A Revolutionary Love Story

Marriage of True Minds

In 1982, a modest wedding ceremony was held outdoors. A small crowd of witnesses, friends, and well wishers were gathered, but neither the bride nor the groom were present.   The ceremony went ahead anyway, and after the rituals, the following song was quietly sung:

Without love, without fame, without even a name,
Our whole life, we vow to walk together

Time flows on
Only a banner waves
Until a new day dawns
We will not falter

Time flows on
Only the mountains and rivers know
Until a new day dawns
We will not falter

Let’s wake up
Shout with passionate voices,
I’ll go ahead, and you, the living follow!
I’ll go ahead, and you, the living follow!

This was the “soul release-betrothal of light” ceremony of Park Ki-Soon, and Yun Sang Won, held at the Mangwol-dong Cemetery in Kwangju, South Korea, in the cold gray of February 20th, 1982. In the Korean tradition, when two people’s fates are conjoined, even death cannot prevent their coming together. If they die under unjust circumstances, their spirits wander, but cannot pass into the afterlife until the marriage is consummated. Under these circumstances, a shaman is charged to call forth their spirits, and a “soul marriage” ceremony is conducted to unite their souls. “We dedicate this song to the bride and groom, neither of whom can be seen here, at this most beautiful and somber wedding.” said the officiant.  The wedding gifts, silk clothes and an embroidered quilt for the couple, were then solemnly burned. The song had been composed especially for their marriage.

A Prairie Fire

In 1978, Yun Sang Won, the groom, was a white collar “salaryman”, working at one of the largest financial institutions in the capital, Seoul. Born to an impoverished peasant family of rice farmers, he had made good. He had succeeded against the odds in the brutal examination hell that is the South Korean educational system, excelling in his studies, graduating from a first tier university, and had leaped up the career ladder to land a job at an elite banking institution.  But still he lived in a rented room in the slums with his younger brother, and he could not brook seeing the wretched daily suffering of his fellow slum dwellers: the everyday poverty, squalor, and misery of their lives tore at his heart. It’s said he argued often with his parents, and had qualms about taking up his white-collar position in the bank. His parents who had sacrificed so much to have him succeed in the conventional Korean way—through academics, then secure employment—wanted him to buckle down: take the good paying job, support his younger siblings, settle down.

“How should I live, father, what can I do for my country….I spend sad sleepless nights thinking about it…..” he wrote, “When I return, I want to fight this oppressive reality”.

“My son was too sympathetic to the plight of the oppressed and exploited” says his father. “So I told him, “Make a lot of money and help them.” The son replied, “How many people could I possibly help with my money? It’s the world that needs to be changed.”[1]

Within 6 months, the son quit the job in the bank, and went to work as a laborer in a styrofoam factory. His mother fell sick, and when he visited her, she reproached him, feverishly, “You know how hard I worked to send you to university. And now you are a [manual] laborer.” He responded, “Mother, don’t be so sad. Someday, I will take care of you. I’m taking care of a lot of people instead of one person. By doing so, I can truly take care of you someday.”[2]

Yun had become a “kanghak”(“educator”), for an illegal night school for factory workers, that offered literacy classes in reading and math, along with labor rights and political education. He also had also become a regional organizer for the National Democratic Worker’s League (Chonminnoryon), and the National Democratic Student’s League (Chonminhakryon).   These shadow organizations formed the core of what the police called, “Haklim”—“a forest of students”—working clandestinely to resist and overthrow the corrupt, brutal military dictatorship of Park Chung Hee.

The name of the night school itself was aspirational: “Dulbul”: “prairie fire”. There he met Park Ki Soon, an ardent activist, one of the founders of the school.

Park was a third year history student at Chonnam University in June of 1978.[3] Park had joined a campus demonstration to protest the arrest and torture of 11 professors who had published a critique of the government’s education policies, and she, in turn, had been arrested, interrogated and tortured. She had been released through the intercession of one of her teachers, but had been expelled from the university. She had turned her energies to starting a night school, working as a street vendor during the day to earn money to support the school, and teaching factory workers in the evenings. “She would be dragging watermelons and fruit on a handcart to sell on the streets” recalls one of her professors. Her dedication was endless.

