Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Monday, May 19, 2008


Those paintings were on display at various places on Chungjang-no and in front of the Old Provincial Office on May 17th and 18th as part of a huge street festival commemorating the Gwangju Massacre. The one of the tank running over the Korean flag is called "Han," and the large mural of soldiers aiming at children is likely meant to depict Americans, given the soldiers' large noses and the painting's location next to these others. I have to question the sanity of those who constantly invoke this incident, as it's not used to preserve the memory of those two girls, but rather to encapsulate a victimization complex that is so vital to the national psyche. Obviously the intention is not to foster pathos or sympathy, but to provoke anger, anger so important to the current struggle against American beef. After all, if the artists were looking to depict sorrow, or to trigger feelings of helplessness and terror, and if the festival organizers were truly aiming toward that end, they could have chosen pieces that represented the Gwangju Massacre, the reason, like, the street festival was happening in the first place. There were a few others in the series, including two of a mother weeping over her daughter killed in 2002.

Granted, I've cherrypicked this display out of others on, for example, the tornado in Burma, but the paintings were prominently displayed and did occupy spots next to a series of much larger anti-FTA posters. Likewise, this was not at some county fair in Gangjin, or a get-together in some unremarkable corner of the country, these were on display at a massive rally hosted by "The 28th Memorial Commemorative Committee for the May 18 Democratic Uprising." A common refrain heard among Koreans is the need for self-determination by retaking their own country from overbearing foreign influences, and in this the FTA, the 2002 tank incident, and certain representations of the 1980 Massacre are united. While I don't understand much Korean, and may be wrong, I suspect this is how the American beef protests and the anti-American displays were introduced to commemoration of a domestic massacre. I suspect invoking "the spirit of the 1980 democratic movement" is how that all worked out.

I didn't really know what to expect from this particular rally, but went because it was on a weekend and because I know next to nothing about the Massacre. The program talked about events happening all day along Chungjang-no and in Democracy Square. I've attached a scan of the program, which I stole off this 518 International Solidarity Program post:

I did my best to cover the events of that day and evening, in the hopes of at least getting a few photos. I watched the parade, I went to the candlelight vigil, and I listened to an hour of speeches on Amerian beef. When they brought out the kindergarten children to sing songs about Mad Cow Disease, though, I left and went somewhere else. The candles were distributed during one of the speeches, and when they were lit the lights were dropped and they showed scenes from the Massacre intercut with a few shots of Lee Myung-bak. Playing over the pictures and videos of beatings and corpses was Wanger's "Ride of the Valkyries." After a few minutes of that the music switched to that "Pilsung Korea" song and the videos switched from the Massacre to Mad Cow Disease. Plenty of videos of Lee Myung-bak, Noh Moo-hyun, and George Bush, and plenty of clips of cows being dragged by the neck, cows in pens, and cows staggering around. That went on for several minutes, too, and the MC returned to make more speeches and to direct the audience to do the wave with their candles. Then, a little while later a group of children came out to sing and dance about Mad Cow Disease, and I left. I have no idea what transpired in the hour or so that remained---the program said there would be some songs and a torch parade---it was clear that as little mind was paid to the Massacre's victims as possible. Unless you consider juxtaposing a week of terror with Lee Myung-bak and diseased cows to be mindful.

Here are a few more pictures of the parade which made its way down Chungjang-no and terminated at the Old Provincial Hall. My apologies for the quality, I had to rely on my cellphone.

The truck full of soldiers led the parade and were on their way to Democracy Square to recreate a battle.

The drummers all had messages about the FTA printed on red cloth tied to their drums.

The back of the truck had several bags of water balloons, which people of all ages could throw at two angry American bulls on either side and at Lee Myung-bak as a bull on the back.

Mother and daughter bonding.

This guy was standing in front of me and I was pissed that he wouldn't move so the strap would expose the swastika. Finally heaven smiled down on me.

Like I said, I didn't know what to expect from the May 17th events, though I guess I hoped for a little more solemnity and a little bit more information on the Massacre itself. Had I checked the papers on May 17th, though, I probably wouldn't have been so surprised. From the Hankyoreh:

It is also expected that unions, students and farmers will hold a series of rallies against the resumption of U.S. beef imports, the cross-country waterway and mistreatment of irregular workers. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, one of the country’s two major umbrella labor groups, and Hanchongyeon, a umbrella organization for university student unions, will participate in a national convention designed to recapture the spirit of the Gwangju Uprising to be held in front of the former provincial office building on May 18 following rallies at Gwangju Station and Chosun University on the previous day. The two groups will issue a “May statement” to protest the importation of U.S. beef and the ROK-U.S. free trade agreement.
While I guess some would claim I unfairly portrayed the day's events by posting those few paintings up top, nobody could seriously argue that I've misrepresented the day's theme, which was to demonstrate against the FTA and American beef.

