South Korean Film: The Man Standing Next
After watching the 2020 South Korean film, "The Man Standing Next,” about the events leading up to President Park Cheong-hee’s assassination by his close friend, and head of the CIA (South Korean) Kim Jae-gyu on ) October 26, 1979, I decided to learn more about the South Korean democracy movement.
Leading up to Park’s assassination a series of social, economic, and political events transpire, culminating in KCIA Director Kim Jae-gyu’s decision to assassinate President Park. First and most importantly President Park’s continuation of the authoritarian Yushin Constitution, first instituted through martial law and dissolution of the National Assembly, its continuation fueled popular political opposition for open presidential elections nationwide. On August 9th, 1979 the female workers of the YH Trading Company staged a lockout in protest of the Park Administration (any criticism of the Yushin Constitution demanded 15 years of prison). The opposition party, led by Kim Young-sam (native of Busan), heavily criticized the action and was subsequently expelled from the National Assembly on October 4, 1979: 66 other National Assembly members resigned in protest. This political unrest was also being fueled by the Oil Shock (starting in July 1979) which hit the cities of Busan and Masan the hardest, where they experienced an unemployment rate twice the national average. It was just too much and on October 16, 1979 student led popular protest (starting at Busan University) quickly spread to neighboring Masan, where the students of Kyungnam University led their own popular uprising.
The film depicts a defining question of the film: "How much are you willing to sacrifice?” "Why did we do the revolution? Why are we doing any of this? To kill 2-3 million citizens to stay in power? Is that worth the sacrifice?” Director Kim Jae-gyu decided that it was too many, and he sacrificed himself so that the people of Busan and Masan could live.
May 18 Gwangju Uprising
But in the ensuing political confusion after Park’s death, General Chun Doo-hwan took power in a military coup on December 12th, 1979, which set the stage for confrontation with student democratic reformers in the Spring of 1980. General Chun and his cadre had learned an important lesson from the Busan and Masan uprisings: "To maintain control popular protests must be dealt with swiftly, harshly, and with overwhelming force.”
When students returned to campuses in the spring of 1980 and once again took the streets in protest against authoritarian rule (this time starting at Seoul Station), General Chun chose Gwangju to send a message to the rest of South Korea: do not challenge his rule.
After visiting, Busan and Masan, I also decided to visit Gwangju to learn more about the Gwangju May 18 Uprising. I took the KTX train south from Seoul Station (just two hours), jumped on the 518 bus and toured the city of Gwangju.
Similar to the Busan – Masan Democratic Protests just 7 months prior, students from Chonnam and Chosun University also led the popular protests in Gwangju. Although this time, General Chun was ready and on May 18, 1980 he declared martial law for the entire country: instituting curfews, shutting down universities, prohibited political activities, and freedom of the press. The Gwangju Uprising was famously ended through military force, turning the downtown streets of Gwangju into a warzone.
The sacrifice of the Gwangju citizens for liberal democracy in South Korea (representative government, civil liberties, freedom of the press and assembly) resonates as you walk through the gates of the May 18 National Cemetery, reading "Democracy’s Strength,” and view the headstones of all those who fought and died against authoritarian rule.
A Nation that Forgets its Past has No Future
As authoritarian and totalitarian regimes around the world rise again, the past becomes ever present, and for people that forget their past there is no future. Current generations, with no memory of the sacrifice or danger, must learn again to fight authoritarian rule. It is the burden of each and every generation to keep the authoritarian rulers at bay, to fight them for every inch, because in the end the light always wins, and Gwangju (meaning the City of Light) continues to shine not only as a beacon of liberal democracy but for the Korean people, but for people around the world.
In the recent Hong Kong uprisings (Fall of 2019), student led protests on South Korean campuses called for the support of the Hong Kong democratic protestors. There were even clashes on South Korean campuses between South Korean students and Chinese exchange students (now 70,000 in South Korea). The Hong Kong democratic protestors even sang the famed "March” song of the Gwangju Uprising throughout the streets of Hong Kong. Gwangju, the City of Light, shines on as a leader of liberal democracy in East Asia. It is our responsibility to not only not forget the sacrifice, but to keep its promise with our own. A new generation of leaders is needed to fight this new wave of authoritarianism.