Let’s Stop the Distortion of History and the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising
History never forgets those who distort it, but it takes revenge and exposes to them. Korea has an unsettled historical past and bloody history. The people of Korea faced oppression from Imperial Japan, the Korean War, the Jeju and the Gwangju massacres. Their perpetrators always denied their crimes, veiled their face and falsified allegations against the victims and called them criminal, rioters, insurgents, communists, guerillas, and separatists so, they can justify their brutalities. However, modern Korean history proved that such crimes against humanity can never be hidden from the public and cannot be distorted by any tyrant.
Gwangju Massacre and Violence 1980
After the assassination of General Park Chung-hee in 1979, the Korean aspiration for democracy was high among Korean youth and they were eagerly standing for their rights and for democratization. However, their hopes and expectations were murdered by imposition of martial law by General Chun Doo-hwan on May 18, 1980.
We know that youth are the red cells of any nation and that they have the energy to stand for their rights and lead nations through their activism towards realistic goals. Therefore, student from Seoul, Busan and Gwangju held marches to support of their rights and democratization in May 1980.
The march of students in Gwangju makes diverse history in Korean society compared to other student marches against martial law in 1980. It turned into people resistance and Uprising against the military regime, which imposed martial law in Korea. However, the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising ruthlessly crushed by troops of General Chun. According to local estimations thousands of Gwangju students, labour workers, drivers and many tortured, disappeared and several were killed in jails. However, seven year later, another student Uprising defeated the Chun regime and finally, democracy was restored in Korea. According to the various Korean academicians and international community denoted the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising as the cornerstone of Korean Democracy.
In 1993 after civilian governments were formed, the Koreans want to find truth, reconciliation, and transitional justice for the victims of the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising. However, the Chun regime and its supporters are still calling the May 18 Democratic Uprising a riot despite having clear truth spoken by a various foreign journalist like Tim Sharrock and Professor Bruce. American secret documents show that Gwangju students were marching for rights and democratization. However, the regime’s controlled media spread falsified propaganda against the Uprising. It worthy to note that even the UN agency UNESCO also called the Gwangju Uprising as the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising. It shows that all these allegations are fabricated by the Chun regime, which wants to protect its interest and to extend its regime in Korea.
Transitional Justice and Investigation
In 1993 after the end of martial law in Korea and with the beginning of a civilian government, President Kim Young-Sam made clear his position on the Gwangju Democratic Uprising in a speech and he categorically stated that “The bloodshed of Gwangju in May 1980 is the cornerstone of this country’s democracy. Its victims dedicated their lives to democracy”. He continued by indicating the shift in perception that had taken place; “This Government today stands in line with the Gwangju Democratization Movement”.
On May 13, the 5.18 Special Law was enacted. It is highly revered by Korean students and the public as a significant contribution to bringing the military junta, which had dreadfully massacred people in Gwangju, to trial by upholding the law, justice, and history and in healing the wounds that the nation had suffered in the past. In 1995, General Chun Doo-hwan arrested.
On August 26, 1996, Chun was issued a death sentence by the court. A few months later, his life sentence changed into life imprisonment. However, General Chun later was pardoned by President Kim Dae-Jung; it was an effort to bring reconciliation and unity in the nation. President Kim Dae-Jung philosophy called for “no political retaliation” and forgiveness to unify the Korean nation and shows tolerance. However, continue distortion of the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Uprising is ending the fruits of the reconciliation efforts done by former president Kim Dae Jung and causing more public anger against Chun’s regime atrocities from 1980 to 1988 in Korea.
There have been several government investigation committees on the May 18 Gwangju Uprising including persecution investigation 1995, Past Affairs Truth Unveiling Committee of the Defense Ministry 2007, Past Affairs Truth and Reconciliation Settlement Committee 2010 and Defense Ministry Special Rapporteur 2018. The investigation shows that significant truth about the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising. However, these committees failed to reveal the full truth. Importantly, all these investigation failed to reveal what happened to enforced disappeared people, the death toll and who ordered the gunfire on the demonstrators in May 1980.
Therefore, Korean civil society identified five main principles for fact-finding about the Gwangju massacre done in 1980, 1. Conduct of fact–finding/investigation; 2 Punishment for those responsible for the violence; 3 reparation/compensation for the victims; 4 Restoration of the honour of the victims; and 5 commemoration projects. Therefore, it is essential to reveal the truth and stop the distortion history of the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising.
