Erenlai - Konrad Mathesius
Konrad Mathesius

Konrad Mathesius

Tuesday, 08 February 2011 00:00

My Gwanju trip: transitional justice in South Korea

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.

Thursday, 30 September 2010 17:46

Spiritual tradition, presentation and power in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

In the secretive state of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), a look into the past reveals some explanations for the present state of things.

Snooping around for information on the DPRK isn't really rocket science, but you have to read between the lines. With the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, in bad shape, both international and domestic media have been quick to cover recent shifts in power and the promotions of his son, Kim Jong-un. Taking into consideration the amount of energy that was invested in building up Kim Jong-il’s reputation as a gifted, nurturing and obvious choice for his father’s successor, it’s unnerving to think that the state has neglected to strike up an equivalent propaganda campaign for his son in DPRK media, nor has his inherent genius been lauded to the point of conviction. Considering the high levels of ideological indoctrination in the DPRK, the state seems to be neglecting necessary prerequisites for a legitimate leadership.

The state ideology, Juche, is often simplistically translated by one-time analysts as ‘self-reliance’. Others have mislabeled it a state religion. Based on these perceptions, the fear of instability is warranted. But despite the lack of fanfare surrounding Kim Jong-un, the true mechanism of power is likely to remain unchanged.

The state claims that Juche is based upon concepts developed by Kim Il-sung during his time spent as a guerilla in Manchuria. However, Juche wasn’t standard vocabulary until the early-to-mid 1960s when Soviet relations with their North Korean brethren cooled and Kim Il-sung was obliged to seek friends in the Third World. These ideas were then later refined by Kim Jong-il who published his contribution, ‘On the Juche Idea’, in 1982. There is a significant amount of debate surrounding whether or not the works of the Kims are original; nevertheless, these ideas touch on a number of socio-political subjects, with arguments based in ad hoc interpretations of history. The dichotomy that analysts often neglect to observe is between what was originally written as a guide to Juche, and how media coverage of the leadership and publications of their ideas have since conveyed the purpose of the State. On the books, Juche is political and devoid of overtly religious statements, but its presentation and the tone of the media support claims that North Koreans are living in a politically religious state.

When Mussolini was intent on spreading the idea that the state should be number one in people’s hearts, his propaganda machine began producing stories that borrowed from preexisting Italian concepts of spirituality. Coverage of soldiers in the field employed similar vocabulary as that used to describe Christian martyrs and crusaders. The Soviets replaced icons in Orthodox ceremonies with pictures of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. In the DPRK, Juche and its institutions draw on a number of ideas based in religions that existed on the Korean Peninsula prior to its murky inception in the late 1940s.

Academic work by Kim Jong-il and press coverage in the media often utilize teleology; references to ‘the completion of the revolution and construction’ at some undisclosed point in the future is related to the Cheondogyoist (The Religion of the Heavenly Way) concepts of Gaebyeok, a term that, simply put, refers to the bonding of heaven and earth that will occur when all people understand Cheondogyo, an indigenous Korean New Religious Movement.

Kim Jong-il’s legitimacy as a ruler is reinforced by Confucian concepts of morality. The media builds up the Leader’s credentials, presenting the case that he (Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in their respective eras of rule) is unquestionably the leader of choice. There is apparently no one more suitable for the role than the leaders themselves; there is logically no need for pluralism. The state also legitimizes the Kims’ cults of personality by utilizing culturally familiar concepts of the family-state to show that the leader is a paternal leader who loves the people.

The choice of words that is associated with the leadership in numerous articles harbours rather obvious connections to Christianity. Articles in the Rodong Sinmun (the mouthpiece of the Korean Worker’s Party) often refer to the Generals as “saints”: “(Kim Jong-il) is indeed the great saint of revolution who gives ineffable affection to those once he met and blooms their life.”[1] Unblushingly, the father receives an even higher status, “Kim Il-sung is the most outstanding thinker and theoretician produced by the 20th century and the master of leadership who performed such exploits as winning one victory after another and a great revolutionary saint in the 20th century possessed of extraordinary personality and charisma that fascinated all the people.”[2] In the Korean version of the text, seongin, or saint, is not exactly the same prefix given to Christian saints in the Bible seongdo. However, other major religions of Korea do not use the word seongin when addressing enlightened individuals in their texts. Cheondogyo reserves the title of Daesinsa and Sinsa for its historically influential leaders. Buddhist acolytes are referred to as sami.

