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May 18 Facts

Truth and justice shall prevail

Gianna Francesca Catolico
Gianna Francesca Catolico is an international intern at the May 18 Memorial Foundation. She recently finished her Masters in Human Rights and Democratization from Mahidol University in Thailand and has engaged in a multitude of NGOs working for disability rights, elections, and press freedom in Asia.

My experiences during the May 18 protests in Seoul and Gwangju

Last February, I and several staff members of the Foundation participated in a protest at Cheonggye Square in Seoul. Thousands of protesters called for the swift enactment of the May 18 Movement Distort Punishment Law* as well as the expulsion of Liberty Korea Party members Rep. Kim Jin-tae, Rep. Lee Jong-myeong, and Rep. Kim Soon-rye, who recently blurted out contentious remarks about the Gwangju Uprising. Such insensitive and preposterous remarks by these lawmakers must be condemned by the public.

The protest began with an event denouncing the comments made by the party members and critics of the Gwangju Uprising. There were performances and speeches by activists. But the climax of the protest was when we marched around Gwanghwamun, where protesters from the opposition camp yelled at us.

During the protest, I observed the different campaign materials the opposition group used. I saw placards bearing hearsay and misinformation not only about the Uprising but also Korea’s foreign policy towards hegemonies, such as “Obama blocked Sewol Ferry Rescue,” “Xi Jinping thinks Korea belongs to China,” and “Criminal enterprise, illegitimate regime, dissolve the national assembly,” among others. Upon arriving at Gwanghwamun, a huge banner saying “Moon Jae-in and fake news are deceiving people with [a] fake show and handling over Republic of Korea to North Korea” greeted us. I later found out they are also avid supporters of ex-President Park Geun-hye when I saw a banner bearing her image drifting in the area. They were insisting that she is “innocent” and thus, she has to return to the Blue House.

After witnessing the protests, I realized that South Korea has a deeply polarized social structure: conservatives and liberals often clash on how to deal with North Korea and how they perceive the May 18 Uprising. This is evident when the members of Liberty Korea Party, including the opposition group at the protest, spread misinformation on divisive issues. However, they must bear in mind that arguments and beliefs must be backed up by coherent facts and scientific research. Therefore, the opposition camp must rethink their strategies and support their claims with evidence.

I think the biggest challenge confronting activists was the existence of decades-old myths and misinformation about the Gwangju Uprising itself. First-hand accounts of the Uprising were quashed and media outlets during Chun Doo-hwan’s regime were suppressed and tightly controlled. The effects of these tyrannical acts are felt until today, with groups and lawmakers opposing the spirit of the May 18 Democratization Movement.

Chun Doo-Hwan’s tumultuous ‘comeback’ to Gwangju

It was a turning point in the history of Gwangju. Last March 11, we attended a protest outside the Gwangju District Court where Chun Doo-hwan was scheduled to appear. There were not many people in the protest because it was Monday. Yet, the protesters’ cries and chants for truth and justice were heard even from afar.

There was a commotion when Chun entered the court premises. Media and families of victims stormed to get near Chun but failed. When his black car left the premises of the courthouse, protesters rushed to get a glance of the dictator who ordered the brutal crackdown of Gwangju citizens in May 1980. Thirty-nine years have passed but the pain and suffering of the victims and their families were felt during the protest.

After all, Chun’s appearance came after he defamed late Catholic priest Cho Cheol-hyeon, who was a witness to the Gwangju Uprising. Cho testified that he saw soldiers in helicopters firing at activists and civilians during the Gwangju Uprising and all fingers point to Chun and his men.

However, in his memoir published two years ago, Chun called the priest a "shameless liar" and "Satan in disguise". Because of his narrow-minded comments, he is slapped with a libel charge. Chun was accompanied by his wife Lee Sun-ja, who once proclaimed her husband the "father of democracy."

Lastly, his lawyers claimed that Chun was absent during the previous trial due to Alzheimer’s disease, when in fact, Chun is physically healthy to play golf and walk. Another remark made was that he only has 290,000 won balance in his bank account, yet he enjoys an extravagant lifestyle in Seoul. One can only help but wonder why he continues to lie in public!

Truth and justice shall prevail

Distortion of facts and defamation, harassment, and shaming of victims and human rights activists must not be tolerated. In this regard, Chun must pay the price for his comments and apologize for covering up the truth. I hope that Chun’s appearance will pressure the government to answer the pending questions and debunk the myths about the Gwangju Uprising.

This gathering, and even all the May 18-related protests, demonstrates the continuous dedication of the people of Gwangju to commemorate and pay homage to the fallen heroes of the May 18 Movement. I am beyond grateful to be part of these protests. I admire the unwavering spirit of the people of Gwangju in their quest for truth and justice.

*This law has several translations in English.