Repetitively Fabricated Claims
In 2017 three-volume book about Chun Doo Hwan Memoirs was published and Chun strop to distort the May 18 Gwangju Uprising history. In his book he claimed that there was no bullets fired from helicopters during the Gwangju Uprising. Besides, he also accused the late priest Cho Chul-hyun of making a malicious argument against him and mentioned that he should be ashamed calling himself a clergyman. However, an eyewitness of the 1980 Uprising, Baptist missionaries Barbara Peterson stated, that “We heard heavy artillery gunfire and put our two sons with our ajumeoni in the basement of our house. My husband and I then ran up to our rooftop deck to see what was happening. We saw the helicopters shooting down at people and could hear screams.”
Besides, Lee Geon-ri, head of the special investigative committee also confirmed the truth that “The Army was confirmed to have used 500MD attack helicopters and UH-1H utility helicopters to fire multiple times upon Gwangju citizens on May 21 and May 27, 1980.”
Further, in response to General Chun’s lies, the late Cho Chul-hyun relatives and activists sued General Chun for defamation in April 2017.
On February 11, 2019 members of the main opposition Liberty Korean Party (LKP) claimed that “North Korean Army deployed in the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising”. Another member of LKP party also gave his controversial remarks that the “North leftists have created a monster group, called May 18 victims, and we are wasting our tax money on them”.
By lawmakers from the Democratic Party asked the administration under ex-president Park Geun-hye, to express its position on this matter. Then Prime Minister Chung Hong-won responded that “The government judges that the North Korean military wasn’t involved in the Gwangju Uprising”.
Such remarks by LPK party member’s shows there is constant falsified efforts to distort the history about the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising. Besides, these controversial remarks are triggering more divisions in Korean society, halting efforts for transitional justice about the Gwangju Massacre, hurting the feelings May 18 victim families, and finally legalizing the military junta regime atrocities and killing under the name of communism and leftist from 1980 to 1988 in Korea. Moreover, all falsified efforts only make modern Korean democracy weaker and undermines all the efforts of the democratic system from 1989 to the present.
Deceiving the Accountability Efforts
General Chun failed continuously to appear before the court hearing on a defamation charge against him by the late Chun Chul-hyun. Cho Chul-hyun, who was a religious leader and pro-democracy activist, testified that the military junta fire on protesters from helicopters during the May 18 Massacre.
However, during the investigation about the firing the National Forensic concluded that bullet marks found on the outer wall of the Jeonil Building situated downtown of Gwangju are the result of shooting from helicopters.
However, finally on March 11, 2019, General Chun appeared in a court hearing and his lawyer denied all allegation against him. The lawyer of General Chun said there was not enough proof that helicopter firing took place on May 21, 1980, in Gwangju as testified by the late Father Cho. Through these efforts General Chun is buying time and denying the truth.
A Way Forward: Accepting the Truth and let’s stand with the May 18 Spirit for Democracy
First, it is highly essential that the Korean Government should create a Truth Revelation Commission as various questions are outstanding and unfinished truth finding is hurting the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising.
Secondly, civil society, rights activist including the May 18 Memorial Foundation demanded, that the LPK lawmakers should publicly apologize to the victims, activist, families and mothers of the May 18 Democratic Uprising. The LPK party leadership should take substantial measure and discard such elements which are involved in the defamation of the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising that hurt the feelings of the Korean public. The LPK party should maturely respond to the call from the President Moon Jae-in and endorse impartial, credible member from the LPK for the “Gwangju Uprising Fact-Finding Commission” which is accepted by the people of Korea.
Moreover LPK should endorse the call of President when he said that “As a Korean, I feel tremendous shame when facing the reality of preposterous remarks denying and insulting the May 18 Democratization Movement still being uttered out loud without any hesitation. No more controversies about this issue are necessary now. They would simply be a meaningless waste. The truth about the May 18 Movement cannot differ between conservatives and liberals”.
Third, the Korean Government should pass a robust and special law that protects and prevents the history of the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising from the distortion by nefarious elements so, reconciliation and transitional justice could be done.
Finally, lets stand for democracy and spread the May 18 Spirit in the world to protects and prevents Korea and the world from any future tyrant who could be waiting to ambush our freedom and liberty.