Should that fateful day in May come once again…
Every year in May, the South Korean people remember Gwangju in May 1980. On May 18, 1980, the Chun Doo-hwan military forces began brutally massacring Gwangju citizens who had risen up to demand democracy. Paratroopers entered Gwangju, then violently shot down citizens and waved their bayonets and batons in the air. Those who died were all innocent and unarmed civilian men and women, young and old.
Outraged Gwangju citizens armed themselves and drove out the paratroopers to create a ‘liberated Gwangju’. On May 27, 1980, paratroopers entered Gwangju once again. The civilian army, assembled at the South Jeolla provincial government building, courageously waged a final showdown against the paratroopers. The citizen soldiers fell one after another and lost their lives in a blaze of gunfire. And in this way, ten days of heroic struggle by the Gwangju citizens tragically came to an end.
The Legacy of the Gwangju Uprising
The May 18 Gwangju people’s uprising marks an important turning point in Korea’s modern history. After the May 18 uprising, the South Korean people began to confront head on the military dictatorship, and their struggle culminated in the June people’s uprising in 1987. After the May 18 uprising, the South Korean people also began to fight not only to topple dictatorship but fundamentally transform South Korean society. The South Korean people waged an all-out struggle to realize self-reliance from foreign powers, democracy for the people, and peaceful unification.
The Dynamic Development of Korean Democracy
Commemoration without ‘March for the Beloved’
Since 1997, May 18 has been recognized as a national memorial day. Every year, the South Korean government, along with civilian organizations, holds a ceremony to commemorate the uprising and memorialize the dead.
The following is a Hankyoreh newspaper report on the ’34th Anniversary Commemoration of the May 18 People’s Uprising’ held this year in Gwangju – Gwangju memorial service marred by controversy over memorial song
“It was an unfamiliar scene. At the 34th memorial ceremony for the Gwangju Democratization Movement, which was held at the May 18th National Cemetery in Gwangju, the “Mothers of May” in their white funeral garb were not to be seen.
The three May 18th organizations – the Association of Bereaved Families of May 18th Democratic Heroes, the Association of the Wounded, and the Association for the Arrested and the Wounded – along with the May 18th Memorial Foundation did not participate in the memorial service.
The groups were protesting the fact that the central government had disregarded a resolution passed in June 2013 with bipartisan support from 162 legislators urging that “March of the Beloved” be selected as the official song of the memorial service. The New Politics Alliance for Democracy and smaller opposition parties declined to attend the memorial service for the same reason.”
All South Koreans recognize ‘March of the Beloved’ as the official song that represents the May Gwangju people’s uprising. This is arguably the most popular song not only at commemorations for the Gwangju people’s uprising but also at various rallies, protests, and other sites of people’s struggle.
March of the Beloved
So why does the Park Geun-hye government refuse the designation of this song as the official May 18 commemoration song? That’s because the current Park Geun-hye government is composed of those who had vested interests in the authoritarian military governments of the past. It’s no secret that President Park Geun-hye and key figures in the current government as well as the ruling Saenuri Party were either part of the Park Chung-hee, Chun Doo-hwan, and/or Roh Tae-woo military governments or their beneficiaries. They took part, supported, and/or protected those responsible in the massacre following the May 18 Gwangju people’s uprising. For them, the May 18 commemoration is something they simply can’t avoid because it is recognized by law, but singing the ‘March of the Beloved’ is out of the question.
The fight over the ‘March of the Beloved’ song between the Park Geun-hye government and the civilian organizations commemorating May 18 is a repeat of the struggle fought in Gwangju 34 years ago. The struggle between the ruling authoritarian forces and the people in defense of democracy still continues today. Ultimately, the Park Geun-hye government’s attempt to annihilate the spirit of May 18 for self-reliance, democracy, and unification will not prevail. That’s because, as the long and enduring history of the Korean people’s struggle shows, the people will never be defeated.
The Solemn Origin of the ‘March of the Beloved’
“Leaving behind neither love, glory, nor our names,
We vow to march together for the rest of our lives.
Comrades can’t be found, but our banner still flutters.
Let us not falter ‘til the new day comes.
Time passes, but the mountains and streams remember
The ardent cry of those awakened
‘I will march ahead, so follow me, you that live’
‘I will march ahead, so follow me, you that live’”
These are the lyrics of ‘March of the Beloved.’ On February 20, 1982, a wedding ceremony took place at the Mang-wol cemetary in Gwangju. The wedding party sang this song and said, “We dedicate this song to the bride and groom, neither of whom can be seen here, at this most beautiful and somber wedding.” The bride in the wedding ceremony was the spirit of Park Ki-sun, who died on December 27, 1978, and the groom Yun Sang-won, who died on May 27, 1980.
The words to this song were derived from the poem ‘Moet Binari’ – a requiem (a song for the repose of the dead). Gwangju writer Hwang Seok-yeong turned Baek Ki-Wan’s poem into song lyrics, and Kim Jong-ryul wrote the melody to complete the song. Kim Jong-ryul, who wrote the melody, was the groom Yun Sang-won’s junior at South Jeolla University. Who, then, was Yun Sang-won? He is a patriotic martyr, who, as part of the leadership of the May 18 uprising civilian army, fought to the end and lost his life in the early morning hours of May 27 in the South Jeolla provincial government building after a taking a bullet in his abdomen.
After graduating from South Jeolla University, where he studied political diplomacy, he went to work at a bank in January 1978. But that same year, he resigned and returned to Gwangju, where he became a day laborer at Hannam Plastic.
There, he became a part of ‘Prairie Fire Night School,’ the first night school for workers in the Gwangju region. Central to establishing this night school was Jeolla University student and his future bride-to-be Park Ki-sun. At the suggestion of Park Ki-sun, Yun Sang-won became active in the night school labor movement. But in December 1978, Park Ki-sun lost her life in an accident due to carbon monoxide poisoning. When the night school faltered after Park Ki-sun’s death, Yun Sang-won took up the charge to rebuild the school.
In May 1980, when the Gwangju people’s uprising raged like prairie fire, Yun Sang-won was at the center of the struggle. He led the uprising as a spokesperson for the civilian army. He produced the ‘Gwangju Citizens Democratic Struggle Newsletter’ and distributed it all over Gwangju City with other teachers from the night school. He also drafted the declaration of the civilian army and produced and distributed 9 volumes of ‘Fighter Bulletin’. He also gathered domestic and foreign reporters to publicize the meaning of their fight. His death, therefore, was like an abrupt halt in the heartbeat of the May 18 uprising.
Just before the martial law army entered Gwangju on May 27, he gathered the high school and junior high school students as well as women university students still remaining in the provincial government building and told them this as he urged them to return home-
“You have witnessed this entire process. Now you should return home. I hope you will not forget this day and carry on the struggle to future generations. We will be defeated today. But tomorrow’s history will make us the victors.”
Martyr Yun Sang-won and Park Ki-sun’s dreams, as well as the blood stains of the Gwangju people’s uprising are contained in the song ‘March of the Beloved.’ To sing this song is to carry out the solemn testament of Yun Sang-won – “I hope you will not forget this day and carry on the struggle to future generations.” And it is to remember the bitter lesson of history. The song declares, “Let us not falter ’til the new day comes.” Until the day the people’s long-cherished desire for self-reliance, democracy, and unification is realized, let us not falter and march onward. Follow, you that live.