Monday, May 18, 2009

Ask a Korean! News: May 18

Today is May 18, the 29th anniversary of the May 18 Democratization Movement.

29 years is not a huge number of years. America in 1980 was not really, truly different from America in 2009. Of course, there definitely have been some major changes, such as end of Cold War, September 11, significant advancement in gay rights, the first black president, etc. But for an average American, the life in 1980 was about the same as the life in 2009.

Not so in Korea. And few things remind that fact as starkly as May 18. On May 18, 1980, several hundred citizens of Gwangju were killed while protesting for democracy. Movie Hwaryeohan Hyuga (literally: The Lush Holiday, English title: May 18) captures the events on May 18 in Gwangju. Hwaryeohan Hyuga was the operation code name for the Korean Special Forces who were sent to kill the Korean citizens who sought to vindicate their rights.

Below is the Korean's translation of an article by Mr. Kim Yong-Gil, a reporter for Dong-A Ilbo. The article discusses the movie May 18, and in the process describes Korea was like mere 29 years ago. Original article in Korean is available here.


1. Framing the News

The media that conveys news creates and edits news stories through a certain frame. The title of the news story itself is the frame through which the news is viewed. The framing of referring an XX incident as “OO satae” [satae = “incident”, with a slightly negative connotation] is itself an editing process.

The recipients of news naturally take the perspective of the news frame as they experience the stories of the world. They would prick their ears and concentrate on stories that would benefit them as good information. On the other hand, they would furrow their brows at news that are negative, shocking, or harmful to their current situations. In short, it is human nature to react positively at something that goes toward to one’s interests, and negatively at something that goes against one’s interests.

A news frame reflects a society’s mainstream values. It is a projection of popular sentiment, and the standard for measuring the value of a news story. It also reflects a society’s intellectual maturity. A society in which individualistic values are guaranteed while individual human rights and democracy are harmonized and communitarian order is taking root has various types of news frame. A number of small frames function together and communicated well in such a society.

Which member of the society drives the news frame in modern society? It is not difficult to see that the mainstream media initially sets the frame and offers the issues. In other words, journalists – the creator of news stories – takes the initiative in the communication of news stories.

2. “Gwangju Satae”

For a long time, the democratization movement from May 18 to May 27, 1980, in which the citizens of Gwangju, the centre of Honam region, engaged as they demanded rescinding the state of emergency and resignation of Chun Doo-Hwan, was referred to as “Gwangju Satae”. Until a special act concerning the “May 18 Democratization Movement” was passed in 1995, Korean society simply referred to it as Gwangju Satae. Calling an incident a “OO satae” carries a rather negative connotation in Korea – it usually refers to a situation that should not have happened for a social progress.

The National Assembly of the Republic of Korea designated it as “May 18 Democratization Movement” as it passed the Special Act in 1995. In 1997, May 18 Democratization Movement was set as a national memorial day, and history textbooks refer to it as its official name. But until then, the situation of the ten days between May 17 and May 27, 1980 was shrouded in the law of silence. The military junta in power in 1980 set the oppressive frame that “Anyone who speaks of Gwangju is an instigator of treasonous mutiny.”

During that time, even the mainstream media had to shut its mouth. The media repeated like a parrot for those ten days, “The spies receiving orders from the North Korean puppet government infiltrated Gwangju and combined forces with the mob bent on causing social unrest. They have taken over the city and causing anarchy, threatening the citizens.”

3. May 18 Democratization Movement

The new military junta led by Chun Doo-Hwan [“new” as opposed to Park Chung-Hee’s “old” junta], having controlled the military following the December 12 incident, engaged in the strictest control of the media throughout the State of Emergency. During that time, the editors of newspapers around Gwanghwamun had to carry the first cut of the pages of which they are in charge to the City Hall. Only after the Media Censor Officer of the Emergency Forces stamped his seal of approval could the editors actually print the newspaper. The stories censored by the Media Censor Officer had to be lifted away from the print. Any news in relation to Gwangju was completely censored; in their stead, the New Junta’s propaganda took place.

These incredible stories are true events of 1980. Newspaper and television had no choice to follow the “reporting guidelines”, ostensibly set up for national security, in the face of the armed authority of the State of Emergency Forces. The media of that time was wholly parrots of the military regime. At the same time, unimaginable things happened in Gwangju for ten days in May.

