15.06.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The Gwangju Uprising – and how South Korea’s dealt with this issue during the Moon Jae-in and Yoon Suk-yeol administrations

The Gwangju Uprising - and how South Korea’s dealt with this issue during the Moon Jae-in and Yoon Suk-yeol administrations

In a previous article, discussing the way the South Korean government marked the anniversary of the Jeju uprising, this author noted that the authorities’ approach to commemorating the anniversary of another significant event, the Gwangju Uprising, will form an important marker in political history. That anniversary fell in May 2023.

On May 18, 1980 the city of Gwangju was the scene of an uprising against the then dictator Chun Doo Hwan, which sparked off what in South Korea is generally referred to as the Democratization Movement, or simply 5.18. Following the brutal dispersal of the student demonstrators by police armed with bayonets and flamethrowers, the entire city rose up against Chun Doo Hwan’s regime. Moreover, the uprising was not led by left wing activists, as might have been expected, but by supporters of the West, whose goal was to persuade America to put pressure on Seoul and thus achieve a repeat of South Korea’s 1960 April Revolution. The USA, however, failed to support the uprising, being more interested in keeping Chun Doo-hwan in place as a leader who it could control and who would not attempt to manipulate America to further his own ends, as Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee had done. Although the Gwangju Uprising was suppressed, it set off a chain reaction which resulted in the further democratization of the country, and many of those involved in the student protests would go on to become members of the Democrat Party – a group collectively known as the “586 Generation.”

From a historical and political perspective, the uprising has given rise to a number of myths, on both sides of the political spectrum. Initially, under the military government, the events were dismissed as “riots” – a term that is worth keeping in mind – or an illegal armed rebellion against the government, organized by supporters of North Korea whose goal was to overthrow the state.

But following the transition to a democratic system, especially under Roh Moo-hyun and Moon Jae-in, the Gwangju events were rebranded as the start of the pro-democracy struggle and the first steps towards the South Korea of today. That is why the events of May 18, 1980 can be seen as a kind of political litmus test: a person’s attitude to the Uprising indicates whether they are a Conservative or Democrat.

North Korea’s alleged involvement in the Uprising has been repeatedly debunked by South Korean and foreign experts alike, but the involvement of pro-North leftists as well as pro-American democrats in the events has been conveniently ignored.

The Democrats have also promulgated new myths, for example claiming that pro-democracy demonstrators were machine gunned from the air (in fact marksmen did fire on the crowd from helicopters – but there has been no proof that machine guns were used).

In general terms, the present author tends to side with the Democrats’ view of the events, but under Moon Jae-in this view became official dogma, just as the “North Korean plot” theory had been under the Conservatives. What is more, the Democrats have made use of their parliamentary majority to force through the “5.18 History Distortion Punishment Act,” modeled on the Holocaust denial laws in many European countries. Under the new law, which came into effect in January 2022, any attempt to voice an opinion that differs from the official view of the Uprising is punishable by up to five years in prison or a fine of up to 50 million won (approximately $42,000), and a large number of NGOs for whom the memory of the Uprising is sacred are now closely monitoring people’s statements and filing lawsuits on a regular basis – an activity which Conservatives media describe as fascism, censorship, and silencing people for speaking the truth. There are many of these groups, including the 5.18 Memory Foundation, the National Council on 5.18 Meritorious Persons, the Association of Family Members of Meritorious 5.18 Victims etc.

At the center of the discussion is Jee Man-won, an 80-year-old professor, who has claimed that the Uprising was not only organized by pro-North Korean elements, but that the North Korean special forces were directly involved.

Jee Man-won is an ex-serviceman, a veteran of the Vietnam War who reached the rank of colonel. After leaving the South Korean army he worked as a media commentator and analyst on national security issues. His main argument is that the participants in the Uprising clearly had military training and cannot just have been ordinary civilians. They must therefore have been from a military background – and therefore obviously from the North Korean special forces.

Naturally it is fairly easy to demolish this argument. To begin with, back then, just as today, South Korea had military conscription. People who have done military service can easily have the necessary experience in tactical planning – although according to Professor Jee only North Koreans have these skills.

In addition, Jee Man-won has failed to demonstrate that the participants in the Uprising had access to North Korean weapons or used specifically North Korean tactics. Moreover, it turns out that the people in the photographs who he identified as “North Korean special agents” or “Communist infiltrators” are South Koreans, and some of them have sued Jee Man-won, and have, quite rightly, won their cases.

On January 12, 2023, the Supreme Court of Korea upheld the decision of the Court of Appeal to imprison Jee Man-won on charges of defamation.

His YouTube channel has been deleted, as part of a crackdown by the Korean Communications Standards Commission (KCSC) begun in July 2020, which has involved removing entire YouTube channels with all their video content, as well as deleting individual videos and removing other online materials.

Another such incident concerns Park Hoon-tak, a professor at the less prestigious Uiduk University. In the Spring of 2021, he gave an online lecture on the subject “Social Issues and Human Rights.” He proceeded to describe the Uprising as “mob riots,” told his students to read up on the work of Jee Man-won and as a homework assignment asked them to consider whether the purpose of the 5.18 History Distortion Punishment Act is to suppress the truth.

The 5.18 Memory Foundation and NGOs accused the professor of giving an “anti-Democratic lecture calculated to smear and malign the democratic movement,” demanded that he be fired and stripped of his pension, and sued him for huge sums of money. On April 8, 2021 his university announced that Park Hoon-tak had been banned from giving lectures, but the NGO representatives demanded that he be dismissed, and on April 14 they launched a lawsuit against him. The result of all this – if we are to believe conservative news sources – is that the Professor is now working as a manual laborer. His YouTube channel, which had 90,000 subscribers, has been taken down.

