5/18 Gwangju Uprising: Re-imaging Global Korea

By Kamilah Sou-Yeon Zadi

This was written for an Asian American Studies class at UCLA, “The Art of Protest: South Korea”

Reflection: Korean Resource Center Presents 39th Anniversary of Gwangju People’s Uprising

On May 24, 2019,  The Korean Resource Center’s celebration of the 39th Anniversary of the Gwangju Uprising included three college students, two of whom were undocumented, being awarded scholarships by the center. The event connects to the class seamlessly because we had a whole section devoted to this event and the fight for democracy in South Korea. There was a presentation on the events surrounding the uprising and Q&A with Myung Sook Cha, who participated in the uprising. Food was served, included rice balls with seaweed, spam, and egg because that is what people were making and eating during the uprising.

Myung Sook Cha noted that although Gwangju was blocked off, no one went hungry because the community and activists worked together to feed everyone. While recalling the events, Myung Sook Cha cried and so did other attendees. Listening to and meeting someone involved in the uprising is a much different experience than reading about it in class. Both are valuable, but being able to put a face and voice to this historic event is priceless. Myung Sook Cha said when she meets women who lost their children in the uprising, they cry and want to share their stories with her, but sometimes the burden is too much for her to bear, which is valid but makes a bleak story even more bleak.

There was a lot of emphasis on the role of women during the uprising, which I was glad was being emphasized, but it was difficult hearing what the women had to endure. We have often focused on the role of women in class, from the #MeToo movement to the Labor movement, women are an important part of any social movement. During the Gwangju uprising, women helped make food, tended to the wounded, cleaned up scenes of brutality, and mobilized more members. For this, they were targeted by the paratroopers and accused of being North Korean spies. The women that were arrested were often subject to sexual abuse as well. I wish more time was spent on the Q&A section rather than the presentation, because Myung Sook Cha’s knowledge and experiences are so important to share. This event also ties into the theme of memorialisation in Namhee Lee’s article, “Rewriting Rebellion and Mapping Memory in South Korea,” that we read in week 5. By continuing to have events that commemorate the uprising, we can continue to remember what happened. While the ensuing massacre by the South Korean military against its people was beyond tragic and traumatic; the Gwangju Uprising also represents the beginning of the Democratic movement in South Korea.

The commemorative event was also joyous and warm in many ways. Because how far the Korean people and Korean Americans have come.

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