Together with half a dozen idealistic students[4], she started up the Dulbul night school to “plant the seeds of a labor movement”, to counter schools that “teach only the logic of capital…that train slaves”.[5]

She then entered the Kwangcheon Industrial Complex, finding work at a manufacturing plant as an assembly worker, one of the first of a wave of student activists to enter the factories to recruit and organize laborers. In her circles she met Yoon, who had also entered a factory for the same reasons, and had recruited him to join the night school.

Yun, struck by her fierce passion and integrity, fell in love with her. They became comrades in arms, and companions in life and struggle, fighting to challenge, disrupt, uproot the vicious, brutal, unconscionable exploitation that was the human powered motor of the South Korean economic “miracle”.

The heat of their passion was matched by the cold of the Korean winter. For the poor, Korean winters are like the politics, bitter, brutal, merciless affairs, with oppressive, icy winds bearing down from Siberia for weeks at a time. Most of the urban poor heated their houses with cheap mud-formed charcoal briquettes; these are lit and then directed into flues under a mud or concrete floor, releasing a noxious cocktail of carbon monoxide, toxins, and hot air. For many Koreans, winter sleep is a public health hazard, a constant balancing act in your sleep between asphyxiating and freezing to death. In one of her dreams, stumbling from fatigue, Park lost her balance, slipped and descended into a coma from carbon monoxide poisoning. She died suddenly, miserably, on the day after Christmas, another proletarian casualty of bone-crushing poverty and indifference; she was all of 21 years old.

Yun mourned her loss deeply, writing in his diary, “Dear sister, who flashed like a spark and left, why did you close your eyes without a word? ….among the roaring sparks of fire, your soul has become a flower, blossoming in our souls.”

She was buried in a coffin draped with the inscription, “Sister to all workers”. Yun soldiered on.

Killing the Beast

With support of the Haklim-affiliated Urban Industrial Mission, in August of 1979, a group of young women held a protest at YH textile, an Korean-American-owned wig factory. The factory had just recently declared bankruptcy, shuttered itself, and the owner had absconded with all the capital.   Thousands of impoverished factory workers, suddenly found themselves without employment or severance, and held protests. 170 of these women held a sit-in protest at the New Democratic Party (NDP) headquarters in Seoul, to protest the closure, and—an eminently reasonable proposition– to offer to run the factory cooperatively themselves. The furious response of the Park government was to send in a thousand riot police in full combat gear to bludgeon the protestors into submission. Scores of protestors were seriously injured—“dragged like dogs and beaten”–and one of the women was killed—fallen or pushed to her death. The NDP, a centrist, middle-of-the-road, “opposition” party, was stunned at this orgy of violence within what was nominally a sanctuary—Party Headquarters–, and staged their own protest condemning the government. The reaction of the government was to swiftly expel the party chief Kim Young Sam from the National Assembly; in solidarity and protest, all opposition party members resigned. Spontaneous mass protests in the southern cities of Pusan and Masan also erupted, and then spread to other cities. The KCIA, South Korea’s secret Police, reconnoitered these protests, and their chief, Kim Jae Kyu reported back to the president that the scale of these disturbances was unprecedented: these were full blown civil insurrections involving hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens, and they were rendering the southern part of the country ungovernable. The collected response of Cha Ji Cheol, the head of presidential security, was that mass slaughter of protestors would calm things down. President Park Chung Hee, concurred, indicating that the Shah of Iran had been deposed because he did not have the stomach to kill off enough of his own people. Park suggested that 15-30,000 deaths would be sufficient to quiet down the protestors. Kim’s response—still morally capable of being appalled–was to shoot Cha and Park. “I shot the heart of the beast of the dictatorship” he said.

Rivers of Blood

The assassination roiled the country, fomenting chaos and disorder at the top, and Park’s close retainer, General Chun Doo Hwan took the initiative. Chun withdrew elite troops from the DMZ, Tanks and APC’s roamed the capital, palace warfare erupted, and in the intra-faction fighting and purging, eventually Chun won out. Chun, cut from the same tightly woven military cloth as his predecessor, Park Chung Hee, opened his hands tantalizingly for a brief instant, before closing them tightly into the familiar fist of fascist dictatorship. Exhausted from 18 years of the Park dictatorship, –and the faint glimmer of hope after his death,–in May of 1980, protests erupted against Chun, imposition of martial law, arrests of opposition politicians, and the continuation of military dictatorship. In the southern city of Kwangju, where Yun was teaching, hundreds, then thousands protested. In response, 18,000 riot police, and 3000 fully armed paratroopers from the special warfare brigades—troops trained to conduct terror, mayhem, and murder behind enemy lines–were sent in to quell the demonstrations. These troop movements, following the established command structure, had been discussed and authorized at the highest levels of the US government[6]. Paratroopers landed in the center of the city, and beat, bludgeoned, bayoneted, sliced, raped, shot unarmed, peaceful protestors—and random citizens—women, men, old, young, at will.   The level of brutality was staggering:

