I originally wrote this for the Gwangju News Magazine.
South Korea’s democracy today shares equally great contributions from different parts of the country and people from different walks of life. The country’s pro-democratic spirit is still alive among the people. This is evident from the fact that the people succeeded in impeaching former president Park Geun-hye through the Candlelight Revolution of 2016. The revolution brought out over 16 million people to the streets – almost a third of the country’s population.
This success can be attributed to the relentless efforts of organizations and members of different niches of civil society who have devoted themselves to promoting democratic values.
What is behind this lively democratic spirit? I asked this to myself and read several books related to Korean democracy to discern the answer. In my research, I came across many aspects that make Korean democracy what it is today. One of the most remarkable things that I found, based on my reading and work experience with the May 18 Memorial Foundation based in Gwangju, is the vibrancy of civil society. To be more specific, foundations in South Korea play a significant role in maintaining the democratic spirit and serve as the representatives of a healthy civil society.
Last November, I attended a meeting in Seoul for democracy activists and members of five key foundations: the Korea Democracy Foundation (Seoul), the Busan Democratic Movement Memorial Association (Busan), the May 18 Memorial Foundation (Gwangju), the Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation (Jeju), and the No Gun Ri International Peace Foundation (No Gun Ri). The recently established organization BuMa Democracy Memorial Foundation (Busan and Masan) also took part in the conference as an observer and took inspiration from the other foundations’ activities.
The history of South Korea shows that the June Uprising of 1987 ultimately defeated dictatorship, leading to the first democratic presidential election on June 29, 1987. This was indeed a splendid achievement for modern Korea. To reach such an achievement, Korean democracy had undergone major upheavals almost every ten years. The people’s aspiration for change surged, but dictators had continuously crushed it. This did not only reveal the immorality and cruelty of dictatorial regimes, but also led the people to realize that they should unite against the dictatorship.
One such incident was the May 18 Democratic Uprising. For ten days, between May 18 and 27, 1980, citizens of Gwangju and Jeollanam-do fought for democracy and risked their lives against the military regime led by Chun Doo-hwan while making demands to “abolish emergency martial law” and “root out Yushin” (the authoritarian constitution). More than 166 people died during the Gwangju Uprising. The number of victims rises to 352 when considering the 110 more who died later of injuries and the 76 who are still unaccounted for. The May 18 Memorial Foundation is working for justice, reconciliation, and the preservation of the memory of the Gwangju popular uprising.
The Gwangju Uprising prompted the pro-democratic forces to extend the fight nationwide and bring justice to those responsible for the massacre. The democratic wave was propelled by the death and torture of Park Jong-cheol, a student activist from Seoul National University. On January 14, 1987, he was tortured to death during a police interrogation. Police claimed Park died suddenly, which enraged citizens and became a trigger for the June Uprising.
Along with the members of the above foundations, I visited the room where Park was tortured by police in 1987. The site has been preserved and maintained by the Korea Democracy Foundation in Seoul.
The enragement during the June Uprising of 1987 was similar to that of the 1960 incident following the discovery of the body of Kim Ju-yeol in Masan. Kim, a high school student, had disappeared during a riot in Masan. This sparked protests across the country leading to the April 19 Revolution of 1960. In that revolution, more than 180 students and citizens lost their lives. The archives and memories of the movement are maintained by the Busan Democratic Movement Memorial Association.
Likewise, in July 1950 during the Korean War, the U.S. military killed 200–300 people in the village of No Gun Ri, according to an estimate made by the No Gun Ri Peace Foundation in 2011. However, the 2005 government committee certified the names of 163 dead and missing, with 55 others wounded. The foundation operates a memorial park at the massacre site.
Similarly, a series of uprisings and a counter-insurgency occurred between 1948 and 1954 on Jeju Island, known as the April 3 Uprising. According to Heo Ho-joon, the uprising began “while the island was under American military rule, which lasted from 1945-1948, and continued even after the establishment of a civilian government in 1948,” lasting until 1954 when the Korean War ended. It is estimated that the uprising killed between 25,000 and over 30,000 people, representing 10 percent of Jeju Island’s population at the time. The Jeju 4.3 Foundation is striving for justice and reconciliation for the victims.
The works of civil society groups and associations are significant for these historical movements, as they promote and maintain the democratic spirit among the citizenry. These efforts also educate the younger generations about the hardships and struggles for Korean democracy. Most importantly, such a democratic spirit strengthens democracy in an effective and peaceful manner. Although the aforementioned associations carry out different activities, they have a common goal: to work for the justice and reconciliation of the victims and to maintain a democratic spirit. On top of this, these associations not only share their experiences with each other but also acknowledge and recognize one another’s contributions to Korean society.