June Issue Special Article: “Don’t sing of May, with leaves of grass beaten by the wind.” - The 31st Anniversary Commemoration of the May 18th People’s Uprising

    It was blinding. The sunshine was too brilliant, making it difficult to keep reverence in mind. Gwangju is not appropriate for freely enjoying the sunshine of May. For those visiting here in May, a corner of the heart is covered in darkness, untouched by the sun. Like the lines from a poem by Kim Namju… “May did not arrive lyrically like the wind / May did not lie down lyrically like leaves of grass / Don’t sing of May, with leaves of grass beaten by the wind.”

    On May 17, I went to Gwangju to participate in the 31st Anniversary Commemoration of the May 18th People’s Uprising. At 4 PM, people began to gather in Geumnamro street blocked off to vehicle traffic. Event tents were set up everywhere, and under some of the tents were kids making rice balls and beds for taking blood donation. In the middle of the street were exhibits installed by various civic organizations, such as “Command of One Million People’s Insurrection,” “Gwangju Center for Workers and Unemployment,” “Neulpeureun Community Child Center” and “Community Child Center.” There were placards in memory of the late Jeong Gwang-hu, the Executive Advisor of Korea Alliance for Progressive Movements, who passed away on May 13. Diverse stories about Korea’s democracy poured out from the banners and displays hanging everywhere. As happened 31 years ago, the street of Geumnamro was transformed into a street of democracy for discussing the urgent problems facing us today.

    At the end of Geumnamro street stands the old Jeonnam provincial government building. I pictured in my mind the photo of the square filled with tens of thousands of people who flocked to the May 1980 Rally for Democracy. The image of the majestic square that I experienced upon seeing the photo is gone and only a small flowerbed remains in the empty place. There’s no way to find the torch lights and the roar of those times. The old Jeonnam provincial government building, diminished like a toy model, is said to be in the middle of being turned into the National Hall of Asian Culture.

    With the waning sunlight, the May 18th Eve Festivities began in earnest. Pungmul bands of 500 players that marched from Gwangju Station, South Gwangju Station and Gwangju Park swarmed in Geumnamro. It is a parade symbolizing the citizen militia 31 years ago. Written on the banners held by the Gwangju-Jeonnam Region University Student Pungmul Band were slogans such as “University Student’s Dream, A Good Job” and “Never Forget, Those Days of Beating Hearts.” The image of a woman student handing out pinwheels made with great care, saying “tomorrow is May 18th,” overlapped with the voices of the young men who took to the streets 31 years ago and made appeals to the citizens to gather at the provincial government building.

    The Eve Festivities continued with the gala show of the musical Glamorous Vacation and “Songs of Fighters Sang by the May Singers.” At times standing up and punching a fist in the air while singing along, at times quietly immersed in thought, the people stayed. As in those times, men, women, the young and the old, everyone came together. A grandmother holding a grandson in her bosom, a mother and father holding children’s hands, students with friends, foreigners of various skin colors, all were there, and I felt comforted knowing that this place is not just for the people who were here 31 years ago…that May 18th is not a stuffed specimen but it is a living May 18th for all the people who have gathered here now.

    On May 18, the second day, I visited the National Cemetery for the May 18th Democratic Uprising. While petals from fringe trees fluttered down on the road to the cemetery. I was reminded of being moved by the fluttering of the numerous funeral streamers hanging along the street when I first visited Mangweol-dong about 10 years ago as a university student. On that road to Mangweol-dong, as if harboring all the memories of 31 years ago, the petals and the funeral streamers greeted the people in silence.

    At 10 in the morning so dazzlingly bright, the commemoration ceremony began. Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik, the representatives of every political party, other political figures, Gwangju citizens, and primary, middle and high school students filled the ceremonial hall. The ceremony proceeded with the laying of flowers, commemorative speech and progress report. Unlike the previous year, the song “March for the Beloved” reverberated through the ceremonial hall. When the intro to the chorus singing of “March for the Beloved” concluding the commemoration began, without anyone taking the lead, everyone stood up clapping and sang in unison with fists punching the air. At that moment, I shuddered in the realization that that space was alive and that all who gathered in that place were singing the same song together with the spirits of May 18th.

    I felt that the people, seeing the Eve Festivities, singing the “March for the Beloved” together, were preserving from their particular positions the sensitivity of understanding May 18th and willing to fight against injustice.

    The records related to the May 18th People’s Uprising will be registered in the Memory of the World. Among the records of modern Korean history, these will be the first to be registered as such. It is hoped that through these records the reverberation of May 18th will travel throughout the world.