Coincidently, I came to Gwangju, South Korea last May. May is the holy month for Gwangju citizens and those who believe in democracy.
On May 18, 2018, the story told by an elderly man, who lost his eight-year-old son in the Gwangju Uprising 39 years ago, moved me. The government’s failure to find the human remains of his beloved son the past 39 years frustrates the father.
“I lost my trust and I don’t believe in the government anymore,” he said, expressing his anger during the commemoration event at the May 18 National Cemetery in Gwangju.
The story represents the painful history of Gwangju ? the people of Gwangju fearlessly resisted the military dictatorship for 10 days, from May 18 to the 27th, 1980 when the military regime was seizing power unlawfully.
Last May South Korea’s Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, who visited the National Cemetery in Gwangju to pay tribute to those who fought for democracy, had conveyed the government’s promise and sincere fact-finding effort about the May 18 Uprising. In his speech, he mentioned that the National Assembly passed the Gwangju Uprising Fact-Finding Special Act in February 2018. In accordance with the Act, a fact-finding committee shall be formed and come to effect beginning in September. The committee, though, has not yet been launched.
More than a thousand of people had thronged to the May 18 National Cemetery to express their condolences and pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the pro-democracy movement in 1980. They had returned with a hope that the human rights violations committed by the military government would be investigated and those who gave the order to open fire during the Uprising will be identified and punished accordingly.
As witnesses and related materials are fading away, they are aware that the fact-finding mission is for sure the last opportunity to unveil the truth.
As 10 months passed by, the turns of recent political events in South Korea has upset me and all those who are working to promote the Spirit of the Gwangju Uprising.
During a public hearing on the May 18 fact-finding held on Friday (Feb 8), Jee Man-won gave a presentation and repeated his position. He is a controversial far-right commentator who claims the May 18 Gwangju Uprising was a “riot” led by North Korean soldiers.
For his false claims (that the North Korean military was involved in the 1980 Gwangju Uprising) the Supreme Court in 2013 had ruled that Jee was guilty of defamation.
Friday’s public hearing was hosted by Rep. Kim Jin-tae and Rep. Lee Jong-myeong. Rep. Kim Soon-rye had also given controversial remarks that “pro-North Korea leftists are dipping into tax money by receiving May 18 patriots’ allowances, calling them a monstrous group.” They are the lawmakers of the Liberty Korea Party (LKP).
Following the controversies, The Korea Times wrote an editorial titled “Anachronistic View” that reads:
It is ludicrous to make such a claim. Scholars, officials, and civic activists have already conducted numerous investigations and concluded that the Gwangju Incident was a pro-democracy movement against the Chun Doo-hwan-led military junta. Chun seized power through a military coup after the Oct. 26, 1979 assassination of then President Park Chung-hee.
The editorial further questions:
How could they even denounce the pro-democracy movement, which claimed more than 200 lives, as a “riot”? They did not even hesitate to describe the pro-democracy activists as a group of “monsters.”
Earlier, the LKP had recommended Kwon Tae-oh, a career soldier and former secretary-general of the National Unification Advisory Council; Lee Dong-uk, former reporter for the Chosun Monthly, and Cha Gi-hwan, an attorney, for the Gwangju Uprising Fact-Finding Commission.
These recommended figures, who always remained biased toward the Gwangju Uprising, will block efforts to get to the truth, according to activists and advocates for the victims of the Gwangju Uprising.
In this connection, civic groups, including the May 18 Memorial Foundation, have called for the following actions:
- The three lawmakers mentioned above should extend a public apology to the victims and activists of the democratic movement.
- The LKP should take a stern stand against its lawmakers since it has already made clear that it was not the LKP official stance about the May 18 Democratization Movement.
- Any kind of activity or attempt to prevent members from disrupting the fact-finding committee should be discouraged.
- The LKP should withdraw those recommended members and recommend those figures with valid historical awareness and common sense who Gwangju citizens can accept.
The May 18 Democratic Uprising is known as the cornerstone for South Korea’s democratization and the milestone of Korean democracy. The struggles of the Gwangju Uprising prompted the pro-democratic forces to extend the fight nationwide. In the June Uprising of 1987, they finally defeated the dictatorship and restored democracy.
Over the past 39 years, five governmental investigations about the Uprising have taken place but its entire truth is still vague. No proper investigation into human rights violations by the military during the May 18 Democratic Movement has been carried out.
This fact-finding committee, which is being set up now, is the last hope to disclose the truth for the victims and those advocates of the Gwangju Uprising. It is high time the government, ruling party and the oppositions to act sincerely to let an independent committee carry out a fair investigation and ensure the justice that the victims and their families have been awaiting the last 39 years.
I originally wrote this write-up for the GwangjuIn. Please click here to read the original post on the GwangjuIn’s website in Korean and English.