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(2nd LD) Moon underscores 'May spirit' from Gwangju democratization movement

All News 15:01 May 18, 2020

(ATTN: UPDATES with details in last 8 paras; ADDS photos)
By Lee Chi-dong

SEOUL, May 18 (Yonhap) -- President Moon Jae-in pledged every form of support Monday for the long overdue task of finding the truth about the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Gwangju in 1980.

Addressing South Korea on the 40th anniversary of the May 18 Democratization Movement, he also repeatedly emphasized the "May sprit" shown by Gwangju citizens at that time. He said the spirit still resonates not just in the country's democracy but also its response to the coronavirus crisis.

"The government will do its best to find facts on the May 18 (incident)," the president said during an official anniversary ceremony held at the May 18 Democracy Square in front of the former South Jeolla Provincial Government Office in Gwangju, 270 kilometers south of Seoul.

Moon cited the launch of a probe by an independent fact-finding commission last week.

"The government won't spare support so that it can get to the bottom of the truth," he added.

President Moon Jae-in delivers a speech at an official ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the May 18 Democratization Movement in Gwangju, 270 kilometers south of Seoul, on May 18, 2020. (Yonhap)

In Gwangju, four decades ago, citizens stood up against a military junta led by Chun Doo-hwan. Martial law troops sealed off the city and conducted a brutal crackdown on the demonstration. Thousands of paratroopers were even deployed. They carried out indiscriminate beatings, torture and sexual assault against civilians.

Soldiers even opened fire on protesters amid reports of shooting on a crowd from helicopters. Official data, compiled so far, puts the number of civilian deaths during the 10 days from May 18 at around 200 but many say it could be much higher.

Moon stressed the need to find out who ordered the use of force and civilian massacres, describing it as "state-led violence." It's not for the purpose of punishment but a path toward "forgiveness and reconciliation" and to prevent distortion and denigration of the movement, a great history in the nation's democracy, according to Moon.

He urged those responsible for the violence to come clean.

"If you confess the truth with courage, which is not too late, the path of forgiveness and reconciliation will open," he said.

He recalled the spirit of solidarity, cooperation and sacrifice among Gwangju citizens in May 1980, saying it was the driving force behind their fight against the overwhelming power of the martial law troops.

The May spirit has evolved into South Korea's strength to emerge as a global role model in handling COVID-19, Moon said, noting that Gwangju was among the first cities to offer sickbeds for patients in Daegu, where infections were rising in February and March.

A ceremony commemorating the May 18 Democratization Movement is under way at the May 18 Democracy Square in Gwangju, 270 kilometers south of Seoul, on May 18, 2020. At the bottom, a file photo shows a crowd staging a demonstration in the same place in May 1980. (Yonhap)

It was the first time for the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans to host the annual ceremony at the square, which was an advance base for Gwangju protesters. South Korea designated May 18 as an official anniversary in 1997.

Around 400 attendees sang the song "Marching for our Beloved," which is a well-known pro-democracy protest anthem. Singing the song in unison was not allowed during formal May 18 movement anniversary ceremonies under Moon's predecessors, the conservative administrations of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, a remnant of ideological controversies.

The Moon government scaled down this year's event, titled "The years go by, but nature knows (what happened)," in line with a national campaign to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Among dignitaries in attendance were Lee Hae-chan, leader of the ruling Democratic Party (DP), its floor leader Kim Tae-nyeon, Joo Ho-young, floor leader and acting head of the main opposition United Future Party (UFP), and Sim Sang-jeung, chief of the Justice Party.

Joo offered a public apology for reckless remarks by some of his party members dishonoring or distorting the Gwangju movement and spirit.

He admitted that the remarks were tantamount to rubbing salt in the wounds of victims, their families and other South Koreans and vowed to stop such remarks from recurring.

His party, hard hit by a crushing defeat in the April 15 parliamentary elections, is apparently stepping up efforts to reach out to Gwangju and surrounding Jeolla province, a traditional stronghold of the liberal ruling party.

The DP called on the UFP to show its sincerity by cooperating in the passage of bills on expanding the authority of the fact-finding panel, punishing the distortion of history and compensating victims and their families.

President Moon Jae-in (L) exchanges greetings with Joo Ho-young, floor leader and acting head of the main opposition United Future Party, before a ceremony to commemorate the May 18 Democratization Movement at the May 18 Democracy Square in Gwangju, 270 kilometers south of Seoul, on May 18, 2020. (Yonhap)


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