Thursday, December 13, 2012

518 Memorial (Gwangju pt. 5)

A bit of history for today, courtesy Wikipedia. In December 1979, ROK Army General Chun Doo-hwan staged a coup-d'état and gained control over South Korea. He quickly became a dictator, backed by Reagan's Washington, who established martial law throughout a nation struggling with social instability due to economic woes and the ongoing threat of its northern neighbor. South Koreans at that time found themselves rid of one dictator (Park Chung-hee, whose daughter Park Geun-hye is currently running for president) only to be given another, whose harsh policies were immediately unpopular. These included the closing of universities, military presence in cities, and restrictions on free speech. Korea's southwestern Jeolla Provinces, of which Gwangju was a capital at the time, were especially hard hit by the new measures and political discrimination.

It wasn't long before citizens organized in protest. In May of 1980, several large demonstrations took place around the country. General Chun responded by sending in the troops to quell anti-government activity. Everything came to a head on May 17th, when a hundreds-strong student protest at Gwangju's Chonnam University clashed with a platoon of paratroopers. From the first morning skirmish throughout the day, both the number of protesters and the number of troops escalated dramatically, along with the number of casualties. The citizens numbered in the thousands by the end of the day, and by May 20th, they were more than ten thousand.

On May 21st, the protests went haywire and turned into a battle: civilians broke into armories and police stations and opened fire on the army; the army in turn used tear gas, bullets, and, by some accounts, bayonets on protesters, on-lookers, and anybody caught in the crossfire. Cars and taxis were used as weapons and barricades.

From May 22nd to the 25th, the army retreated and waited for reinforcements. The Democratization Movement had successfully taken control over Gwangju. However, on the 27th, the army reinforcements arrived, re-entered the city, and completely quashed the defenders in less than two hours.

In total, there may have been between one and two thousand deaths, but it is unclear what the exact total is.

In the years following the Gwangju Democratization Movement, many more movements were born and eventually brought democracy to South Korea in the late 1980's. South Korea's government and the city of Gwangju have done quite a lot to memorialize the sacrificial efforts of the protesters, support the families of the victims, and establish "518" as a means of remembering the cost of freedom. To that end, the 518 Memorial Park in Gwangju is an amazing monument to this milestone in Korean history.

On Sunday afternoon, I visited the 518 (오일팔/o-il-pal, not five-eighteen) Memorial with Adam, Katelyn, and Julia. It was a peaceful park where families were playing in what little snow was left, couples were exercising together, and tourists were seemingly absent.
The main sculpture in the park, in front of the underground memorial chamber (beneath all of those poles in the background). (taken by Adam)
We were able to walk among the poles, which were really shiny and mesmerizing in the way they glowed in the late afternoon sun.
The three awe-inspiring things in the underground chamber were this sculpture of a woman holding a dead protester, the wall of the names of the victims of the massacre, and the relief sculpture (not pictured, as it was behind me) that depicted the events of May 18th.
This was at another part of the park, another striking sculpture that commemorates the struggle for democracy.
Dwarfed by the 518 Memorial. (taken by Katelyn)
My friends and I had very little grasp of the historical context of the memorial, only going because we knew it was one of the must-sees of Gwangju. But after doing our research, the whole park became so much more meaningful, and not just pretty. What boggles my mind the most is that all of these incredible, horrible, yet transformational events took place only thirty years ago. The generation of students who clashed against their country's army is still alive and well, which stands in stark contrast to my own country's democratic revolution, which occurred nearly 250 years ago. It doesn't seem possible, when you look at Korea today, that only one generation has passed since 518.

With that on our minds, we were fairly quiet as we walked around the park and explored the other things of note. Besides memorials and sculptures, there was a small temple at the top of a hill and a very tall pagoda-like tower. After climbing to the third story, we had a spectacular view of the entire city of Gwangju, and we could even spot snow-capped mountains in the distance on all sides. It was lovely.

And that was the last part of my Gwangju weekend! My friends and I all went to the bus terminal directly from the park, got a quick dinner, and boarded our separate buses headed for our separate cities. I remember sitting in front of a group of very loud American girls who, when the bus stopped by my neighborhood in Changwon, called it "this city's red light district". 헐. That is so untrue. Whatever, okay, that's all! Wow, I'm sorry for taking five posts to talk about less than two days' worth of travel. And I didn't even cover everything. I hope you enjoyed the photos and stories, though!

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