South Korean national identity is rooted in the struggle for democracy against military authoritarian government.

The dawning of democracy began in the southwestern city of Gwangju in 1980. From May 18 to 27, protests against martial law became the pivotal crucible of a grassroots campaign to overturn a despotic regime and assert civilian rule. Hundreds of civilians were brutally massacred, beaten and tortured by the military, rendering Gwangju into a potent symbol of people power that inspired similar subsequent movements around Asia. The crackdown mobilized ordinary citizens and ignited civil society, a collective recoiling from the savage violence perpetrated by Gen. Chun Doo-hwan that eventually pushed the military back into the barracks and ushered in civilian rule in the 1990s.

Military strongman Park Chung-hee seized power in 1960 in a coup and ruled repressively with U.S. backing until he was assassinated in October 1979 by the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency. In the aftermath, Gen. Chun, then head of the Defense Security Command, seized power in December 1979. He sidelined President Choi Kyu-hah and extended martial law nationwide on May 17, 1980, igniting a confrontation with pro-democracy activists who had hoped that the death of Park would usher in democracy.

Chun had key opposition leaders arrested and dissolved Choi’s Cabinet and the National Assembly, sparking nationwide unrest. He also managed to convince the U.S. government not to oppose his military crackdown as Washington maintained its global Cold War track record of backing iron-fisted repression over democracy. Park’s death came soon after protesters seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and not long before the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, so it was a busy time for the administration of Jimmy Carter (1976-80). However, this does not excuse Washington’s continued support for authoritarian rule at the expense of human rights and democracy.

Apologists insist that Gwangju ultimately boiled down to Koreans killing Koreans, but they did so with U.S. backing. Government documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests in the 1990s reveal U.S. complicity in sanctioning the deployment of South Korean military forces to quash popular rebellion in the spring of 1980 that facilitated the Gwangju massacre.

Don Kirk, a veteran journalist who was in Gwangju during the uprising, witnessed wailing mothers claiming the bodies of their dead sons and wrote about his experiences in his 2010 book “Korea Betrayed.” He told me recently in Seoul that U.S. diplomats and military top brass sanctioned the troop movements to maintain good relations with South Korean counterparts and because they were wary of the anti-American tenor of pro-democracy protests and where it might lead if unchecked. In his view, “they were caught by surprise” when they found out the scale of the bloody crackdown, perhaps explaining why they have scrambled to cover their tracks and justify their actions ever since.

The massacre is yet another example of the U.S. being on the wrong side of history and subsequently having to contend with the blowback from a mission gone awry.

“American responsibility lies at its core in terms of making a mess of the very democracy we said we were fostering,” says Alexis Dudden, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut. “How is it possible, for example, that the United States’ first so-called human rights president (Jimmy Carter) was commander in chief of the chain of command that OK’d the helicopter gunship attacks on civilians?”

Students in Gwangju defied the martial law edict and many paid for their principles with their lives, while many more carry the scars of torture to this day. During those terrible 10 days in May 1980, the discredited official death toll is 170, while unofficial estimates range as high as 2,000. Overlooking the fresh bloodstains, Washington in June 1980 approved $600 million in loans from the U.S. Export-Import Bank for purchasing U.S. nuclear technology, a vote of confidence aimed at reassuring international financial markets and thereby propping up the Chun regime. In September 1980, Chun anointed himself president and in early 1981 he was President Ronald Reagan’s guest of honor at the White House.

There are still no clear answers about who ordered the black-beret paratroopers to club and bayonet demonstrators or fire into unarmed crowds gathered in Gwangju. In 1996, Chun was found guilty of treason and murder for his role in the massacre and sentenced to death, but was subsequently pardoned by President Kim Dae-jung and still lives in Seoul. His children live lavishly, adding to their father’s illegally gained wealth as efforts to regain his hidden assets and overseas slush funds have been stymied.

According to Dudden, while many Koreans, “give the current president of South Korea (Park Geun-hye) a rough time because her dad worked for/fought for/was friendly with Japan, she can weather that storm because this does not define her as ‘un-Korean.’ Were she Chun Doo-hwan’s daughter, however, no way. That’s who ordered Gwangju and that would taint her forever as anti-Korean.”

In assessing Gwangju’s consequences, Dudden says, “Korean activists — students, politicians, artists, writers, eventually labor — were an international force for good against oppressive, dictatorial, paternalistic, militaristic social structures. Students today are struck by visual similarities they see in film and pictures between Gwangju and the students in Tiananmen Square (which wouldn’t take place for almost another decade), and yet this consonance reinforces a really significant — yet underappreciated — historical pattern: Across the 20th century (and extending into the 21st), many truly monumental ‘shifts’ have had a first draft played out in Korea with the final copy performed in China.”

The Gwangju uprising was also motivated by regionalism, with people in the southwestern province of Jeolla resenting the fact that the Park government favored his home region of Gyeongsang while their province benefited relatively little from industrialization in the 1960s and ’70s. Park, Chun and the next two presidents, Roh Tae-woo (1988-92) and Kim Young-sam (1993-98) all hailed from Gyeongsang, reinforcing a sense of regional favoritism that began under Japanese colonial rule (1910-45). Jeolla’s favorite son, Kim Dae-jung, was also the most prominent pro-democracy opponent of Park and nearly won the presidential election in 1971 despite an uneven playing field. In 1980, the Chun government arrested Kim and sentenced him to death for sedition in connection with the Gwangju uprising, but he was granted exile in the U.S. where he became a prominent regime critic.

Kim embodied the aspirations of the pro-democracy movement and promoted commemorations of the massacre, but some observers believe that the trauma of Gwangju is fading in terms of national memory and identity. “Youngsters nowadays may not pay much attention (because) they are young, ignorant, not serious, always playing with smartphones,” says Dr. Han Suk-jung, vice president at Dong-A University in Busan. “Koreans have been forced to commemorate something for the last whole century since the Japanese occupation. They are tired of commemoration.”

In Gwangju, however, the massacre still resonates. There is a major site of commemoration at the May 18 National Cemetery, the burial site for the victims adjacent to the 5.18 Memorial Hall where dioramas and a graphic documentary help visitors understand the uprising. Each of the graves has a picture of the victim, many of whom were still in their teens. In recognition of Gwangju’s wider impact, Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi visited two years ago and planted a tree to commemorate the students’ sacrifices, sadly replicated in her country in 1988.

A controversial new textbook by right-wing authors suggests the Gwangju massacre was inevitable because some of the protestors took up arms, one of many dubious assertions that led the Education Ministry to order it be rewritten. The text also defends the military coup by Park Chung-hee in 1961, and features flattering depictions of his dictatorship while understating the importance of the pro-democracy movement. Critics contend that these distortions symbolize the overall rightward tilt in contemporary politics under his daughter, President Park Geun-hye. Interestingly, critics also charge that the text downplays the “comfort women” issue and treats it as if it had already been resolved, something that will come as a pleasant surprise to Japanese reactionaries.

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