I planned to visit the May 18th National Cemetery for the first time on May 18th, and happened across the aptly-numbered city bus 518 which made lots of stops downtown and which would hit both the new cemetary and the old one. Unlike the event last night and the rallies last week, which drew lots of families and young people, respectively, this bus was full of old people, people who obviously were adults in 1980. While I was on the bus to the cemetery I started thinking about the previous night and about what exactly I was doing and why I was "expecting" a certain mood. I thought back to all the stuff surrounding the Namdaemun fire---anybody remember that?---and the articles on "dark tourism" that called the arson the emotional equivalent of 9/11 and likened tourism to the charred gate to seeing Auschwitz or visiting the Cambodian Killing Fields. Moreso than Namdaemun, the cemetery and all of the many other spots in Gwangju represent far better examples of "dark tourism," because the Massacre actually had human victims. And this sentence doesn't fit, but I recall the furor over a few pictures of Japanese tourists happily posing in front of the ruins of Namdaemun, while Korean tourists both on 5/18 and at other times find no fault with enjoying themselves in a graveyard, all of which really reminds us how hard lots of people were trying to create some emotional attachment to the fallen gate. Anyway, here's what the plaque in front of the cemetery says:
Here in the National Cemetery for the May 18th Democratic Uprising lie the meritorious persons who fought and sacrificed themselves during the Gwangju Uprising of 1980 and those laudable victims who died in the aftermath of the physical or mental injuries they sustained.
The bodies of the victims were carried in garbage trucks and carts and buried without official recognition in the Old May 18 Cemetery (the 3rd graveyard of the Municipal Cemetery).
With the completion of a 3-year consecration project (1994-1997), all bodies were movied and reburied together in this new cemetery. In accordance with the Act on the Honorable Treatment for Meritorious Persons of the May 18th Uprising, this cemetery, which had een managed by the Gwangju Municipal Administration, was promoted and renamed as the National Cemetery for the May 18th Democratic Uprising on July 27, 2002 by the Korean state.
This cemetery will function as an education center, promoting the conviction that injustice and dictatorships hould never return to this country, so that the spirit of May 18th may be engraved in the hearts of all people making this a sacred place for democracy forever.

There's some perspective for you. It's not my place to try and pretend to tell people what they should remember and how they ought to remember it, but I just found it strange to see how the memory of the massacre was being trumped by the imagined fears of Mad Cow Disease. While I understand---but disagree with---the symbolism attributed to beef and the FTA, and that it's becoming as much an issue of national survival as it is personal, I cannot consider further politicizing these 200-some deaths as anything but bad taste. Ironic that a quote-unquote democratic movement is being invoked to squash an open market. And as I wandered among the graves and rows of tombs filled with teenagers, it struck me that students today are imbibed with the same furor over beef that the young people buried here had for their causes. It's well beyond my means to examine the true motives of all those who faught, who were caught up in fighting, who witnessed the fighting, and were killed, but the irony of the scene was palpable. There can be no mistake that the fight against beef was being cast to resemble the fight against military rule, especially when we consider the video shown the night before and political cartoons like this.

I got there around 10:30, just as the President and other dignitaries were leaving. There were thousands of police in riot gear, thousands of other uniformed cops, and rows of bodyguards, all of whom thinned out after the motorcade left. The mood when I arrived was more solemn than the night before, likely because "more than 3,000 family members of the victims and social representatives were expected to attend," according to that Hankyoreh article. The next day the Chosun Ilbo put that figure at 2,500, and quoted President Lee as saying:
"I'm lowering my head to pray for the repose of the souls of those who fell during the 1980 movement for freedom and democracy 28 years ago today. The spirit of the 1980 democratic movement is a valuable asset in itself. But we must develop it as a spiritual pillar with which we can build a top-notch, advanced nation."

Other parts of the morning were not as solemn. In the first picture there is a woman in white weeping over the grave of, presumably, a child, as photographers gathered around her. The same scene was repeated anytime a woman, always in white, would sit beside a grave and weep.

In the second picture, this man crouches between two plots to take a photo of an old woman to my left. After I was in the park for a little while the crowd became younger. All day long students crowded around this tomb to pay their respects. In the photo below a group had just finished singing a song and were being directed and subsequently interviewed by a man in the foreground.

Other students had come to complete a homework assignment and bowed in front of each grave. Others were, I'm sure, just doing the same thing as me. But the groups that stood out were those under the literal and figurative banners. Lots of these university students brought their anti-FTA cards and t-shirts with them as they followed their guide around the park. Others, like in the last picture, marched under the banner of Che Guevara.

I'll finish this off by quoting from another plaque at the cemetery's entrance. Entitled "The Meaning of the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising" the English part of the bilingual plaque reads (emphasis mine):
The May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising was a civil uprising against a military dictatorship conspiring to seize political power illegally, in which citizens demanded a true democracy in Korea. It was an eruption of the people's strong desire to declare themselves as masters of their own history and to defend their rights.
The May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising provided the momentum for other democratic movements in Korea and confirmed that the people, once awakend (sic), are the driving force in the development of a democratic society. The Uprising was a legitimate and just struggle against injustice and dictatorship.
In addition, the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising played an important role in unveiling the immorality of the military regime of the Fifth Republic.
Furthermore, it was a decisive moment which eventually brought an end to the illegitimate political system and gave birth to a truly democratic government, when for the first time in its history a peaceful turnover of political power from the government party to an opposition party occurred in February 1998.
The Gwangju Democratic Uprising will be remembered as a people's struggle, which not only inherited the tradition of independence, democracy and reunification that had manifested itself in past historical struggles for human rights but also introduced a new indestructible determination for justice in the modern history of Korea.

Edit: I forgot to mention this, but anyone interested in reading some interesting perspectives on the Gwangju Uprising ought to browse through the posts in Gusts of Popular Feeling's Kwangju Uprising category. He hits on a number of issues I've been thinking about these past couple days, and I've found this post particularly interesting. Who knew that the Gwangju Massacre had its own cartoon mascot?

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