518 Collage

Introduction – Matthias Lehmann

While pictures of the brutal suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests went around the world and the Chinese government is rightly criticised to this day for failing to reassess the protests and compensate victims’ families, the Gwangju Massacre on May 18th, 1980, is largely unknown, as is the complicity of the US government, both by supporting then president Chun Doo Hwan and by helping to cover up the atrocities committed by South Korean troops on their own people. While I do not wish to compare the suffering of the victims and their families, the different perception of the massacres on Tiananmen Square and in Gwangju and the different level of outrage commonly expressed about them are a perfect example of the different standards that are applied when ruling elites are categorised as either ‘governments’ or ‘regimes’.

This morning, my South Korean friend Ru Kyung-rok posted the below message on his Facebook wall and allowed me to share it with others. For the second link he posted at the bottom of his message, viewer discretion is strongly (!) advised. Personally, I am unsure about the ethical implications of spreading full-colour graphic images of extremely mangled bodies via the internet. On the other hand, one could argue that the victims deserve the unimaginable level of violence they suffered to be acknowledged through them. Where my own country’s history is concerned, I am not opposed to the use of graphic images to educate about the Nazis’ atrocities. Therefore, I didn’t remove the link from Ru’s original post. [Edit: It appears that in the meantime, the site has been removed, either by its author or the authorities, with the latter entirely possible.]

518 – Ru Kyung-ruk Chung

Today… the 18th of May. It is one of 365 days in a year, but also a name of historical event in south Korea. You know? In South Korea, there were many events named after the date. If you look up this, you could notice there were so many tragedies in south Korean modern history. I would like to say just ‘modern’ cause, there has not arrived ‘rationality’ in south Korea, yet. So that I don’t think there is ‘contemporary history’.

Gwangju… even if I was born in Gwangju, I was very lucky (?) to move to Seoul in 1979 following my father’s job. But again back to Gwangju probably in 1981 or 82. I was just a kid in a suburban area. I entered a primary school 1 year younger that usual in Unam-dong not to lose my friend. That makes me look much childlike. There is the portrait of the President in every classroom. So I took it for granted to have a portrait in the classroom. Of course, from a point of view of a kid, it was just a great person. No adult told me the truth. Media always reported President Jeon’s everyday. “Ding! President Jeon is…. blablabla….. on the other hand, the first lady Lee is …. blabla…” I thought they are the patriot. Time went by and I just grew. I was still a small kid, though. I was so fastidious about food and at least one and half year younger than others. But still time feeds kids. After Gwangju, I moved twice through Jinju and finally to Seoul. It was 1987, and my 5th grade in primary school. I was so busy changing Gyungsang dialect in school that year while June Democratic Movement was taking place. I was too young to understand what is going on in Seoul. A few moments that I remember are very violent demonstrations by Uni-students on TV. I smelled the spicy tear gas from time to time in my area but could not understand why Uni-students were so violent. I could remember when people were very happy to hear the news of 6. 29 declaration of Roh Tae-woo. I still could not understand what it meant. And that year was also another president election. More than 200 thousands of people gathered to hear the speech of the candidates in Yeouido square, which disappeared and is a big park at present. The vote got closer. I used to go to Catholic church at that time. My church was renting 2 floors in a small commercial building. On a saturday in December, when the mass is served for the primary school department, I met a special exhibition there. It was 5.18 photography exhibition. The nun was keeping all the kids from spreading it. A slow motion was playing into my eyes. I was shocked by the pictures. I am just absorbed in looking at pictures. They were so cruel. The dead masks!! I could not tell the face from a few of them. An eye, a jaw and part of his (or her) nose were totally stepped and into fragments. I could not breathe.

It is the first and still the biggest shock in my life. From that day, I asked myself again and again. People elected Roh Tae-woo, who was the partner of Jeon Doo-hwan of 5.18 Gwangju Massacre. They had been accused and sentenced to death of their rebellion during 1979~80 but pardoned by Kim Dae-joong later.  There is no accurate statistics how many people were killed during Gwangju Massacre in 1980. It is estimated more than 2000 [redacted] were killed and buried anywhere. Many of them are still missing, of course the rest of families are suffering from that trauma.


Be ready and careful when you open this page.



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