This lesson takes some of the aspects of the Kwangju struggle already mentioned in the previous lesson and highlights their importance in terms of civil society actions/movements.
A. The involvement of various actors
One of the amazing things about the Kwangju uprising was that the entire city became involved in the fight against the military brutality; suddenly, there were no barriers between the rich, workers, students, old, children, women or professionals. Social class, status, age and profession no longer held meaning. What mattered was coming together as citizens, as civil society, as the best offered by humanity and fighting in unity for a cause that was common to them all. Examples of this coming together are:
Housewives cooking food collectively and feeding everyone;
Taxi and bus drivers using their vehicles to transport the wounded amongst other things;
All citizens coming forward to donate blood when there was a shortage, including sex workers; and
All citizens joining the protests and rallies, be they old, young, students, workers or professionals.
The rallies were important also because they enabled the different people to express themselves. As student activist Lee Jae-ui described it,
The fountain was now the center of unity. All walks and classes of people spoke - women street vendors, elementary school teachers, followers of different religions, housewives, college students, high school students and farmers. Their angry speeches created a common consciousness, a manifestation of the tremendous energy of the uprising. They had melded together, forging a strong sense of solidarity throughout the uprising. For the moment, the city was one (quoted in Katsiaficas).
The other remarkable thing about this uprising and the involvement of various actors was that it was spontaneous. There was no planning, people were not recruited, but rather, they came together out of their own conscience, to uphold the values of human life and dignity that they commonly believed in. This is illustrated in the statement made by the Japanese Catholic Association for Peace and Justice on 6 June 1980, saying that
?the tears on the faces of the young men, who devoted themselves to defend democracy. Their chests were splattered with blood. They shouted the slogans with bloody bands around their heads, until their throats got sore. Our beloved neighbors, young and innocent children, and even housekeepers were now joining the parading cars ?People who couldn't get on the cars brought rice wrapped in seaweed and drinks ?Stuffing all the food into a box, an old man was not able to lift it up. I lifted it up and put it into a car that I just stopped. I could read the resolution to struggle to the death on their faces. Housekeepers who couldn't prepare food brought buckets of water, offered it to them to drink and cleaned up their faces. Some citizens ran along with the vehicles ?It was a struggle of blood and love to share lives with others: a man who tapped a participant's back to cheer, a pharmacist who brought out medicines and drinks, and the crowd who did their best, clapping and cheering (quoted in Katsiaficas).
The reason for the spontaneity and generalization of the uprising was the value Kwangju people placed on human dignity and life, which held the utmost importance to them, requiring each citizen to come forward and fight against the military regime that treated these values so callously. The brutality of the military gave legitimacy to the citizens' resistance and led to the withdrawal of the armed forces.
B. Organic civil society: 'self rule'
Not only did the various actors from all walks of life come together spontaneously during the Kwangju uprising, but they also managed to govern themselves and their city in this manner. This is another remarkable achievement, which has characterized few (if any) such uprisings. In fact, as stated by Professor Han Sang-jin of Seoul University, "[i]n other typical political situations, chaos or anarchy characterized by turmoil, lawlessness, destruction, retaliations and pillages on a large scale would have occurred. In other nations such as Indonesia and even in America, this hypothetical situation came into reality" (Han Sang-Jin, 147).
However, this did not occur in Kwangju, and according to George Katsiaficas, the Kwangju people's "capacity for self government is the defining hallmark of their revolt. In my view, it is the single most remarkable aspect of the uprising. The capacity for self organization that emerged spontaneously ?is mind expanding" (Katsiaficas). When the city united in its fight to push the military out, there was no organization or planning involved, as has been shown previously. Similarly, after the military had been pushed out, there was little initial organization in the self governance of the city. Again, people used their own initiative to ensure the functioning of Kwangju, as shown below:
Stores and vendors rationed goods and organized food distribution;
Rubbish was cleared away, streets were cleaned;
Thousands of dollars were raised during many of the rallies;
Blood was donated generously when the news spread that hospitals were in short supply; and
Citizens' councils and committees were spontaneously formed, organizing all essential services including the defense of the city.
On May 22, when a group of evangelical pastors met to appraise the situation their feelings were summed up by the phrase, "this cannot be," as mentioned by Baptist missionary Arnold Peterson. "It was unheard of that the citizens of a city should rise up and throw off their government with no conscious planning and leadership" (Katsiaficas).
Other eyewitnesses stated that
?during the whole period of the uprising, Kwangju City coped with the crisis through humanitarian cooperation. Kwangju citizens ?shared food with those who were in need of it, donated blood to the wounded, and willingly helped anyone who was in need ?In spite of the complete absence of an official peace and order system, the Kwangju citizens maintained peace and order perfectly. Though so many firearms were in the hands of citizens, no incident took place due to it. Even financial agencies or jeweler's shops in which crimes are apt to happen in ordinary times were free from any criminal act (Katsiaficas).
Again, this spirit of cooperation and solidarity that allowed Kwangju to govern itself and function as normal was related to the values and consciousness of the citizens. They were able to translate their principles of democracy, justice and human dignity into effective actions that gave birth to an organic self-governing community.
