Transitional Justice: The May 18 Restless Struggle for Restoration of Dignity and Honor

It is a very famous quote that “Justice delayed is justice denied” which is morally appropriate for the victims of the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising. After the massacre of the May 18 Gwangju, Democratic struggle by tyrant Chun Du Hwan and his factions believed that this democratic Uprising had been defeated. And it took fifteen years and loss of several precious lives finally in 1993 a judicial commission investigated about the Gwangju massacre in Korea.

However, this Uprising never lost its momentum, and it frequently appeared after the brutal crackdown by Chun. The May 18 struggle again appears in shape a young student Park Gwan-hyeon age 29 from Chonnam National University who went on hunger strike for 40 days and died in Gwangju prison in 1982 to call for an investigation about the truth of the Gwangju Democratic Uprising.

The Gwangju Democratic Uprising blazed when a young labourer Pyo Jeong-du who was a 25-year-old who set himself on fire and died in 1987 to urging for the punishment of those accountable for the Gwangju massacre.   

The Gwangju Democratic Movement appeared when a young student Cho Seong-man age 24 from Seoul National University who sacrificed his life from the Myeongdong Cathedral in 1988 to call for the ascertainment of the truth about the Gwangju massacre.

The Gwangju Democratic Movement raged when a young student Park Rae-jeon age 25 from Soongsil University who done self-immolation and roared that “Gwangju is alive” in 1988.

These young souls who sacrificed their lives they never meet and knows the May 18 martyrs of Gwangju, but certainly they embraced the truth of the May 18 Uprising. The roared, blazed and resisted by these young people set the history and pushed many people to think about the justice for the victims of Gwangju Democratic Uprising. For a minute, imagine what reasons motivated them to sacrifice their lives and what pain and discomfort they faced when they were unable to express the truth about the Uprising. The road for justice was not a smooth path for these souls, but it was full of thorns. Nevertheless, they sacrificed their precious lives to uncover the truth and justice for the Uprising.    

These young souls sacrificed their lives to give reverence to the souls of martyrs of the Uprising. They risked their lives to call justice and find the truth. They award their lives because the government neglected and overlooked their responsibilities. 

Correcting the Past with Justice: The Gwangju Massacre, May 18

The Gwangju Democratic Movement is known as the foundation of modern Korean democracy. The May 18 Gwangju Democratic Movement played a vibrant role to pushed the ghost of military tyrant back to the barracks, but the regime brutally massacred the Uprising that left hundreds of deaths, thousands were mentally and physically injured and tagged with allegations of “Rebels”, “Traitors” and “Red”.

Many died but never recovered from such allegations. Several, survivors were lived in isolation, and encountered with dishonour remarks on their actions by small fraction of society who believed on tyrant propaganda. However, constant democratisation struggles from Gwangju to Seoul by students in shape of “June Struggle” finally defeated the General Chun military regime. The process of civilian rule was slow and painful in Korea but once it got real momentum in 1993 to 2003 put the foundation of justice against the military regime and ordinary people united against the tyrant so, they make him accountable about his inhuman actions did during his administration.

The task of coping with past atrocities started in 1993 with the punishment of two former military leaders of General Chun and General Rooh Tae Wooh. In 1995 the Special Act Regarding the May 18 Democratization Movement was formed to provide justice to victims and survivors of the Uprising by President Kim Young Sam government. It was not an easy task for President Kim Young Sam, who said that “the truth should be reserved for historical judgment in the future”. However, peoples strong resistance and pressured forced President Kim Young to punish the culprits of the Uprising.

In last, General Chun was sentenced to life imprisonment, and General Roh was imprisoned for seventeen years. Others offenders received prison sentences ranging from three and a half to eight years. According to the Special Act, 24, the civilian and military award decorations were given to the military leaders was revoked.

General Chun only faced two years imprisonment along with Roh. Both offenders were met with minor punishment regarding the brutal actions that he did from 1980 to 1987 with people of Gwangju and Korea. Nonetheless, under reconciliation gesture “National Harmony”, President Kim Dae Jung pardoned General Chun and General Roh in 1997.

