Tomorrow is the May 18 or 5.18, the day people of Gwangju (or Kwangju) in South Korea, the capital of the province of South Cholla, commemorate an unprecedented uprising of the people in that city. It will be the 41st anniversary of Gwangju Uprising, which took place in May 1980. There are many parallels between Gwangju in 1980 and today’s Hong Kong. The spirit of Gwangju Uprising kindles struggles for freedoms, democracy and reestablishment of the rule of law anywhere in the world. For Hong Kong, the message we get from Gwangju Uprising can be prophetic.
Gwangju Uprising took place against a backdrop of the draconian and ruthless military dictatorship in South Korea which had controlled dissent through its National Security Law for decades. The economic development in South Korea in the 1970s and 1980s came at a heavy cost for freedoms and democracy. There was also an unequal economic development across South Korea: while provinces from where the military dictators came were highly developed, others like the province of South Cholla demanding restoration of democracy and freedom were neglected and isolated. Assassination in 1979 of General Park Chung-hee, who was the president at that time, created momentum among university students, workers and civil society activists, culminating in protests for democracy, freedom, and the rule of law. In May 1980, deploying military troops to control university students who were protesting, the government sent soldiers to occupy university campuses. While protests in various parts of South Korea were being controlled by the military forces, students in Gwangju refused to give in. There were clashes between the students and soldiers in Gwangju. However, the violence unleashed against the students by the soldiers were unimaginably brutal—many brutally killed, which made the citizens of Gwangju very angry.
The citizens, including taxi and bus drivers, then joined the students to fight the armed forces, and managed to push them to the outer perimeter of the city. The military government cut off all the communications, supplies, and travel to and out of Gwangju. In the 2017 South Korean movie A Taxi Driver, you could see a taxi driver from Seoul driving German journalist Jürgen Hinzpeter to Gwangju when it was cut off from the rest of the country and the world, and the citizens of Gwangju could not bear excessive force and violence used on them by the military. They were protected by no one as the country’s military forces were busy killing the citizens. As a last resort, they overpowered a few police stations and armed themselves. Thereafter, there was a peaceful community in Gwangju with people sharing with each other limited food they have, and shops giving away supplies to the citizens. There was complete order in the city and none of the banks or commercial premises were touched. The military forces that gathered around the city perimeter gave an ultimatum to the citizens making a demand for them to lay down their arms and surrender. A group of courageous youths occupying the provincial hall in Gwangju decided not to surrender and fight to their death. On the evening before the final battle, Yoon Sang Won, the spokesman for the youths, held a press conference and told the handful of foreign correspondents who managed to make their way to Gwangju (like Hinzpeter in the movie) that he and his fellow youths would fight to save Korea. Bradley Martin of Baltimore Sun who was present there later said, “I saw death in Yoon’s eyes.” That last battle took place in the early morning of May 26 and the military overpowered the students to take control of Gwangju. Many students died in the fight and the rest were arrested, tortured, tried, convicted and imprisoned.
To bury the truth and discredit the people of Gwangju through state media, the South Korean Government created false narratives in a propaganda campaign, disseminating a conspiracy theory that there was a foreign power supporting the students and the people of Gwangju to destabilize South Korea. The military controlled the media coverage in South Korea, grossly distorting what actually happened in Gwangju. Therefore, most people in South Korea outside Gwangju did not learn the truth in the many years to come. Even now, some South Koreans outside the province of South Cholla believe in those conspiracy theories!
