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(Conclusion) A Historical Review of Gwangju Democratization Movement:...

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2008-10-27
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Conclusion: The Significance and Prospect of the Gwangju Minjung Uprising

by
Jeong Geunsig,
Department of Sociology,
Jeonnam National University
 

Other Contents ...

1. Introduction
2. The Background of the Gwangju Minjung Uprising
3. Development Procedure of the Gwangju Minjung Uprising
4. Restarting the Social Movement & the May Movement
5. Conclusion: The Significance and Prospect of the Gwangju Minjung Uprising



5. The Significance and Prospect of the Gwangju Minjung Uprising

The Gwangju Uprising in 1980 was an important outburst of the Korean democratization movement, the movement to overcome the Korean divided state, the human rights and peace movement for Asian democracy, and for overcoming the cold war system. The Korean military authoritarian system, established in 1961, faced a turning point at the Gwangju Uprising and came to an end with the democratic power shift in 1998.

In the context of the Korean democratization movement, the Gwangju Minjung Uprising was a courageous challenge to the antidemocratic authoritarianism of the Yusin system in the 1970s, to the total mobilization system with national security in front, to the minjung-sacrificing industrialization and unbalanced regional development, and to regional discrimination.

Especially in the event's historical aspect, the Gwangju Uprising in May, 1980, inherited the pro-democracy ideology present in the April Revolution of 1960. As the final phase of the democratization movement that followed democratic uprisings in the Busan-Masan region in October 1979, and the democratization movement in Seoul in the spring of 1980, it clearly emphasized that ending the military regime and achieving true democracy are the most important tasks of contemporary Korean society. Not only the military authoritarian regime's suppression of democracy but also all kinds of evil effects of minjung discrimination and regional discrimination served as the background of the Gwangju Uprising. Gwangju was the political center and represented the political complaints of the Honam agricultural areas, which had been excluded from the state-driven industrialization policy of the 1960s.

In its first phase, the Gwangju Uprising showed characteristic of the noble struggle to protect human dignity against beastlike state violence. In its second phase, it fully showed people's ability to create a community based on human morality, In the third phase, it showed the need to end the military authoritarian regime by demonstrating the military's savage violence to the world. Although the participants of the Gwangju Uprising failed in acheiving the immediate withdrawal of the military authoritarian regime, they totally destroyed the regime's historical legitimacy and showed how universal demands of freedom, justice, and human dignity were cherished and actualized.

Although the Gwangju Minjung Uprising had a relatively smaller number of victims than did civilian massacres in the course of forming the cold war system, its effect was much stronger than that of others in that (1) it did not directly challenge the cold war with its ideology; instead, it had universality by demanding the restoration of democracy; (2) it took place at the time of a collapsing cold war system; (3) its setting was a major city; and (4) it quickly became an international issue through advanced mass media. The May movement, which has been strenuously carried out for the past 18 years, renews understanding of its significance over and over again as time passes because it has emerged as the driving force of the democratic power shift in Korea, and remains a landmark in encouraging accurate and truthful accounts of state violence.

When viewed in the context of the history of the divided Korean state, the Gwangju Minjung Uprising made people fundamentally rethink the mutual relationship between Korean democracy and the divided state. In the progress of the uprising, the American image as a protector of democracy was shattered and the uprising revealed the U.S.A's role in maintaining a divided state. Ever since June, 1980, arson was committed as a sign of protests against the U.S.A's role in the Gwangju Uprising, and this advanced to an anti-American autonomy struggle. It also made people understand the similarities between numerous civilian massacres, like the April 3 uprising in the formation period of the divided state, and civilian massacre by state violence in the Gwangju Uprising, thus opening the way for Gwangju to unite with other regions. It also reminded people of the fact realizing of full democracy and overcoming the divided state were the final legacies of the Gwangju spirit.

The achievements of the May movement--that is, efforts for telling the truth about the historical massacre, state compensation, and commemorative projects--make us rethink the problem of honor restoration and compensation for victims of the democratization movement ever since 1960. Those achievements also influence reconsideration of numerous civilian massacres that occurred in the 1940s and 1950s. Massive civilian massacre differed in phase and size from the beginning to the end of the Cold War. The former kind of massacre was related with nationalism, while the latter largely took place in the process of democratization. They both share the common basis of the problems of state violence and human rights. When we re-interpret Gwangju in this context, it can provide a clue for the many massive minjung sacrifices in Korea and for democracy and human rights in East Asia.

