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.


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.

The Stories that Feed Us

by Kellyn Gross

On May 18, 1980, at 8:32 A.M., an earthquake struck Mount St. Helens in Washington State, resulting in a debris avalanche and subsequent volcanic eruption that decimated the surrounding earth for 16 square kilometers, killed 57 people and destroyed more than 200 homes. The blast was heard from as far away as British Columbia, and winds carried volcanic ash 2,000 kilometers across the United States in just three days. Then-President Jimmy Carter surveyed the damage on May 22 and said that it made the moon look like a golf course.

My dad always tells the story of how he awoke that Sunday morning after a late night out to find darkened skies and five centimeters of ash on his pickup in Western Montana. He still has a bucket of Mount St. Helens ash in the storage shed behind my childhood home. And even though the eruption was two years before I was born, stories like these have always fed me as a Montanan. That day in May holds enough significance in the Pacific Northwest that people still ask, “Where were you when Mount St. Helens erupted?”.

But after two years of teaching English in Korea, May 18 has taken on a new significance for me. Instead of wondering about people’s whereabouts when a volcano blasted itself 24,000 meters into the sky, I’m now curious to know, “Where were you during the Gwangju Uprising?”.

Two weeks ago, and for my second time, ISC media team members Dae Han and Taryn and I visited both the National Cemetery and the Mangwol-dong Cemetery in Gwangju for its May 18 memorial events. On that day in 1980, a popular citizen movement that had been building momentum in Jeollanam-do erupted with such force and dedication that students and everyday working people later liberated the city for one week. The uprising was an embattled response to people being brutally beaten and murdered by their own military and police for demanding democracy over the dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan. The Carter administration supported the suppression in order for multinational corporations like 3M, Bank of America, Chase Bank, Citibank, Dow Chemical and the Rockefeller family to be ensured of their investments in the country. And to quote, yet again, then-President Jimmy Carter at a press conference that summer: “We would like to have a complete democracy with full and open debate, free press and elected leaders. The Koreans are not ready for that…”. For had the Nobel Laureate surveyed the damage at Gwangju a few days later, he might have morbidly said that the massacre made the Kent State shootings look like a picnic.

So, when we got off the 518 bus at the National Cemetery the night before the official ceremonies, and we walked past the stretch of fluttering ribbons with hand-written wishes for a better society; and we encountered the indifferent police officers; and we saw the sun setting behind Democracy’s Gate at the foot of Mount Mudeung, I thought about the stories that feed us. I thought about the difference a day can make in the lives of people living an ocean apart, and how begotten tales can either be honored or ignored.

A small crowd had already gathered at the entrance to the cemetery, people listening to various speakers whose voices wavered between exasperation and hope. Most were sitting on small foam seat cushions on the pebble cement, and we grabbed a couple ourselves to join them on the ground. Beyond Democracy’s Gate was the grave site, each headstone adorned with a circular black and white photo of those killed by the military and police reprisal. I vividly remembered from last year’s visit that some of the faces are solemn, but almost all of the faces are young. I had felt such an eeriness at seeing those images of the young and wrongly departed, as they are immortalized as such. They can never grow up or old in loved ones’ memories or in their hearts. This deprivation would be evident on the faces of many at the old cemetery the next morning.

At that moment, my attention was to the grand preparations that were being made for the government-sanctioned memorial. But with visitor parking crammed full of police buses, the preparations didn’t seem in consideration of the sacrifices of the minjung, or the people, as much as for the Park administration’s protection and public image. President Park Geun Hye had returned from her first visit to the United States a week before, where she stated that the ultimate goal of the Korea-US alliance was human happiness. Even the media declared that the summit meeting between Park and President Obama reaffirmed their countries’ shared values of liberty, democracy and the market economy. Prior to my May 18 visit, I found nothing on-line that questioned if her father’s own presidential legacy had ever affirmed human happiness, or liberty or democracy. And I use the term “presidential” loosely, as Park Chung Hee was none other than a dictator whose reign engendered the ugliness of the Gwangju massacre, and the Miracle on the Han River was nothing short of a curse for that region.