Once Gwangju was branded with “Gwangju Satae”, the city was caught in the middle of regional bias and negative images for the next several decades. The former frame of viewing Gwangju’s May 18 Democratization Movement has persisted in the form of extreme prejudice, “a bloody riot caused by Communist mobs” until recently. The backward “armband politics” of the military in power, boasting its political prowess by cutting down a particularly region within this tiny little country, was an unbelievable regression of history.

Through the one-sided propaganda by the usurping New Junta and the conscripted media, “May in Gwangju” became a confusion in which the victim became the aggressor, the citizens’ right of self-protection became the mob’s madness, and an expression of conscience became an incitement of social unrest.

The movie is Hwaryeohan Hyuga, opened in 2007 and directed by Kim Ji-Hoon. The movie revives on the screen the dark period during which truth was buried and only the oppressive news frame was conveyed to the people. This is the story of the ten days that happened in Korea, 29 years ago.

4. Whey They Picked Up Guns

May 18 is a story of the citizen army who stood up against the Emergency Forces’ indiscriminate and bloody oppression. The Emergency Forces soldiers swing merciless clubs at college students who raised issues with the New Junta’s usurpation of the government. Even the regular citizens, protesting such cruel suppression in the wayside, cannot escape the club. The rows of student and citizen protesters grow the next day. Somewhere, the national anthem began to play through the loudspeaker, and the protesting citizens all salute to the flag. Using this as a signal, the M-16 muzzles of the Emergency Forces lined on the Geumnam Road in Gwangju spit fire. This is all real. The Emergency Forces, belonging to the same country and the same people, began firing at will against unarmed civilian protesters. The protesters were someone’s father, uncle, brother, sister, son, nephews and nieces.

The movie, which cost $10 million, does not depict the volatile changes in the political landscape of 1980. Instead, it calmly shows the citizens’ regular peaceful lives, and how those regular lives are utterly destroyed. According to the testimonies of those who experienced firsthand the May in Gwangju, the movie’s level of expression is far below the reality of the day.

May 18 did not aspire to be a documentary. Although it is slightly melodramatic, it solemnly reveals that the state’s violence can instantly destroy the citizens’ lives in that manner. The story line is not very intricate. The camera does not try to untangle the larger historical and political spool, but instead limits itself to the regular lives of ordinary citizens.

When a brother who just finished a conversation comes back as a dead body on a rickshaw, the protesters arm themselves out of the desperation that everyone will die unless they protect Gwangju for themselves. They become a citizen army. Civilian homes send food, and uniformed high school students volunteer to fight.

5. Isolation of Gwangju

The intellectuals and writers throughout the 1980s felt conscious or subconscious guilt toward May in Gwangju. This guilt toward Gwangju originates from the feeling of helplessness, that they remained silent against the state’s violence in that city – that, as they remained silent while recognizing the issue, they kneeled in false comfort and hypocrisy.

Gwangju is not a special city at all. It is no different from any other city in Korea. That Gwangju thirsted for news from outside for those ten days in May. In searing thirst, they waited for the news that said, “The citizens of Gwangju are not alone! Our city also protests against the oppression by the New Junta! Stop killing the citizens of Gwangju! Gwangju citizens are not rioting mobs! Emergency Forces go home!”

But such news never came. The city would never hear a single piece of news that accurately reflected its situation. The entire non-Gwangju Republic of Korea already branded Gwangju as “a city of riots”. Every frame of the media was “riots”.

Gwangju was utterly isolated. The only thing that did come to the city that was cut off from outside while standing up against the powers that usurped the government was the burning red mark that said, “Communist mobs”. “Do you know how it feels to just branded some way… without being able to say anything…”

6. Branding the City of Riots

The scarlet letter of “Communist” is an eternal designation of “the other” in Korean society – they are the sworn enemy who cannot share the same heaven. The seal of Communist, applied by those in power to the resisting citizenry, is the most ultimate weapon.

