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The student protests now known as Seoul Spring started in early May, with 100,000 students staging a sit-down to demand democracy in Seoul Square.


The Gwangju Uprising began the same day Mount St. Helens exploded on May 18th, 1980. There are estimates that more than 600 South Korean citizens were bayoneted, beaten or shot dead by their military. It’s still an under-reported event in comparison with democractic eruptions like Tiananmen Square. But the bloody question the Gwangju massacre left scrawled in contemporary history is still raw. How can we hear the timbre of freedom above the din of senseless murder?

The student protests now known as Seoul Spring started in early May, with 100,000 students staging a sit-down to demand democracy in Seoul Square.

The assassination of 19-year president Park Chung Hee brought hope, a feeling that now a long promised and fought for democracy was near. But a military coup saw Chun Doo-Hwang take power and impose martial law in the interim—shutting down universities and the country’s hopes.

But students kept meeting at night, in reading groups outside of the closed classrooms.

The southern city of Gwangju bore the worst of military’s brutality starting on May 18th outside Chonnam university. There were beatings against protestors and bystanders days before the all out slaughter.

Taxi drivers, horrified by the violence in their city, led a march with their vehicles, headlights beaming the way before they were dragged from their cars by soldiers.

“Outside Provincial Hall on May 21st the atmosphere was defiant but hopeful,” said human rights scholar Mathew Jacob speaking at the Gwangju May 18 Memorial Foundation.

“Everyone was there and no one knew they’d be killed.” It was a peaceful protest in spite of days of military violence. Chanting slogans and songs, the gathering people exchanged hot tea naïve to the military snipers taking position on the nearby rooftops.

At the blare of the national anthem at 1pm on May 21st, the military snipers were signaled to massacre the front line of demonstrators. Five hundred were wounded and 54 were killed that day.

In an instant Gwangju became a city mobilized by rage. Civilians raided police stations for weapons and supplies and people armed themselves with tools from a nearby mine.

The ragged group of young and old citizens drove the military into the suburbs in a heroic campaign to reclaim the downtown. The military cut off all access to and from Gwangju, blockading the city for fear the uprising would spread to other cities.

Jacob says, “Gwangju became a beautiful community, there was no theft, common kitchens were set up, mothers came together and they’d cook rice bowls and share, many who had not participated in the demonstration donated blood. People overcame their fear,” a survivor said, “I had a gun in my hand for five days, never pulled the trigger. The purpose wasn’t to kill but to protect.” Satirist P.J. O’Rourke, who covered the first national election in ‘87 after uprisings like Gwangju paved the way in blood, was awed by Korean students who continued to fight for a fair election. “Police were firing salvos of gas grenades, 20 at a time, into the fifth-floor windows. That the students could even stand in this maelstrom was a testament of Korean-ness. But they were not only standing; they were fighting like sons of bitches.”

A spine-tingling plea rang out in the streets of Gwangju from leaders of the civilian army as they drove the streets all night with megaphones while the military encroached from the outskirts of the city on the morning of the 26th.

“My fellow citizens, the army is entering our city now. Our dear brothers and sisters are being killed by their bayonets. We will fight against the army to the last. Let’s fight together to the last. We will defend our Gwangju to the last.”

Jacob says many of the survivors are haunted by those words, expressing regret at their own caution saying, “We live with the guilt of the last day May 27th, the Provincial Hall was overtaken by the military and the citizens army were killed, we were not inside . . . we should have been dead with them inside.”

Now, 35 years later, South Korea’s bloody road to democracy is eclipsed by market obsession and the neon night world of the endless downtown which never manages to outshine the shadow of rising suicides.

How South Korea went from what presidential advisor Kim Dong-Jin called “the poorest, most impossible country on this planet” in the 1950s into a first world technology superpower is an accelerationist’s wet dream. But with such rapid growth the tectonic fissures are widening.

“The rapid pace of development seems to have created a desire in the Korean people to always seek out the next thing,” writes Daniel Tudor in his book Impossible Country. Slums stretching from Seoul are newly adorned with commercial glow while bodies of abandoned elders are found rotting in tenement buildings. Unemployed youth seek distraction while so-called “octopus companies”, like Samsung are called “chaebols” for how they localize wealth among the elite few. Small farms close their doors and suicides spike among high school students trying to get into top schools.

Through all this a culture of glam and sentimentality dominates. An addiction to what Tudor calls “unchallenging, sacharine pop ballads” and novel gadgets keep the nation running in place.

Tudor writes of the LG Group, another of the sprawling“octopus businesses” that rule the economic landscape, where employees once sung: “We are industrial soldiers leading the times, with our new and continuous creativity and study . . . there is happiness for our race and mankind.”

The words might as well be the lyrics to an unsatisfying electronic track: all build up . . . no bass drop.

These twisted pirouettes of accelerating sound drift into polluted air of the endless downtown beneath neon crucifixes. It’s a ghostly wail of empty noise in an electric labyrinth of alleyways, drowning out the gong of a Buddhist prayer bell in the hills.

The idea of “chemyon,” translated as “face,” speaks to the Confucianist sense of duty experienced by Koreans but also the desire to present an idealized version of oneself. As luxury good sales spike during a downturn, status envy erodes self esteem.

Korea is a newly-minted enough superpower to veer from Japan’s post-grown ennui, a perennial underdog inoculated against China’s imperialistic expansion, it is weary too of the North’s oppressive autocracy — so what will define one of capitalism’s final national success stories?

Even as the north distances itself from a weakening Russian ruble, the south needs to slough off the dead dream of the west and leave the image of the American liberator, a blue-eyed GI handing out candy bars to children, to nostalgia.

The desire to save face is in contrast to a more promising Korean cultural trait called “jeong” which Tudor says “refers to feelings of fondness, caring, bonding and attachment that develop within interpersonal relationships.”

Jeong grows in patient opposition to dehumanizing forces. These same industrial soldiers who work long into the night fall asleep on each other in the subway and spend their meager free time caring for extended family.

Growing out of this sense of togetherness, a new batch of punks, artists and students are taking aim at the K-Pop gloss, replacing the ear-worms of PSY with raw scrawls of graffiti, poetry and defiance.

At a punk rock show in Hongdae’s univesity district, people smash bodies and howl like a generation that could joyfully lose face, raise a middle finger to elitism and weave an escape from tentacles of monopolized power.

These new songs are mingling with stray phrases of older anthems. At last year’s May 18th uprising celebration, president Park Geun-hye tried to ban Gwangju’s commemorative song for the fallen. The ban backfired and elders and children alike proudly sang into the night.

Ears are straining for vital music this spring that will ripple out past the peninsula, a new melody perceptible above the apocalyptic groanings of old powers falling into the cracks.

“Without leaving Love, Glory, or Name,

Determined to Fight for Democracy to the Last.

With Only the Banner of Liberation in the Wind,

– March of the Beloved

Gwangju May 18th anthem

— Andrew Mills is Adbusters Editor-at-Large

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