The Spirit of Kwangju

Posted January 3, 2004

Categories: Articles, Korea

It happened nearly 25 years ago, but the old woman’s grief was still raw. We were queued up to lay flowers on the ceremonial table with its pyramids of fruit and platters of pounded rice cake. At the head of the line was a group of victims’ mothers, clad in white. Each lay a single flower on the table, added a pinch of incense to the smoking urn, and bowed slightly before retiring to the side. But this particular woman didn’t move on. Instead, she broke out in a scream. “My son is dead and the government can do nothing about that now!”

I was recently in South Korea to observe the 24th anniversary of the 1980 Kwangju Uprising. Three overlapping events – a conference on genocide and human rights, a peace camp for Asian activists, and a gathering of victims’ families from around the region – culminated in the awarding of the 2004 Kwangju Human Rights Award to Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi. As part of the commemorative activities, the visit to the national cemetery where the victims of the Uprising are buried was a visceral reminder of the pain that Koreans still feel.

Compared to atrocities elsewhere in the world, the South Korean government’s suppression of the Kwangju Uprising in 1980 doesn’t rank very high – with only several hundreds killed compared to the several hundreds of thousands who died in Indonesia, Rwanda, and other 20th century killing fields. But like the Chinese government’s bloody crackdown on the Tiananman Square protests, which happened 15 years ago on June 5, the significance of the May 18th Uprising in Kwangju can not be measured simply in casualties. It continues to inspire democratic change within Korea and, through the efforts of several Kwangju-based organizations, movements for democracy and human rights throughout Asia.

The ostensible spark for the events of May 1980 in Kwangju was a series of pro-democracy protests in the southern cities of Pusan and Masan in October 1979, followed by the assassination of Korean strongman Park Chung-Hee and, after much infighting within the military, a coup by Chun Doo-Hwan. When the new military government declared martial law, the student movement fought back. On May 14, 1980 in Seoul, 70,000 students demonstrated in the streets. Students from universities in 24 other cities soon joined them.

The crisis began to look very much like what would happen a decade later in Beijing: a broad-based pro-democracy movement squaring off against an unpopular but well-armed government. But student leaders in Seoul decided not to risk a violent confrontation with the police and army. They returned to their campuses to strategize. The government took advantage of the lull to extend martial law and prohibit political meetings, close universities, and censor the press. Dozens of student leaders and opposition politicians, including future president Kim Dae-Jung, were arrested.

In Kwangju, located in the southwest corner of the country, government troops also occupied universities and arrested student leaders. But Kwangju and its surrounding South Cholla province have a long tradition of resistance. Small bands of protesters demonstrated against the paratroopers, who responded brutally with clubs and even bayonets. When the general population learned of the scores of injuries and arrests, they came out into the streets to protest. The conflict escalated. At one point, army sharpshooters fired into a huge crowd, killing over 50.

The largely non-violent protestors changed tacks. By May 21, formed into new civilian armies, the citizens fought back with weapons seized from overrun police stations and army depots. Virtually the whole city joined in the effort to support the civil militia and beat back the army by preparing food, donating blood, and providing transport for the wounded to the hospitals.

As the army fell back to blockade the city, two factions emerged in the new citizens’ organizations – those who argued for negotiations and those who preferred to keep fighting. The government, however, continued to play hardball, insisting that the rebels give up their weapons unconditionally. It also ordered a special attack corps of the army, battle-hardened in the Vietnam War, to retake the city. On the morning of May 27, the army took the last bastion of resistance, the Provincial Hall, killing or imprisoning the remaining rebels. The ten-day struggle was over.

The Kwangju Uprising was not an exercise in Gandhian non-violence. Yes, the initial protests by students and unarmed civilians were non-violent. Faced with a military response, however, the protestors scrambled to defend themselves. Defending themselves quickly became defending their city. It has been said that Gandhian tactics can only work with regimes that play by Gandhian rules. The South Korean government did not play by these rules.

The older generation in Kwangju certainly understood this brutal fact. They no doubt viewed the Kwangju Uprising through the prism of post-World War II resistance to authoritarianism in South Korea. Opposition to the division of the Korean peninsula after World War II was particularly strong in the southwestern part of the country. Rebel groups retreated to the Jiri Mountains not far from Kwangju to fight against the authoritarian government even after the Korean War ended in 1953. Because of the draconian National Security Law, the government’s large-scale massacres of civilians between 1945 and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 could not be discussed in public and, indeed, many of the survivors hesitated to tell even their children of what happened. Tens of thousands died on the island of Cheju in 1948; thousands more died in anti-communist massacres elsewhere in the country. This was the war before the War, a war against a perceived enemy within rather than the North Korean enemy on the outside. (For a book that connects Kwangju to the larger context of resistance, look for the upcoming study by George Katsiaficas, Unknown Uprisings: South Korean Social Movements After World War II).