The beginning of April 19 Revolution was the two protests in Masan. Sparked by the body of young student Kim Ju-Yeol, floating in Masan Central Harbor where the police hid the body after killing him, the Masan protests burned strongly. Immediately, the Syngman Rhee regime called it an incitement by red Communist fifth-columnists. Eventually, President Rhee resigned on April 26, and the family of Vice President Ki-Boong Rhee committed mass suicide.

Raising the specter of red scare was a constant presence in each important phase of Korean political history. The power lacking in legitimacy constantly attempts to find a spot to paint in red. The people and the families of those people who were the only ones who resisted when the military boots were trampling the truth had to live in silence after Gwangju, as if they were sinners of the era. The irony that citizens must submerge in silence the marks of exercising its civic consciousness! The fragile and weak civil society of Korea finally germinates after the June Democratization Protests of 1987.

In the ten days of Gwangju’s May 18 Democratization Movement, 165 died. Their average age was 27. They included 13 college students, 11 high school students, 6 middle school students and 2 elementary school students. 65 people were missing. 376 died later from the injury that they suffered. In 2005, 25 years later, the representative groups of the victims of May 18 announce the first statistics that they formally collected jointly. According to the announcement, the number of May 18-related deaths is 606, including those who died from severe injury sustained during the time. Emergency Forces had 23 casualties, 14 of which died in friendly fire between the Special Forces and the National Guard. 1,394 citizens were arrested, 427 were indicted, 7 were convicted for death penalty and 12 were convicted for life in prison.

7. Please Don’t Forget Us

The last scene of May 18, directed by a Daegu-born director, depicts the last moments of the citizen army, perfectly isolated from the outside world, defending the provincial Capitol while consoling each other over walkie-talkies. The battle between the citizen army and the Emergency Forces is a one-sided game. They wanted to communicate with someone even as they died, but no one could get to them. The lonely walkie-talkie is held in the hands of the dead.

They must have been so lonely.
Shouldn’t we, the people who have survived, be sorry for their crushing loneliness in the face of death?

The commander in chief of this operation of bloody massacre is doing just fine in Yeonhee-dong, holding onto his “290 dollars”. It is still a mystery how the firing order came down, how they terrorized the burgeoning democracy to submission. There are people who still keep their mouths shut.

Lee Yo-Won, playing the heroine nurse of the movie, began broadcasting over the loudspeakers in the heart of the night. “Fellow citizens! The Emergency Forces are invading downtown Gwangju now. Our beloved brothers, our beloved sisters are dying at the guns and knives of the Emergency Forces. Let us all fight against the Emergency Forces to the end. We will defend Gwangju to death. Please don’t forget us. We will fight until the very end. Fellow citizens…”

This is not a movie that warmly moves you.
This is a heartbreaking, terrifying movie.
Your heart becomes heavy.
This movie is but the first step of the staircase that leads to Gwangju that day.


The reference to "290 dollars" is the stated assets of former president Chun Doo-Hwan. Chun is known to have formed a slush fund of $1 billion through grafts and bribes from Korean companies. But the judge asked Chun how much he had in a court proceeding to disgorge the money in 2003, Chun defiantly said his total asset was $290 in his bank account. He was sentenced to life in prison in 1997, but was pardoned after being in prison for less than 8 months.

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  1. "On May 18, 1980, several hundred citizens of Gwangju were killed while protesting for democracy."

    An extremely tendentious formulation of what really occurred. Given what I know from first-hand reports, I prefer Don Kirk's characterization as "revolt."

  2. Hwaryeonhan Hyuga sounds more appealing than that awful Ggotnip with that guy who raped that teenager over and over until she started slicing up her chest, and then he realized he loved her after she died or disappeared or whatever the hell happened to her. I understand that the teenaged rape victim was supposed to represent Korea or the Korean minjok or whatever, but the movie just didn't work for me.

  3. I watched that movie (May 18) on recommendation from one of my students ~ good grief, I cried solidly the whole way through. It was a heartbreaking depiction of militant rule, and it really provided insight into that period of Korea's history and development over the last 30 years!

  4. When I first read about what happened that day, I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn't believe it happened such a short time ago--and in a place like South Korea. You don't expect things like that to happen in modern times. As much as I like Lee Junki--I've seen enough bits of it to know that there's no way I could watch the movie without being nauseated. I couldn't take more than 5 minutes of Taegukki or DMZ either. yeah, I think 'heartbreaking' is a good word to describe things.

