and spirits seep from below
We weren’t there then, but we remember now
Singing, shouting, crying
Marching forward with the beloved

On this May morning in Mangwol Cemetery
We carry on the legacy
Rulers are not benign, but corrupted by power
Freedom is not given, but born of struggle
People are not weak, but invincible together
Lifeless bodies give us all life
So onward we march

My grandparents grew up under Stalin, my parents under Brezhnev. Scorn and disdain for the Soviet empire led our family, led by our grandfather, to dash through the 1991 window of opportunity and migrate to the USA, where I grew up.

America, land of the free, the greatest country on Earth, a bastion of human rights and democracy, the opposite of “oppressive Communist Russia” in every way. Many years down the line, a relative remarked that when it comes to controlling and keeping tabs on its citizens, the US government is not much different than the authoritarian Soviet leadership.

Beyond the spying and the many marginalized communities that struggle for survival within its borders, the USA has a shameful and contradictory foreign policy. While preaching human rights, democracy and anti-Communism, the government has historically supported right-wing dictatorships abroad. The reality is that many of these governments walk hand-in-hand with US business interests. Under industrial capitalism, business is a branch of government.

In Gwangju, May 1980 Koreans came face-to-face with this truth: instead of supporting the democractization movement, American powers continued business as usual and helped sweep the Gwangju Uprising under the rug. The US, as the bearer of South Korea’s wartime military operational control, gave Chun Doo Hwan, the pro-US military leader, permission to send paratroopers to brutally crush the pro-democracy rebellion. After Reagan’s 1981 inauguration, Chun became the first honored guest in the White House. It was then that Koreans realized – the struggle belonged to them alone.

Every year, our high school commemorates 5.18 with a walking pilgrimage from our Damyang campus across the Youngsan River to the Mangwol Cemetery on the northern edge of Gwangju. As it’s usually a bright warm Friday, it is difficult to get more than 200 students and 20 teachers in the proper somber mode. On April 16th the Sewol ferry sank off the Jindo coast and killed the equivalent of our entire school’s population. In their memory, we walked the last 20 minutes to the cemetery in silence.

This is the original burial place for the martyrs. Here lie the bodies of activists and ordinary citizens murdered by Chun Doo-Hwan’s military forces. On Sunday, our International Strategy Center team returned here for the parallel alternative to the official ceremony at the National Cemetery. While the 5.18 anthem “March of the Beloved,” dedicated to a posthumously married activist couple, has been discarded under the official leadership, it is still sung loud and proud [instead of using cliches, consider using more evocative imagery fit for that moment] in Mangwol.

The day before, the ISC began the 2014 5.18 Memorial weekend at the Freedom Park in Gwangju’s Sangmu Jigu, an expanding well-to-do residential district. Densely packed with supermarkets, high rises, restaurants, cinemas and everything necessary for comfortable urban living, it is hard to imagine that the neighborhood was once Sangmu Army Base. It was here that many of the military’s worst atrocities took place after the Uprising. The 5.18 Memorial Park – the last vestige of a once formidable forest – and the 5.18 Freedom Park are the historical markers that keep Gwangju’s tortured revolutionary spirit alive in Sangmu.

At the entrance of Freedom Park, we met middle-aged and elderly men in army fatigues. I wondered whether they were real soldiers or just for show. We learned that these volunteer tour guides were all survivors of the darkest chapter in modern Korean history. In these former military barracks, reconstructed in this unassuming park and surrounded on all sides by modern apartments, these men were jailed, beaten and tried at gunpoint for their involvement in the 5.18 democratization movement. Every May, they don their torturers’ uniforms and retell their stories to visitors, sitting in replicas of the places where they endured so much suffering.

After the Freedom Park, we rode the bus to Sansu-dong, a central Gwangju neighborhood that I had yet to visit after a year of living in the city. At Seondeoksa, a beautiful Buddhist temple and community center on a hill, we met longtime Gwangju activist Lee Shin. Lee echoed American journalist Tim Shorrock’s on the ground account of the 1980s when Korean grassroots democracy was at its peak with students in the frontlines. Where has that spirit gone now? Lee and others blame the decline of revolutionary will on neoliberalism, which crushes citizens’ power under the pressures and demands of daily survival early on from their days as university students.

