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Laying Claim to the Memory of May

Laying Claim to the Memory of May: A Look Back at the 1980 Kwangju Uprising

Linda S. Lewis
Copyright Date: 2002
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    Laying Claim to the Memory of May
    Book Description:

    The Kwangju Uprising--"Korea's Tiananmen"--is one of the most important political events in late twentieth-century Korean history. What began as a peaceful demonstration against the imposition of military rule in the southwestern city of Kwangju in May 1980 turned into a bloody people's revolt. In the two decades since, memories of the Kwangju Uprising have lived on, assuming symbolic importance in the Korean democracy movement, underlying the rise in anti-American sentiment in South Korea, and shaping the nation's transition to a civil society. Nonetheless it remains a contested event, the subject still of controversy, confusion, international debate, and competing claims. As one of the few Western eyewitnesses to the Uprising, Linda Lewis is uniquely positioned to write about the event. In this innovative work on commemoration politics, social representation, and memory, Lewis draws on her fieldwork notes from May 1980, writings from the 1980s, and ethnographic research she conducted in the late 1990s on the memorialization of Kwangju and its relationship to changes in the national political culture. Throughout, the chronological organization of the text is crisscrossed with commentary that provocatively disrupts the narrative flow and engages the reader in the reflexive process of remembering Kwangju over two decades. Highly original in its method and approach, Laying Claim to the Memory of May situates this seminal event in a broad historical and scholarly context. The result is not only the definitive history of the Kwangju Uprising, but also a sweeping overview of Korean studies over the last few decades.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6330-2
    Subjects: Political Science, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Note on Transliteration and Translation
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xv-xxii)

    On May 17, 1995, I sat on a raised dais at the front of a conference room on the twelfth floor of a new building in downtown Kwangju. Kwangju—at over one million inhabitants, South Korea’s fifth largest city but still a regional backwater in comparison with other areas—is the capital of South Chŏlla Province in the extreme southwestern part of the country. I had made the 150-mile trip from Seoul in four hours by train, although in the future I would come to prefer the more convenient fifty-minute commute by air. The building loomed over Kŭmnamno, the city’s...

  6. PART I Kwangju, 1980:: A Narrative Account

    • 5.18 Begins Violence and Confusion on the City’s Streets
      (pp. 3-13)

      The 1980 Kwangju Uprising began on Sunday, May 18, when a relatively small group of about two hundred college students, in defiance of a military ban on political activities, marched to the Provincial Office Building in the heart of downtown Kwangju and held a peaceful demonstration. Chanting “End martial law!,” “Free Kim Dae Jung!,” and “Down with Chun Doo Hwan” (head of the ruling military junta) (Hwang Sŏh Yŏng 1985:37), the by now five hundred demonstrators were at first met by riot police with tear gas who attempted to disperse the crowds. But in the early afternoon military troops began...

    • The “Righteous” Rebellion Citizens Fight Back
      (pp. 14-24)

      While demonstrations were slow to start on Tuesday, May 20, by night time the whole central part of town was literally as well as figuratively inflamed. MBC, the Kwangju Tax Office, the Provincial Office Building car depot, and sixteen police substations were burned down, and the Korea Broadcasting System (KBS) and the Labor Supervision Office had been set on fire; there were vehicles in flames all over town. Insurgents controlled all but the Kwangju train station and the Provincial Office Building, and by 4:00 A.M. (May 21) the station had been taken as well (Hwang Sŏk Yŏng 1985:79–105). That...

    • Democracy in Action The Days of “Free Kwangju”
      (pp. 25-51)

      Although it was not yet clear to cautious citizens still staying close to their own front gates and afraid to venture out, the soldiers were indeed gone. Thursday, May 22, was the first day in a new stage in the uprising, the period of“Kwangju haebang”(Kwangju liberation). The military’s retreat was a tactical decision (Hwang Sŏk Yŏng 1985:131–132). Thesimin’gunhad captured 2,240 carbine rifles, 1,225 M-1 rifles, 12 38-caliber revolvers, 45 military pistols, 2 LMG machine guns, 46,400 rounds of ammunition, dozens of M-60 machine guns, 4 boxes of TNT, many hand grenades, 100 detonators, 5 armored...

    • Popular Hopes Crushed The Army Retakes the City
      (pp. 52-58)

      At midnight the long-distance phone line in the Provincial Office Building had gone dead; the standoff was over. Small units ofsimin’gunwere strategically deployed around the city. Of the perhaps five hundred mainly young people who had been in the headquarters during the day, only about two hundred remained, ten of them women.¹ About fifty members of the women’s bureau (including some wives of the male leadership) were at the YWCA, although most eventually fled to a nearby church.

      In both public and private memory, the strongest representation of that last night remains the lone voice of a young...

