Saturday, May 9, 2015

Kwangju Massacre and National Cemetery

My first year in Korea was spent in Kwangju, and of the six and sometimes seven teachers at my institute, the majority were females because, even though the Kwangju Massacre had taken place 11 years previous and the American government was heavily blamed, emotions were still hot, and those emotions were sometimes aggressively projected on white males, which for the most part in Korea at the time were either American or Canadian, but same-same, they were white. Kwangju also had an American air force at the time, but the American men were careful about going about the city, especially because they had short hair-cuts and wore uniforms. They could be targeted if the mood turned aggressive, a possibility when people are angry and feel like getting retribution.

As I remember it, Kwangju was filled with demonstrations, not against the American government but against their own. Even though Korea had become a democracy on paper in 1988 with the people's election of the president, in actuality, a country does not become a democracy overnight and so the people were demonstrating. Rock, bricks, molatov cocktails (gasoline in coke bottles and lit but carefully carried before being thrown at police and riot police) were pretty standard. Kwangju was the city known as a place of demonstrations, and on the anniversary of the 1980 massacre, my Canadian friend and I along with an older male student went to the national cemetery to see what was happening. A lot was happening but I didn't dare use my camera, so our male friend took my camera and got many shots, one was even a shot of the burning of an effigy of Uncle Sam. My Canadian friend and I just stood there, trying to fit into the setting. Sometimes people approached us, many stared, but though a small amount of tension was present, there was no aggression. Instead, the feeling we got was curiosity about us too, who we were and why were we there.

So today, after many many years I returned to Kwangju. I had been back a few times in the early years of being in Korea. On my returns I always felt a little displaced became right after I left, the new Kwangju Express Bus Terminal opened, but in an area far from the downtown area I knew. I used to live right beside the old City Hall, but that even was relocated too, to the new downtown area with widely spaced roads and complexes of tall, fat modern buildings.

Anyway, as our bus passed through various parts of Kwangju, I was eagerly looking around for landmarks, key places I had been, but I recognized ... NOTHING! The whole fabric of the city had changed. The central part of the city was no longer in the area I had been, so I spent an afternoon feeling very confused. And when we got to the National Cemetery for the May 18th Democratic Uprising, I felt even more confused because I clearly remembered my experience at the National Cemetery in 1992. Well, come to find out that a few short years after I had left Kwangju, this new cemetery for those connected with the uprising was completed and all bodies reinterred here.

National Cemetery for the May 18th Democratic Uprising
"In Memoriam" sign: Here in the National Cemetery for the May 18th Democratic Uprising lie the meritorious persons who fought and sacrificed themselves during the Gwangju Uprising of 1980 and those laudable victims who died in the aftermath of the physical or mental injuries they sustained. 
The bodies of the victims were carried in garbage trucks and carts and buried without official recognition in the Old May 18 Cemetery (the 3rd graveyard of the Municipal Cemetery). 
With the completion of a 3-year consecration project (1994-1997), all bodies were moved and reburied together in this new cemetery. In accordance with the Act on the Honorable Treatment for Meritorious Persons of the May 18th Uprising, this cemetery, which had been managed by the Gwangju Municipal Administration, was promoted and renamed as the National Cemetery for the May 18th Democratic Uprising on July 27, 2002 by the Korean state. 
This cemetery will function as an education center, promoting the conviction that injustice and dictatorship should never return to this country, so that the spirit of May 18th may be engraved in the hearts of all people making this a sacred place for democracy forever.

The Meaning of the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising (sign)
The May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising was a civil uprising against a military dictatorship conspiring to seize political power illegally, in which citizens demanded a new democracy in Korea. It was an eruption of the people's strong desire to declare themselves as masters of their own history and to defend their rights. 
The May Gwangju Democratic Uprising provided the momentum for other democratic movements in Korea and confirmed that the people, once awakened, are the driving force in the development of a democratic society. The Uprising was a legitimate and just struggle against injustice and dictatorship. 
In addition, the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising played an important role in unveiling the immorality of the military regime of the Fifth Republic. Furthermore, it was a decisive movement which eventually brought an end to the illegitimate political system and gave birth to a truly democratic government, when for the first time in its history a peaceful turnover of political power from the government party to an opposition party occurred in February 1998. 
The Gwangju Democratic Uprising will be remembered as a people's struggle, which not only inherited the tradition of independence, democracy and reunification that had manifested itself in just historical struggles for human rights, but also introduced a new indestructible determination for justice in the modern history of Korea. 