American young people’s Korean counterparts seem to be stuck in the same dilemma – too much to lose when one rises up against the system of oppression. Test scores, job interviews, appearances – everything is geared towards individualism and fierce competition. This is a far cry from the few days that Gwangju citizens cooperatively took control of their city, May 21-27, 1980. Now, thirty four years later at the commemoration ceremony, students once again raise their voices and fists aside elders, awakening hope.

Resistance hasn’t completely died in Korea. To get around the ban on holding public protests after sunset, Korean activists have created a culture of night demonstrations called chot bul or candlelight vigils, a vibrant mix of citizen speeches, songs and rallying cries lit by simple cupped candles. 4.16 – the day of the Sewol accident – will surely join the other watershed moments in Korean history. Gwangju itself has held many such vigils on the historical Geumnam-ro main street. On Saturday night, with Lee Shin and his daughter, the ISC team made its way to the traditional yearly 5.17 vigil. Students, elders, politicians, entertainers, religious leaders – everyone seemed to be out with banners, candles, yellow ribbons and black shirts with a slogan, sitting on shiny silver mats that flowed ever further back from the main stage. A group of my high school students gave speeches and sang, making this teacher proud.

Although we only touched on it briefly, what I took away from this year’s 5.18 weekend is the broader context for singular tragic events such as Gwangju 1980. The 1945 liberation from Japan promised an independent nation, yet modern Korea was broken in two from the start, an open wound that is the “demilitarized zone” and a historically unfounded Northern “enemy.” Since the 1980s, Lee Shin has dedicated his life to the premise “from May to reunification.” As long as a Communist enemy, real or imagined, lurks as a strawman and villain over people’s heads, the prospect of another massacre like 5.18 is not off the table. As long as a people united for all but 60 of more than 5,000 years – as long as they stand divided as enemies, peace will always be beyond grasp.


Locating Resistance, Commemorating Struggle

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” [1]. 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” [2].

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.

May 18: Truth from within Solidarity

by Erica Sweett

The atrocities that ravage countries are pushed into the shadows of history by those who are threatened by the weight of its truth. In the late 1970s Korea was very different. The country was still under military dictatorship. Citizens fought tirelessly for their basic rights. The assassination of President Park Chung Hee on October 26th 1979 sparked unrest across the country. Army general Chun Doo Hwan quickly replaced Park. In an attempt to divide and weaken the unified voices of the people he executed martial law. In response, students and citizens rose up in protest.

Pro-democracy demonstrations spread across the country. The May 18th History Compilation Committee of Gwangju recounts that, “By that time Gwangju had already shown itself to be the center of the fiercest demonstrations…” [1]. The strength of the movement in Gwangju posed a serious threat to the Chun Doo Hwan regime. Operation Choongjung (True Heart) was created to control and ultimately to destroy the growing solidarity movement. Choongjung was made up of paratroopers who were specially trained to violently break up crowds. On May 18th 1980, what started as a peaceful protest for democracy quickly became a bloody ten day battle. The uprising ended with the loss of hundreds of innocent lives.

Lee Shin was fourteen during the Gwangju uprising. He has spent the past twenty five years fighting for reunification. He also gives lectures on the events of May 18th and is actively involved in the Gwanjgu community. He explained that as the movement grew it was matched with violence. “The first day they hit the people with batons. The second day they impaled them with bayonets. The third day they shot them. The fourth day they massacred them in the provincial building.”

During the height of the uprising, soldiers blocked off Gwangju from the rest of the country. On May 22nd, the fifth day, the army retreated to Gwangju’s outskirts. During this time the community came together: They shared food, water, blood. Despite open banks and weapons, there was no violence. On May 23rd people started to clean streets and restore order. Volunteers stayed and guarded the town all night long. Lee Shin described the time using the Korean word 정 Jeong: “In Gwangju people came together as one. This is Jeong, it is difficult to explain in English. It means emotional feeling, love. It’s a very Korean word.” The violence of the paratroopers was intended to suppress the very thing that emerged in their short absence from the city. Unity had formed out of the chaos.
The uprising did not end peacefully. On May 27th, Operation Choongjung carried out its final phase. The paratroopers murdered all in their path. “The troops kicked down doors and shot at anything that looked or sounded like a person” [2]. The Martial Law forces entered and took control of the city. At 7 am, the Provincial hall was handed over and the military had full control. Those who had survived were sent to military camps. Extreme violence was the only way the corrupt government could silence the community. “In less than 90 minutes the ten day Gwangju uprising had been brought to an end” [3].

