The Significance of Settling the Past of the December 12 Coup and the May 18 Gwangju Uprising
(Vol.42. No.3 Autumn, 2002 pp.112~138)
Ahn Jong-cheol
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abstract
In December 1979 and May 1980, one of the most tragic events broke out in Seoul and Gwangju. The new junta's plot to usurp power and maintain the Yusin regime began with the December 12 coup in 1979 and realized its short-term goal by killing thousands of civilians in Gwangju in May 1980. A group of military officers led by Chun Doo-hwan seized power. Despite the death of thousands of civillians, the Gwangju Uprising seemed to be buried and forgotten in history. After the 1980s, the Gwangju Uprising gained a new moral authority, and the civilians who had been killed emerged as victorious heroes, instead of meaningless victims. The Uprising became an even stronger force that profoundly influenced the democratization movement in the 1980s. The military regime named the May 18 Uprising as a "riot" and depicted Gwangju citizens as mobs or criminals. However, the truth of the Uprising began to be uncovered through the June Uprising in 1987. The Roh Tae-woo government renamed it the "Gwangju Democratization Movement" as a gesture of national reconciliation. The National Assembly hearings in 1988, which were broadcast live on television across the nation, publically revealed the military junta's scheme to stage a coup, and the excessive violence employed by the special forces in Gwangju in May 1980. With the inauguration of the first civilian government in 1993, President Kim Young-sam declared the legitimacy of the protests by noting "as an extension of the Gwangju Democratization Movement, today's government is a democratic one." According to the campaign to "set history straight," the government legislated the Special Act on Gwangju Democratization Movement and "punished in the name of history, law and justice" the members of the junta that violated Gwangju in May 1980. With this Act, the Supreme Court punished the offenders of the May 18 Uprising as "civil war" criminals, making it the symbol of settling past wrongdoings by legal measures.
Keywords: Gwangju, democratization, uprising, December 1979, May 1980, civilian, movement, civil war, history, law, justice, protest, le
 
Types: Articles
 
Subject: Political Science , History
 
About the author(s) Ahn, Jong-cheol (An, Jong-cheol) is Director of the Discrimination Investigation Bureau at the National Human Rights Commission of Korea. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Chonnam National University, Gwangju. His publications include Gwangju, jeonnam jibang hyeondaesa yeon-gu (The Contemporary History of Gwangju and Jeonnam) (1991). (E-mail: ajc518@hanmail.net)
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The Significance of Settling the Past of the December 12 Coup
and the May 18 Gwangju Uprising

 

Ahn Jong-cheol

 

 

 

Introduction

 

A major challenge to Third World nations pursuing democratization since the 1980s has been the problem of "settling the past" (gwageo cheongsan), that is, how the newly established democratic government would approach the human rights violations committed by the previous authoritarian regimes.[1] The method of settling the account of history differed from one nation or political system to another, but in general, it followed the five-step process: fact-finding, punishment of offenders, compensation of victims, pardon of offenders, and finally, release of a report. A few nations─like South Africa─thoroughly came to terms with the past by completing the procedure smoothly, but many accomplished only a few of the steps, leaving the past unresolved.[2]

Though Korea has succeeded to some extent in building a democratic system, it still has not fully come to terms with parts of its modern history. In the nation-building that followed liberation from Japanese colonial rule, the special act on which was intended to punish pro-Japanese forces and collaborators who worked for the colonial Japanese authorities was rescinded after a short time, failing to bring to justice those who would subsequently form the core of the Syngman Rhee regime. This undermined the legitimacy of the state, an issue which has plagued the state throughout its post-war history.[3]

In December 1979 and May 1980, the most tragic and most "dirty"[4] civil war[5] in Korea's modern history broke out in Seoul and Gwangju, respectively. The new junta's plot to usurp power and maintain the Yusin regime began with the December 12 coup in 1979 and realized its short-term goal by killing thousands of civilians in Gwangju in May 1980. In order to fill the vacuum of power after the assassination of the dictator Park Chung-hee, a group of military officers led by Chun Doo-hwan moved in to seize power by threatening and isolating the president─commander-in-chief of the military. The junta proceeded to wipe out the basis of the government system and launch indiscriminate military operations to quell civilian revolts.

The heinous act of state violence secured the power of another military regime. Despite the dead who were left behind, including not only dozens of military personnel, but thousands of civillians, the Gwangju Uprising seemed to be buried and forgotten in history. Yet the victory of the state and the defeat of the civilian protesters was not to be permanent. After the 1980s, the Gwangju Uprising gained a new moral authority, and the civilians who has been killed emerged as victorious heroes, instead of meaningless victims. The protests had been swiftly crushed in 1980, but despite, or perhaps because of, this defeat the Uprising became an even stronger force that profoundly influenced the democratization movement in the 1980s.