Chronology of the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising (sign)

A Prelude to the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising: May 17-18, 1980
24:00 May 17: Emergency martial law declared nationwide
01:00 May 18: Paratroopers dispatched throughout Gwangju
10:20 May 18: The first clash between students and paratroopers at the front gate of Chonnam National University.
Escalation of Demonstrations against the Government Troops: May 19-20, 1980
08:00 May 19: Martial Law Enforcement Headquarters arrested 549 leaders and participants in the uprising.
14:20 May 20: Regular citizens joined the demonstrations
The Rage of the People Explodes: May 21, 1980
11:20 May 21: Talks between Martial Law Forces and Citizen's Resolution Committee began
13:00 May 21: Talks broke down. Paratroopers fired indiscriminately into groups of unarmed citizens.
17:00 May 21: Paratroopers withdrew from Gwangju
Autonomous Citizen's Community, Gwangju: May 22-26, 1980
21:00 May 22: May 18 Resolution Committee began to maintain public order
09:35 May 23: Resolution Committee Headquarters established in the Provincial Hall and a Gwangju Citizen's Rally was held
22:00 May 25: Establishment of the uprising leadership
The Last Struggle: May 27, 1980
06:30 May 27: Martial Law Forces occupied the Provincial Hall. The May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising came to a bloody end as Martial Law Forces suppressed demonstrators.

Victims of the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising & Its Present Condition

Victims: 4,493
Killed during the uprising: 165 (May 18~27, 1980)
Missing: 66
Arrested and wounded: 4,262
Unrelated: 5 
According to Wikipedia, the burial capacity of the cemetery is 784 and currently the cemetery contains 482 burials.
    Establishment of the May 18 Cemetery
    May 13, 1993: The May 13th Special Presidential Declaration
    Nov 26, 1993: The location of the cemetery chosen
    Nov 1, 1994: Construction work begins
    May 4, 1997: Re-interment of victims
    May 13, 1997: Completion of cemetery
    July 27, 2002: Recognized as a National Cemetery
    The May 18th Memorial Monument, 40 meters in height, is designed on the traditional flagpole (dangganjiju), a design perhaps to invoke the forever waving of a flag. The concept of this design expressed new life and survival with the "seed of hope" in the centermost position. Overall, the ovular sculpture represents "resurrection". 
    The typical altar and incense in front of a grave.
    In this cemetery the prayer are for all. White chrysanthemums, the flower signifying death and mourning,
    can be placed on the altar also.
    picture by Witold Zukowski

    Every grave is marked, the front of the tombstone tells the name of the person, the sides and back tell some of his/her biography, family and perhaps the role he/she had in the uprising.
    Here lies a grave to an unidentified body. The picture of the mugumghwa, the national flower, is used instead of the person's face. No name, therefore no family connections, sometimes no known role in the uprising. A very sad tomb. A friend's sister never came home. Perhaps she is one of the unnamed, unidentified.

    May 18, 1980: An eyewitness account of the Gwangju Massacre
    Published in the Korean Observer, May 19, 2015, by Kristen Alice

    It was May of 1980, and Na Byung-un didn’t realize that he was about to become a part of history. Working at a Billiards hall in Gwangju, and attending nighttime classes to prepare for a university entrance exam, he’d become acutely aware of the creeping increase in government control over the past several years.

    At that time, “the dictatorship was the worst,” he remembers with a forlorn look in his eyes. Na was a survivor of one of the most brutal incidents in modern South Korean history: The Gwangju Democratic Uprising, also known as the Gwangju Massacre.

    Strolling along the glittering streets of almost any major city center, it is easy to forget that in a not-so-distant past, South Korea was a desperately poor country under a dictatorial military regime.

    Before the gleaming rows of cafes serving up 6,000 won ($5.5) fancy lattes, fields of rice stretched as far as the eye could see; before flashy K-Pop concerts, there were military juntas and martial law.