History shows that diplomatic summits are often more symbolic than substantive, and that was obvious at the National Cemetery that evening. Camera podiums, white chrysanthemum flower arrangements and VIP tents were in place. Multiple rows of plastic white chairs were arranged in arcs around the Memorial Tower—those arm-like granite pillars with folded hands that enclose a dark, oval stone to symbolize the seed of hope.  And yet, many of those seats would remain empty on May 18, as victims’ family members and local political officials were boycotting the government event once the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs had decided to deny the “March for the Beloved” official status at the commemoration—having it sung by an orchestrated choir instead of chanted by a passionate, albeit political, audience. We were then in company of those refusing to attend the ceremony, and they were pulling an all-nighter at Democracy’s Gate in defense of the anthem and the legacy of Gwangju that President Park often obscures to gain political points. And we had sung “March for the Beloved” at least five times before I left the crowd. I imagined that I would be singing it enough times to at least learn the first couple lines by weekend’s end.

When twilight came, rendering the small candlelight vigil a powerfully solemn sight, I smiled at a man with a small limp and a cane. He had wide-set eyes and a round face. He returned my smile with a kind smirk, nodded, and walked on calmly and with purpose. But a moment later, I felt a light touch on my left shoulder. I turned to see that same smiling face.

“I’m Jeon Tae Il’s younger brother,” he said in Korean. I recalled the name, but the person’s importance I couldn’t recollect. He repeated himself in English, “I’m Jeon Tae Il’s brother, Jeon Tae Sam.”  Dae Han reminded us of the older brother’s significance, and we all greeted the man. He handed us two business cards, smiled once more and walked away. Jeon Tae Il. The man whose act of self-immolation in 1970 brought attention to worker rights in Korea in spite of Park Chung Hee’s 17-year dictatorship. And his younger brother, another person at the vigil in spite of the dictator’s daughter.

We saw Jeon Tae Sam again the morning of May 18 at the Mangwol-dong Cemetery, the day already hot and hazy. The four of us talked before a large, flat granite altar in the middle of the cemetery that was lined on three sides with bouquets of chrysanthemums. People would approach the altar all morning, leaving flowers or merely kneeling to pray. Dae Han interpreted as Mr. Jeon said that it was imperative in the social movement that people work together—across cultures, age differences and national boundaries. I couldn’t agree more, as the backdrop of tombstones attested to the potential cost of people divided. The old cemetery is where martial law forces brought their victims from the massacre in garbage trucks to be buried. The graves were later exhumed in 1997 and the remains taken to the National Cemetery. And whereas the National Cemetery is an elaborate memorialization—or symbol—of the Gwangju Uprising, the Mangwol-dong Cemetery stands in somber fact of that fateful period. No Democracy’s Gate. No Memorial Tower. No Memorial House, or a government-sanctioned ceremony. The cemetery just looked as it has for years: a small, sparse hill lined with rows of short, grassy mounds behind rounded gray headstones. Trees yielded some shade at the periphery, some full of droopy white blossoms.

After speaking with Jeon Tae Sam, a local journalist soberly interviewed us. Taryn and I were some of only a few visible foreigners at the ceremonies that weekend, and the reporter was curious as to why were were present. I didn’t get a chance to ask her the same. A posed photo was taken, and then I meandered slowly up and down the dirt rows–stopping periodically before noticeable grave sites. They were noticeable because of the large portrait photographs of the deceased that were encased in front of the tombstones. Or because beloved books or journals of the lost loved ones were stacked atop trinkets and folded-paper cranes. Most importantly, they were noticeable because they have stories that remain—stories that feed the remaining.

At mid-morning, everyone sat in the dry grass to listen to speakers. A man first spoke on behalf of the “March for the Beloved” and those who were at this unofficial ceremony in protest. To not let people sing the anthem was a dishonor, he said. So we sang. We sang the song after he spoke, and before and along with a blind clarinetist whose version was the most rousing of the day. Each note from his woodwind hung on the breeze.

We sang the song again at the behest of Oh Jeong Ryeol, a social justice leader who bore witness to the atrocities of the Gwangju massacre. He admonished the Park administration for daring to ban the song that holds all of the emotions, hopes and spirit of the people. He called for reunification with the North, that the Gwangju people not die in vain. That he not die in vain, I suppose. Then he apologized for speaking too long and hoped that people wouldn’t think badly of him. He said, “I love you,” and then rose his arms over his head to gesture a heart. And we sang. Our love, our honor, our name, not leaving anything behind / Our solemn vow to march together throughout our lives.

I felt humbled. I felt honored. For two days, I was able to bridge time, distance and understanding to connect with the Gwangju people beyond the unjust history that we share. And I may not be able to say where I was when the Gwangju uprising occurred, but I can say that on the day that it’s honored, I was there. Being nourished by stories. Singing.

