Monday, May 18, 2020

Remembering Gwangju - 18.05.1980

Picture from here.

Our story starts October 16th, 1979 in two cities - Busan and Masan, where the demonstrations against the so called "Yushin Constitution" were held (1). "Yushin" was an authoritarian constitution promulgated in 1972 that gave executive and legislative powers exclusively to the President Park Cheonghee, extended the presidential term to six years an nullified the limits on re-elections. Above all, it turned the presidency into a legal dictatorship. 
Now, this is not going to be a detailed post about everything that happened during those 9 days when Gwangju was nearly besieged, this is rather a reminder that something like that happened only 40 years ago and through majority of those it was buried deep under the false statement, cover-ups and outright lies.

The protests in Busan and Masan were only one of the many, appearing in various places, engaging more and more people, tired with authoritarian regime. As with every other protests - they too were quelled. 
One of the groups that were against "Yushin" was the students, who could organize marches, protests and calls against the regime. And it would be precisely this group that would soon take the tragic stage in the months to come.
Ten days after events in Mahan and Busan, in the secret KCIA hideout, General Park had the meeting with his closest aides. During that time, he mentioned the protests in those two cities, realizing that the political ferment was very similar to the one leading to the end of Syngman Rhee's regime, so proper measures should have been taken had the situation arise. Apparently, at the meeting, he was furious and wanted to use forceful solution, shouting that he's going to kill everyone involved in the protests. Coming from the man like hi, those were not some empty threats. His closest aide and KCIA boss, Kim Jaegyu, left for a moment at that time and from his co-conspirators outside acquired a gun (or took a gun from the office), then came back and first he shot Cha Jicheol, chief of the Presidential Security Service, then aiming at the President. There are two views of this - one states that the assassination was not planned, but Kim acted out of the sheer exasperation over what may come. The other states that the assassination was well planned. President Park, Chief Cha, three of the bodyguards, and a presidential chauffeur died in total (2).

What happened next proved how tragic the Korean history can turn. Kim Jaegyu wanted to spare the society further suffering, yet the events brought back the events in Gwangju. He himself was later tricked to the meeting, was arrested, judged and hanged. For the most of the past 40 years he was seen almost exclusively as the assassin killing his boss out of some petty grievances (the rivalry with Cha was no secret), however in the recent years his connections with democratic movement leaders were uncovered. The disgraced President Park Geunhye, the daughter of General Park, was very active in the campaign against Kim, painting him as some disgruntled employee. 

In the vacuum left by General Park, the society saw the opportunity for the democracy to finally come to power, so new demonstrations, mainly led by students again, started to bloom on the streets - some political parties reactivated, a group of political prisoners was freed (among them Kim Daejung). Choi Kyuha, who was the Prime Minister since 1975, assumed power as acting president. However he had nothing to say, as the military came almost immediately to act. 
I don't want to go deep into the very tense two months after the President's death, enough to say that almost 2 months later, a coup was staged (so called coup d'état of December Twelfth) and another military man, Jeon Duhwan (Chun Doo-hwan) seized all the power. He was President's Park close ally, a Vietnam War veteran. With the help of another military man, No Taewu, he managed to snatch the power all to himself. 
However the protests did not stop, so Jeon tightened the grip, leaders of democratic movements were once again jailed and persecuted, the students' associations were told to stop demonstrating or else the reaction will be swift and bloody. This tightening led to the coup d'état of May Seventeenth, in effect a military dictatorship under the National Council for Reunification was established and the National Assembly dissolved. The martial law was enacted following the May 15th demonstrations. The martial law closed universities, banned political activities and snipped the freedom of press even further. 

Early in the morning of May 18th students of the Jeonnam University (CNU) clashed with the paratroopers demanding the University stays open. Then the protest moved downtown and the protestors grew in numbers so 686 soldiers, from the 33rd and 35th battalions of the 7th Airborne Brigade were sent to the streets. This marks the beginning of a bloodbath that was soon happening on the streets of the city. The levee broke when the soldiers clubbed a deaf passerby Kim Gyeongcheol to death, who had nothing to do with the protests.
At this point it was no longer students against the military - it was the whole city. The barricades were erected - from buses, as on that picture at the very beginning. On May 20 there was a parade of hundreds taxis, buses - citizens showing support to the movement.
The violence reached its climax the very next day when the soldiers started to use machine guns. Gwangju became a city under siege, which gave the time for Jeon to send to the city 20th Division, the one hardened in Vietnam (the soldiers called even the protestors Vietcong in their internal communications) - that came in full force on May 27th, with machine guns, tanks and bombs. Now it's known that few helicopters 500MD Defender and UH-1H Iroquois (nicknamed "Huey", as in every helicopter in every movie ever) were used. Along with four other divisions, the army quelled the city in 40 minutes.

The events were deemed as instigated by Kim Daejung and communists. 
And the US forces, present on the southern part of the Peninsula knew about the unrest, knew about the proposed violent response to any protest and gave a silent nod, just because they didn't want to endanger their interests. Yes, we have books on Gwangju written by American witnesses and journalists, I know, who produced really good books like Witnessing Gwangju by Paul Courtright (photographs by Robin Moyer), but I'm talking about the people in power.
Both Jeon Duhwan and No Taewu were acquitted and live in their houses comfortably (they were pardoned from their respective jail sentences in the wave of reconciliation process after 1987).

Today, the President Mun Jaein vowed:
“The government will do all it can to investigate the truth of May 18,” Moon said, referring to the starting day of the crackdown in 1980. “We will provide the May 18 Democratization Movement Truth Commission — which began its activities in earnest on May 12 — all the support it needs so that it can fully reveal still-undiscovered truths.”
Some of the uncomfortable truths like rapes during the crackdown are becoming known recently. However some questions still linger, as hundreds of victims are still missing.

5·18 Democratization Movement is listed on UNESCO's Memory of the World list as Human Rights Documentary Heritage 1980 Archives for the May 18th Democratic Uprising against Military Regime, in Gwangju, Republic of Korea.

More about the events are here, here, here, here, and here.

This was just a reminder of those bloody days, in a way remembering the victims (some of them at the age when life just starts) and the fire that burns in the society.

1. yushin means "restoration" and with General Park being an avid admirer of Japan it may mean his deeply covered attempt to a) connect with the period in Japan's history during which the country rose to the international power, that is Meiji period. Meiji Restoration is 明治維新 that is Meiji ishin (in Korean that would be yushin), or b) to connect with imperialistic dreams. No consideration given to the fact that the Imperial Japan annexed Korea in 1910 that is two whole years before the Meiji period ended.
2. The events of October 26th are well described in few books: 
J. Kleiner, Korea, a Century of Change, Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Company, 2001 (OK, that book was very subjective in what was important in Korean history and what was worth omitting, but at the end - it's worth reading);
M. Peterson, Brief History: Brief History of Korea, Infobase Publishing, 2009;
THIS CHAPTER FROM THE BOOK - which is not exactly on Gwangju and OK, it's a bit old, but still full of information;