One eye witness describes this scene:

“Two soldiers had caught a young woman. The paratroopers stripped her, then they kicked her in the stomach, and they kicked her breasts. Finally, they slammed her up again the wall, beating her head against the wall, time and again. Their hands grew slick with blood. They wiped them on their uniforms and grinned. This done, they hauled the unconscious woman over to a truck and threw her into the back, like an old piece of sacking”.[7]

“A cluster of troops attacked each student individually. They would crack his head, stomp on his back, and kick him in the face. When the soldiers were done, he looked like a pile of clothes in meat sauce.”[8]

Kim Ch’ung-gǔn, a reporter for the conservative Dong-A Ilbo newspaper, said, “Expressions such as the following flashed in my mind: rape in broad daylight, outrageous violations, sadistic attacks, armed suppression. But none of these could adequately portray the situation in Kwangju.”[9]

Hundreds were slaughtered that day like animals in the streets: beaten, clubbed, bayoneted, trampled, shot at close range. A war veteran, no stranger to massacres or atrocities, raged, “I killed Vietcong [during the Korean participation in the Vietnam war], but we never were we this brutal.” Another older citizen, a witness to the brutality of the Japanese occupation and the Korean war, lamented, “I have never seen cruelty like the killings today.”[10] “The streets became rivers of blood feeding an ocean of tears” wrote another witness. The name for this massacre was “Operation Splendid Holiday”.

An Ocean of Fury

Astounded by the sheer brutality of the paratroopers, the people of the city came out in the tens of thousands, to protest, to protect, and to demand an end to the violence.  Troops responded by attacking crowds indiscriminately. Protestors fought back with stones, pipes, sticks against 21,000 massed troops. Flamethrowers were deployed, incinerating protestors. People responded with Molotovs, and a convoy of 200 taxis, trucks and buses joined the fray in a spontaneous motorized phalanx of outrage. Skirmish lines with hand-to-hand fighting raged across the city through fogs of teargas, thickets of bayonets, and barrages of bullets. The night sky illuminated with fire, as hundreds of thousand people fought for control of the city, pushing burning vehicles into army blockades and throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails. Near the University, troops fired machine guns into crowds; people simply climbed over bodies and continued fighting. Jean Underwood, an American missionary in Kwangju at the time, states that throughout the night of May 20th, she “heard the roar, like the roar of a stormy ocean, hundreds of thousands of voices raised in fury.”[11] This ocean of fury would rage, battle, and pound deep into the long, dark night.

By daybreak, citizens’ militias were fully organized, armed with rudimentary weapons. En masse they requisitioned hundred of vehicles, stormed police stations to capture more arms, gave hasty military training. Leaders were designated, ambushes were set, tactical skirmishes harassed and disrupted troop maneuvers.

Splinter groups spread out to 16 other regional towns and cities, to spread news and rebellion, and gather reinforcements. 40,000 stormed the university; paratroopers opened fire indiscriminately and threw hand grenades, but still had to beat a hasty retreat. Helicopter gunships were brought in, strafing the streets and vehicles; at least one was shot down by the citizen’s militia. Militants fought the paratroopers house by house, block by block; by the afternoon, captured machine guns were brought to bear on the central Province Hall and the special warfare division was compelled to vacate the central plaza and retreat. By 8pm of the evening of the 21st, the army had been completely routed, and the city was liberated.

