Following the ousting of the then-President Park Geun-hye in 2017, the topic of South Korean candle-lit protests and expressions of democratic spirit more broadly made international headlines. Yet the story of South Korea’s democratic transition is a complex one.
In addition to the much-talked-about regional or generational polarisation of South Korean public opinion, democracy has strong links to the anti-dictatorship movements of the 1980s. In this regard, May is a particularly important month for recalling the Gwangju Uprising – known as 5.18 – which was met with brutal repression by the government.
The roots of the incident can be traced back to the declaration of martial law following President Park Chung Hee’s assassination in October 1979 after which General Chun Doo-hwan took control of the government. The Gwangju protests are a truly unique chapter in South Korea’s history. What was initially a student-led protest in May 1980 eventually led to the withdrawal of troops from the city. Yet, ultimately the story reflects the pertinent division of the Korean Peninsula, both at the border with the North and within South Korea.
Furthermore, 5.18 continues to hold profound significance in South Korea. While at its core it ties into the complex politisation between left and right-wing groups in South Korea, it holds a number of important sub-texts that bear exploring.
One of the most significant is the question of US involvement in propping up authoritarian governments in South Korea, including the US role in approving the Gwangju crackdown.
As analysts have noted, this issue is closely related to the broader discussion of anti-American sentiment in South Korea and the divided views regarding the US-ROK security alliance. Yet, notwithstanding the important presence of these anti-US sentiments domestically, it is also worth noting that a recent public opinion survey by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies found that the majority of South Koreans, across all age groups and political ideologies, view the US as a preferable partner to China.
At the other end of the spectrum, however, the accusations of North Korean involvement in the uprising, which recently resurfaced following the 2017 publication of Chun Doo-hwan’s memoir, also bear mentioning. The accusations of communist involvement in domestic protests and the overall threat from North Korea are both prominent themes going back to the authoritarian regime’s tendency to use the DPRK threat as a justification for their rule. This is also part of the reason that liberal and progressive South Korean leaders tend to be associated with North Korean rapprochement and anti-US sentiment, as the US-ROK security alliance also suffers from its past links with authoritarian rulers and the suppression of South Korean democracy.
Earlier last month, commemorations of the Gwangju uprising by politicians of both left and right orientations, once again made local headlines. Given President Moon’s reopening of the inquiry into the Gwangju crackdown – which also brought to light sexual assault allegations previously left out of the spotlight – the contested memory of 5.18 continues to serve as a vivid testimony of the power of memory politics in East Asia, as they affect both domestic and inter-state relationships.
Kate Kalinova is the East Asia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.