A sign of struggle: the Gwangju uprising and the politics of symbolism

By Taryn Assaf

Since the tragic incident that befell the citizens of Gwangju, South Korea, in May of 1980, events commemorating this time have stood as a symbol of strength, unity and power among citizens throughout the country. Subsequent revolutions, such as the democracy movement of 1987 and various workers movements have drawn upon the Gwangju uprising as a symbol of the fight for democracy. Although the uprising did not directly lead to democracy in Korea, it is still heralded as a leading example of the fight against oppression in the name of human rights.

A commemoration continues every year on May 18 to honor the uprising and its historical place in the lineage of Korean democratization. A variety of festivals and cultural events fill the historic Geunnamro- the street upon which the battles between citizen and soldier were fought- for the purpose of educating people about the uprising under the theme of remembrance. A variety of stalls line the street, some promoting various political causes and charities, some offering the opportunity to make Gwangju-themed woodblock art and others dressed in sketches of political satire. Cheers and songs can be heard in the distance from groups rallying for workers rights; indeed, the feeling is light and jovial. Smiles can be seen on the faces of most- and the energy is emblematic of a spirit that was first ignited in May of 1980.

The mood at the May 18 Cemetery is much more somber, as it reflects the tragedy of lives lost. The cemetery is divided into two: the old and the new. After the massacre in 1980, the bodies of the deceased were buried in what is now considered the “old/unofficial” cemetery. However, the “old/unofficial” cemetery also contains the bodies of those who struggled for democratization in the years leading to the June Uprising in 1987: students and activists who self-immolated in public displays of protests or were kidnapped and tortured to death in their efforts to expose the truth about the Korean and American government’s involvement in the massacre. These people were buried in the same cemetery as those who died from direct involvement in 1980. However, in 1997 the bodies of those who died in the uprising (as well as those who died in the direct aftermath from physical or mental injuries) were exhumed and moved to the “new/official” cemetery. The Memorial Hall Museum and the 40-foot Memorial Tower were also built there, while the bodies of those who died in the years following the uprising were kept in the humble fields behind the new project. The two cemeteries came to represent two different aspects of the uprising: the new, designed to represent a commemoration of past sacrifices and the old marked by the symbolism of a continuing struggle. Interesting to note is the suggestion evident in the process of naming. Equating “new” with “official” and “old” with “unofficial” serve to influence popular conception of the significance of the different actors involved in the uprising, their place in history, their ideologies and their legacies. Two separate ceremonies for 2013 were held in honor of the uprising and those lost, although they marked a significant difference in the approach to commemorating the tragedy. While both ceremonies were attended by family members of the deceased and members of the general public, the official ceremony at the new cemetery was also attended by Heads of State, while the unofficial ceremony at the old cemetery, was attended by labor unions, student groups and activists.  The divergent themes expressed in both ceremonies symbolized an acute polarization of opinion regarding the present meaning of the Gwangju uprising and the state of human rights in Korea, thereby coming to represent two different interpretations of democracy: one in which democracy has been fought for and attained, and the other in which democracy has yet to be fully achieved. The question lingers: does the uprising live as a historical memory or as a present example of the people’s struggle?

At the official ceremony, a large stage in front of Memorial Tower was centered in between large screens and was wired with speakers, microphones and cameras; facing the stage and the tombs lining the hill behind it were hundreds of chairs reserved for guests, including politicians (Park Geun-Hye, the country’s conservative president, being the most notable), families of those killed in the uprising and members of the public. Police presence was particularly acute, with hundreds of officers lining gates and the sidelines of the ceremony. Dozens of police buses narrowed the streets surrounding the cemetery, as if warning some unseen enemy. It seemed odd, indeed ironic, to so heavily secure a memorial for the deaths of those who had fought to overcome heavy security. Nevertheless, this was the ceremony the country would see via mainstream media coverage, thus the mood was kept somber and serious; the set up, careful and elaborate; the surveillance, pervasive and intimidating. Movement was limited, as those who left the ceremony were not allowed re-entry. Taken together, the character of this arrangement was representative of the government’s efforts to control the attendance, program, and perception of the ceremony and the carefully managed themes chosen to symbolize it. This was especially evident in the Park government’s decision to exclude the singing of the song “March for the Beloved” in the ceremony, a song composed in 1981 in memory of the uprising. The song has since been sung at many, if not most, protests organized by labor unions and progressives as a symbol of the spirit of democracy. However, past and present conservative governments have viewed the song as “controversial”, indicating a conflict of ideologies that led to its planned exclusion in this year’s ceremony. After protests and an occupation at the entrance of the memorial park, the government’s final decision was a compromise: the song would be sung by a choir and whoever chose to could sing along; President Park chose not to.