The military regime gave the May 18 Uprising a variety of labels, ranging from "the Gwangju Incident," or a "riot," to "a civil war instigated by impure forces intending to topple the government," and depicted the Gwangju citizens as a mob or criminals. Yet the truth of the Uprising began to be uncovered through the June Uprising in 1987. The Roh Tae-woo government, which came into power in 1988, renamed it the "Gwangju Democratization Movement" as a gesture toward national reconciliation. The National Assembly hearings in 1988, which were broadcast live on television across the nation, publically revealed the military junta's scheme to stage a coup, excessive violence employed by the special forces in Gwangju in May 1980, and the truth about what really happened during the ten days of protests.

With the inauguration of the first civilian government in 1993, the government's stance on the Gwangju People's Uprising changed quickly. President Kim Young-sam declared the legitimacy of the protests by noting in his presidential statement of 13 May 1993 that "as an extension of the Gwangju Democratization Movement, today's government is a democratic one." According to the campaign to "set history straight," the government legislated the Special Act on Gwangju Democratization Movement (Gwangju Special Act) and "punished in the name of history, law and justice" the members of the junta that violated Gwangju in May 1980. These steps created an institutional framework for settling the past. With the Gwangju Special Act the Supreme Court punished the offenders of the Gwangju 18 Uprising as "civil war" criminals, making it a symbol of legal punishment of past wrongdoings. In this paper, I examines the historical process of settling the past of the December 12 Coup and the May 18 Uprising.

 

 

Reemergence of Military Power and the Resistance of Citizens

 

Reemergence of Military Power

 

The assassination of President Park Chung-hee on 26 October 1979 was a political result of the rupture between the Yusin regime and the people. Amid the increasing public dissatisfaction with the Yusin regime at the end of the 1970s, reform seemed inevitable. A crisis of the Yusin regime materialized when Park's ruling party, in spite of overriding financial and organizational advantages, suffered a landslide loss to the opposition party in the general election held on 12 December 1978. The violent suppression of protests by female workers from the YH Trading Company inside the opposition party's headquarters and subsequent violence against the head and representatives of the opposition party were signs of the imminent downfall of the Yusin regime. From 16 October 1979, university students in Busan and other cities in Gyeongsangnam-do staged demonstrations shouting slogans such as "down with the Yusin regime" and "oust the dictatorship" and attacked government buildings. As local citizens joined in, the protests turned into a grass-roots revolt, which continued for days.

While civil resistance from the bottom intensified, the discord within the ruling forces led to Park's assassination by a key subordinate on 26 October 1979. The 18-year military rule seemed to have come to an end. The dissolution of the Yusin regime was the product of both high level power struggles and the public resistance. The death of the president signified the dissolution of the Yusin regime, but not the downfall of the forces behind the regime.

The Yusin forces first seized at the chance for a comeback with the establishment of the Joint Investigation Headquarters (JIH) to inquire into the assassination of the president, and the appointment of Chun Doo-hwan, Chief of the Defense Security Command (DSC) to head it. While the group of senior generals represented by Jeong Seung-hwa supported a "change" of the Yusin regime, the new junta, comprised of power-hungry junior officers like Chun Doo-hwan, wanted to "maintain" it. Mutiny occurred as junior officers of the new military faction tried to drive out senior officers who opposed political intervention by the military.[6]

Chun Doo-hwan and his fellow officers from Hanahoe, the political military club, arrested Jeong Seung-hwa, Army Chief of Staff and Martial Law Commander, and detained President Choi Kyu-hah (Choe Gyu-ha) to exhort his approval for their move and thus justify it. The unlawful arrest of the Army Chief of Staff and the detention of the president, who is commander-in-chief of the military, was an obvious mutiny.

To consolidate its power, Chun's faction mobilized armed forces stationed in Seoul and adjoining areas, took over the Army Headquarters and the Ministry of National Defense and arrested key officers at the Army Headquarter, successfully completing the coup. The coup itself took only ten hours, from the evening of 12 December till dawn the next day, but eight months passed before President Choi was forced to resign and Chun replaced him, setting the record for the "longest coup in world history." While maintaining the martial law, Chun and his faction thoroughly prepared and executed plans to manipulate public opinion in order to lay the political and socio-psychological foundation that would justify their ascent to power.

The new junta ordered "Chungjeong (loyalty) training" for the military as part of its plan to block student resistance and to secure its takeover of power. A notable characteristic of the training, in which both paratroops and ordinary units participated, was its focus on offensive tactics for putting down protests and arresting the leaders. The soldiers were lightly armed and carried truncheons. Chun's forces labeled the leaders of the student movement "blind powers of resistance" and sought to place them in confinement and resort to severe punishment if that did not work.

 

Eruption of the Democratization Movement

 

University students thought that the Yusin regime had collapsed with the death of President Park in October 1979. They disbanded the Student National Defense Corps, a representative student organization mobilized by the government, and developed the democratization movement on campus. Plan to revive student associations emerged in November 1979, and took shape the following spring with the start of the new semester. Many student organizations worked actively to expose the plot behind the coup and criticized the Yusin regime, turning campuses into bases for launching the democratization movement. From spring 1980, students deployed a full-scale political struggle and staged street demonstrations demanding the lifting of the martial law, the dispersion of remaining Yusin forces, a halt to the government's move to amend the constitution, and a guarantee of the basic labor rights.

