The Lessons of the Gwangju Democratic Uprising

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising. Ruling and opposition party lawmakers, prominent social figures and ordinary Koreans will attend ceremonies marking the movement to honor the citizens of Gwangju who faced off against government troops in the name of democracy.

A pan-Asian democratic network is also being launched as part of the 30th anniversary of the movement to spread throughout Asia the spirit of democratization kindled in Gwangju. For most of the 1980s, any mention of the May 18 movement was taboo in Korea. But the crackdown on freedom of speech prompted the spirit of the movement to grow stronger instead, powering the country's pro-democracy movement. And now, that spirit has grown to be shared throughout Asia.

The May 18 movement and the April 19 Revolution of 1960, which overthrew the government of Syngman Rhee, can be credited for major contributions to democratization in Korea. Korea's democracy has matured significantly since 1987 with shifts in democratically elected governments, whether they are progressive or conservative, resulting in no political instability in the country now. At the basis of this stability are the two pro-democracy movements, which at one time appeared to represent crises but have become symbols of the yearning among Koreans for democracy and a source of confidence that those ideals have been achieved.

But democracy still has a long way to go in the country. Although a democratic system has taken root, democratic processes, the rule of law, checks and balances between government agencies and consideration for those with opposing views are still lacking. Ideological, regional and political rifts are still serious problems in Korea. These things are probably not what the pro-democracy protesters in Gwangju longed for.

Marking the 30th anniversary of the movement, it is time for Koreans to contemplate the lessons it inspired and ask whether democracy has truly matured in the country. The movement must not remain trapped in the past. The spirit of Gwangju must shed its light on the people suffering in North Korea, the world's most oppressive country. The lessons taught by the movement must transcend conflicts and divisions within South Korea and spread to North Korea to complete the long-held desire for democracy among all Koreans.

englishnews@chosun.com / May 18, 2010 13:08 KST