C. Common humanity
As mentioned above, the Kwangju uprising stemmed from the fact that the citizens of Kwangju believed in certain values, such as democracy and human dignity, and were willing to fight for these values. The students began by fighting for democracy, and the rest of the city joined in as they were unable to accept the military's brutal reaction towards the demonstrators; "how dare soldiers, sponsored by our own money, sweat and blood, show such brutality against their own countrymen and women?" (Han Sang-jin, 149) In order to formulate such a question, the citizens of Kwangju would have needed to be aware of the fundamental dignity of all human beings and willing to fight against its denial. It is only by firmly believing that all humans have dignity, could they have fought to protect the dignity of their fellow citizens, be they demonstrating students. In joining the student demonstrations and fighting against the military, Kwangju citizens were fighting to have their dignity as human beings established. According to Han Sang-jin, "[b]eing silent about one's humiliation and oppressive degradation would invariably undermine human dignity. The struggle to obtain recognition is meaningful since it signifies that participants are already aware they are the bearers of moral values" (Han Sang-jin, 149). And the fight for human life and dignity is one that transcends all barriers, be they class, ideology, race or profession, which is why the Kwangju uprising was one that included all citizens, from students and elderly to women and taxi drivers.
However, the people of Kwangju did not merely fight for the values they held, they embodied them. Throughout the uprising, there was a spirit of cooperation, solidarity and justice, which has already been mentioned. During the short period of self-rule, direct democracy was also added:
Through the mass rallies and debates, the Kwangju citizens maintained order and stability with autonomy. The rallies which opened twice a day at three and nine o'clock, provided the citizens with unlimited venues to debate. Anyone who wanted to speak could do so without any limitation. This exemplified direct democracy (Han Sang-jin, 150).
The people of Kwangju were not simply fighting to rid the military from their city, but rather there were long term goals in mind -
[They] hoped to spark a nationwide uprising to overthrow the dictatorship - and they were willing to die trying to restore democracy in one fell swoop. They demanded qualitative changes in Korean politics - not only the lifting of martial law, release of all prisoners and a caretaker government, but the resignation of Chun Doo Hwan and full democratization. The struggle for student autonomy had spontaneously metamorphosized into a struggle for social autonomy and democracy (Katsiaficas).
Together with these long term goals came certain visions, as that of the citizens' army, who, "unafraid to impose a new type of order based on the needs of the populace ?disarmed all middle school and high school students" (Katsiaficas). Similarly, when the final assault was imminent (May 27), Yun Sang-won personally insisted that all high school students among the militants return home so that they could survive and continue the struggle. The younger militants departed after many protests and with tears in their eyes. These actions show a degree of thought and vision.
This vision is what led the young militants fight to the end on May 27, when the army brutally retook Kwangju in the early hours of the morning - the army began its operations at 2am, and had retaken the Provincial Hall by 4am. Those who stayed to fight were
prophets who knew that Kwangju and democracy in Korea would live on forever in history through their deaths. Their sacrifices endowed the Kwangju spirit with a self-fulfilling structure and the Kwangju uprising provided the starting point for a new social movement to achieve democracy in Korea and to overcome national division (Jung Keun-sik, 418).
This vision is also what South Korean activists referred to as the 'Kwangju spirit' during subsequent demonstrations for democracy both in Kwangju and in other cities. During those demonstrations and rallies, the sacrifice of the people of Kwangju was always remembered, with activists urging the crowd to 'succeed the Kwangju spirit'.
D. Questions For Discussion
In your opinion, which human rights were the citizens of Kwangju fighting for? How was this fight related to democracy?
Why do you think the young people stayed to fight on May 27, knowing that they would be killed??lt;/div>
What is the 'Kwangju spirit'?
How was the self-rule of Kwangju possible? How was it possible that there was no crime during the self-governing of Kwangju and what does this reflect?
Chung Sangyong, Rhyu Simin et al., Memories of May 1980, Korea Democracy Foundation, Seoul, 2003. Translated by Park Hye-Jin.
George Katsiaficas, 'Remembering the Kwangju Uprising', http://www.base21.org Accessed on 1 June 2004.
Han Sang-Jin, 'Struggle for Recognition and Popular Sovereignty: A New Interpretation of Kwangju Democratic Uprising', Asian Human Rights Charter and 'Kwangju', Kwangju Citizens' Solidarity & Asian Human Rights Commission (eds.), Chonnam National University Press, Kwangju, 1999, pp. 146-150.
Jung Keun-Sik, 'Kwangju Revived? Past, Present and Future', Memories of May 1980, Chung Sangyong, Rhyu Simin et al. (eds.), Korea Democracy Foundation, Seoul, 2003. Translated by Park Hye-Jin, pp. 406-430.
Jurgen Hinzpeter, 'An Eyewitness Report of the Kwangju Citizen's Uprising in 1980', Kwangju in the Eyes of the World, Amalie M Weber (ed.), Journalists Association of Korea, The Moo-deung Ilbo & Kwangju Citizens' Solidarity, Seoul, 1997, pp. 29-50.
Lee Jae-eui, Kwangju Diary: Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age, UCLA, 1999. Translated by Kap Su Seol and Nick Mamatas.
Norman Thorpe, 'Memories of Kwangju', Kwangju in the Eyes of the World, Amalie M Weber (ed.), Journalists Association of Korea, The Moo-deung Ilbo & Kwangju Citizens' Solidarity, Seoul, 1997, pp. 121-135.