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Laying Claim to the Memory of May

A Look Back at the 1980 Kwangju Uprising

Linda S. Lewis

Publication Year: 2002

The Kwangju Uprising--"Korea's Tiananmen"--is one of the most important political events in late twentieth-century Korean history. What began as a peaceful demonstration against the imposition of military rule in the southwestern city of Kwangju in May 1980 turned into a bloody people's revolt. In the two decades since, memories of the Kwangju Uprising have lived on, assuming symbolic importance in the Korean democracy movement, underlying the rise in anti-American sentiment in South Korea, and shaping the nation's transition to a civil society. Nonetheless it remains a contested event, the subject still of controversy, confusion, international debate, and competing claims. As one of the few Western eyewitnesses to the Uprising, Linda Lewis is uniquely positioned to write about the event. In this innovative work on commemoration politics, social representation, and memory, Lewis draws on her fieldwork notes from May 1980, writings from the 1980s, and ethnographic research she conducted in the late 1990s on the memorialization of Kwangju and its relationship to changes in the national political culture. Throughout, the chronological organization of the text is crisscrossed with commentary that provocatively disrupts the narrative flow and engages the reader in the reflexive process of remembering Kwangju over two decades. Highly original in its method and approach, Laying Claim to the Memory of May situates this seminal event in a broad historical and scholarly context. The result is not only the definitive history of the Kwangju Uprising, but also a sweeping overview of Korean studies over the last few decades.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xi

Many of my debts of gratitude in writing this book stretch back twenty years, to the Kwangju Uprising itself. First and foremost, I am grateful to the family of the late Im Ch’ung-nak, who sheltered me in 1980 and who has kindly allowed me to publish parts of my field journal. I have also benefited over the years, in Kwangju, from the kindness...

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Note on Transliteration and Translation

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pp. xiii

I employ the McCune–Reischauer system of romanization for Korean except for words or names that have a divergent orthography. Korean names are transliterated in the standard fashion: last names first. Translations, unless otherwise indicated, are mine.

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pp. xv-xxi

On May 17, 1995, I sat on a raised dais at the front of a conference room on the twelfth floor of a new building in downtown Kwangju. Kwangju—at over one million inhabitants, South Korea’s fifth largest city but still a regional backwater in comparison with other areas—is the capital of South Chölla Province in the extreme southwestern...

Part I. Kwangju, 1980: A Narrative Account

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5.18 Begins: Violence and Confusion on the City’s Streets

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pp. 3-13

The 1980 Kwangju Uprising began on Sunday, May 18, when a relatively small group of about two hundred college students, in defiance of a military ban on political activities, marched to the Provincial Office Building in the heart of downtown Kwangju and held a peaceful demonstration. Chanting “End martial law!,” “Free Kim Dae Jung!,” and...

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The “Righteous” Rebellion: Citizens Fight Back

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pp. 14-24

While demonstrations were slow to start on Tuesday, May 20, by night time the whole central part of town was literally as well as figuratively inflamed. MBC, the Kwangju Tax Office, the Provincial Office Building car depot, and sixteen police substations were burned down, and the Korea Broadcasting System (KBS) and the Labor Supervision...

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Democracy in Action: The Days of “Free Kwangju”

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pp. 25-51

Although it was not yet clear to cautious citizens still staying close to their own front gates and afraid to venture out, the soldiers were indeed gone. Thursday, May 22, was the first day in a new stage in the uprising, the period of “Kwangju haebang” (Kwangju liberation). The military’s retreat was a tactical decision (Hwang Sök Yöng 1985:...

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Popular Hopes Crushed: The Army Retakes the City

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pp. 52-58

At midnight the long-distance phone line in the Provincial Office Building had gone dead; the standoff was over. Small units of simin’gun were strategically deployed around the city. Of the perhaps five hundred mainly young people who had been in the headquarters during the day, only about two hundred remained, ten of them women.1...

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“Kwangju Continues”: The Summer of 1980 and Beyond

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pp. 59-71

But I was wrong; the Kwangju Uprising was far from over. The collective nightmare of May was followed by the shared emotional devastation of the summer and fall of 1980. The rest of that year was a particularly tense, uncertain, and depressing period in all of South Korea, but life was especially bleak and full of sorrow in Kwangju. In...

Part II. City of Light/City of Outlaws

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Truth Telling in the Fifth Republic

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pp. 75-95

During the Fifth Republic—that is, the presidency of Chun Doo Hwan (1981–1988)—it was difficult even to speak of the Kwangju Uprising, let alone do research or attempt to write about what had happened. Lee Jae-eui tells of his apprehensions and fears as he and a few friends in 1985 began work on their definitive account,...

Part III. Commemorating Kwangju: From Lamentation to Celebration

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pp. 97

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Kwangju in the 1990s

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pp. 99-107

On May 17, 1998, I stood on K

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The Construction of Memory and the 5.18 Movement: An Overview

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pp. 108-110

The changing character of May in Kwangju, from lamentation to celebration, reflects several things. First and most obviously, it is a consequence of an altered national political context, in which Kwangju has been transformed over twenty years from a site of local memory and mourning to a national sacred place and civic leaders can begin to...

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Making Martyrs and Patriotic Heroes: Direct Victims’ Groups and the Legitimation of 5.18

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pp. 111-134

Throughout the 1980s, the construction of a counterhegemonic Uprising story and the work of memorializing 5.18 was largely controlled by those who had suffered the most—that is, the victims and their families. The large number of groups in the broad, loosely defined 5.18 movement are organized on the basis of degree and kind of participation...

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The Uprising as Civic Asset: New Citizens’ Groups and the Reimaging of Kwangju

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pp. 135-143

In May 2000 the city government moved the Kwangju Biennale, an ambitious biannual, international, progressive/alternative art festival begun in 1995, from the fall to the spring to overlap with the May anniversary events; thus the major civic festivals representing the two sides of Kwangju’s self-proclaimed identity—as “City of Arts and Culture...

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What Is the “Kwangju Spirit”?

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pp. 144-151

The growing influence of the new civic groups in Kwangju is dependent, as has been suggested, on a more symbolic and inclusive interpretation of the meaning of the Kwangju Uprising and its “spirit” and the presumption that all Kwangju citizens—and even perhaps all Koreans—are rightful heirs to its legacy. Not surprisingly (as we have...

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Remembering Kwangju in Post-Minjung Korea

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pp. 152-162

It would be ironic if the price of the restoration of Kwangju’s honor, the result of state appropriation of 5.18 and the consequent national recognition and memorialization of May, is the erasure from public memory of the long struggle to realize that goal and the continued suffering of many of its victims. As the Kwangju Uprising story is...


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pp. 163-177


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pp. 179-184


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pp. 185-189

About the Author

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pp. 191

E-ISBN-13: 9780824863302
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824824792

Publication Year: 2002