In the spring of 1980, political arena was formed along two axes: confrontation between the new junta and established politicians, and cooperation and competition between the "three Kims" (Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung, and Kim Jong-pil) in the established political community. Pro-democracy activists who were united along the National Alliance for Democracy and Reunification of Korea were largely independent of political power, but they were connected to changes in the political arena through Kim Dae-jung. The three Kims, who cooperated briefly with government officials over an initiative for constitutional reform, competed with each other for president. Kim Dae-jung's rivalry with Kim Young-sam began in earnest after the former recovered his political rights at the end of February 1980.

While politicians were busy aligning and realigning themselves, the junta made a final review of its plan to dispatch the Chungjeong units to major cities across the nation. Some of the units began to actually move to their target occupation areas. In the meantime, students were formed into a strong force, flooding streets nationwide with demonstrations, foretelling a full-scale war.

At dawn of 14 May 1980, 40 student representatives from 27 universities in Seoul gathered in the office of the chairman of the student association of Korea University and decided to launch large-scale street protests from that morning. Over 70,000 university students in the Seoul area poured into the streets. Shouting "repeal the martial law," "Chun Doo-hwan step down," "oust the remaining Yusin forces," "protect the freedom of press," and "protect basic labor rights,"[7] student protesters marched to Yeongdeungpo, Cheongnyangni and to the Gwanghwamun gate. Seoul residents did not respond actively to the protests, which showed that civil society lacked the capacity to support the democratic forces under the repressive Yusin regime.

In the afternoon of 15 May, about 100,000 students convened at Seoul Station. This was also the case in major cities such as Daegu, Gwangju, Busan and Incheon. In response to the escalation of the students' street protests, politicians led by the opposition New Democratic Party submitted to the National Assembly a resolution urging the repeal of martial law. Even Kim Jong-pil, the leader of the ruling Democratic Republican Party, made it clear to the government that he "opposed any attempt to settle the situation by physical force."

Representatives of university student associations agreed that a confrontation with the military at night without the active support of the public was inadvisable, and decided to retreat from Seoul Station and returned to their campuses.[8]

Student protests encouraged all the forces in the democratic camp to take the offensive and crush the new junta's scheme to revive the Yusin regime. On the surface, Chun and his power faction appeared to be on the defensive, but history would reveal that their elaborate and merciless plot to take the offensive was already unfolding.

 

 

The Reestablishment of the Military Government and the Gwangju Massacre

 

Martial Law in Gwangju

 

In Gwangju and the surrounding Jeonnam region, which had weak industrial infrastructure compared to other areas of Korea, student activists were the main force behind the democratization movement. Chonnam National University (CNU) was at the center of the student movement in this region, while students at Chosun University, another university in Gwangju, were waging a struggle to realize democratization of campus.

In response to developments around the nation, CNU students began to switch the focus of the student movement in early May 1980. Witnessing signs of the governmen's attempt to return to the old regime and hearing about the new military group's plot to usurp power, student activists changed the focus of their struggle from democratization of the campus to democratization of the national political structure. Announcing the week of 8 to 14 May as the "Praying for National Democratization Week," CNU students demanded "the lifting of martial law" and declared their intention to stage a full-scale protest if universities were closed.

The demand for political change was escalating rapidly among students. They faced off against the police in campus protests, and on the night of 14 May, the last day of the "Praying for National Democratization Week," 7,000 CNU students managed to break through the police barricade, proceeded downtown, and launched a rally in the plaza in front of the provincial administrative building at 3 p.m. On 15 May, tens of thousands of students and citizens convened in front of the provincial administrative building. The next day, about 50,000 people turned up at the meeting for national democratization, in which almost all university students in Gwangju area, as well as some high school students and citizens, participated.

During the three-day democratization protests in Gwangju, no clashes occurred between the protesters and the police. The police, restrained by the public support for student demonstrations, behaved amicably, only taking necessary precautions to prevent accidents.

Meanwhile, having secured upper hand by taking advantage of cracks in power caused by the sudden death of President Park, the new junta was deliberating how to institutionalize its power. Chun and his supporters were aware that it would be impossible to rise to power without repressing the push for democratization. So they decided to crush the democratization movement by force. This would naturally require them to come to the forefront, which would provide a pretext for them to sweep into power. On May 12 when student demonstrations were sweeping the nation, the new junta declared a state of emergency to all armed forces, which was soon extended to all government offices. Nationwide martial law was declared at midnight on May 17.

However, these measures contained the seeds of what was to come. The action to extend martial law nationwide on 17 May was a direct denial of the people's demand for democratization and a complete retreat from the series of reforms made after the assassination of President Park.

 

The Gwangju Uprising and Massacre

 

The new junta could not afford to hesitate any longer. Several hours before the State Council decided to expand the martial law nationwide, the JIH forces raided Ewha Womans University with riot police and arrested a large number of student representatives. The Chungjeong units went into operation in the early evening, and Chun lost no time in dispatching armed forces to Seoul, Busan, Daegu, Gwangju, and other major cities.[9]

On 17 May, while the military and the police were moving into action, students in Gwangju were taking a break from the days-long protests. Around midnight, the military occupied all the universities in Gwangju and arrested a large number of social and student movement leaders.

