“DENIAL IS the eighth stage that always follows a genocide,” said Gregory H. Stanton, the founder of Genocide Watch. In denying that the crime ever happened and blaming the events on the victims, denial finalizes a tragedy. Among the most tragic moments in modern Korean history, the 5.18 Gwangju Uprising stands out for how its memory is still disputed and invalidated. Most recently, former president Chun Doo-hwan stood on trial for the first time for 23 years for defamation against a witness of the Uprising. The tragedy’s mastermind still refused to apologize to the massacre, influencing the numerous attempts so far of minimizing the casualties and significance of the Uprising. Within this context, how Korea should remember the 5.18 Gwangju Uprising and its legacy has recently gathered considerable attention.
The salt poured onto victims’ wounds
From May 18 to 27 in 1980, the citizens of Gwangju collectively protested against the military regime led by Chun Doo-hwan, the president at the time. The regime militarily extinguished the Uprising in response, causing the deaths of approximately 162 civilians and over 3,000 injuries.* This civil movement is referred to as the 5.18 Gwangju Uprising, or the 5.18 Democratization Movement. Former President Chun was originally convicted for military crimes against the people of Gwangju in 1996, and received a life sentence and a fine exceeding 220 billion. However, he was given a special amnesty shortly after his sentence that pardoned him from the life sentence and from fully receiving the penalties. Whether complete justice was served is still quite controversial.
To make matters worse, in Mr. Chun’s memoir published in 2017, the former president referred to a witness of the massacre as “a shameless liar.” As a result, the witness’ bereaved family and the May organizations** sued him for defamation against the dead, in accordance with Article 308 of the Criminal Act.*** Despite previously refusing to appear in the trial twice, Mr. Chun was officially prosecuted on Mar. 11, 2019 after sufficient demands were made.
Despite being a movement fully recognized by the Korean government and included in the Memory of the World Register in UNESCO, there are still attempts to invalidate the uprising as well as its victims. Denying the event ever happened and discrediting the survivors as treasonous are the most common techniques for invalidating the incident. This is what happened immediately following the Uprising when the military regime at the time claimed the citizens of Gwangju were spies sent by North Korea. Certain assemblymen from the Korea Liberty Party were recently criticized heavily for referring to the Uprising as the “Gwangju riot” and the bereaved families as a “monster group created by pro-North Korea leftists.”
However, even today these assertions continue to be used by radical right-wing Koreans to justify the incident. Radical conservatives engage in invalidating the Gwangju incident in order to legitimize the actions of the former autocratic government or to oppose liberal views. Influenced by remnants of the 5th Republic that continued onto current conservative politics, some political narratives inherit similar historical views and resort to invalidation.
The not-so-bright legacy of a tragic era
The issue of how the 5.18 Gwangju Uprising is remembered faces controversy in politics, as certain individuals are subtly bringing the Uprising into question. When the former Park administration attempted to nationalize Korean history textbooks in 2015, there was a lot of criticism around how the Gwangju Uprising was framed. Expressions were censored to negate the violence of the regime and wording was altered to remove indications that the movement was a civil uprising that demanded democracy.
On February 2019, several members of the Liberty Korea Party, the right-wing party in the Korean National Assembly, faced intense criticism for holding a public hearing that attempted to rewrite the Gwangju uprising as an event intervened by North Korean forces.**** Despite such claims already been rebutted by historical examinations, the claims are made by politicians to align themselves with their political party or intentionally aggravate political conflicts. Since the radical conservative factions of Korea inherit the legacy of former presidents Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan’s regimes, defending their actions are closely related to protecting their own political positions.
These discussions constitute the politics of remembrance, how some choose to narrativize history to make their present position more convenient. However, denying or minimalizing a massacre has ethical consequences beyond the original crime. In forgetting the initial atrocity, victims face a “secondary tragedy” in being continually treated with hostility after the fact. To remember the atrocity would be to validate the victims and prevent further suffering.
Jürgen Hinzpeter, a German journalist who had infiltrated Gwangju during the Uprising in 1980, conveyed its tragedy to the world and later said “It is necessary to remember the events of May 18, just like we Germans remember the atrocities in the Second World War.”
In the same vein, in a recent interview with Hankyoreh, UN Special Rapporteur Fabian Omar Salvioli openly criticized how hateful expressions are used in Korean politics when discussing the Uprising. “The state has a responsibility to ban hateful expressions regarding victims to historical events,” he commented.
For whom the civil justice tolls
While there are those who aim to stigmatize the Gwangju massacre, however, there are still the survivors to advocate for its memory. There have also been numerous efforts and campaigns to safeguard the honor of both the incident and the victims. The Legislation on Compensation for Gwangju Uprising Movement Affiliates and Etc. is the most prominent, as a set of laws that oversees the general compensation of those affected by the movement. This includes monetary assistance and various social services for both the victims and bereaved families of victims, as well as the celebration of the Uprising’s democratic spirit with memorial services and campaigns. The Korean Resource Center also provides accurate records of the Uprising’s casualties for the government, with the Gwangju City Hall overseeing campaigns to correctly remember its history. There are also the May organizations, such as the May 18 Memorial Foundation and the Bereaved Families Association that conduct campaigns to demand proper remembrance and government actions.
The historical community of Korea is also especially outspoken on the issue. On Mar. 19, 2019, a total of 29 Korean historical societies presented a joint manifesto that rebutted recent historical remarks from conservative politicians.****** The manifesto presented three demands: the prevention of distorting historical truths, a public apology from politicians who attempt to deny democracy, and disciplinary action towards political figures who resorted to unsound statements. In presenting these points, the historians jointly stated the following: “Among the freedom, peace, and democracy that we current enjoy, there is not one that we do not owe to the sacrifices the citizens of Gwangju made.”
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For the sake of protecting the reputation of the dead and remembering historical events accurately, efforts to protect the honor of Gwangju Uprising’s victims are being made. Since the movement holds historic and democratic value, restoring its honor is seen as a major civil responsibility for both the Korean state and its people.
*National Archives of Korea
**May organizations: Organizations affiliated with remembrance and compensation of the Gwangju Uprising