Absolute Community

For 7 days, the citizens held the city as a liberated space, the world’s largest autonomous communal government since Paris in 1871. Government media and the US embassy alleged “riots, looting, summary executions, and chaos”, as a North Korea- directed uprising led by “impure elements and fixed spies”, and enforced a total siege around it. For those within, however, soaring between exultation and exhaustion, it was a place of total community and “absolute love”—no crime or disorder, flourishing deep democracy and true dialogue, and extraordinary spontaneous expressions of love, solidarity, camaraderie:

“Our hearts burst whenever citizens clapped their hands and cheered us. It gave us great strength. Wherever we went, women lifted sushi and rice balls to our car, telling us to fight with courage. Sometimes they wiped our faces, smeared with tear-gas smoke, with wet towels. Women, in neighborhood units, prepared food and distributed it to us. From stores, people tossed us soft drinks and pastries. . . . The citizen’s encouragement and care, overwhelming wherever we went, brought tears to my eyes…. my heart warmed, my eyes grew wet, and tears began to flow down my cheeks.” [12]

“In [Kwangju], the concept of private property completely disappeared. The community was created because all shared their possessions….The sharing of possessions was taken for granted because individuals were risking their precious lives to fight the enemy; this sharing was a natural thing to do when individual lives coincide with the life of the community”.[13]

A citizen’s settlement committee was formed to negotiate with the martial law command, and a student’s settlement committee was also formed to deal with civil matters, campaigns, medical issues, and public order.

Throughout it all, Yun Sang-won was a calm, silent, but dedicated bulwark of the struggle.  In the early moments, he and his comrades at the night school hand worked tirelessly throughout the nights, manually printing by candlelight, tens of thousands of copies of a leaflet, The Fighter’s Bulletin, which was the first source of accurate information about the massacre, and which became the eyes and ears of the uprising, rousing the people to action.  “The paratroopers are not afraid of people with guns. They are afraid of the truth. This is our weapon”, he said to those who wanted to drop the printing and pick up arms.  He would later draft the declaration of the citizens’ militia, lead an attack on an arms depot, organize an offensive to commandeer armored vehicles.  He held the one and only press conference, to tell the true facts of the uprising to the outside world. And he was a leader of the citizens’ militia and a progressive on the citizen’s settlement committee, challenging the conservatives who argued for unilateral surrender.

The people held the city in an embrace of “absolute love” and caring. The injured were treated—thousands rushed to donate blood–, bodies were buried, communal kitchens fed everyone, huge general assemblies debated vision, strategy and tactics, while performers performed throughout the day to raise spirits, create harmony, and stimulate critical dialogue. “In such a situation, what is politics and what is the need of activist consciousness? It was enough to see the picture of true human beings. This was none other than the recovery of humanity….. a community of common destiny….realizing democracy….”[14]

Despite internal dissent within the committees regarding strategy, attempts were also made to negotiate with the government; large quantities of arms were surrendered as a gesture of good faith. Not fully understanding US complicity in the release of troops—like placing feral cats into a bird coop and then gleefully averting your eyes while the feathers fly–, requests and calls were made to the US Ambassador, requesting mediation in settling the standoff; Ambassador Glysteen rebuffed the request from Yun without a second thought. Later in a cynical, self-serving, exculpatory, and legally-parsed memoir of the Kwangju incident (proclaiming “helpless entanglement”), he acknowledged receipt of the request, but dismissed it, justifying it with the (hindsight) claim that Yun was rigid, doctrinaire cadre, unwilling to negotiate. “The individual who made the request was… a…dedicated anti-government activist and theoretician…hardened….to the point where he opposed compromise.”[15]

On May 27th, with the USS Coral Sea guarding its flank—the attack had been delayed to allow the ship to arrive–, at daybreak, 20,000 troops of the ROK 20th division, 31st division, 7th, 11th, and 3rd Special Warfare Brigades—with the full faith and endorsement of the US government– entered the city from the North, North West, West, South West, South, South East, East and North East, with tanks, APC’s, and helicopters, and massacred its final resistants, putting an end to the rebellion in 90 short, terrifying, atrocity-packed minutes.

The Last Scream:

The last moments of the resistance at the central provincial hall were described thus:

“Suddenly the quiet of the night was broken by a female voice [on the loudspeaker system]…It was a young woman’s voice, with a hysterical edge. As the girl shrieked on—her voice resounding over the darkened city—her words merged into a continuum, one continuous shriek, a wail that lasted for perhaps 10 minutes, on and on and on …Imagine that famous painting by Munch, the Scream, with mysterious face and hollowed out mouth….imagine that painting wired for sound at tremendous volume in an otherwise pitch black room….then you may have some idea of the power of that voice….there is no role in Shakespeare that calls for a scream of such power….hers was no ordinary cry”[16].