Seoul and Gwangju were the main crackdown targets. Six elite paratroop brigades were dispatched to Seoul and the 33rd and the 35th battalions of the 7th Special Warfare Command (SWC) were assigned to CNU and Chosun University in Gwangju. These forces, fully armed with combat gear, were elite soldiers trained for months in breaking up demonstrations.

After many leaders of the CNU Student Association were put into military custody, those who escaped arrest went into hiding and monitored the situation. Consequently, the demonstration in front of the CNU main gate in the morning of Sunday, 18 May, which triggered the Gwangju People's Uprising, was a spontaneous move by ordinary students, who had come to campus to study.

Fully armed paratroopers were blockading the front gate of CNU and told students to go home, since the university was closed. Disregarding the soldiers' commands, about 100 students began protesting on the overpass in front of the gate. Soon the number had doubled, and then tripled. When they began singing and shouting slogans, the paratroopers moved in to suppress them. The unarmed students resisted, but they were no match for the highly trained paratroopers. The students were chased away, but dozens were injured. They regrouped in the open area in front of Gwangju Station, 500 meters from the front gate of CNU, and marched to the bus terminal and the Catholic Center on their way to the provincial administrative building. The number of student protesters shouting demand to repeal the martial law, release Kim Dae-jung, re-open universities, and for Chun Doo-hwan to step down, were still small, and they were easily scattered by the police.

The paratrooper units had not been an object of fear for Gwangju citizens. Until the afternoon of 18 May, student demonstrations had not fully gained momentum, so that they could be contained by the police alone. Yet, the 7th SWC was deployed downtown and moved towards the provincial administrative building forcibly suppressing demonstrators. The troops assaulted young people standing near the streets and indiscriminately beat them with truncheons, regardless of whether they were participating in the demonstration or not. Those who tried to resist were quickly surrounded by soldiers and trampled and beaten even more severely. Those who fainted from the beating were dragged along and thrown into trucks. The streets turned quiet in less than 30 minutes.

This violent suppression was not limited to the downtown Geumnam-ro avenue. The troops pursued fleeing students and young people all over the city. Young men who were caught in house raids were dragged out, brutally beaten, undressed, tied with ropes, and taken away. The paratroopers used truncheons mostly, but sometimes bayonet. Such ruthless suppression resembled a massacre, and this continued in every part of the city till the morning of 21 May.

At noon of 21 May the paratroopers opened fire on Gwangju citizens, escalating the bloodshed. A war between unarmed citizens and the fully armed special forces began and exploded into a war between justice and injustice. After the firing by the troops, citizens armed themselves with old-fashioned weapons including carbines and rifles they captured from nearby police stations and the armory of the National Reserve Army, and responded with street warfare. On the evening of 21 May the army abandoned the provincial administrative building and retreated to the outskirts of the city. People formed a cooperative community and kept the city under control until the army reentered on 27 May. The paratroopers raided the provincial administrative building by force on 27 May and the Gwangju Uprising came to an end. The casualties were staggering; according to official statistics, there were 161 dead, 64 missing, 2,948 wounded and 1,364 arrested or detained. The people of Gwangju suffered a defeat in the short term, but they began a long march to victory in the long term.

 

 

Compensation Without Fact-finding

 

Distortion of Gwangju Uprising by the Military Regime

 

Immediately after putting down the Gwangju Uprising, the Chun Doo-hwan regime attributed the cause to the "instigation and masterminding of a group of rioters" on the one hand, while on the other hand it paid cash compensation to victims and their families. The compensation can be interpreted as an admission of excessive suppression and the killing of civilians by the military. Right after the Gwangju Uprising (6 June 1980), the regime paid 4.2 million won (4 million won in "consolation money" and 200,000 won for funeral costs) for each civilian death. The injured received 100,000 won each and their medical costs until their full recovery came out of the government treasury. However, the families of 36 victims who were classified as rioters got no "consolation money."[10]

Roh Tae-woo, who was partly responsible for the suppression of the Gwangju Uprising himself, pledged during his presidential campaign to take measures to resolve the Gwangju issues. One of his first moves after his election as president was to set up a temporary agency named the National Reconciliation Committee (NRC) whose mission was to resolve the issues surrounding Gwangju. The NRC was established even before the inauguration of the new government to handle the problem of the Gwangju Uprising confronting the military regime. However, since a great majority of the NRC members were pro-government, it was little more a mouthpiece for the military government.

The NRC determined that "the direct cause of the Gwangju Uprising was excessive suppression by the army." But at the same time, stating that citizens had committed unlawful actions such as "invading the jail," it took the position that neither side was totally responsible or completely innocent. Sticking to the view that investigation and punishment would only hurt national reconciliation, the NRC compromised by concluding that the Gwangju Uprising was "part of the struggle for democratization" and offered compensation for damages as the solution.