The media and government painted the protesters as violent rebels and communists who posed a threat to the stability of the country. The government physically divided the community. They destroyed evidence of the massacre and manipulated the truth. While they were successful in suppressing the uprising, they did not destroy the spirit of the movement. During those dark times a deep connection in Gwangju was formed. The power of The Gwangju Uprising is found not in its brutal end but in the communities fight against injustice.

The Gwangju Uprising and other pro-democracy movements helped the country achieve its first direct presidential election in 1987. Korea’s rapid economic and social development has brought new challenges. Shin notes that, “Through industrialization, Korea had much development. It built large buildings and cars. Superficially, it seems like a lot of growth. But the community structure has collapsed.” Korea struggles to find unity amidst the growing pressures of capitalism. Shin explained that Korea, in the wake of another tragedy (the Sewol Ferry Tragedy), is again, trying to find the essence of the Jeong that was felt in Gwangju.

Dedicated people like Shin and groups like The May 18th Historical Compilation Committee of Gwangju are working towards rebuilding a stronger community. They are educating people about the past in order to revive the spirit of what was lost. Through their work they share new perspectives that challenge the current state of Korea. The Historical Committee concludes by reflecting on Gwangju’s significance:

The 21st century will be an era of unlimited competition. To prepare for it we must continue to improve our society. Through the realization of a community spirit of selfless assistance trust, the spirit of the Gwangju Democratic Uprising can continue to shine brightly into the future [4].

Lee Shin, The May 18th Historical Compilation Committee of Gwangju and other leaders are creating space for people to visualize a more unified future.

As a foreigner I have but a fragmented outsider perspective of Gwangju and Korea’s political situation. Despite this, the Gwangju Uprising resonates with me. There are many words that can’t be translated and feelings that I can’t articulate. In times of pain and suffering people show their strength and resilience. Like the word Jeong – the truth is beyond translation. It is found deep within communities; it is not linear and cannot be eradicated.
Dictator regimes and capitalist institutions are disconnected from the community. This disconnect allows institutions to be ruthless; acting out of self-interest and being accountable to no one. Yet this perceived power that allows them to divide and weaken societies will also be their downfall. The truth found within unity is strong. Korea has shown that people find strength in their struggle. While the May 18th uprising is unique to Korea, the movement’s powerful message of truth found within solidarity is universal.

1. May 18 History Compilation Committee of Gwangju; The May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising; 2013. 47
2. Ibid., 109.
3. Ibid.,110
4. Ibid., 119

Resolution to Struggle: a Declaration for Human Liberation

Translated from the 22nd Commemoration Ceremony for Martyrs and Victims for the Nation and Democracy  June 8, 2013, Seoul, South Korea

Since the time of the Gabo (Tonghak) Peasant Revolution[i] through Japanese colonial rule and then military dictatorship until today in the 21st century, the worker’s and people’s progressive social transformation movement has continuously been marching towards national and social liberation. Our martyrs have always been at the frontlines sacrificing their lives.

Our martyr’s frontline struggles have always lent great moral authority to the workers and peoples[ii] struggles. Unlike the few who ruled for their interests, the noble deeds of our martyrs were dedicated to the progress of society and history.

Yet, the noble struggle of our martyrs should also serve as a model for our own day-to-day living – to maintain self-giving behavior for the progress of society and history no matter how large or small the struggle – so that their deaths would not have been in vain. The martyrs have inspired and urged us to work unceasingly towards a liberated world where we can live as human beings.

In this 22nd commemoration, we face a period of intensifying global contradictions between capital and working people and between empires and small and weak nations brought about by the recession of this century. In far away Europe, worker’s struggles in Greece and Spain have burst forth in a blaze, and its flames are expanding towards Asia’s Turkey. Imperialism’s reckless attacks on small and weak countries in North Africa, Libya and Mali are spreading to Syria, Lebanon, and Iran.

