Many people don’t realise that South Korea, while an economic powerhouse, is arguably also Asia’s strongest democracy. Admittedly, it’s not exactly a very prestigious club, and Korea’s democracy is very far from perfect. But real democracy in Korea has only existed since the late 80s, and considering it developed after decades of repressive military dictatorships, the country’s rapid political achievements are very impressive. But they did not come without blood and struggle.
In the south-western city of Gwangju, one of the most important and tragic acts in the development of Korean democracy played out on the city’s streets in May 1980. Gwangju is today a small provincial capital surrounded by rice fields and rural villages, and in 1980 its citizens were seething after decades of neglect, underinvestment and repressive military rule. Things came to head when university students, professors and union activists demanded democratic elections. A military strongman, President and general Chun Doo Hwan sent in the paratroopers on the 18th of May. People were beaten, shot and arrested. The citizens fought back, occupying government buildings and turning back the army. General Chun declared the protests a communist uprising and sent in tanks and more troops. What followed could only be described as slaughter of civilians by their own army.
The massacre and its victims are remembered today in various parks and museums, the most moving of which is the May 18 National Cemetery Memorial Park. A contemplative, mournful air prevails here: Koreans walk quietly through the raised mounds of graves, praying in Buddhist, Confucian or Christian style and leaving flowers beside the gravestones. Every gravestone has a photograph of a victim. These small black-and white portraits feature Koreans of all ages; a stern old grandmother, a strong young man, a university student with slightly shaggy hair, a teenage girl, just 18 when she died.
The museum beside the graves is equally well-presented, with a detailed, play-by-play description of the tragic events of the massacre. An opening timeline places the events of May 1980 in a wider context – Gwangju and the south-west has a long history of rebellion. The exhibitions don’t tone anything down, and the facts and images speak with outrage at the brutality. Grandparents killed in their houses, a pregnant woman shot to pieces waiting for her husband to finish work; peaceful democratic protesters, taxi drivers trying to help the wounded, civilian militia with stolen guns and innocent bystanders – in the madness of May 18 the soldiers with bayonets and M16s made little distinction.
Sadly national memory is always fraught with collective amnesia. Many Koreans today refer to the massacre merely as the ‘Gwangju Incident,’ and a lot of people who lived through those violent times defend the dictator-presidents, justifying their brutality because of the country’s relative stability and miraculous economic growth. Without hard men like General Chun in firm control, it is argued, the Korean economy could never have boomed, and Korea could never have jumped from sub-Saharan Africa levels of poverty to OECD status in as little as a single generation. This argument, however, legitimises state-authorised violence, and is rather like the battered wife defending her abusive husband by depicting him as ‘a good provider’. And it also downplays a more important cause of the Korean economic miracle – the relentless energy and hard work of the Korean people themselves. While Koreans today are justly proud of their economic achievements, they rarely mention the country’s rapid political transition from dictatorship to democracy. This too is an amazing feat. The tragedy is that it required bayonets, bullets, and the lives of students, taxi drivers, and old women.