This only reflected the NRC's biased support of President-elect Roh Tae-woo, who was, as a key member of the junta, directly and indirectly connected with the causes of the Gwangju Uprising. The attempt to approach the problems surrounding Gwangju with a monetary solution made it difficult to seek more fundamental solutions including investigation and punishment of those responsible.

Based on the NRC's review, the Roh regime issued the government announcement to heal the Gwangju Incident in April 1988. The main points of the announcement were the definition of the Uprising as "part of the effort of the students and citizens in Gwangju to bring about democracy"; additional reporting of the dead and the injured; the collection and donation of money to compensate for pain and suffering; the transformation of the Mangwol-dong burial ground into a park cemetery and the erection of a memorial tower; the financing of the medical costs of the injured; assistance to bereaved families in finding employment. These measures had some significance in that they represented official government recognition of the problems still surrounding the Gwangju Uprising and a willingness to consider some solutions.

Rather than expressing a sincere commitment to seek the truth of what had happened in Gwangju, however, these measures were motivated more by the Roh government's political strategy of securing its power base by easing the intense regionalism expressed in the presidential election in 1987 and distancing itself from the previous Chun government through monetary compensation .

These measures was also designed to effectively divert, attention away from the need for fact-finding and punishment of those responsible. They aimed to make the public think that the problem of Gwangju was put to rest since the victims accepted the government compensation package, and to present the Gwangju Uprising as a local issue.

 

Legislation of the Gwangju Compensation Act and Actual Compensation

 

Right after its inauguration the Roh government proclaimed measures to heal the wounds of the Gwangju Uprising and began receiving claims from the victims and their families in April 1988. After an additional round of reporting from 18 May 1988, the government gave three million won to the family of each confirmed victim as a livelihood protection fund. While heated debates on the enactment of the Gwangju compensation bill were being carried on among the government, the ruling party, the three opposition parties, and several organizations related to the Gwangju Uprising, from April 1990 the government began payments of up to 30 million won as livelihood protection fund to the families of each victim as a temporary measure.

As the political parties and organizations related to the Uprising were unable to narrow the gap between their positions regarding the compensation bill and the debate made no progress, the ruling Democratic Liberal Party (DLP) gave up passing it by negotiation and pushed the Special Act on the Compensation to the Victims of the Gwangju Democratization Movement (Gwangju Compensation Act) through the Assembly in July 1990. The Gwangju Compensation Act was the political product of the merger of the ruling party with two opposition parties. This merger changed the political balance in the National Assembly in which the ruling party had been the minority and the opposition parties had been the majority. It also meant the formation of a regional faction against Jeollado region, and at the same time, it was a betrayal of Gwangju because a faction of the democratization forces allied itself the para-military dictatorship.

Without including any reference to the critical issue of uncovering the truth in the Gwangju Compensation Act, the anti-Jeollado regional faction opted for "monetary compensation" and used this to evade the historical responsibility of "revealing the truth of the May 18 Gwangju Uprising" and "punishing those responsible." Now that the problem of Gwangju, which had been a stain on the Roh regime, was solved through limited investigation and legal settlement by the National Assembly Special Committee for investigation of the truth of the Gwangju Democratization Movement, the coalition made an expedient choice to bring the issue to closure by making monetary compensation according to the law.

A total of 2,693 victims filed for compensation when the Gwang-ju Compensation Act, which had been railroaded into legislation by the DLP, was put in effect. The family register, resident registration, military service, and school records of each claimant were examined, and each claimant was cross-checked with the lists of detained, arrested, wanted and injured compiled during and after the Uprising. Then, each case was closely reviewed by the review subcommittee and the disability class determination subcommittee and finally, by the Compensation Review Committee. In the end 2,224 victims (154 dead, 38 missing, 1,971 injured including one who died after injury, and 61 others) received 142.8 billion won  in total.[11]

As examined here, the Roh government tried to bring the problem of Gwangju to a conclusion by handing out money. But the hard-liners of the May Movement Council, who did not accept the Gwangju Compensation Act, decided to refuse cash compensation and demand legislation that would realize the five principles for the resolution of the problem of Gwangju─investigation, punishment of those responsible, restoration of victims' honor, reparation, and memorial projects. Other organizations related to the Gwangju Uprising, which were more moderate in their position and sometimes described as pro-government, welcomed monetary compensation. Different opinions were expressed over the issue of compensation between the Gwangju citizens and the victims and between different organizations related to the Uprising.

Many claimed that it was wrong to give out compensation before uncovering the facts of the Uprising. Moreover, the government's intention of "compensation, not reparation," to the victims who suffered from the government's unlawful actions was criticized vehemently. While the Roh government tried to put the matter to rest with cash payments, the Gwangju citizens continued to demand investigation and punishment, which were the two key requirements for the resolution of the problem of Gwangju.

 

 

Institutionalization of Fact-Finding and Punishment

 

Investigation Activities of the National Assembly

 

During the 13th term of the National Assembly which opened in 1988 after the inauguration of the Roh government, the ruling party became the minority and the opposition parties took a majority of the seats. The Party for Peace and Democracy (PPD), which identified with the victim of the Gwangju Uprising, earned a large number of seats in the elections, becoming the lead opposition party. In this changed environment the government and the ruling party had to listen to the PPD's views to some extent.