Jeju protestersOur land is also thus affected. Within the reality of an ever more permanent US Wartime Operational Control[iii] and the ROK-US Combined Forces Command, the Key Resolve/Foal Eagle war games continue year after year; the threat of nuclear attack persists with the mobilization of B-2, F-22, nuclear-powered aircraft super carrier USS Nimitz, and state-of-the-art weapons; economic sanctions choke the North Korean people; and villagers are pushed out of Gangjeong Village in Jeju Island to make room for a naval base.

Faced with a crisis, our land’s government and capital attempts to overcome capital’s crisis by more severely repressing workers and working people. President Park Geun Hye’s campaign promises of economic democratization are nowhere to be found and in its stead is economic growth as the cure all. In response, a people and youth, trapped in despair, are taking their own lives.

Ssanyoung autoUnder a false legal government take-over of Ssanyong Auto, workers were violently expelled from the factory. Now, one by one Ssanyong Auto’s accounting manipulation and fabrications are being exposed. 4 years later, 24 Ssanyong Auto workers have taken their own lives. Despite 171 days of high-altitude occupation on top of an electric pylon, the issue still remains unresolved. The presidential campaign promises for a national governmental investigation into Ssanyong Auto are quickly revealing themselves empty promises.

Despite the Supreme Court ruling that employment of in-house subcontracted workers[iv] is illegal and mandating a switch to regular worker status,[v] Hyundai Motors has not budged. As a result, Hyundai irregular workers are continuing on their high altitude occupation of a high voltage electric pylon for over 6 months. The basic worker rights of public workers and teachers are also being threatened. And for the nearly 90 percent of workers who are employed as irregular workers in small-medium, and small-scale (5-10 employees) enterprises, their basic rights as workers are completely denied. In this way the rights of workers are being completely deprived by the dictatorship of the capitalist class.

The tyranny of capital and the government is not only attacking wage workers but also farmers and the urban poor. Farmers are becoming the rural poor and the urban poor are stripped of their rights to feed and clothe themselves through work as street vendors. On the other hand, the rights of people to a home are being trampled on for the sake of capital’s real estate speculation. Due to the avarice of monopoly capitalists even the existence of small-business people is being threatened.

Workers and people’s livelihood and civil rights are being threatened, deprived, and denied. Within this context, democracy is being replaced with maintaining public peace and order[vi]. Immediately after coming into office, Park Geun Hye administration violently expelled workers and farmers from their peaceful occupations. The government, through the police, prosecution, and National Intelligence Service creates incidents of public peace and order to repress the people’s movements. The first 100 days of the current regime has been referred to as the “Lee Myung Bak Geun Hye”[vii] regime.

24 years ago, breaking through the Roh Tae Woo administration’s efforts to corral and isolate us and while clutching the photos of our martyrs, amidst tear gas, we held the first ever commemoration for the martyrs and victims for our nation and democracy. Now, looking back at our workers and people’s living conditions and the current state of our movements, we cannot but humbly acknowledge our inadequacy in carrying on and fulfilling the noble sacrifices our martyrs made to create a world of human liberation. Henceforth, in the occasion of the 22nd National Commemoration, as we remember each of the lives and struggles of the approximately 600 martyrs and victims for our nation and democracy, we re-examine and straighten our own selves up and rededicate ourselves. Above all, imbued with the noble spirit of those martyrs that sacrificed it all to realize true democracy, self-determination, and reunification[viii] and build a world of worker’s and human liberation, we commit to overcoming our divisions and building a strong and unified struggle. Together, we resolve to go out and struggle true to our progressive transformation movement’s great cause, untouched by reformism and careerism.

June 8, 2013

22nd Commemoration Ceremony for the Martyrs and Victims for Our Nation and Democracy

[i] A Peasant’s Revolution in 1894 calling for equality of all against the injustices of the ruling class.

[ii] In this case “people” refers to the “common people,” the other oppressed groups in society such as farmers, the disabled, the urban poor, etc.

[iii] During “wartime,” operational control of the US ROK Combined Forces Command is held by the US. The first date for the transfer of wartime operational control from the US to South Korea was 2012, which has been postponed to 2015.

[iv] Workers that while they do the same job as factory employees under the company payroll, nonetheless, are treated differently as they are hired not by the company but through a subcontracting company.

[v] Regular workers are those hired directly by the company and do not work on a contract basis.

[vi] During Korea’s period of dictatorship and even afterwards, peace and public safety have been used as pretexts to severely repress movements calling for democratization, worker’s rights, peace, and reunification.

