17 May 2004

From 1996 to 2004, May 18 Revisited: Part II

As I return to Kwangju eight years later, just after the reinstatement of president Roh Moo Hyun (a major victory for the “progressive” forces of South Korean politics) and not long after the election of the Uri Party to a majority in the parliament and even the inclusion of some ten members of the labor party, an overtly leftist party, to the parliament – a first for South Korea – I notice a distinct change in the tone and mood of the memorial services.

In part I was expecting this. First, I had already known that, at least from my experience in Kwangju in 1996, the students protested AGAINST things, not FOR things. There is a big difference in the motivation and aim, and with the election of Kim Dae Jung, suddenly there was little to demonstrate AGAINST. This in itself had mollified not only the level of violent protests and demonstrations across Korea (a marked drop in Molotov cocktails, for example) but also started a process whereby the central government began to take ownership of the Kwangju memorial.

Steps were put into motion to move the bodies of victims from the Mangwoldong Cemetery to a new May 18 Cemetery, and the Kwangju Massacre took on the name the Kwangju Uprising, then the Kwangju Incident and finally the Kwangju Democracy Movement, each successive renaming taking away from the sense of anger and pain of the initial, local memorials. It soon became popular for central government officials and parliamentarians to make appearances in Kwangju during the memorial – a sort of necessary atonement for the past and a demonstration of moving forward.

I also expected the changes after reading Linda S. Lewis’s book Laying Claim to the Memory of May: A Look Back at the 1980 Kwangju Uprising, which traced some of the history of these changes in memorials. But nothing could prepare me for what I saw. Balloon arches separating different sections of the memorial stands, many of which had little of anything to do with May 1980, and instead sold cotton candy and balloon animals, face painting or protested against genetically modified food or for handicap rights.

What few pieces of displays there were referring to May 1980 did get a place nearer the central fountain, the rallying point of 1980, but even these were few and sparse compared to 1996. There were paintings with anti-American themes, but also noticeable were paintings with pro-unification themes. In fact the Unification flag was seen much more than the South Korean flag. The ubiquitous signs calling on America to apologize for the Kwangju Massacre were no where to be seen, replaced by posters calling for peace and solidarity.

The party-like atmosphere was reinforced by the samulnori bands, which can either act as a catalyst (sort of like war drums) or as a festival-starter, the latter being the case this year. There was a march of students, flying their university and high school banners, up Kumnamno, there was a ceremonial tug-of-war, in which the first winning side was asked to let the other side win the second round. And there was a poorly choreographed audience-reenactment of the events of May 1980, complete with tinfoil-wrapped paper wads to represent stones, baskets of rice balls to mark the distribution of food to the students by the citizens, and numerous fake M-16s, something that would have brought in the riot police eight years ago.

During he reenactment, most of the students watching/participating didn’t know the words to the protest songs, few pumped their fists in the air – again in marked contrast to 1996. Even more stunning was that, looking back from the stage, the participants didn’t even fill the street back to the YMCA building. There may have been only a few hundred folks gathered for the first night’s memorial. Now this may be because the main events really start tomorrow (May 17), but I’m not so sure. The party-atmosphere lends itself to leaving to go shopping in the busy streets off of Kumnamno, rather than sit and be bored with some choreographed and rigged tug-of-war.

Now, lest you get the impression that I am pining for the old days of violence and teargas, you are wrong. That Korea has moved beyond this is wonderful for the Koreans. But there are questions I have as I look over the memorial that really only the citizens of Kwangju can answer, if they are even wiling to talk.

As this post is drawing on (and on and on…), I will wait till the next post to give you a piece of my journal with my notes directly from Kumnamno. But for those who care, I was already interviewed by a lady from KBC (Kwangju Broadcasting Corporation), and shared some of my impressions on camera with her – in my private capacity, of course. Oh, and one other note, it seems that one of the main organizers of the May 16 and May 17 daytime festivities is one of my previous acquaintances from Kwangju, so I am sure to talk to her again tomorrow.

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