In 1988, after rounds of discussion and negotiation, the ruling and opposition parties agreed to submit to the National Assembly a bill to create the special committee for the investigation of the truth of the Gwangju Democratization Movement. On 27 June the Assembly approved the bill, providing the legal basis for investigation of what happened in Gwangju.

A large number of accounts and records were presented at the National Assembly Special Committee hearings. The connection between the Uprising and the December 12 coup by General Chun, General Roh, and their fellow officers of the Hanahoe was established and so was the riot suppression training ordered for the entire military in early 1980. In the background of extending martial law nationwide on 17 May 1980 was the new junta's plot to usurp power. The truth about the Gwangju Uprising, which had remained un-known to most people, finally came to light, such as the fact that the Uprising was quelled with excessive violence in its early days and that the military fired on civilians, killing and wounding thousands of them. In addition, it also became known that the United States played a significant role in the bloody suppression of the Uprising.

Although the National Assembly hearings made a large contribution to laying out the facts of the Uprising, many questions were unresolved and remain so today. These include the distinction between those who actually gave orders to open fire and the formal chain of command, the actual number of dead civilians and the role and responsibility of the U.S. administration.

Under the Roh regime, the National Assembly was well positioned to approach the truth about the Gwangju Uprising since it was dominated by opposition parties, but at the same time it faced serious limitations. As the main political figures behind the Gwangju massacre still remained in power, it was difficult to secure objective testimonies from them. Even the limited advantage disappeared with the disintegration of the Special Committee when the ruling party merged with two opposition parties in early 1990.

 

Provision of the Legal Basis to Punish Those Responsible

 

The legislation process of the Gwangju Special Act combines the characteristics of democratization from the bottom up and from the top down. This is because in the political environment where political elites had no choice but to accept the absolute demands of the grass-roots, the various factions of the core power groups conflicted with each other, causing the authoritarian regime to collapse.[12] This kind of power shift occurs as internal conflicts between factions divide them into hard-liners and moderates, and the moderates transform themselves into reformists to win the power struggle and try to find supporters outside the power block or to form alliances with external forces. Reform is thus brought about through concessions at the top. According to this view, the legislation of the Gwangju Special Act is a product of internal conflict among power factions.

Although the work to settle the past of the May 18 Gwangju Uprising made some visible progress within the institutional framework of the National Assembly, the Kim Young-sam regime, with the innate limitations of a coalition, was no different from the preceding Chun and Roh regimes in its refrain from investigation and punishment of the criminals of the massacre. Observing the limitations of the civilian government, many came to think that the civilian government's will to resolve the problem of the Uprising remains at the same level as the military administrations under Chun and Roh and it must start all over again from the beginning.

In his 13 May special statement (1993), President Kim Young-sam rejected the public demand for the investigation and punishment of those responsible for the Gwangju massacre. The public prosecution announced that it had no right to prosecute them and decided not to do so, revealing the limits of the Kim Young-sam government. Protesting the prosecution's decision, a broad base of people issued statements and launched a signature campaign to urge the prosecution of those responsible and to legislate the special act. Professors, lawyers, clergymen as well as political activists, students and workers participated in this campaign and thus helped to redefine the problem of Gwangju as a national one, despite the government's efforts to keep it a regional issue.

While the campaign to collect citizens' signatures for the enactment of the special act spread nationwide to provide the basis for the punishment of those responsible for the massacre, the People's Committee for the Revelation of the Truth about the May 18 and the Succession of the Spirit of the Gwangju Uprising comprised of about 60 civic associations and political activist groups launched the One Million Signature Movement in mid-September 1995. Rallies were organized across the nation, demanding the enactment of the special act, and university students staged protests inside the ruling DLP headquarters.

As Roh Tae-woo was charged with illicit accumulation of wealth in October 1995, President Kim ordered the enactment of the special act to punish those responsible for the massacre, triggering a swift reversal of the situation. Four months after the prosecution decided it did not have prosecution rights over the Gwangju Uprising, stating that "if a coup succeeds and creates a new consitutional order, it is out of the scope of legal proceedings," the Special Investigation Headquarters of the December 12 Coup and the May 18 Gwangju Uprising was set up. Within two days, former President Chun was arrested.

On 19 December 1995, the National Assembly passed the Gwangju Special Act with the agreement of three parties (the ruling New Korea Party, the People's Congress for the New Millennium and the Democratic Party). In addition, the Special Act on the Statutory Limitations for the Crimes of Disrupting Constitutional Order was passed unanimously, which made it possible to retroactively punish people who have violated constitutional order without statutory of limitations.

To restore the honor of people convicted for their participation in the Gwangju Democratization Movement or other democratic movements, the new act allowed them to request a retrial to claim their innocence upon the conviction of those implicated in the massacre. It also approved memorial projects to carry on the spirit of the Gwangju Democratization Movement. The Gwangju Special Act also required the nullification of awards and military decorations if they were rendered solely for involvement in the suppression of the Gwangju Democratization Movement. But the special prosecution system to enforce this act failed to be introduced.

