Sunday, May 25, 2014

Day 4 in Gwangju, South Korea -- 5-18

Late last summer, my wife learned there was a remote possibility of a trip to Tajikistan.  If the trip were to happen, she would leave within just a few weeks.  Knowing that the trip might never happen, she spent hours on the computer, studying the government, culture and people of Tajikistan.  She never made the trip, but my wife inspired me to research South Korea when I received an invite to present at a conference in Gwangju.  One of the first things I learned about when researching South Korea was the the May 18th People's Uprising, an event that helped shape democracy in South Korea and that appears to still have a dramatic impact on the day-to-day lives of many people who live in Korea.  I was thrilled to learn that, as a guest at the World Human Rights Cities Forum 2014, I could request an invitation to attend a government ceremony commemorating the May 18th People's Uprising.

On May 18th, my fourth and final full day in South Korea, many of us from the conference boarded one of the four buses lined up outside the Holiday Inn and headed for the National Cemetery for the 10 a.m. event.  On the bus, we were told that just as many people are furious with the government for the way it handled, and continues to handle, the Sewol Ferry Disaster, many people are unhappy with the official, government sanctioned event to commemorate the May 18th Uprising.  The details about the fury I didn't understand, but the disconnect was so significant that families of victims from the May 18th Uprising refuse to participate in the government event.  Rather than participate in the government event, the families and other progressive organizations staged an alternative event about half a mile away from the government ceremony. 

Scene from Audience of official Government May 18th Event
Guests in white hats before Official May 18th Event
Though I've never been to an event on the White House Lawn, the government sponsored May 18th Event reminded me of what a White House Lawn event might look like.  After disembarking from the buses, we checked in at security, picked up a pass, then passed through another security check point with bag inspection and metal detectors.  Once through the two check points, we found seats among hundreds of plastic chairs set up for the event.  Each chair had a program and a funny looking, but effective, white paper hat lay on top of it.  The hat was designed to protect us from the sun. The ceremony itself was barely 25 minutes long.  Two government officials spoke and a choir sang a few songs.  By 10:30, we were out of our seats, milling around, and ready to head back to the buses, which weren't scheduled to return to the hotel until 11:30.  That's when the Director of the Gwangju International Center announced that he would be willing to lead a group up the road to the people's alternative event.  That announcement made the difference between my time in Korea being a memorable, rewarding experience and being a deeply moving, significant experience.  I never figured out what connection the Director had to the May 18th People's Uprising, but during the walk up the road, he spoke about the events with clarity, as if he knew directly people who had been there and were impacted.  The People's event was in the middle of a hilly cemetery.
image of grassy cemetery on hill.  Many people sitting amongst rows of cemetery
People's May 18th Event
A stage was at the base of the hill.  Rather then chairs, people sat on the grass.  Toward the top of the hill, some people stood, or kneeled next to graves, a few of them with their heads down and a few of them weeping.  I made my way to the top of the hill, where I could better see all the people on the hill and the surrounding landscape.  The program reminded me of the program from the candlelight ceremony the previous night.  Two different singing groups sang empowering songs that inspired the audience to join in with raised arms and fists.  I was on the hill for about 10 minutes, watching the performance, looking at grave sites, and observing the people. 

Grave site at People's Cemetery, Korea
Grave Site at Cemetery
We couldn't stay long.  We had to head back to the buses. On the walk back, I overheard the International Center Director and a Conference Guest from Sweden talking about the May 18th Uprising.  They brought up the United States Involvement in 1980, at the tail end of the Carter Administration.  I asked the Director to repeat what he had said.  He told me that the United States supported the military, not the people's uprising.  According to the U.S. Government, what happened in 1980 was not a democracy movement, but rather a movement that threatened national security. 

Of course, I don't know much about the issue.  But if that's true, it would seem to be disappointing.  

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