It was a cry for help, a cry for freedom, finally the cry, “Do not forget us”.

A body, shot up, was discovered on the second floor of the civil affairs office of the provincial government office.

“As I recall his face had been burned. He had been scorched by some kind of fire, and some of his hair had been burned away. As I recall the rebel’s eyes were still partly open, which made the image so haunting.   I wanted to reach down and close the eyes…”

It was the body of Yun Sang Won, student spokesman and organizer of the civil militia. He had stayed on fighting until the bitter end.

Bradley Martin, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun reported:

The one Kwangju victim I can see clearly see alive in my mind’s eye is the student spokesman who held a press conference on the 26th…. his eyes….struck me, with their gentleness, their kindness in the face of what I thought must be knowledge of impending death[17].

Just hours later, before the final assault on the city, Yun gathered up all the middle school, high school, and coed students, who were members of the citizen’s militia, and urged them to return home:

“You have witnessed this entire process: civilians shedding blood for democracy.  Now you should return home. Do not forget this struggle; carry it on to future generations.

We will be defeated today.

But tomorrow’s history will make us the victors.”

* * *

7 years later, the corrupt Chun dictatorship would fold like a deck of cards in the face of massive protests involving millions of students and workers. The March for the Beloved, sung at the wedding for Park and Yoon, banned for years, was chanted out loud by millions in the streets. The government would accede to direct elections, and after a bumpy transition, with the generals jockeying or scurrying to the sidelines, in 1993, South Korea finally elected its first civilian president, Kim Young Sam. In 1997, the Kwangju massacre would be designated as an official day of mourning, and the first memorial service was held. The “March for the Beloved” became the official song of the Kwangju uprising.

Saving the Dead from History

“With the destruction of history, contemporary events themselves retreat into a remote and fabulous realm of unverifiable stories, uncheckable statistics, unlikely explanations and untenable reasoning.”

–Guy DeBord, The Society of the Spectacle

“To articulate what is past….means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger…not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious.”

— Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History

Walter Benjamin words resound prophetically. The struggle for the meaning of Kwangju is now under contestation, and it’s possible to make out, among inchoate tactics and strategies, outlines of an order of battle, a single battle in a much larger war for the memory of Korean history, and the future of politics itself.

Since the designation of May 18th as an official day of memorial, successive right wing governments—the previous Lee government, the current Park 2.0 government–have tried in different ways to co-opt, attenuate, water down, overturn, or banish the memory of the Kwangju uprising: “The goal is to merge different views from all parts of society and use this as the foundation… [for] national integration and happiness”. In particular, the current administration, associated with and descended from those who perpetrated, supported, or covered up the massacre, is fuming at the daylighting and institutionalization of the memory of the uprising. As a result, they have tried to reframe and rebrand the event. One of the key skirmishes has been to attempt to banish, bludgeon down, or declaw this song.[18].

So, in recent memorial events—since 2009–, the song has been substituted or tampered with, and participants have been prevented from singing it. This year, in a move right out of the Situationist’s handbook, the song was performed by an orchestra and an operatic choir, turning a participatory chant of solidarity into a precious spectacle of passive consumption.  In a previous year, using the deadening quality of modern choreography to exquisite political effect, the song was used as a score for an abstract dance performance, alienating and dismaying participants.

Key organizations– The Mothers of May, The Association of Bereaved families, The May 18th Memorial Foundation, opposition parties,– and large numbers of citizens have boycotted the official memorials several years running in protest. The song itself has been smeared as “pro-North Korean”; a new song for the event has been commissioned.

The history of South Korea compresses the history of the development of capitalism into a single viewable slide. Its economic development straddles feudal enclosure and primitive accumulation to hyper-capitalist techno-industrial state in six short decades. Likewise, the history of its oppression follows a similar trajectory of development—from in-your-face, dictatorial coercion and control, to the sophisticated and diffuse methods of persuasion, propaganda, and mystification of contemporary post-democratic capitalism.   Media-and-PR-based techniques of trance, stupor, and compliance have replaced the boot-in-the-face, guns, and bayonets. Internalized symbolic violence does the previous work of indoctrination and propaganda. Distraction, diversion, and consumption have become palliative narcotics for the alienation and fragmentation of the neoliberal state. The rich texture of lived human relations is mediated through the electron-thin representation of media illusion and hyper-individuated cybermendacity. And when these fail, Terror and Pity, the old emotional hostages since the Greeks invented tragedy–masquerading as security discourse and human rights–are trotted out in the virtual agora in dramatic black outfits, the last refuge of the desperate, despotic, and hypocritical. And of course, judicial and physical rough-housing is never far away, and bayonets and bullets are plentiful.