Park did try to offer some words of encouragement in a speech, saying that “the ultimate goal of democracy is to ensure the happiness of the people.” The implications of this statement became unclear as she continued, “It is time to change the economic paradigm from that of one oriented toward quantitative growth to qualitative growth and to expand democracy from the social and political sphere to the realm of the economy.” This statement shifts the focus of the democratic pursuit from social/political to economic, insisting that democracy should no longer focus solely on liberating society and politics from its oppressors, but on liberating the economy from its as well[1]. This implication takes precedence away from current issues blocking peoples’ and workers’ rights- many of which stem from neoliberal economic policies- towards bolstering the conservative polity and a denial of rights violations, past and present, as they link to government and economy. The bloody massacre was inherently tied to government and economy, as it was supported by the Carter administration in order to ensure American investments in Korea, investments dependent on the preservation of the Chun Doo-Hwan government. Had the government been successfully overthrown by the uprising, it would have cost American investors millions of dollars of potential profits. The American government has never taken responsibility for their involvement in the massacre, leading many to believe that “the Gwangju issue is a U.S issue; it has not yet been solved,” as declared by one man to a crowd boycotting the official ceremony. Park’s recent visit to the U.S, where she and President Obama reaffirmed their commitment to the market economy, begs one to question her definition of “happiness” and how the issue of the economy is relevant at such a memorial. Many have also accused the President of not understanding peoples’ struggles from a peoples’ perspective. As the daughter of Park Chun-Hee (the infamous dictator credited for the development of Korea’s tiger economy but criticized as a repressive leader who restricted many personal freedoms) and nicknamed a “princess”, she has described her father’s rule as being a “revolution to save the country” and has thus been criticized for not understanding the full scope of her father’s legacy, particularly the harm it caused many Korean citizens. The unwillingness to acknowledge the full scope of her father’s rule, the banning of the song and her statements in the ceremony leads to the troubling implication that she does not understand- nor does she seem interested in understanding- the spirit of the Gwangju uprising and the subsequent movements that have adopted this spirit into their own struggles. How can the happiness of the people be achieved if the president herself cannot recognize the existence of their struggle? Indeed, this idea was presented in the speech of one man at an overnight sit-in in front of the cemetery. On the eve of May 18, a number of activists, labor unions and citizens gathered outside the main gate of the cemetery (aptly named Democracy’s Gate) to boycott the coming ceremony in protest of the ban of “March for the Beloved”. Amidst the glow of candlelight, the song was sung by the crowd between short speeches criticizing the government’s decision. “The consciousness of May 18 is our struggle’s consciousness,” declared the man, who went on to say “the fact that she (Park Geun-Hye) banned the song proves the Gwangju spirit is not inside of her.” The Gwangju spirit is one that fights for democracy in the context of human rights, not the economy. Had the president visited the old cemetery, perhaps she could have experienced what it means to possess this spirit.

The “unofficial” ceremony at the old cemetery differed greatly from the new/official. Activists, journalists, labor unions, student groups, organizers, members of the public and families of the fallen mingled between the rows of graves which sloped downward toward a makeshift wooden stage against a backdrop of hundreds of tombstones sprawled over the tumbling fields of the Citizen’s Park behind it. Rather than police, the entrance to the cemetery was occupied by activists rallying to end worker’s rights abuses perpetrated by Samsung. No elaborate gates, museums or monuments decorated this cemetery, only the graves of martyrs and their altars telling their stories of sacrifice. As mentioned previously, most of those buried in this cemetery were those who died in the years after May 1980 in their pursuit to expose the truth of the uprising, as post-1980 Korea experienced a media blackout by Chun Doo-Hwan’s military government in hopes of suppressing the truth about their sanctioning of the massacre in order to maintain tight control on the nation and discourage any further uprisings. The cemetery therefore represented a continuation of the struggle – the continued fight for justice, truth and democracy. As groups traversed the rows of graves to pay their respects and offer moments of silence, Jeon Tae-Sam, brother of the late Jeon Tae-Il, who, in 1970, self-immolated in the name of worker’s rights and has since become the symbol of the Korean labor movement, spoke about his role in organizing workers and supporting workers rights.  He spoke of the importance of working together as people on the path towards social justice. His words echoed the spirit of the dead and were reminiscent of the current obstacles to securing people’s rights in Korea and abroad.

