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40 years on, key questions about Gwangju uprising still unresolved

President Moon puts spotlight on fact-finding investigation into helicopter shootings in May 1980

A woman sobs at a grave at a national cemetery honoring those killed in the 1980 Gwangju Democractic Uprising in Gwangju on Sunday, on the eve of its 40th anniversary. (Yonhap)
A woman sobs at a grave at a national cemetery honoring those killed in the 1980 Gwangju Democractic Uprising in Gwangju on Sunday, on the eve of its 40th anniversary. (Yonhap)

South Korea commemorates the 40th anniversary of the country’s bloodiest moment on its turbulent path toward democracy -- the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Movement -- with critical questions still unanswered.

The 10-day clampdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1980 is believed to have killed 160 people and injured thousands, but the figures are only estimates, due to the absence of an official clarification of the facts.

With tensions running high, a memorial ceremony took place Sunday in the presence of bereaved family members, citizens and some 100 politicians at the May 18 National Cemetery in the southern city.

“Even though some say there have been many legal and institutional changes, for us, bereaved families, the agony and grief of 40 years ago have not gotten better,” Kim Young-hoon, a representative for the bereaved families, said at the ceremony.

“But it feels as though the launch of the fact-finding committee has taken some of the burden off our shoulders as we stand before victims. … Amid malicious distortion and disparagement (of the movement), we have a great deal of expectation for the committee.”

While Korea has matured economically and politically, family members of the victims who sacrificed their lives in the fight for democracy are still waiting for a long-overdue investigation into the crackdown.

In Seoul, a coalition of civic groups staged a drive-thru rally joined by some 70 vehicles over the weekend from Yeouido, western Seoul, to former President Chun Doo-hwan’s home in the Seodaemun district, calling on Chun to apologize for the massacre and cooperate with the fact-finding investigation.

The deadly clampdown happened under the authoritarian regime led by Chun, who claimed power in a military coup in 1979. He was elected president in 1980, after tightening his grip on the country through the crackdown in Gwangju, and stayed in office for eight years.

A truck carrying a sculpture of Chun -- kneeling, with his arms tied behind him -- led the rally and participants honked horns near Chun’s home to express their outrage.

“We will not forget Chun, a slaughterer, who has not even apologized. … This (the rally) is a protest against those who have yet to feel remorse (for their actions), and a warning against those who undermine the authenticity of the Gwangju Uprising,” the groups said.

The failure to iron out basic facts surrounding the crackdown continues to widen rifts between Koreans of different regions and political affiliations around this time of year.

President Moon Jae-in reaffirmed his stance in favor of an official clarification of who was responsible for ordering military forces to open fire on civilian protesters in May 1980.

“It has not yet been identified who commanded open fire and legal responsibility for the discharge,” Moon said in an appearance on a regional TV channel regarding the May Uprising.

“We need to find out victims of the massacre, how shootings from helicopters came about, and the truth about extensive cover-up and distortion must be investigated.”

Since coming to office in 2017, Moon has emphasized his desire to get to the bottom of the helicopter shootings, which Chun and far-right figures deny outright despite testimonies from US missionaries, the late activist priest Cho Chul-hyun and former US military intelligence specialist Kim Yong-chang.

“The purpose of the investigation is not to identify the person responsible for legal punishment, but to reconcile based on truth and to move forward toward unity,” Moon said.

Moon added that the Gwangju Uprising should be mentioned in the preamble of the Constitution as part of the next constitutional amendment.

In light of Moon’s comments, the fact-finding committee’s investigation is broadly expected to take off, with a focus on pinpointing the official responsible for helicopter shootings on May 21, 1980, targeting civilian protesters in front of the former South Jeolla Provincial Government building.

A potential expansion in investigative authority given to the committee is expected to play a critical role in the fact-finding mission, as it currently lacks the power to summon those who refuse to be questioned.

The ruling Democratic Party of Korea is also anticipated to seek to pass legislation in the 21st National Assembly to punish those who say things that demean the people involved in the uprising or twist history on this subject.

“We are still seeing anti-democratic, anti-historical and anti-constitutional conduct, instigating falsehood with distortion and inflammatory remarks on May 18,” said Rep. Park Kwang-on of the Democratic Party, a two-term lawmaker and member of the ruling party’s Supreme Council, during a party meeting Friday.

“Enactment of legislation punishing such acts is the National Assembly’s mission.”

Taking a different approach from the party’s former leadership, four-term lawmaker Rep. Joo Ho-young, who was elected floor leader of the main opposition United Future Party, took an apologetic tone about the Gwangju Uprising and incendiary comments made by far-right members, offering a glimpse of hope that the two biggest parties could make progress on the outstanding matter.

“Regardless of the reason, I would like to deliver (my) deepest regrets and apologies to victims, bereaved families and the public who were devastated,” Joo said in a statement.

“I clearly remember how some within the party have made offensive and degrading remarks about the May 18 Democratization Movement, rubbing salt on the wounds … this should not be repeated,” Joo added.

Liberty Korea Party, the predecessor of the opposition United Future Party, had come under fire for giving Rep. Kim Jin-tae, Rep. Kim Soon-rye and Rep. Lee Jong-myeong a slap on the wrist for their inflammatory and unsubstantiated comments regarding the crackdown.

Joo vowed to make concerted efforts to pass revisions related to the uprising and highlighted the conservative party’s “spirit of YS,” referring to former President Kim Young-sam and distancing itself from Chun.

By Kim Bo-gyung (
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