The Significance of Settling the Past of the
December 12 Coup
and the May 18 Gwangju Uprising
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.
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.
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was rescinded after a short time, failing to bring to justice those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.
In December 1979 and May 1980, the most tragic and most "dirty"
civil war 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
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.
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
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
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
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,"
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.
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
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.
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
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
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 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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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. 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.
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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).
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,
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
10. See Gwangju City,
"5.18 minjuhwa undong bosang jaryo" (Records
on Compensation for the May 18 Democratization Movement)
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).