This is the context for the transitioning of “March for the Beloved” from a solidarity-rousing chant of rebellion, to a passivity-inducing hyper-spectacular bourgeois performance, where the spectacle is the message: listen, don’t speak; behave, don’t act; sit down, shut up, consume, and be passive.   The Situationists and the martyrs of Kwangju are turning in their graves.

The Armed Angel

“Love is an Angel, but an Angel armed.”

–Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth

In November 24th, 1979, a large wedding ceremony was held indoors at the YMCA in Seoul. A huge, well-heeled crowd had gathered, but the bride was absent, and the groom seemed distracted. The ceremony went ahead anyway.   The groom’s name was called, and at that moment, loud chanting broke out, and a proclamation was read, demanding an immediate end to military dictatorship, fundamental democratic reforms and elections, and opposition to the farcical election of the president by an unrepresentative, subservient, sycophantic electoral college.

Within minutes, the rally, announced as a wedding to throw off the authorities–the bride’s name was an anagram of “democratic government” was dispersed by massive brute force, and the participants—including some of the most venerated activists in Korean History—were beaten, arrested, and spirited away to the Defense Security Command to be tortured. Paik Ki Wan was one of them.

A year later, still in jail, Paik had just been interrogated and tortured within inches of his life, and was writhing alone in a freezing prison cell. Staring up at a 15 watt light bulb in his cell, at the utter end of his rope, Paik told himself, “I can’t just die like this.” Conjuring up his last powers, he composed up a chant, a prayer, a shamanic incantation to give himself strength and to pass on to others should he die. “Moetbinari “, “Prayer for the Mountain—A Song for a Shamanic Dancer of the South” was the result.

Without leaving love, or name,
a passionate vow to continue our whole lives,

The fight was brave but the banner is torn,
and though time flows,
the winding rivers know,
Comrades, until the new day comes,
Do not falter!
Even the river reeds stand up,
Their voices shout out endlessly,
Rise up, rise up, a blood-coagulated cry:
I’ll go ahead, and you the living follow!

After Kwangju, at the nadir of the Korean resistance movement, these words, whispered into the ears of visitors from a hospital bed, and transcribed into a poem, were adapted and put to music. They became the basis of the wedding song: a message of strength from the dead or dying to continue fighting.

In South Korea, at every protest gathering, at every labor action, the March of the beloved is the anthem that is chanted with upraised fists at the beginning of each rally. It has become a pan-Asian protest song, accompanying mass movements in 7 countries. It is, for Koreans, as iconic as “We shall overcome”, the Marseillaise, or the Internationale.   Yet it’s simpler, more modest, and more complex than all of those: a love poem, an elegiac hymn, shamanic message, and revolutionary anthem of sorrow, resistance, hope, and love.

Our whole life, we vow to walk together
Until a new day dawns
We will not falter…

Words themselves are fragile, ephemeral things, but intoned together they become a solid force in the fight against oppression, their power flowing out and vibrating in the bones and marrow of the people, both the living and the dead. In 1987, when millions of protestors faced down and dismantled the Chun dictatorship with its tanks, troops, and torture chambers, they chanted these words in the streets, and underneath the raised fists and voices, you could feel the stirring power and the numinous, hushed awe of its bracing, spine-tingling truth. In mass movements in Burma, Cambodia, Malaysia, Japan, Taiwan, the words of the song have been a balm to fear and a weapon against the oppressor, inspiring actions and movements capable of facing down murderous armies of thugs. When this energy—the spirit of Kwangju, the spirit of revolution itself—stirs and surges through the people, it invokes simply, elegantly, profoundly the unassuming, unremitting power of solidarity, and the chain of mutuality, humanity, and love that binds generations of struggle together beyond death. Listen, in the chant, for the heartbeat, breath, energy of the multitude: a people unbound, awake, alive. Here are the dead living, and the living already dead, but marching forward in unison, claiming the world, making history, not cowering from it.   This is the message of the song, the message of Kwangju, a liberation yet to be achieved, a world yet to be won:

Our whole life, we vow to walk together
Until a new day dawns
We will not falter…

I’ll go ahead, and you, the living follow!