Terminology aside, the state is also intent on linking political thought with morality. The moral obligations of the people are strictly defined along political lines. The goods and evils of society are absolute. People are obliged to follow based on prefabricated concepts of morality rather than law. North Koreans are lead to believe that internal and external enemies threaten their revolutionary progress. Because of the perceived gravity of the situation, the question of morality and ethics in the DPRK is passionately polarized. The people are constantly reminded of the unquestionable goods associated with their leadership and traditional Korean culture. On the other hand, through state-run media, they are informed daily of the ever-present dangers associated with the sycophantic worship of foreign powers and the ever-present threat of imperialistic interventions. Examples of model citizenry are held in the highest esteem and historical references often reiterate the characteristics of model citizens.


Lyrics change, but the song remains the same.

classSince 1994, Juche has become less and less commonplace in the media, even though the state’s style and presentation has remained consistent. In need of military support following the death of his father and waves of natural disasters that wreaked havoc upon the population, Kim Jong-il was obliged to introduce Seongun Cheongchi, or military-first politics. It has come to dominate the slogan banners around Pyongyang although the occasional reference to Juche still manages to makes its way into the limelight.

Slogans and policies reflect the shift from the old guard of the Korean Workers Party to the military. In addition to this, the rift between the party and the military seems to be growing.

This shift away from the Party concerns China's top dogs. See the May 8th article covering Hu Jintao's speech at the DPRK/ PRC banquet during Kim's most recent visit ( Hu repeatedly mentions the partnership of the Parties as the root for success and growth of the two countries. China's invitation to Kim in the midst of an investigation into an act of war was a clear signal that he was China's man and they would not support internal or external moves to change that.

In the tug of war for the balance of power, North Korea's military has, however, claimed its own victories. Pak Nam-gi, the financial director of the Workers' Party Korea Central Committee and a close adviser or Kim Jong-il was sacked in January and subsequently executed for his alleged responsibility in the currency reform bungle that wiped out family savings and brought public anger to a boiling point. In North Korean media he was often mentioned as an accompanying member of numerous facility tours by the Dear Leader. Yet there are other names that often come up, and they are nearly always mentioned first:

'Kim Jong-il inspects cattle farm of KPA unit' Nov 20, 2009

'...Central Committee of the He was accompanied by KPA [Korean People's Army] Generals Hyon Chol Hae, Ri Myong Su and other commanding officers of the army, Secretary of the WPK Kim Ki Nam and Department Directors of the WPK Central Committee Pak Nam Gi, Kim Kyong Hui and Jang Song Thaek.'

The Generals, Hyon Chol Hae, Ri Myong Su, are always present (at least in writing) on inspection tours of local KPA garrisons or facilities, they are often with him in non-KPA-related inspections, and they have been with him (minus Pak Nam Gi) in Kim's most recent tour. To name a few:

Kim Jong Il Inspects Hamhung Chemical Industry Univ. -- May 21, 2010
Kim Jong Il Inspects Taehongdan County -- May 19, 2010
Kim Jong Il Watches Football Match -- Nov 03, 2008
Kim Jong Il Appreciates Performance Given by State Symphony Orchestra -- Nov 27, 2006

Kim Jong-un might be the face for the new regime, but the real decisions will be made by the two men pinned to the gills with medals standing on either side of him. If they outlive the Dear Leader, from what little information we will be able to gather on them, Hyon Chol Hae and Ri Myong Su are two potential regents to watch.

The State will continue to utilize spiritual concepts to prop up the leadership. Although somewhat uncreative and excessively repetitive, propaganda in the DPRK works as a well-oiled machine. Its word choice and methodology stem back to pre-DPRK times and will employ the same strategy to prop up the leadership in the future. To the disappointment of both China and pundits predicting the imminent collapse of the DPRK following the death of Kim Jong-il, the state will putter along as it always has. Although the people will still be reading about the New Leader’s ability to instruct farmers how to grow more crops or, say, his gifted talent in foreign literature, Seongun Chongchi will continue to dominate the ideological arena and the military will continue to enjoy an internal position of strength in relation to the Party and the Kim Family.

