Korean Society: Civil Society, Democracy, and the State

By Charles K. Armstrong | Go to book overview

7


Commemorating Kwangju

The 5.18 movement and civil society at the millennium 1

Linda S. Lewis

Ah, ah - Oh Kwangju of May! Oh revolutionary Kwangju!

Oh city of youth who band firmly together, to fight.

In the struggle, flowers bloom; in the struggle, a new day comes.

Fight - fight - fight! Oh revolutionary Kwangju!

From “The Song of Going to the Kwangju
Battle, ” a popular May protest song

Now, as an unhappy era has been brought to a close and history is victorious, 5.18 is approaching a second stage, changing to a spirit of universal humanity. Accordingly, the underlying tone of the commemoration events themselves must be stripped of the so-called anti-government struggle style of the past.

Chŏng Su-man, Chairman, 5.18 Kwangju Peoples'
Uprising Bereaved Families' Association 2 (1997)

Each spring the May 18, 1980 Uprising 3 is remembered in Kwangju with parades, song fests, rallies, graveside memorial services and, all too often in the past, violent clashes with police. Oft-heard May “protest songs” like the one quoted above celebrate the revolutionary spirit of the city and its citizens, and the defiant tone of the anniversary events well into the 1990s typically reflected the oppositional political stance of the majority of the participants.

As the second quotation suggests, however, by the end of the decade even the leaders of the victims' groups in Kwangju had begun to disavow the “anti-government struggle style” characteristic of past commemorations. Indicative of this shift in public sentiment was the disappearance, in May 1998, of the familiar protest tunes; normally played and sung continuously all over town, by the eighteenth anniversary their militant, radical lyrics were deemed no longer appropriate to the occasion. 4 Along with depoliticization has come commodification, as well, as the Uprising has begun to be packaged as a tourist attraction. The twentieth anniversary saw the introduction of a cute cartoon 5.18 mascot, Nuxee, whose visage graces T-shirts, post cards, ballpoint pens and other souvenir items available for sale in the

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