[vii] Lee Myung Bak Geun Hye is a play on the fact that in Korean both Lee Myung Bak and Park Geun Hye share the Bak/Park (which in Korean is written the same way), Lee Myung Bak as the second syllable to his first name and Park Geun Hye as her last name. This is to point out that Park Geun Hye’s administration is merely a continuation of Lee Myung Bak’s.

[viii] In Korean, self-determination and reunification are combined into one word as an indication of their inseparable nature.

Photo Essay: Remembering Fallen Comrades On the Road to the New Day

On June 8, 2013, the ISC Media Team attended the 22nd National Commemoration of the Martyrs and Victims in the Struggle for Our Nation and Democracy. The first commemoration ceremony was held amidst tear gas in 1990 under Roh Tae Woo’s presidency.

A shrine composed of over 350 martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the nation and for democracy

A shrine composed of over 350 martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the nation and for democracy

Held in the same month as the National Memorial Day, the National Commemoration of the Martyrs and Victims in the Struggle for Our Nation and Democracy remembers and honors the workers, students, liberation fighters, farmers, women and disabled who fought for democracy and people’s liberation from oppression. Unsung, cast aside, and red-baited, the struggles and sacrifices of these martyrs made better the lives of all.

The legacy of martyrs in modern Korean history is divided into 7 periods: liberation from the Japanese until 1970 including Park Chung Hee’s dictatorship; Park Chung Hee’s Yushin Constitution in 1971 until the May 18th Uprising in 1980; Chun Doo Hwan’s coup d’état in 1981 until the 1987 June Uprising; Roh Tae Woo’s presidency in 1988 until after Kim Yong Sam’s presidency in 1997; the IMF crisis during the Kim Dae Jung Presidency until after the Roh Moo Hyun presidency; Lee Myung Bak’s presidency; and finally, the current period of the President Park Presidency.

2The moment of silence for fallen comrades that marks all Korean social movement events.

3Present Worker’s Struggles: Cort Guitar Worker’s struggle against their unjust mass layoffs.
Visit http://cortaction.wordpress.com/ for more on their campaign.

4A worker’s choir, made up of leaders from four active worker’s struggles,
sings “March for the Beloved”




8As the event draws to a close, bereaved families, fellow comrades, and the next generation line up to pay their respects with silence, reflection, burnt incense, and chrysanthemums.

9Comrades honor martyrs by still “marching to that new day:” Protestors are confronted with police as they attempt to break through the police barricade and march in solidarity to current active sites of struggle.

Photo Essay- Gwangju 2013

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.

group shot

 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:



art 2

Remembering Gwangju

The month of May marks the anniversary of the brutal and bloody uprising in Korea’s southeastern city of Gwangju.  Mid May, 1980, hundreds of thousands of students and citizens across Korea took to the streets to denounce military intervention in Korean politics. In Gwangju alone, demonstrators were met with severe and brutal military force -hundreds died and thousands more were injured.  The media team will be traveling to Gwangju on the weekend of May 17-18 to participate in events commemorating the uprising- including a remembrance ceremony, a people’s gathering and various cultural events- in our effort to learn more about the history and politics of the uprising, the ways in which the legacy of the uprising currently shapes the politics of the region, and to connect with community members dedicated to the ongoing fight for democracy.

In May 2012, the team traveled to Gwangju and spoke with activist Lee Shin, a man who has dedicated his life to educating others about the true nature of the uprising, including the events that led up to it, unfolded after it and the role of the United States. His accounts are both incredibly chilling and powerfully inspiring, and shed light on the immense strength, bravery and resilience of a people. His words teach an important lesson- that remembering Gwangju involves more than just a remembrance. To remember Gwangju is to embody it; to hold its spirit in each of us as democracy continues to unfold on the Korean peninsula and around the world.

Lee Shin, activist, stands beside the grave of a man tortured to death for writing a book exposing the truth about the Gwangju uprising, a man from who he draws personal strength.

Lee Shin, activist, stands beside the grave of a man tortured to death for writing a book exposing the truth about the Gwangju uprising, a man from who he draws personal strength.

Below are the links to the full talk, in two parts, in both English and Korean. We will follow up with more comprehensive articles about the events taking place for 2013.

Lee Shin Part 1

Lee Shin Part 2