K.J. Noh is a long time activist, writer and teacher.  He can be reached at k.j.noh48@gmail.com



[1] Bradley Martin, http://home.portervillecollege.edu/jkeele/Asian%20History%20Powerpoint/BradleyMartin_KwangJu.pdf

[2] Bradley Martin, http://home.portervillecollege.edu/jkeele/Asian%20History%20Powerpoint/BradleyMartin_KwangJu.pdf

[3] From (in Korean) http://www.lovekorea.net/zx/board_normal/243848?ckattempt=1

[4] Of these founding students, 2 would die in combat (Yun Sang Won, Park Yong Jun), Park Kwang Hyun would die during a hunger strike in prison, Shin Young Il would be released from prison for medical reasons, but die later of stress-related causes. Kim Young Chul would die in an asylum after torture by the authorities rendered him insane. Park Hyo Sun was the only person not incarcerated or killed; she would die at the age of 44 of liver cancer.

[5] “Schools are the necessary evil of this society. Schools that teach the logic of the Capitalist, teach the consciousness of the Capitalist, teach only false consciousness, in order to raise slaves for the system, these schools of our age, are like a cancer.” These words, from one of her notebooks, is the inscription on her gravestone. From (in Korean) http://www.deulbul.co.kr/bbs/skin/bor/bor1/bbs_view.jsp?b_idx=97&board_id=sub04_02_04&category=

[6] South Korea’s military, until 1994, was under the direct control of the Combined Forces Command (CFC), headed, at the time by US General John A. Wickham Jr.   Evidence indicates that the US released CFC control of the 11th and 13th Special Warfare Brigades on May 7th in preparation for the suppression of the May 15th protests. Telegrams of the “Cherokee Files” between Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher and US Ambassador to Korea, Gleysteen indicate that they were fully aware that a crackdown was brewing, and agreed not to oppose it publicly or privately.

[7] Lee Jai-eui, The Kwangju Uprising: Eyewitness Press Accounts of Korea’s Tiananmen, ed. Henry Scott-Stokes and Lee Jai Eui (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2000),33.

[8] Lee Jae-eui, Kwangju Diary: Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age (Los Angeles, UCLA Pacific Monograph Series, 1999), 41.

[9] Choi Jung-woon, “The Formation of an ‘Absolute Community” in Contentious Kwangju: The May 18 Uprising in Korea’s Past and Present, eds. Gi-Wook Shin and Kyung Moon Hwang (Lanham, MD, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003), 4.

[10] Lee Jai-eui, Kwangju Diary, 48.

[11] Jean Underwood, “An American Missionary’s View,” in Contentious Kwangju, 30.

[12] Choi Jung-woon, “The Formation of an ‘Absolute Community’,” in Contentious Kwangju

[13] Choi Jung-woon, The Gwangju Uprising: The Pivotal Democratic Movement That Changed the History of Modern Korea, tran. Yu Young-nan(Paramus, NJ: Homa & Sekey Books, 2006), 125.

[14] Choi Jung-woon, The Gwangju Uprising, 123.

[15] William Gleysteen, Massive Entanglement, Marginal Influence: Carter and Korea in Crisis (Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1999), 140.

[16] Henry Scott-Stokes, Shim Jae-hoon, and Phillippe Pons, “A Scream for Freedom,” in The Kwangju Uprising: Eyewitness Press Accounts of Korea’s Tiananmen, ed. Henry Scott-Stokes and Lee Jai Eui (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2000), 111.

[17] Bradley Martin, http://home.portervillecollege.edu/jkeele/Asian%20History%20Powerpoint/BradleyMartin_KwangJu.pdf

[18] Right wing commentators allege that the “beloved” of the song is a reference to North Korea’s “Kim Il Sung”. Other issues of contention involve questions about US complicity; links to North Korea; the number of the dead (contested, but municipal death records indicate at least 2000 excess deaths that month), as well as the meaning of the uprising itself.

K.J. Noh is a long time activist, writer and teacher.  He can be reached at k.j.noh48@gmail.com