Although statutory limitations of the Gwangju Special Act came under debate, the Constitutional Court ruled that it was constitutional and most of the accused were found guilty by the Supreme Court in April 1997. They, however, were released from prison by a presidential pardon in December 1997, and were not required to serve the remainder of their jail terms.

It was of great significance that with the enactment, passage and execution of the Gwangju Special Act, a peaceful attempt to settle the past was realized for the first time in Korea's history without resorting to a coup or violence. In particular, it created the institutional basis to bring the leader of the coup to justice based on consensus among political parties without temporary suspension of the constitutional government. By preventing the application of statutory limitations to acts which destroy the order of constitutional government (such as a military coup and civil war) thus making it possible to punish this crimes no matter how much time has elapsed, it provided the framework for institutionalizing the punishment of crimes against humanity.

The legal punishment of the criminals of the December 12 coup and the Gwangju massacre was directly connected to efforts of the Kim Young-sam government to establish its political legitimacy. The accusation that Kim Young-sam had colluded with the coup forces by merging was a considerable burden on the government. Breaking with the past and establishing its legitimacy to govern was a strategy of political engineering to escape the regime crisis.

 

 

Conclusion

 

The volcano of settling the past is ablaze with the regime change from military dictatorship to the civilian government and to the People's Government. With the human rights violations perpetrated by the previous regimes finally coming to light, various measures have been made and are being taken to restore the victims' honor and to compensate them, though there have been few visible outcomes thus far. In the context of modern Korean history where there are so few precedents of settling the past, the settlement of the December 12 coup and the Gwangju Uprising is a unique and remarkable case, though judgement on the appropriateness of the method must be reserved for the time being.

The movement demanding an investigation of the truth about the Gwangju Uprising did not begin until the late 1980s. In the early 1980s the victims of the massacre made endless appeals to the government. The slogan "investigate the truth" could be heard in every protest held on campuses, in factories, and in social movements. The Gwangju Uprising subsequently began to draw national attention and became a national issue through the June Uprising in 1987. It took several years to attempt a historical assessment of the Uprising. In the reevaluation of history during the Roh Tae-woo government after the repression under President Chun's rule, public demanded that the criminals of the massacre be brought to justice. At long last, "punishment of the killers," which had remained a radical slogan among Gwangju people and some activist groups after the Uprising, arose as a serious task to be dealt with in real politics. In the 1988 general election, the ruling party became the minority and the opposition parties took majority seats and the National Assembly hearings began in November 1988. In the early 1990s, however, the ruling party merged with two opposition parties, changing the political map, and the Special Committee on the Gwangju Uprising made little progress in investigation and compensation. Investigation of what really happened in the Uprising ended with making cash compensations to the victims after the ruling DLP forced a bill through the Assembly on 14 July 1990.

Although compensation was made to the victims, it fell far short of the resolution addressing the five principles defined by the citizens and civil organizations of Gwangju─investigation, punishment of the perpetrators of the massacre, reparation, memorial projects and restoration of honor. Compensation is but aspect one of reparation.[13] Gwang-ju citizens also argue that the compensation for damages remained at the individual level and yet did not reflect the views or wishes of Gwangju citizens and the victims.

The Gwangju Compensation Act contains a procedural flaw in that the ruling party rushed it through the Assembly after merging with two opposition parties. It is fundamentally problematic because it was an expedient measure to make cash payments to the bereaved families of the dead and the injured. After the inauguration of the civilian government, President Kim Young-sam stated that his government stands on the extension of the Gwangju Uprising, but the resolution of the Gwangju issue was postponed as he decided to leave the investigation and punishment of the offenders to history. However, as intellectuals published critical statements of the situation and people protested nationwide urging the government to legislate the special law, the situation reversed and politicians had no option but to accept it.

When the public prosecution decided that it had no legal basis to bring action against the accused, after investigating both the accusers and the accused for over a year, the public vehemently demanded the legislation of the special act on the Gwangju Uprising. Protests and public statements by intellectuals did not let up. The campaign to "urge the legislation of the special act," which was launched by the release of statements by a group of professors, gained broad support from all ranks of people (including professors, teachers, writers, religious leaders, farmers, women, and political representatives) and garnered over a million signatures on the streets. Over 50,000 students raised their voices demanding the enactment of the special act in eight rallies held in Seoul, Gwangju, and other cities. Even law professors and lawyers took to the streets to express their support. These efforts to reevaluate history and come to terms with the past finally succeeded when President Kim decided to write the Gwangju Special Act into law.

This legislation not only brought about historical reexamination of the Gwangju Democratization Movement which had hidden for many years, but also provided an opportunity to reveal the truths which had been distorted or concealed by the military authorities. It achieved a breakthrough in the history of legislation by suspending statutory limitations for taking public action against people who stage a coup, cause a civil war, or commit massacre.