    In those days, South Korea’s GDP per capita was just under $4,000 per person, or less than one-sixth than that of the United States, according to World Bank data. As a country with few natural resources recovered from Japanese colonization, it struggled to find its footing politically, economically, and socially. This was especially true in Gwangju, a city nestled in the one of the poorest regions of South Korea, agricultural South Jeolla Province.
    Na Byung-un
    “People were very, very poor, and they led miserable lives.” Na recalls. “They didn’t even have one dollar.”

    In addition to poverty, a thick fog of fear had descended upon the peninsula. In a country where speaking out against the government could land you in prison, few people dared disturb the peace.

    According to Na, there was a rumor that those who criticized the government would be kidnapped and murdered in secret. For many, freedom was the only thing they had left, a precious commodity not to be risked without very good reason.

    In October of 1979, dictator Park Chung-hee was assassinated, and the Korean people harbored a faint glimmer of hope that it would signify a new era of democracy. However, that hope was short-lived, as a military coup, led by Chun Doo-hwan, seized control.

    One of the priorities of this new regime was to stamp out any emerging signs of dissidence, and keep Korea clenched tightly in the military’s iron grip.

    Na recounts, “People had been uprising and protesting against dictatorship continuously under Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan. They put innocent people into prison and oppressed the masses by force of arms. So people all rose up. It was the uprising of the public.”

    On May 18, 1980, martial law was expanded throughout South Korea. Universities were shut down and political speech banned. Protests began breaking out around the country.

    Approximately 50 students, who were blocked from entering the Chonnam National University campus, began protesting. In response, paratroopers were dispatched, and began violently beating the student protesters.

    Some protesters responded by wielding sticks and throwing rocks to defend themselves from the excessive force. The military shot back by assaulting men, women, and children, regardless of age, whether they were protesting or not.

    Over the next few days, the protests grew exponentially. Taxi drivers formed a brigade and drove to the Provincial Office, where they blocked the military from assaulting citizens, and transported injured people to hospitals. Some drivers were pulled from their cars and beaten or killed.

    “All Gwangju citizens were involved in the protests, because all of us were together as one. Everyone thought we had to stand against injustice,” says Na. “Even the police were on our side. They changed into normal clothes at night and joined us.”

    The government’s response grew even more violent and oppressive. Transportation and communication in and out of Gwangju were cut off, effectively isolating the city from the rest of the country.

    The government labeled Gwangju residents as Communists and North Korea sympathizers, and referred to the pro-democracy marches as riots. Citizens were trapped inside the city, and military blockades prevented civilians from getting in or out.

    Residents of other regions of South Korea had no idea what was going on in Gwangju. On May 21, protesters took over the Provincial Office, and the military opened fire on civilians.

    Na himself was attacked by airborne troops while he was working on the second floor of the billiards hall. He was bashed repeatedly with a baton, and dragged to the ground floor, where soldiers tried to load him into a military truck.

    However, while the troops were trying to force him inside, some students began angrily throwing stones at them. Distracted, they began chasing the students. At that moment, Na recalls, “Some people appeared and helped to pass me over a wall, where the troops couldn’t see me. Some women protected me. That is why I am now alive.”

    The protests continued daily in Gwangju, and spread to surrounding cities, including Mokpo, Naju, Hwasun, and Haenam until May 27. In the early morning on that date, the military violently stormed the city, using tanks and helicopters to reclaim the Provincial Office.

    According to the May 18 Memorial Foundation, during those ten days 154 people were killed, 74 went missing, and 4,141, including Na, were injured. Other sources, however, place the numbers even higher, and according to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, 102 more people died later from their injuries.

    Life never went back to normal for Na. He returned to his hometown of Naju, where he lived with his family and focused on his recovery. He quit school, instead deciding that he would make money to support his family. However, he knows that his involvement in this movement was not in vain.

    “Because of Gwangju’s May 18 democratization movement, Korea became more democratic. It served as a momentum to bring justice to all in the world,” he noted.

    Na believes that the government’s response to these protests was intended to spark feelings of regionalism, since a divided populace would be easier to control. He shares some final advice with us. “Regionalism,” he says, “is the center of corruption.”

    He explained that regionalism must never happen in any country, because it makes life hard for everyone.

    “The nation should watch the government, and the government should care for the nation. When the government does something wrong, people should criticize them,” Na points out.

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