    • “Kwangju Continues” The Summer of 1980 and Beyond
      (pp. 59-72)

      But I was wrong; the Kwangju Uprising was far from over. The collective nightmare of May was followed by the shared emotional devastation of the summer and fall of 1980. The rest of that year was a particularly tense, uncertain, and depressing period in all of South Korea, but life was especially bleak and full of sorrow in Kwangju. In April Chun Doo Hwan had illegally made himself director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), the country’s most powerful civilian organization. Throughout the summer he maneuvered cronies into key positions, and in August he succeeded Choi Kyu-ha as interim...

  7. PART II City of Light/City of Outlaws

    • Truth Telling in the Fifth Republic
      (pp. 75-96)

      During the Fifth Republic—that is, the presidency of Chun Doo Hwan (1981–1988)—it was difficult even to speak of the Kwangju Uprising, let alone do research or attempt to write about what had happened. Lee Jae-eui tells of his apprehensions and fears as he and a few friends in 1985 began work on their definitive account,Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age;they covered the windows at night so no one could see in and arranged secret signals with their families should the authorities be watching.¹

      While in a retrospective gaze these precautions seem almost quaintly...

  8. PART III Commemorating Kwangju:: From Lamentation To Celebration

    • Kwangju in the 1990s
      (pp. 99-107)

      On May 17, 1998, I stood on Kŭmnamno in front of the Catholic Center in Kwangju, waiting for the Eighteenth Anniversary Pre-Eve Fest event to begin. As usual on this day, the street was closed to traffic, and at the end of the block, against the fountain in front of the Provincial Office Building, a huge stage (almost as wide as the fountain itself) with a gigantic television screen suspended above it (so those in the back could see) had been set up for the annual Eve Fest (chŏnyaje) gala. The stage, the plaza behind it, and the first block...

    • The Construction Of Memory And the 5.18 Movement An Overview
      (pp. 108-110)

      The changing character of May in Kwangju, from lamentation to celebration, reflects several things. First and most obviously, it is a consequence of an altered national political context, in which Kwangju has been transformed over twenty years from a site of local memory and mourning to a national sacred place and civic leaders can begin to reimage the city as an Asian “Mecca of Democracy” rather than as the symbolic center of national oppositional political protest and resistance. Certainly the celebratory tone of recent anniversaries follows the achievement in South Korea of a more democratic national civilian government, a shift...

    • Making Martyrs and Patriotic Heroes Direct Victims’ Groups and the Legitimation of 5.18
      (pp. 111-134)

      Throughout the 1980s, the construction of a counterhegemonic Uprising story and the work of memorializing 5.18 was largely controlled by those who had suffered the most—that is, the victims and their families. The large number of groups in the broad, loosely defined 5.18 movement are organized on the basis of degree and kind of participation in the Kwangju Uprising, and the competing agendas and fragmentation within the movement since have their origins there too.¹ For the first ten years, leadership came from within the coalition of “directly affected” or “direct victims” groups—that is, associations composed of the three...

    • The Uprising as Civic Asset New Citizens’ Groups and the Reimaging of Kwangju
      (pp. 135-143)

      In May 2000 the city government moved the Kwangju Biennale, an ambitious biannual, international, progressive/alternative art festival begun in 1995, from the fall to the spring to overlap with the May anniversary events; thus the major civic festivals representing the two sides of Kwangju’s self-proclaimed identity—as “City of Arts and Culture” and “Mecca of Democracy”—were joined, creating a single tourist attraction.¹ That year, shuttle buses ran between the 5.18 Cemetery and the Biennale site, and discount admission tickets to the artfest were on sale at a small kiosk near the cemetery entrance. Posters and T-shirts with the slogan...

    • What Is the “Kwangju Spirit”?
      (pp. 144-151)

      The growing influence of the new civic groups in Kwangju is dependent, as has been suggested, on a more symbolic and inclusive interpretation of the meaning of the Kwangju Uprising and its “spirit” and the presumption that all Kwangju citizens—and even perhaps all Koreans—are rightful heirs to its legacy. Not surprisingly (as we have also seen), the directly affected groups have supported a narrower, more concrete and practical construction of the Uprising’s meaning and their own privileged claims to it. A 1988 survey that compared the attitudes of direct victims with the general Kwangju citizenry found that direct...

    • Remembering Kwangju in Post-Minjung Korea
      (pp. 152-162)

      It would be ironic if the price of the restoration of Kwangju’s honor, the result of state appropriation of 5.18 and the consequent national recognition and memorialization of May, is the erasure from public memory of the long struggle to realize that goal and the continued suffering of many of its victims. As the Kwangju Uprising story is retold in stone at the monumental new 5.18 Cemetery, its end point frozen in time on May 27, 1980, the Uprising’s postlude plays on. There are in Kwangju many whose personal histories are counterhegemonic, whose very bodies even offer a site for...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 163-178)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 179-184)
  11. Index
    (pp. 185-190)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 191-194)