My Gwanju trip: transitional justice in South Korea

by on Tuesday, 08 February 2011 Comments

The Gwangju Incident on May 18th 1980 is the bloodiest event in the modern history of South Korea. Thirty years on we went back to Gwangju and were surprised to find how many similarities there were between what happened there and in Taiwan.

Being unable to wait for spring to arrive in Seoul, I headed south to Gwangju with my friends from Korea and Hong Kong, hoping to catch spring early. We were also there to visit the scenes of the 1980 Gwangju Incident. The strong contrast between the now joyous place of Gwanju and imagining the terrible event that once took place there made us feel uncomfortable.

Gwangju is the fifth biggest city in South Korea. We got off the bus and the warm sunshine made me feel as though I just got off a bus escaping from Taipei to the central south of Taiwan; I was feeling relaxed. We got on bus 518 which would go past many important historical scenes of the Gwangju Incident (or “the May 18th Incident”). First, we came to “The Cemetery Of Democracy” where all the victims are buried. Right after the Gwangju Incident, the bodies of the victims were loaded onto trucks and taken to The Old Burial Ground. After investigations, transitional justice and other courses of action were taken, The Cemetery Of Democracy, along with another monument, was built next to The Old Burial Ground.

The Old Burial Ground is still the most important place for campaigners and supporters of the democracy movement. They have been gathering here for their campaigns since the 80s. Before the new cemetery was built, the government was hoping that The Old Burial Ground could be relocated, preventing the campaigners from “stirring up trouble”.

Unravelling the past

A history student from Chonnam National University at the entry of The Cemetery of Democracy volunteered to guide us around. Chonnam National University is one of the universities in Gwanju City and many of its students devoted themselves to campaigns at the time of the Gwanju Incident. When we first entered the newly built memorial park, we were in awe of the magnificent buildings there. The guide told us in private that the memorial park and the museum have been in control by the government since 2007 and were monitored by hundreds of surveillance cameras. She wasn’t happy about this situation and was a bit hesitant in telling us about it. Not surprisingly she wasn’t feeling all that comfortable on making too many negative remarks on the subject.

There are many spirit tablets and photos of the victims inside the right part of the building. Some bodies of the victims have never been found, so their families grieve by placing photos of their loved ones here. Many are students in uniform and there is even a photo of a woman in wedding dress. The guide told us that the newly-wed woman was pregnant at the time when she was killed.

Then we went to the Gwanju Incident Museum. This was my first time here so I was only paying attention to the beautiful art installations, however, my Korean friend who has been here many times before, kept telling me that there had been a huge change. I couldn’t understand what she meant at first, until we met an old gentleman and his family. This old gentleman is a Gwanju resident who lived through the Gwanju Incident. He was complaining furiously to the guide that many of the first hand photos of the incident that were here before have been taken away, leaving only the manufactured interactive artworks on display.

41The memory that has been polished

The old gentleman said angrily: “They should display those photos here because only those photos can make people understand the raw violence of the incident without the use of any text.”

Only this sort of emotional intensity would make people realise that this piece of history cannot be repeated again. The old gentleman was using the holiday time to show his family around. His children listened carefully to what he was saying and asked him questions. The old gentleman’s grandson and granddaughter were pointing to the documentary film that was showing on the walls and were talking to each other in children’s language, running around the place. Suddenly, I felt very touched by seeing this family here. People pay tributes to their loved ones in a cemetery, however, here I saw people of different generations being alive, carrying on with their lives and the way they face their bitter past. Just like the bright sunshine outside the museum, they looked so hopeful.

Before sunset, we walked to the Old Burial Ground by following the tour signs. The national flag there is always at half-mast to express condolences. Although most victims of the Gwanju Incident were relocated to the new cemetery, there are people who lost their lives fighting for labour and social movements buried here. There are even some tombstones with red protesting scarfs tying around them saying “Lee Myung-Bak step down!My Korean friend told me that these people died in the protests against Lee Myung-Bak after he was elected president.

 

That evening we were in the campus of Chonnam National University asking for directions and chatting to the students there. My friends told them we were from Seoul and would like to see some historical scenes of the Gwanju Incident. One of the students told us that he is from Gwanju and there is nothing to see here any more. We asked him about Jeollanam-do Hall (where the Gwanju people fought to the end against the army in a gun battle). My friend said that he saw the bullet holes on Jeollanam-do Hall when he was here before, but when we were on the bus going past it earlier that day we discovered the whole place was closed and we were unable to go anywhere near it. The guide at The Cemetery Of Democracy told us that Jeollanam-Do Hall was going to be demolished and transformed into a civic centre. This piece of information was confirmed by the students at Chonnam National University.