By expressly stipulating the commitment to punish crimes that undermine the constitutional order without exception, the Gwangju Special Act made it clear that the instigators of the December 12 coup and the Gwangju massacre had to be brought to justice and that future instigators of a coup would be punished by law whether they succeed or not. This spirit is reflected in the stipulation that statutory limitations should not be applied to the crimes of causing a civil war, a coup, invasion of foreign country, assisting a national enemy, and massacre.[14] The Gwangju Special Act is a historic landmark in that it established a new tradition of "setting history straight." The most important part of the Act was the fact-finding and punishment of the offenders, but it is also significant in that it provided the institutional framework for restoring the honor of the victims.

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

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Ahn, Jong-cheol (An, Jong-cheol) is Director of the Discrimination Investigation Bureau at the National Human Rights Commission of Korea. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Chonnam National University, Gwangju. His publications include Gwangju, jeonnam jibang hyeondaesa yeon-gu (The Contemporary History of Gwangju and Jeonnam) (1991). (E-mail: ajc518@hanmail.net.)

 

 

1. Analyzing the problem of settling the past from a sociological perspective, Jeong Geun-sik maintains that the analysis must include the subject and the object, the context and motive of raising the issue, methodology and significance. Refer to Jeong Geun-sik, "Cheongsan, bogwon, changjojeok jaehyeon-euroseoui owol undong" (The May 18 Gwangju Uprising: Settling the Past, Restoration and Creative Reconstruction) (2000, mimeographed).

2. The following table is produced with reference to the paper Jo Yong-hwan, a lawyer, presented in the seminar at Korea Women's Development Institute in September 2001.

 

3. Kim Bong-u, "Hanguk hyeondaesa-ui cheongsan munje-e daehayeo" (On the Problem of Settling the Past in Korea's Modern History) (paper presented at the first seminar to honor the memory of the victims of the democratization movement and restore their dignity, May 1998).

4. I borrow the term "dirty" from a description of the atrocities committed by the Argentine military government. See Song Gi-do, trans., Nunkkamas (Seoul: Seodang, 1988).

5. This view has been put forward by Ahn Byung-ook (An, Byeong-uk). Ahn claims that the people of Gwangju organized a civilian army and fought a war to maintain democratic order even at a minimum level. See Ahn Byong-ook, "5.18 minjoksajeok insik-eul neomeo segyesa-ui jipyeong-euro" (The May 18 Gwangju Uprising: Over the Consciousness of Nation's History and Towards the Horizon of World History), in 5.18-eun kkeunnanneun-ga? (Has the May 18 Uprising Ended?), ed. Korea Progressive Academic Council (Seoul: Purunsoop Publishing Co., 1999), pp. 23-28.

6. Refer to Jeong Sang-yong et al. (1990), part 1. Containing diverse resources submitted to the National Assembly by representatives and their aides who attended the National Assembly hearings in 1988, this publication is widely accepted as the most reliable source of information on the Gwangju Uprising.

7. This included the public demands for a change from the repressive Yusin regime to a democratic one.

8. This decision was much debated afterwards. Some claimed that the student leaders made the wrong decision at a historical crossroads and failed to prevent the emergence of the military regime, while some viewed that they had made a hard, practical decision to reduce the number of victims.

9. The accounts that follow are taken from the records in Hwang Seok-yeong (1985) based on the recollections of people who participated in the Gwangju Uprising. For the parts that demand greater accuracy, I refer to Hanguk Hyeondaesa Saryo Yeon-guso (1990).

10. See Gwangju City, "5.18 minjuhwa undong bosang jaryo" (Records on Compensation for the May 18 Democratization Movement) (mimeographed).

11. The second round of compensation was made in March 1993 under the Kim Young-sam government to 2,708 people who had refused individual compensation in the first round in 1990, demanding collective compensation to Gwangju citizens after the investigation and punishment of those responsible. After the same review procedure as in the previous round, 1,843 men and women (9 missing, 765 injured including those who died after injury, 1,069 arrested or detained) were approved for compensation victims and received 39.2 billion won in total. A third round of compensations was made in 1998 to those omitted in the previous rounds. Of 837 people who filed for compensation, nine withdrew their applications. Verification was made on the remaining 828 people, of whom 470 were offered 28 billon won (17 missing, 222 injured including those who died after injury, and 231 arrested or detained). In a fourth round of compensation in 2000, 452 (6 missing, 235 injured and 211 others) received 18.3 billion won. For the records on the first three rounds of compensation, see Kim Jae-gyun, 5.18-gwa hanguk jeongchi (The May 18 Gwangju Uprising and Korean Politics) (Seoul: Hanul Publishing Co., 2000). Information on the fourth round of compensation was obtained from the Office of Support for the 5.18 Victims, Gwangju City.

12. See Bak Seong-min (1995), pp. 10-11.

13. The five principles for the resolution of the problem of Gwangju took the UN principles one step further and concretized them. In a special report submitted to the UN in July 1992, Theo van Boven suggests the following as the forms of reparation for serious human rights violation cases: indemnity in cash or similar form, fact-finding and publicizing the truth, admission of responsibility in public, punishment of the offenders, protection of the victims, their relatives and witnesses, remembrance and expression of mourning, establishment of support agencies for the victims and actions to prevent recurrence.

14. See Lawyers for Democratic Society (1997).