Democratization in South Korea and the legacy of Gwangju Uprising

 13 total views,  1 views today

“Youth participation and engagement in politics are promising.”

Originally published on Global Voices

Chan-ho Kim at the 4th International Conference on State Violence and Trauma in 2016, held by Gwangju Trauma Center. Used with permission.

South Korea is increasingly known on global stage as a creative nation behind known high tech brands, automobile, and not to forget the Hallyu Wave, the Korean culture phenomenon that encapsulates digital contents, music, silver screen programs, and language.  More successfully, South Korea holds a a success story of transition from an authoritative military state (1948-1987) to a liberal democratic civilian state (since 1988).

Global Voices’ writer Juke Carolina Rumuat (GV) in Reims, France, spoke with Chan-ho Kim (CHK), the Program Manager of International Relations at the Korea Democracy Foundation (KDF) in Seoul about South Korea's democratic transition history.

Established in 2001, KDF is a statutory organization to enhance Korean democracy through preservation of the country's history of democratic transition, education and international exchanges. One of its projects is Seoul Democracy Forum and this year the theme was on the roles of youth and women in international cooperation for democracy.

GV: Hello Chanho Kim! Can you please introduce yourself to our readers?

CHK: My name is Chan-ho Kim, I am the acting Director of International Relations at the Korean Democracy Forum. Prior to KDF, I worked for the May 18 Memorial Foundation for about 20 years. My main responsibility is to promote the May 18th Democracy Movement and develop networks and alliance with Asian civil society activists and human rights defenders in national and international events.

I became interested in social movements since I was a teen. At the time of the 1988 South Korea democratization Movement (is he talking about Gwangju? it was in 1980 – or the 1987 student protests? or he was referring to 1980s democratization movement as a whole?), I just entered high school (in Seoul?).

Later on, I attended Gwangju University in Gwangju (Hangul: 광주시). It’s not a prestigious university but the city itself was coined as the center of a known student led pro-democracy movement (the Gwangju Uprising in 1980? – we have to be specific here or the readers will be confused).

After completing the mandatory military inscription, I embarked abroad.  I went to Norway as an exchange student for a program called the International Culture Youth Exchange to learn Norwegian language and culture at the Folk School. I’d credit my time during this exchange in broadening my views on democracy and human rights. Norway was a huge impact to me and my later life.

The city of Gwangju became the starting point of democratization movements in South Korea in the 1980s. On 18 of May 1980, a string of street protests occurred in city, in bid to pacify it, the military government deployed troop and killed 196 people (according to the government records). For many years, the events were heavily censored.  Although, the uprising was barely mentioned as global historical text books, the Gwangju Uprising inspired resistance movements overseas against authoritarian government, including that of Hong Kong.

GV: Can you tell us more about your personal experience related to the democratization event? (I think we need to specific Gwangju Uprising in the question.)

CHK: I grew up in Seoul, which is about 166 miles away from Gwangju. I had not yet attended Gwangju University in 1980. The government had strict anti-communist policies that many preferred not to doubt or questioned, so was I. The struggle was not explosive at first. Things began on the streets, words spread in form of pamphlets and tracts against the government violent repressions.  Neighbors in big cities, including Seoul, began to whispers as we received anonymous pamphlets on our mailboxes of pictures that told stories of May 18th Democracy Movement. It was a complicated and bloody process, but eventually it brought South Korea from an authoritarian military state to a democratic state. State violence was on plain sights and such history shouldn’t be repeated in the future.

I consider studying in Gwangju as part of my destiny as it path my way to the May 18th Memorial Foundation, where I learned how May 18th demonstrators lived difficult lives as survivors of extreme state violence. I had the opportunity to listen to the stories of those survivors. Many students, workers and democratization movement activists were illegally arrested and tortured.

The May 18th Uprising was a cornerstone for the civilians to set themselves free from being subjugated to political power. Since then, the struggle continues by commemorating the truth about the Democratic Uprising that began since 1987. (since 1980 or since 1987? the timeline is confusing here. There is another student movement in 1987 related to the Olympics… ) Thanks to this pivot in South Korean history, this collective history that we went through, South Korea now has the direct presidential election system.

GV: Last year, a commentary published on Foreign Policy wrote that South Korea's success in handling Covid-19 has been undermined by politics and religious conservatism. Does the global pandemic impacted the practice of democracy and human rights practice in South Korea?

CHK: The COVID-19 pandemic does curtail freedom of movements, just like what has happened in other countries. The global pandemic impacted South Koreans economically and socially. For example, foreign migrant workers are in the blind spot during mandatory quarantine, and irregular workers in South Korea are suffering from fatal health risks in a difficult working environment and are losing their jobs.

We also noted that the Korean government has enacted related laws to crack down on people who spread fake news through YouTube due to the Corona virus since last year. Conservatism remains an issue here. For instance, thousands of far-right conservative groups held mass protests demanding the release of former President Park Geun-hye and demanded the resignation of the current government.  Some far-right YouTubers are under investigation by the police for spreading anti vaccine narratives.

Former President Park Geun-hye was impeached for abuse of power abuse and corruption. Earlier this year, the country's top court denied her appeal and upholds her 20 years sentence. Conservative Christian groups are often seen as allies to South Korean far-right conservatives and critical towards incumbent government under President Moon Jae-in.

CHK: You should know is that there's a fault line in South Korea democracy, between the conservatives and those who are striving for peaceful coexistence on the Korean Peninsula and walk away from outdated ideological frameworks.

Luckily, the youth participation and engagement in politics are promising. We're expecting to see more less ideological and more inclusiveness in politics thanks to the youths. Lastly, I see that South Korean political system is gradually developing and the general public are embracing institutionalized democratic practices.

The participants of 2021 Seoul Democracy Forum posing in solidarity with the people of Myanmar. Due to the global pandemic, most of the event took place online with few sessions held on site in at the South Korean capital. Photo by Korea Democracy Foundation, used with permission.