The immediate aftermath of the Gwangju Uprising brought the citizens of Gwangju a period of fear and repression. The South Korean Government excessively used (or abused) their National Security Law to arrest students, activists, and anyone they saw as a threat to their regime, not only in Gwangju but anywhere in South Korea. Many were arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned. Some were tortured to death. No one could print anything about Gwangju Uprising. Legendary Gwangju Diary: Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age by Lee Jay was written at a grave risk during the years subsequent to the Uprising. In the non-internet era, Gwangju Diary, which was published underground defying bans of such publications, became an inspiration to generations of students and youths. Family members of the students and youths who were killed were not allowed to mourn for them collectively. In subsequent years, during the days preceding May 18, the military or police in plain clothes would pick up parents of those who were killed during the Uprising, drive them to rural villages far from the city, and drop them there, so that they were not able to come back and conduct collective commemoration. Those who were linked to the Uprising were labeled “traitors” and “rioters” and condemned. Gwangju Uprising itself was labelled a “riot”. Family members of those who were killed, arrested, tortured, and imprisoned were looked down upon by most people in the rest of South Korea due to the distorted version of the uprising propagated by then regime through mainstream media. In fact, on my way back from Gwangju in May 1996 at Seoul Kimpo Airport, a couple of women running a shop asked me where I had been to in South Korea. When I told them that I had just attended the commemoration of 5.18 in Gwangju, they rolled their eyes mockingly, sighing, “Oh, those Gwangju people!”
However, these family members defied the efforts of the military and continued with the commemoration on every 17th and 18th of May with great hardship and harassment. These commemorations and other efforts to keep Gwangju Uprising alive inspired mass student protests in South Korea in June 1987. Once again, during the 1980s and early 1990s, National Security Law was the main legal tool used to control and suppress dissent. Many activists were prosecuted and jailed for violating “national security.” Publications that were trying to tell the truth were banned and suppressed. Hankyoreh, one of the most progressive publications, had to be published underground or illegally. Gwangju Uprising in 1980 gave momentum to a movement of political reforms almost a decade later. Kim Dae Jung, who was convicted and sentenced to death for “masterminding” Gwangju Uprising, was elected president in 1998. Subsequent investigations and trials convicted military generals and former presidents Chung Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo of crimes committed by the military under their watch during Gwangju Uprising in 1980. Those protesters in Gwangju, who were once labeled and ostracized as traitors were elevated to the status of heroes. Family members of the victims of the Uprising were compensated. In 1997, Government of South Korea built a national cemetery in Gwangju to put to rest all the heroes who fell during the Uprising. In the cemetery a gigantic monument was built to honor those who sacrificed their lives for democracy. In short, Gwangju Uprising paved the way for freedom, democracy, and the rule of law in South Korea. Every May 18 a national memorial ceremony attended by the President or Prime Minister of the country is held at this cemetery, which is broadcast live by the mainstream media outlets, the same ones that spread fake news about the Uprising in 1980.
The images of the military beating student protesters in Gwangju in May 1980 and those of the Hong Kong riot police quite violently restraining young protesters in 2019 shared by someone in South Korea side by side looked identical although the two incidents happened almost 40 years apart. No one imagined that they would witness such terrible scenes of violence in Hong Kong. The recent arrests and prosecution of political activists for violating the National Security Law and other laws relating to public order have reminded us of what happened in South Korea in the wake of Gwangju Uprising. However, there was an unequivocal message from the people of Gwangju to the world—true spirit of and fight for freedom and democracy cannot be suppressed in the long term. When that group of youths, including Yoon Sang Won, decided to fight their last battle in the early morning of May 26 in Gwangju, they knew they were going to die and lose that fight. But they also knew that their loss that day would pave the way for the realization of democracy and freedoms in South Korea one day. They did not know when that would happen, but they knew that would happen one day. That was their prophetic vision for democracy and freedoms. In fact, that was exactly what happened—South Korea became one of the, if not the strongest, democracies in Asia. It restored the rule of law, and is now probably the only country in Asia that has investigated a number of past presidents of the country, and convicted them of crimes committed under their leadership through fair trial. The citizens of Gwangju lost the battle in 1980, but at the end won the war. This prophetic vision of the people of Gwangju can be transposed to Hong Kong. You live in fear defiantly to achieve true ideals of democracy and the rule of law. That process can be hard, and many sacrifices may need to be made. But in the end, truth, freedoms, democracy, and the rule of law will always win and prevail. That prophetic vision cannot be disconnected from the power of people.
(Yan Kei, Advocate for criminal justice reforms)
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