When the Gwangju Minjung Uprising is viewed in the context of the east Asian cold war system, it stimulates people to see how the east Asian cold war system and post-war order have been maintained. The U.S. government's role and the Japanese government's attitudes in May, 1980, showed the real manner of the east Asian cold war system's operation. On the other hand, the Gwangju Minjung Uprising made the world know that there existed not only a country in Korea but also a citizen society. It opened the way for east Asian citizen solidarity by confirming the existence of conscientious people, who loved democracy in Korea, in countries and regions which had experienced Japanese imperialism and which had been subject to the post-WWII east Asian cold war system--that is, in Japan, Taiwan, or Okinawa. In addition, the Gwangju incident has become an unprecedented case of 'the fight that won victory in its time' by resulting in a democratic power shift in 1998. It also showed that democracy was possible in the third world. Especially, its influence is ever increasing among southeastern Asian democratization movement groups in Thailand, the Philippines, Myanmar, and Indonesia. It is also past of a historical tradition in shaping of universal human rights, and can keep abreast of human rights movements in South America, Africa and countries in the Western world.

The Gwangju Minjung Uprising has elevated the southeastern Asian democratization movement, and while also encouraging conscientious human rights movement groups in the U.S. and Japan. The U.S. and Japanese human rights groups developed curiosity about the May movement. In particular, those groups opposing Gim Jaejung's death sentence were active in America and Japan, and promoted pro-democracy sentiments among Korean communities in the U.S., Japan, Germany and the like. In the case of Japan, they knew for the first time that there existed minjung society in Korea through the Gwangju Minjung Uprising, and conscientious Japanese forces developed minjung solidarity with the Koreans through the Gwangju incident.

As the democratization movement grew in Thailand, the Philippines, China and Indonesia in the 1990s, the relationship between their democratization struggles and the Gwangju Minjung Uprising in 1980, or the Gwangju Minjung Uprising's influences on them, began to attract attention. Social groups and human rights groups working under the harsh condition of weak political democratization took advantage of 1998, and were encouraged by the Korean movement that won in its time. They have also begun discussing minjung solidarity with Gwangju, hoping for support from Korea or from Gwangju. The victimized groups in the course of the southeastern Asian democratization movement have an exceptional sense of fellowship with Gwangju, and the achievement of the Gwangju incident gives them the courage and hope.

This kind of progress reflects back on Gwangju with regards to the reinterpretation of the Gwangju Minjung Uprising from the perspective of the human rights movement. In other words, the difference between the universal character of human rights and specific characteristics appear. If the southeastern Asian network relies on a relatively universal and individualistic concept of human rights, then the northeastern network pays attention to the fact that it is bound by the memory of Japanese colonial rule and the east Asian cold war system, and thus gives more emphasis to the historical and collective concept of human rights. Because of these two contexts, that is, the necessity of unifying Korea and the necessity of east Asian human rights solidarity, the Gwangju Minjung Uprising and the May movement are anticipated to remain important historical events well into the first half of the 21st century.

This prospect also tells us what the remaining task of 'the Gwangju' are. One of the remaining tasks of 'the Gwangju incident' is the necessity of re-instituting Gwangju within the Korean democratization movement and the reunification movement to overcome the divided state. Because Gwangju was isolated in 1980 and the subsequent May movement, and because the resolution process was not free of such isolation, solidarity with other regions has been relatively weak. In spite of that, 'the resurrection of the Gwangju spirit was possible not by the power of Gwangju alone but with the help of numerous democracy and human rights-loving intellectuals both in and out of the country and with support from human rights groups. Though the compensation and honor restoration of Gwangju were a historically natural consequence of the past struggle, it has achieved so much that it is not completely free of worries in the sense of being 'privileged' when compared with other historical sacrifices. It is true that Gwangju was the most powerful stronghold of the Korean democratization movement, but that does not mean that the democratization movement is exclusively for Gwangju alone. The May movement has received much from the victims of the democratization movement, but has returned little. The May organizations on the one hand should check themselves against becoming special interest groups, but on the other hand it is necessary for the May movement to embrace the tremendous sacrifices that had been made during the Busan-Masan Uprising in 1979 or during the military authoritarian regime in the 1980s.

This kind of regional unity goes beyond national borders In the 21st century, it is necessary to eradicate the dual inheritances that the colonial system and the cold war system left behind. It is also necessary to form the frame of internal citizen solidarity in east Asia more securely so that autonomous rights for each nation, and a democratic market order can both be secured. The objective role of 'the Gwangju Spirit' is called for in these tasks.

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Other Contents ...

1. Introduction
2. The Background of the Gwangju Minjung Uprising
3. Development Procedure of the Gwangju Minjung Uprising
4. Restarting the Social Movement & the May Movement
5. Conclusion: The Significance and Prospect of the Gwangju Minjung Uprising


Source: http://gshin.chonnam.ac.kr/cnu518/index.html
Rights: Chonnam National University May 18 Institute/Prof. Gyonggu Shin (http://gshin.chonnam.ac.kr) ( ggshin@chonnam.ac.kr)