  5. It's so hard to believe that stuff like this is going on today. You'd think we'd learn from history.

  6. "It's so hard to believe that stuff like this is going on today. You'd think we'd learn from history."

    No, mademoiselle, it is emphatically NOT "going on today."

    It happened almost 30 years ago. Given the rapidity of South Korea's modernization, that's like 100-150 equivalent American years.

  7. It happened almost 30 years ago. Given the rapidity of South Korea's modernization, that's like 100-150 equivalent American years.Sad but true. Korea's under thirty-somethings know only democracy and prosperity, both of which they seem to take for granted.

  8. It's so hard to believe that stuff like this is going on today. You'd think we'd learn from history.Why does human suffering and history repeat itself over and over again? Buddhism has a term for this, they call it the "Samsāric wheel".

    History repeats itself because human life is finite. The accumulated wisdom of past generations fade and newer generations are doomed to make the same mistakes and discover the hard way why the old prophets and moral teachers were right after all.

    Buddhism says that the only way to escape this cycle is by attaining enlightenment. Christianity says that suffering is important for the process of redemption. Christianity also talks of "eternal life".

    We will not break out of this cycle until humans have won freedom from death.

    “The conduct of life and the wisdom of the heart are based upon time; in the last quartets of Beethoven,
    the last words and works of ‘old men’ like Sophocles and Russell and Shaw, we see glimpses of a maturity
    and substance, an experience and understanding, a grace and a humanity, that isn’t present in children or
    in teenagers. They attained it because they lived long; because they had time to experience and develop
    and reflect; time that we might all have. Imagine such individuals – a Benjamin Franklin, a Lincoln,
    a Newton, a Shakespeare, a Goethe, an Einstein [and a Gandhi] – enriching our world not for a few decades
    but for centuries. Imagine a world made of such individuals. It would truly be what Arthur C. Clarke called
    ‘Childhood’s End’ – the beginning of the adulthood of humanity.”

  9. Kudos for the translation.

    "On May 18, 1980, several hundred citizens of Gwangju were killed while protesting for democracy." Besides being tendentious, that's also wrong. The uprising took place over 10 days, and, according to the official numbers, no one died on May 18. People most certainly died later from injuries received that day, and I wouldn't be surprised if, among the hundreds of missing, some died that day, but official records record the first death being the next morning.

    I've always preferred 'uprising' to 'revolt.' 'Democratization movement' doesn't really work for me, not just because it's too limiting, but because it's too damn long.

    You may look more kindly upon Ggotnip after watching May 18; "slightly melodramatic" is one of the worst examples of understatement I've ever read. There are also problems with it factually - arguably the turning point in the first three days of the uprising was when the taxi drivers drove en masse downtown to protest their treatment at the hands of marshal law troops, which allowed the protesters to occupy space and threaten the troops. Despite the main character being a taxi driver, this is omitted from the movie. Just imagine the worst aspects of Korean melodrama (with bits of badly timed comedy) and you'll have some idea of what the movie is like.

    As problematic as Ggotnip is, (interesting though that it was based on the short story 'There a Petal Silently Falls,' by female author Choi Yun), it seems, in some ways, more faithful to what happened in its ten minutes of flashbacks than the entirety of May 18.

  10. I'm too young to know from "first hand", I was born in the 1989, and I was so so far away (Croatia, Yugoslavia back then) a country dealing with different problems and the internet was not something that was as available to everyone as it is today, so we had no informations about these protests in Korea at all, as far as I know.

    But judging from various sources written by people of various opinions and talks with various people, also judging from my knowlegde of politics and history and protests.... I agree the movie might be a bit too exagerated and the director was too subjective, for the movie being a little bit pathetic, but then, hey... I agree with the protesters' fight against the things that they don't want to be and that are caused by that and every stubborn government.
    And also, they might have not died that day, but BECAUSE of that day they DID die and that IS a tragedy! And just as many people consider soldiers as heroes, for "fighting for their country", these protesters are valuable warriors as well and they do deserve all the respect and memorials.

    Rest in peace, Kwangju warriors, for you shall never be forgotten.


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