In a third incident, a YouTuber known only by the pseudonym David Han had his channel taken down and was prosecuted for statements he made in a YouTube video he posted in March 2021 – specifically that he referred to the Gwangju events in May 1980 as “riots,” an “armed uprising,” and a “rebellion,” arguing that the protesters had been armed and had used machine guns and armored vehicles seized from the authorities.

Almost all these instances of “defamation” were tried, not in the local court for the defendant’s place of residence, but in Gwangju, firstly because the judges there are seen as more “patriotic” and secondly because requiring the defendant to travel to a different city, at his own expense, provides an additional element of psychological pressure.

Naturally, when the Conservatives returned to power, everyone expected that the pendulum would swing back to its previous position. And if we are to take North Korean propaganda at face value, then that is indeed what has happened: “the Yoon Suk Yeol gang, in whose veins the blood of executioners flows, is struggling to revive the era of the fascist dictatorship.”

According to the North, at the beginning of December Yoon “slandered the Peoples’ uprising in Gwangju” by calling it a “rebellion.” Moreover, “far-right conservative Kim Kwang Dong, who glorified the May 16th military coup as a “revolution,” is appointed chairman of the Committee to Settle the Past for Truth and Reconciliation.” Apparently, this is done in order to distort the historical truth about the People’s Uprising in Gwangju and erase these events from the memory of the masses. It is also worth noting that “most of the materials related to the Democratization Movement and the Gwangju People’s Uprising have been removed from the curriculum… so that the anti-US spirit of independence and anti-fascism inherent in the popular uprising of those years did not kindle the flames of struggle in the hearts of future generations.”

However, if one checks the above claims, it becomes clear that the truth is rather different. Kim Kwang Dong was indeed made chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee created to investigate and elucidate the truth about tragic episodes in Korea’s modern history, including rebellions, coups, human rights violations and the like. But so far there have been no evidence of any noticeable right-wing bias in the activities of that body. For example, when a mass grave of participants in the uprising was excavated recently, the commission honestly stated that the bodies were those of left-wing activists who had been killed by pro-government forces.

On the other hand, in 2020 Kim Jong-un made a speech called “The State’s Fascist Control over the Interpretation of History,” in which he criticized South Korea’s 5.18 History Distortion Punishment Act, claiming that it introduced double standards in relation to the punishment of offenders. To put it crudely, no one is likely to be punished for propagating the machine gunning from helicopters story, even though this is also a myth and a distortion of history.

Moving on to the subject of how the Uprising is presented in school textbooks, at the end of July 2022 the South Korean Ministry of Education published guidelines on the contents of history textbooks which contained no references to the May 18 Uprising or the Jeju atrocity. The Democrats and the NGOs were highly critical of this omission, and some of the former went so far as to claim that the omission was deliberate and was an attempt to pander to the wishes of the Conservative government.

However, on January 4, 2023 the Ministry of Education announced that the omission of any reference to the 1980 Uprising was part of a policy to give the authors of textbooks more autonomy and keep the number of specific historic events listed in the guidelines to a minimum. Government representatives also claimed that the previous government had decided to revise the guidelines for textbooks, and that although the recommendations were published during the current administration, the process of writing them had actually began under Moon Jae-in.

But later the same day the Minister of Education, Lee Ju-ho, said that major historical events, including the May 18 democratization movement will be included in the guidelines for textbook writers, to ensure pupils can learn about the spirit of that movement, and on January 27 the Gwangju Uprising, the suppression of the civil uprising on Jeju island between 1948-1954 and the Japanese troops’ practice of sexual slavery during WW2 were all included in the guidelines for the writers of textbooks for primary, middle and upper schools.

As for Yoon Suk Yeol, as a former participant in the 1980s protest movement, he has repeatedly attempted to correct the misguided conception that the historical memory of the Uprising is a matter of importance only for a specific region or political group.

On May 18, 2023, during a ceremony entitled Spirit of the May 18 Movement United with the People, held at the Gwangju National Cemetery to mark the 43rd anniversary of the start of the Democratization Movement, President Yoon Seok-yeol vowed to steadfastly combat any challenge to freedom and democracy, and to uphold the spirit of the 1980 uprising. “If we do not forget, and inherit the May spirit, we must boldly fight against all of the forces and challenges threatening freedom and democracy and have such practical courage… The May Uprising spirit is a unifying force that binds us together. This spirit is a precious asset that must be protected and which serves as an example of our liberal democracy,” the President added.

He went on to say that the spirit of rebellion, which had defended the values of free democracy and human rights, was a unifying force that bound the people together, and was nothing less than the spirit of liberal democracy that is enshrined in the Constitution, and that this precious asset must be passed on to future generations. “We stand here today, together, to remember the resistance of May, 43 years ago, which defended the values of liberal democracy and human rights by shedding blood, and to honor the souls of the democratic spirit,” he said.

He expressed gratitude to the families of the victims for their courage, and joined mothers of some of the students killed in the uprising in singing the March for the Beloved, a popular song that was frequently performed during the protests and which is dedicated to the memory of the victims of the May 18 Uprising.

This was the second time in a row that a Conservative president had attended this annual ceremony, and this is, in the author’s view, clearly a significant sign.


Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook.

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