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May 18 Facts

Let the history of democracy prevail

Praveen Kumar Yadav
Praveen Kumar Yadav, a human rights researcher from Nepal, is currently pursuing his internship at the May 18 Memorial Foundation. He tweets @iprav33n.
On February 16, thousands of Gwangju citizens took to Gumnam-ro in Gwangju once again after 39 years. They protested the distortion of the May 18 Democratic Uprising. Earlier in the same month, far-right politicians made inflammatory remarks about the 1980 uprising that outraged the people nationwide and those from Gwangju.

Calling for democracy and the end of military dictatorship, over 200 people in Gwangju had lost their lives while resisting the military brutality in 1980 during a military coup led by army general Chun Doo-hwan, who unlawfully seized power to become the president.

The Gumnam-ro on February 16 appeared almost the same as of 1980 in terms of community gathering for the demonstration. Some people were distributing the posters with different messages, including “Liberty Korea Party, Apologize” and “Expel Kim Jin-tae, Lee Jong-myeong and Kim Soon-rye” while others were making rice balls and distributing them to the demonstrators. On top of that, the participation was voluntary.

The family members of May 18 victims and Gwangju citizens also took to the National Assembly and expressed their anger over the distortion of the democratic uprising.

Likewise, they organized the similar protests in Seoul on February 23, calling for answers and apologies for the distortion of the history of democracy, and defamation of the fallen heroes.

The main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) member and Rep. Kim Soon-rye referred the May 18 victim’ family members to as a “monstrous group” formed by “pro-North Korea leftists” that is “dipping into tax money.” Likewise, Jee Man-won, a controversial far-right commentator, mentioned the Gwangju Uprising as a “riot” led by North Korean soldiers. These remarks were made amid a public hearing on May 18 fact-finding organized by LKP members Rep. Kim Jin-tae and Rep. Lee Jong-myeong.

Outraged and hurt by the ongoing distortion of the pro-democratic Gwangju Uprising, the May 18 victims’ families and the Gwangju Citizens have started to look back at the root of such inflammatory remarks. According to them, the root lies in former president Chun Doo-hwan. During Chun-led military coup and his regime, he used the propaganda “Gwangju incident as a riot by North Korean soldiers and North Korean sympathizers”.

Chun along with Roh Tae-woo, who were held responsible for the human rights violations during the Gwangju Uprising, was granted a special pardon only after two years. This is one of the key failure for transitional justice related to the May 18 Democratic Uprising, according to activists and researchers.

Activists and advocates for the May 18 believe in five principles of the transitional justices to deal with the 1980 Democratic uprising, which are fact -finding, punishment to those responsible persons, compensation for victims, restoring the honor of the victims and commemoration projects. Without finding the complete facts or truth, none of these principles can be completed.

Over the past 39 years, five governmental investigations and efforts -- parliamentary hearings (1988), prosecution investigations (1995), Defense Ministry Past Affairs Truth Unveiling Committee (2007), Past Affairs Truth and Reconciliation Settlement Committee (2010), and Defense Ministry Special Rapporteur (2018) -- were made to dig out the truth related to the May 18 Democratic Uprising. Nonetheless, the truth related to the May 19 has still remained to be vague and undiscovered.

Last May’s revelation by some courageous woman about the rape of women committed by martial law army soldiers during the Gwangju Uprising came as a shocking wake. In response, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon and Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo on behalf of the government extended their apologies for the unspeakable pains inflicted on innocent victims in 1980. This is evident that some truths - what happened to the missing persons, how many people died, and who ordered the firing on the demonstrators on 21 May 1980 - are still undiscovered.

Against the backdrop, the sixth governmental investigation, which is underway under the incumbent Moon Jae-in administration, is viewed as the last opportunity to discover the truth about the pro-democratic uprising as the witnesses are getting old and the related evidences are fading away. For the sixth investigation, the National Assembly passed the Gwangju Uprising Fact-Finding Special Act in February last year. In accordance with the special law, the fact-finding committee of nine members could have been launched last September. However, the LKP’s delay in recommending the members for the committee has affected the timely launch of the investigation. The current distortion of the history about the May 18 democratic uprising and controversies is likely to push the task of investigation further.

Meanwhile, President Moon Jae-in also voiced his concerns over the distortion of the history of the democracy. The May 18 Uprising is widely acknowledged for inspiring the June Uprising of 1987 that defeated the military dictatorship. The movement has not just played a pivotal role in the democratization in South Korea but it has also affect the democratization process in other countries. The May 18 democratic spirit is still inspiring the human rights and democratic struggles beyond the nation. Notably, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has listed the Gwangju Uprising on the Memory of World Register.

It is high time for the political parties, especially the main opposition LKP to show their sincerity in allowing the formation of an independent body through the recommendation of the members who have proper historical awareness and common sense that the people in Gwangju city can accept. The party as it believes in and working for democracy in the country should not hesitate to extend a public apology to the victims and activists of the democratic movement. The distortion of the history must be prevented. For doing so, a special legislation could be enacted to pay the way for the effective conclusion of transitional justice that the victims and activists have been waiting since last 39 years.