Acknowledging the Transitional Justice: The May 18 Democratic Uprising

Transitional justice means taking judicial and non-judicial actions to address the human rights violations, abuses and atrocities done by past regimes. It includes legal and customary accountability procedures, truth commission, memorialisation initiatives, reparation and institutional reform. The purpose of transitional justice should be as below:

•    Prosecutions and tribunals to hold offenders of human rights violations accountable.

•    Truth Commission and reconciliation to establish the truth about what happened and why and reconcile relationships within communities.

•    Reparations to compensate victims for past wrongdoings and actions.

•    Institutional Reform to restructure institutions to stop and halt such atrocities in future.

•    Memorialization to remember the events that occurred and to honour victims of past violations

•    Education to teach future generations about what occurred to ensure it never happens again.

Prosecution and tribunal about the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising made reasonable efforts to hold accountable to those officials who were involved in this brutal offence. I also would like to acknowledge the efforts of the transitional justice did by the Korean government that compensated the victims and survivors of the Uprising. It also made memorialization efforts for the Uprising through declaring May 18 Day as national Memorial Day and constructed the May 18 National Cemetery in Gwangju to honouring the fallen citizens during the Gwangju massacre. Besides, demolition of the Sangmoo military cantonment and renovate into Peace Park for the people of Gwangju.  Finally, annually the May 18 Day nationally commemorate widely in Korea.

Moreover, the May 18 Memorial Foundation is internationally promoting the education mission, and it is annually awarding Gwangju Prize for Human Rights, Gwangju Asia Forum, and awarding the five generous scholarships for international for Master program in Chonnam National University. It is also providing scholarship to Korean students, teachers and organising various education program to spreading the May 18 Spirit in Korea and all over the world.

However, along with all these acknowledgements, there is still several serious gaps are remaining which need to highlight about the transitional justice. These serious gaps are causing defamation and soreness about the Uprising. 

Need True Efforts to Enforce the Transitional Justice: Distortion History of the May 18 Gwangju Democratic

Can South Korea nation and government heal the Gwangju uprising wounds that annually bleed because of its distortion and defamation? The answer is yes, it can be healed with mutual respect and full enforcement of transitional justice principles in Korea.

In the past, public of Korea and President Kim Dae Jung made these efforts. He pardoned General Chun under the “National Reconciliation” who known as “butcher of Gwangju”. Besides, his allies and collaborators were forgiven under “no revenge” policy. President Kim Dae Jung strived to unite the community and nation in 1997. The people of Korea are done remarkable efforts planted the seeds of reconciliation and respect in Gwangju and Korea.

However, the few insulars continuously strived to defame the Uprising for their personal gains and interests. Dictatorship and tyrant is an ideology that consistently undermines the freedom and liberty of the people. This ideology always remained prevail in the people who love power, oppression and want to rule on the people. Such people always stand against freedom, human rights and democracy to divide the people’s opinion for their personal gains.

Therefore, it is important that under the transitional justice government of Korea should develop new legal law that addresses the unique challenges like defamation that is damaging honor of the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising. The nation should stand and asked the government that it should develop new constitutional and judicial laws that protects the history, sentiments and honour of the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising from such insulars.

The President Moon Jae-in made his constructive efforts to own the Uprising and put a halt during his speech on the 39th anniversary of the May 18 Uprising and urged the nation to end the ideological rift over this historical event which brought democracy in Korea. But again a small fraction of insulars are unable to understand the broader wisdom and undermining his efforts.

However, it is highly crucial that democratic political parties’ leadership should unite together and promote democratisation values and support this action. It is essential to understand that through the sacrifices made by the May 18 democratic souls enabled Korea to end the authoritarianism. There precious sacrificed enabled the civilian to serve the country. Therefore, it is highly significant that the Korean nation should use collective wisdom and unit against such narrow-minded elements, which are planting seeds of hate for their personal interests in the country.

Consequently, it is essential that people of Korea should reject such parties and people who are pushing them towards hate and who are involved in the defamation of the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising. Finally, people of Korea should unite and ethically promote the Korean government to develop new judicial law for the transitional justice that protects the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising history from distortion and defamation.

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