May 19, 2022
SEOUL – President Yoon Suk-yeol on Wednesday paid tribute to protesters of the Gwangju Democratic Uprising, an unusual move for a conservative president that some say is aimed at dispelling concerns of his bloc’s negligence of the Jeolla provinces and to strengthen the message of national unity.
“The spirit of May is the restoration of universal values and constitutional spirit of liberal democracy. That spirit belongs to all of us and is a valuable asset of the Republic of Korea,” Yoon said in a speech on the 42nd anniversary of the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising at the National Cemetery in Gwangju on Wednesday morning.
“The spirit of May, which defended liberal democracy with blood, is the cornerstone of national unity,” he said, speaking in front of the uprising victims’ bereaved families present at the ceremony. “We must allow the values of liberal democracy and human rights contained in the spirit of May to spread throughout the world.”
The Gwangju Uprising was a popular movement that took place in 1980, led by citizens of Gwangju and the Jeolla provinces, or often referred to as the Honam region. The protesters demanded the resignation of Chun Doo-hwan and other leaders of the Dec. 12 coup and the release of democratic political leaders, including Kim Dae-jung.
This year’s ceremony saw one of the largest attendances from the conservative bloc, with around 100 lawmakers from the People Power Party present.
The ceremony drew attention from the scene of President Yoon’s entrance. He was the first conservative president to enter the ceremony through the “Door of Democracy.” Previous presidents did not go through the main gate for security reasons and usually bypassed the entrance by vehicle.
Liberal-leaning ex-President Moon Jae-in was the first president to enter through the door at the 37th anniversary ceremony in 2017.
When Yoon visited the Democratic Cemetery in Honam in November as a presidential candidate, he was blocked by demonstrators protesting Yoon’s controversial remarks defending Chun Doo-hwan. He was also unable to get to the memorial tower. Even in February, just before the election, he failed to pay tribute at the memorial tower due to protests.
At the end of the ceremony on Wednesday, Yoon and other attendees sang “March for the Beloved” — a song dedicated to those who have died fighting for their democratic rights in the uprising. The song was written in the 1980s for an activist who died in the Gwangju Uprising on May 18, 1980.
The song and whether former presidents have sung it have caused considerable controversy. Former President Lee Myung-bak was criticized by the conservative bloc for singing along to the song in 2008, the first year of his inauguration. The song has been sung by a choir since 2009. President Park Geun-hye stood while the choir sang. Liberal-leaning Moon reversed the nine-year practice by singing in unison with the attendees.
Yoon’s singing of the song on Wednesday, while holding hands with the bereaved family members of the seat next to him, is a marked departure from his conservative predecessors.
He did not comment on his promise he made as a presidential candidate to include the spirit of the May 18 movement in the Constitution’s preamble, although he said the spirit is “the very spirit of the Constitution of liberal democracy.”
The People Power Party’s manifesto already includes the inheritance of the May 18 spirit, and Yoon promised to have it in the Constitution.
The Democratic Party has proposed to begin discussions on the constitutional amendment to incorporate the spirit of May 18 into the Constitution. The People Power Party is also preparing to revise the relevant laws requested by civic organizations of the May 18 uprising.