A site that no one looks after

The next day we wanted to visit “518 Freedom Park” so we followed the map. We got off the subway station and saw “Kim Dae-jung Convention and Exhibition Centre” which looks as magnificent as the Taipei Arena and is very modern. After asking for directions we went past a golf course, but were lost and could not find any park. So we asked for directions again, and realised that the fences with little houses beyond them that we just went past were actually the park we were looking for. This was where the arrested survivors of the Gwanju Incident were imprisoned and brought to trial in a temporary military law court and prison. We heard that at the time of the incident over a hundred people were squeezed into each little house. We were the only ones in the “park” and even the help desk was looking deserted with no one behind it. Although it was a sunny day, the place felt gloomy and serious and we weren’t saying a word to one another. Maybe it was because we were too tired or because of the kind of place we were at, either way, everyone lost the ability to speak.

 

We also visited the nearby museum. Similar to the park, no one is stationed here. There is a Tai-Chi flag (national flag of South Korea) on display inside. This blood-stained flag was used to cover the wounds of the injured people at the time of the Incident. It is said that the flag has different meanings for the people of Gwanju - people who were hurt by their own country were using the national flag to stop the bleeding. Whose country is this? Who were the citizens of this country bleeding for?

 

An urban renewal plan that makes people think

 

This place is located in the newer district of the Gwanju City so we can tell that the temporary prison and courts must have been situated in the remote rural area at the time of the Incident. From inside the entry of the prison looking out, we could see in order, Kim Dae-jung Convention and Exhibition Centre, the elevated fences of the golf course and the newly-built tall apartments. In the warm sunlight, we could see that Kim Dae-jung Convention and Exhibition Centre was hosting a flora expo. The laughter and music coming from the centre strongly contrasted with the sombre museum.

 

By turning our eyes from the modern exhibition centre to the historical site, which was a place of killing and imprisonment, there are so many different angles we can look at it, whether it is from the inside looking out or from the outside looking in. The thought of Jeollanam-Do Hall being transformed into a civic centre made us realise that the urban renewal plan here is not as simple as just building new buildings on an old site, or the co-existance of old and new buildings or the old and new souls living together. The urban renewal plan will actually affect the way the people of Gwanju City will look at this last piece of history, which barely made its way to the present from the past.

 

42Transitional justice needs to be implemented

For the current government, we need to look at today’s Gwanju inside the framework of transitional justice. When I was attending a class on Human Rights as an auditor at Sunkonghoe University, the lecturer mentioned the three steps for transitional justice: truth, justice and reconciliation. We were encouraged by the lecturer to do case studies on the countries who are putting efforts into transitional justice, for example, South Africa, Indonesia, South Korea and so on. Some only have truth but no justice and reconciliation; some only have reconciliation but no truth. What is so complicated about transitional justice is this: what is the truth? To what extent do we impose justice on people? Who should reconcile with whom? Justice inside the human rights framework talks about punishment and non-punishment by law. Human rights activists would say that someone needs to be punished before justice can be achieved, otherwise a dictator or a military government will emerge again because they know whatever they do, they will never be punished by law. Take the case of the Gwanju Incident: many truths were revealed, the 518 Foundation was established and the leaders of the military government served terms of imprisonment. Everyone in my Human rights class agreed that some forms of justice and truth being carried out, but is this the end of it? Human rights cannot co-exist with anarchy, there must be some kind of political objective. However, how human rights and transitional justice are implemented without being taken advantage of by those with political interests is probably the hardest part of the equation. South Korea or its government can treat the Gwanju Incident as an average historical event or label those who died in the incident as patriots, making them national heroes. Or they can embellish these scars of history by transforming them into culture parks, so families can come here spending times together during holiday periods.

 

We have to face the bloody history

 

 

 

The rulers have too many ways to manipulate or “package up” history. This is evident by the fact that the museum of The Cemetery Of Democracy is being transformed into a leisure and arts exhibition centre, the photos taken during the bloody suppression were removed and the bullet-riddled Jeollanam-do Hall will be turned into a civic centre designed by well known architects. Leisure, culture, art and human rights seem unrelated to one another, but are being put together to make everything look blurry and pretty. However, the country’s violence should never be blurry or pretty. The victims and their families have their own stories to tell. They had to remain silent at the time of the Gwanju Incident, hiding their stories and watching them be hidden away from the public. After these people finally received the chance to redress their miscarriage of justice, are they going to watch the truths be hidden away from the public again?

 

We can sell leisure, culture and art for a good price. Human rights, after being decorated by art and marketing methods could probably sell even better. No one wants to see unpleasant pictures, gloomy scenes and the bloody past. However, using a positive attitude to try and solve these problems is a choice that any democratic country with proper human rights has to make. After doing some research on the 2009 Jingmei Human Rights Park in Taiwan and some controversies it was causing at the time, I was surprised to find that both the Korean and the Taiwanese governments wanted to transform a human rights park into some kind of culture park, hiring artists to try and make these places more “alive”. This is way beyond my imagination.

 

After visiting some historical sites of the Gwanju Incident, I wish that human rights and democracy will one day come to fruition in every country where people fighting and sacrificing for them. I wish that these rights will protect us and future generations. Those who fought for our human rights, just like flowers that bloom every year, will always be living in our hearts.

 

Translated from Chinese by Jason Chen. Photos provided by Ya-Qi Yang and Christopher John

 

The original article in Mandarin may be viewed here.

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