The Truth Finding of May 18th and the Development of Korean Democracy
1. Democratic Movement and May 18th
South Korea achieved democratization over long standing struggles such as The April Revolution in 1960, anti-Yushin movement in the 1970s, Buma Democratic Protests in 1979, Gwangju Uprising in 1980, and The June Struggle in 1987. They have been important milestones that lead to the development of Korean democracy.
Among these, the May 18th Democratic Movement played a key role. From 1980 to present day, it has been the central axis of all the pro-democracy movements.
Until recently, peoples powers havent been very strong per se. However, the Gwangju Uprising brought a historical moment which brought qualitative change in terms of Korean democracy.
The survivors, who struggled with the memories of May 18th, published materials called 「The Truth on the Gwangju Uprising」. It was aimed to prevent such massive political violence. The survivors continued their struggle for democracy.
2. Korea Modern History and Sacrifice of Gwangju
The assassination of Park Chunghee in 1979 and the military coup and massacre in Gwangju in 1980 are closely connected with each other. After Park Chunghee was assassinated, people began to call for democracy and change the society. Such movements were historically inevitable.
However, despite the hope for democracy, 12.12 military coup happened. The New Military Government committed brutal violence against protesters who called for democracy. But such violence also happened numerous times in Korean history.
During April 3rd, tens of thousands of people were killed because they could have been possible collaborators for the North Korean side. The Gwangju Massacre is similar with April 3rd. The US and Republic of Korea military planned the suppression beforehand. The final operation for suppressing the events that occured on May 18th was authorized by the US. Accordingly, hundreds of people died in Gwangju.
These relationships should be clearly revealed for the truth findings of what really occurred during May 18th. In addition, the New Military concealed what was really happening in Gwangju by censorship on media. Conservative newspapers described the Gwangju peoples struggles as "a riot caused by impure people" and "armed rioters".
To overcome such distortion and to inherit the Gwangju spirit, the survivors memory struggle was started. They required the truth finding of the May 18th and punishment of perpetrators. The May 18th Uprising occurred in Gwangju but the survivors struggle for memory happened on a nationwide level.
3. The May Struggle After the May 18th
In December 1980, Jeong Sooncheol set fire to the US Culture Center in Gwangju. In March 1982, Mun Musik set fire to the US Culture Center in Busan to hold the US responsible for the massacre in Gwangju. After the general election in 1985, Gwangju massacre became an agenda in Korean society which remained as completely silent until then. People even occupied the US Culture Center in Seoul to express their angry voices. It was the "new struggles for May 18th."
The pro-democracy movements in Korea reached its new phase in 1985. People started to fight against the military authoritarian regime again. Pro-democracy activists formed solidarity with the opposition party for a strong struggle. So from the Gwangju Uprising in 1980 to the June Struggle in 1987, the period was literally revolutionary.
The anti-government movements became much more stronger and well-organized than before. It was difficult for the military government to repeat another bloody suppression because it was obvious that if they did so, they would have certainly faced much more resistance. Accordingly, people were able to constantly demand for democracy. During the Gwangju Uprising in 1980, a lot of protesters were killed, but in the 1987s June Struggle, there was no massive violence.
It seemed that the 1987 June Struggle finally achieved South Koreas democratization. However, the rosy dream didnt come true so soon.
It would be valuable to mention the National Hearing of May 18th was made possible because of the achievements of the June Struggle, and the general election that was followed. The National Hearing was televised nationwide. Though the Hearing was not enough for the truth findings of May 18th, the high-level perpetrators were finally brought to the National Assembly.
In 1993, a civilian Kim Yongsam came to power, and the civil soci
ety established the Peoples Committee for May 18th. The Committee was founded to require truth findings of May 18th and to inherit the spirit of resistance. They also required to enact the May 18th Special Law for historical reckoning and sued the two slaughterers, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Taewoo.
The Committees activities continued until 1997. Through their efforts, people were able to see Chun and Roh stand trial for the massacre in Gwangju. It was a great achievement for the May 18th struggle for memory.
However, it is impossible to fully achieve the goals of truth findings only by lawsuits. In the courts, historical truth is not a priority and historical contexts are rarely considered. Also, Chuns lawyers lodged an appeal by saying that the trial was not fair.
We should be aware that theres a clear limitation when trying such historical problems in courts. Approaches in history and law are different. Legal system is pro forma and conservative. They also require obvious evidence and their judgement is regarded as if it is truth itself. But we should bring the fact that the lawsuits against the high-level perpetrators, Chun and Roh, was a very important historical moment. Such cases are not often found even in world history.
4. May 18th and Korean Democracy
Unjustifiable power always tries to maintain their privilege by conspiracy and maneuvering. In order to maintain the privilege, a lot of people of power help and collaborate with each other. Unlike our history, in Germany and Eastern Europe, the regimes gave up using violence and decided that it was meaningless to suppress the protests because it was a historical flow. Also because they had a respectful attitude on revolution and peoples uprising.
But at the same time, contrary things happened in Korean history. Authority in Korea ordered people to be killed so they can maintain their power.
Conservatives in Korea would lose their influence and power if democratization is completely achieved in Korea. They are pro-Japanese collaborators, a part of war-mongering groups, Chaebol, etc. They collaborated with unjust regimes and repressed development of democracy and progress of society.
Conservative power in Korea was under threat especially when the two progressive politicians, Kim Daejung and Roh Moohyun, were elected as Presidents. The conservatives labeled them as murderers and thus they tried historical distortion against Gwangju by saying that it was a riot caused by North Korean secret agents. It only shows their stupidity.
A famous political scientist, Robert Dahl, once said, "The history of democratization gives us courage but also warning. Because the history of democratization is not just about success but also failure. It is a failure to overcome the past limitations, and failure that it was just a temporary success." His explanation can be applied in Korean history as well.
When we can share the truth about Gwangju, we can say that Korea is finally democratized. Historical reckoning is about learning from history and moving forward to reconciliation by going beyond judgement. If the May 18th Uprising becomes the center of such discourse, Korean democracy will evolve.