Moon gives commemorative address at 39th anniversary of Gwangju Democratization Movement

Posted on : 2019-05-20 16:10 KST Modified on : 2019-05-20 16:10 KST
Offers mixture of apology and condemnation of disparaging comments
South Korean President Moon Jae-in during his commemorative address during the 39th anniversary of the Gwangju Democratization Movement on May 18. (Kim Jung-hyo
South Korean President Moon Jae-in during his commemorative address during the 39th anniversary of the Gwangju Democratization Movement on May 18. (Kim Jung-hyo

“I am so sorry to the people of Gwangju.”

A full 19 seconds of silence followed.

“I felt terribly ashamed, and I wanted to reach out to the public.”

With some difficulty, he began speaking again, but his throat was choked, his eyes quivering. So too did the eyes of people in the crowd that packed the ceremony site. Some took out handkerchiefs to dab away the tears.

The commemorative address delivered by South Korean President Moon Jae-in on May 18 for the 39th anniversary of the Gwangju Democratization Movement drew more notice for the nearly 20-second silence that occurred midway through than for the message itself. Figures close to Moon described the silence as a sign of the indebtedness he feels toward Gwangju as a human rights attorney and democracy activist, as well as an expression of despair at having to bear witness as head of state as the victims of Gwangju are maligned (by far-right politicians) once again.

Moon’s silence came in the middle of a passage early in the address where he expressed an apology to the citizens to Gwangju. After the silence, he proceeded to a more explicit message of apology.

“As a citizen who lived during that time, I am truly sorry for not being there with Gwangju in 1980 when it was bleeding and dying,” he said. “As the president, I once again apologize deeply on behalf of the public for the brutal violence and massacre committed by authorities in Gwangju.”

In addition, he expressed apologizes for failing to keep the promise he made in his commemorative address two years earlier, where he pledged to “incorporate the May 1980 spirit into the preamble of the Constitution.”

While many expressed hopes of seeing him attend next year’s event for the 40th anniversary of the Gwangju Democratization Movement, Moon said that he made the decision on his own to attend this year’s event. A Blue House official described his decision as a “gesture of indebtedness toward the movement, which he lived through as a university student who had just resumed his studies.” Another official said, “He seemed to have made up his mind that he had to go to Gwangju after seeing all the recent absurd statements coming from certain far-right figures and lawmakers with the Liberty Korea Party (LKP).” A few observers within the ruling party read his attendance at the ceremony as a gesture of gratitude toward the Gwangju and Honam (Jeolla) region voters who have continued to show unwavering support for him, even as his approval ratings have dropped by half from over 80% when he was first inaugurated.

Emphasis on unity and truth-revealing investigations

The topic of “unity” was also emphasized in Moon’s message that day.

“What we need to do is be grateful to May 1980 in Gwangju for its contribution to the advancement of democracy, while working to develop an even better democracy,” he stressed.

“Our May should be based in the beginning of hope and unity,” he said.

At the same time, he made it clear that an investigation into the truth was essential for unity.

“May 1980 cannot be seen as anything but a descendant of dictatorship,” he said, taking aim directly at recent statements about the movement.

“We cannot take even one step toward a new year with a stagnant political mindset that remains stuck before May 1980, back in the [totalitarian] eras of Yushin [Park Chung-hee] and the Fifth Republic [Chun Doo-hwan],” he said. The remarks appeared to reflect the current situation in the National Assembly – where lawmakers such as Kim Jin-tae, Lee Jong-myeong, and Kim Soon-rye have made statements in support of far-right figures – and the half-hearted reprimands given by LKP leadership out of fear of alienating its key supporters.

The LKP also shared an indifferent response to leader Hwang Kyo-ahn going ahead with attending the ceremony despite objections from the local public. In a Facebook message the same day, party floor leader Na Kyung-won disparaged Moon’s commemorative address.

“President Moon made remarks effectively targeting our party [the LKP] with his talk about ‘descendants of dictatorship,’” she wrote. “There is the unpleasant sense of having witnessed only a half-formed commemoration ceremony.”

By Seong Yeon-cheol, staff reporter

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