The keynote speaker to this ceremony was chairman Oh Jeong-Ryul (오종렬) who has been a leading figure in the pursuit of bringing truth to the happenings of May 18 since his involvement in 1980. He spoke passionately about the vital need for peace and re-unification in the context of the Gwangju uprising. “We need peoples’ and workers’ liberation,” he said, adding “The divided people must become one again. We must re-unify for the people of Gwangju.” He explained that the labeling tactics used against Gwangju citizens as “rebels”, “rioters”, “mobsters”, “communists” and “North Korean sympathizers” were used by the government to delegitimize the uprising and shift popular support away from a revolutionary ideology. This could not have been possible in a unified Korea. This process of labeling continues today, he went on, and thus it is as important as ever to continue to fight for justice -for peace- through re-unification. In a video letter (the transcript of which you can download here) addressed to a gathering of Korean-Americans and those concerned about Korean peace and reunification, he described the cemetery as “filled with the democratic yearnings of our people”, a statement that aptly captures the symbolic nature of the ceremony and the old cemetery which houses it each year. “March for the Beloved” was also sung numerous times and in several formats (one with the accompaniment of a clarinet). In reference to the banning of the song, Oh criticized the Park government, shouting “How dare they ban it; for a democratic country we must respect the song and its meaning.” The ceremony thus came to represent much more than a remembrance of those lost; it represented an ongoing struggle for rights, peace and liberation, and in this way, embodied an interpretation of democracy that extends beyond the history of its achievement and emphasized that in remembering the sacrifices of the dead, we must not forget the struggles of the living; for the two are implicated in the same system of oppression that continues exploit the rights of human beings today.

Sometimes, ideas present themselves through the subtle nuances of signs and symbols. In order to understand those ideas and to question their implications, it is important to deconstruct the occurrences of our everyday existence. Just as a picture can say a thousand words, a single phrase, a common action or an organized event can house a thousand meanings. What people say (or don’t), how people behave (or misbehave) and what events are covered (or ignored) can speak volumes on an issue, if only we take the time to understand what they are saying. To begin understanding the state of democracy in Korea, we must look for signs of struggle where there seem to be none. We must examine events, people, words and actions to discover what democracy means and what achieving it entails. The May 18 memorial ceremonies, both official and unofficial, symbolized two differing democratic ideologies that presented themselves through their different interpretations of the meaning of the Gwangju uprising- one places the achievement of democracy in the past while the other continues to seek its establishment. One can only hope that the legacies of those struggles continue to thrive through the actions that represent them, and that they are never, ever forgotten.

[1] It should be noted that many in the social movement are not opposed to the idea of economic democratization per se, but they do believe that Park’s notion is weak, skewed, contradictory, and ultimately unviable given the many private interests she needs to satisfy.

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

Where is your face? Swan Song political project

While in Gwangju on the weekend of May 18, members of the media team were lucky to meet artist Swan Song. Song shared her artistic political project with the team, which proved to be extremely interesting. The project was simple, the symbolism profound. Throughout different times during the May 18 weekend in Gwangju, a weekend dedicated to commemorating the tragic and brutal uprising that happened there in 1980 against the military government, Song asked people at various commemorative events, such as the May 18 official remembrance ceremony and the May 18 festival, to pose with an umbrella featuring the faces of Pak Geun-Hye, the country’s president, and Barack Obama. Beginning in May, 1980, the uprising was a catalyst for much of the present anti-American sentiment present in Korea, when people began connecting the role of the United States to the bloody massacre of Gwangju citizens and questioning the purpose of United States presence in the country. Thus the symbolism of this project is particularly strong, questioning current political and economic alliances within the context of the Gwangju Uprising and the conditions of anti-Americanism tied to this time.

About her project, Swan has said:

“I have met a variety of people. Some people just pass me by, others have a special meaning to me. I take a photo of acquaintances with a painted umbrella. They are holding the umbrella with faces on the outside, looking at me. I gaze at you but I’m not sure who you are. I can’t guess your age, race, feeling or status. Do you show us your own face in a world where the law of the jungle prevails? No, before that, have you become conscious of your innate ego? I’m going to go through the slow hard process of throwing my umbrella away.”Swan Song



Swan Song

To see the full project, click here

Thank you to Ms. Song for sharing her work with the ISC.