Recently a Korean diplomat, when the topic of Kwangju came up, remarked to me matter-of-factly, “When they seized weapons, we had to put down the uprising.” The state, with its presumed monopoly on violence, always claims a prerogative to put down challenges to the established order. I told him that the Kwangju Uprising was fast becoming transformed into a symbol for human rights and democracy. Like the American Revolution, it has gradually been bled of its revolutionary content. The rebels in Kwangju, many of whom were closer to the spirit of the firebrand Tom Paine than the patrician George Washington, are referred to rather tamely these days as “democracy activists.” At the same time, the failure of the armed resistance has underscored the challenge of fighting firepower with firepower. The Poles, who launched their “self-limiting revolution” several months after the crushing of the Kwangju Uprising, calculated the imbalance of force and embraced non-violent resistance as a wise strategy. Although the Poles failed in 1980 – and the Chinese learned to their horror in 1989 that nonviolent resistance guarantees neither success nor a restrained response from the state – pro-democracy activists are now largely avoiding the use of arms to achieve their aims.

Still, repackaged as a largely nonviolent struggle of “democracy activists,” the Kwangju Uprising has been quite influential. In Korea, for instance, the Uprising inspired a new generation of activists in Korea to undertake considerable sacrifices to bring democracy to the country. Kwangju-ites like to call their city a “mecca for democracy,” and many activists in the 1980s bowed to the southwest, figuratively speaking, as they set about undermining authoritarianism in the streets, in the factories, and in the classrooms.

Even when democracy came, beginning with semi-free elections in 1988, Korean activists didn’t stop. Nor has economic success blunted their political energy. Today, in a country that boasts one of the top dozen global economies, activists have created one of the most vibrant civil societies in the world. When President Roh Moo-Hyun was impeached earlier this year, progressive activists were able within hours to turn out hundreds of thousands of people for street protests. You can tell how committed Korean activists are by the sheer number of different ways they describe their schedules in Korean: “so busy I’m out of my mind,” “so busy I could die,” “up to my eyes and nose in busyness.” As my friend Professor Shin Gyonggu explained to me, when I expressed shock at his various commitments – professor at Chonnam University, director of the Kwangju International Center, facilitator of a project for families of disappeared in Sri Lanka, translator of last resort for so many conferences – “I just think about all the people who have died to build democracy and this makes me work harder.” It can be said that Korean activists don’t burn out; they simply become hospitalized with exhaustion.

One of the most difficult aspects of the Kwangju Uprising and the history of massacres of which it is part is the role played by South Koreans themselves. It is certainly true that the United States has had a hand in shaping the South Korean state – dividing the country with the Soviets, selecting and supporting the first authoritarian leader Syngman Rhee, authorizing the murder of suspected communists in the 1945-1950 period. During the Korean War, the United States was responsible for terrible crimes, of which the shooting of men, women, and children at Nogun-ri was only one such incident. And during the Kwangju Uprising, as journalist Tim Shorrock has amply documented, the United States sent various military and political signals of its support for the crackdown, which was consistent with its general support of the country’s authoritarianism for Cold War purposes. But it was South Koreans – in the government, in the military hierarchy, and behind the guns – who were responsible for so many of the civilian atrocities that took place after 1945.

As such, Kwangju represents the counter-history of those who did not collaborate – with the Japanese colonial authorities, with the United States during the post-World War II repressions, with the South Korean state apparatus in the years thereafter. For a country that proudly continues to make its own movies, support its own agriculture and food ways, and pursue engagement with North Korea against the wishes of Washington, this tradition of just saying no is extraordinarily important.

Finally, Kwangju is important for the people of South Cholla province. Discriminated against both politically and economically for many decades, South Cholla made tremendous strides in the 1990s to even the playing field. It produced a recent president (Kim Dae Jung) and overwhelmingly supports his successor Roh Moo-Hyun. Many Cholla-born appointees work in Seoul these days, and economic investment flows into the region. Like African Americans in the civil rights era, the citizens of Cholla fought two battles – to democratize their country as a whole and to enfranchise themselves as equal partners in a more just society.

The Asian activists who assembled in Kwangju to participate in the peace camp and other events marking the 24th anniversary of the Uprising were struck by how far Korea has come in its democratic development. A lawyer and human rights activists from Jakarta told me that she was deeply impressed by “how much Koreans really feel democracy.” The lessons of Kwangju, however, are not just useful for those struggling against brutality and corruption in Rangoon or Katmandu. With their vision, independence, and sheer hard work, South Korean activists provide inspiration to those of us in “mature democracies” as well.

Znet, June 15, 2004

Leave a Reply