[1] Seung Jae-sun and Pak Nam-jin, “Uri inmineun hyeongmyeongjeok insaenggwaneul chejilhwahan uidaehan inmin ida,” Rodong Sinmun, Dec 2, 1997.

[2] “Sun’s Day Observed,” Rodong Sinmun, April 15, 2001, KCNA online database:

Thursday, 01 July 2010 00:00

The sinking of the Cheonan

North Korea’s recent sinking of the South Korean navy vessel ‘The Cheonan’ has generated a lot of buzz and I'm going to jump on the bandwagon. I got wind of an article by Ruediger Frank, a well-known Pyongyang watcher. He proposes the idea that someone in the chain of command ordered the attack on the Cheonan without first gaining permission from the proper authorities.  The notion that someone other than the Dear Leader (Kim Jong-il) ordered the attack has crossed my mind. With this possibility there are a few things to take into consideration.

There are three domestic powers in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: The Party, the Family, and the military. The phasing out of Juche (self-reliance) rhetoric in favor of Seong-gun Jeong-chi (military-first politics) has been underway since the mid-nineties. This put the Party on the backburner as the main power broker and the military filled the void. Where ideology and economy fail, the barrel of a gun becomes the most reliable source of power. Most NoKo observers will agree that Kim was obliged to seek support in the military following the death of his father. As a result, Kim is obligated to work closely with the military in coordinating most matters of state.



What concerns me is the intensity with which some people have been indoctrinated into the ideology of the State. Like any system, there is a broad spectrum of loyalty and conviction among the people. Those people who had less against the State raised voices of rebuke when Kim agreed to dismantle the nuclear facilities last year. People were disappointed that he had shown deference to America's wishes; that he had doubled back on a hybrid ideology of self-reliant militaristic brinkmanship. It goes without saying that those in the military - their careers bolstered by an atmosphere of constant tension between North and South - are scattered similarly along the ideological spectrum; so much in some cases, that an act of insubordination wouldn't be all too surprising were the domestic situation bad enough. A vigilante attempt from below to put a regime, viewed as playing too soft, on the spot. The alternative is that they are trying to provoke a country-crushing retaliation from the South, going out in a blaze of glory in a final fight for the mother land... but I'll leave that scenario to Hollywood.



In the past I've been concerned about the lack of effort the State has put into building the image of Kim's son. In time, however, I've come to realize that it doesn't really matter what the people think of the leader as he will only be a mouthpiece of the military. I highly doubt that the rogue elements in the chain of command are keen to launch an all-out coup, but it's likely that they are dissatisfied with the state of things and want to shake it up a bit, hence the attack on the Cheonan. Kim gives them a face, and the military gives him support. It's a mutual relationship and neither is going to profit from the destruction of the regime.



Despite all the hype, what we need to keep in mind is that people have been predicting the downfall of the North for over half a century: if not from the people rising up in a blaze of democracy, then the inevitable crumbling of a failed economy or perestroika. As long as the army is fed and as long as Pyongyang is fed, the North exhibits enormous staying power. You cannot fight when you're hungry and with a lack of institutions that facilitate communication, any attempts at a revolution are dead in the water. Add to that the fact that people would probably go after each other (get to the armory-find the party cadres… aaah… that feels good) before any foreign powers could get into the action, escalation to all out war is in no one's interest.


The NoKos are betting that attack on the Cheonan will not escalate out of control. It will, however, get everyone's attention both domestically and internationally. It's not entirely unlikely that Kim knew about the attack either. Regardless of the supposed pressure from lower echelons, he'll be in the spotlight again. Nothing's going to change if you don't get things moving first. As usual, we can only guess what domestic amendments in policy the powers that be are looking to implement. Albeit the most frustrating option, our best choice is to listen up and engage the North.

Photos by K. Mathesius


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