Photo: Yoon Suk-yeol pays his respects at the Gwangju Uprising memorial cemetery. Credit: Office of the President.
May 18 was the 42nd anniversary of the Gwangju Uprising 광주항쟁, a seminal moment in South Korea’s struggle for democracy in which the Chun Doo-hwan 전두환 dictatorship massacred hundreds of protesting civilians.
President Yoon Suk-yeol 윤석열 대통령 made headlines by attending the memorial ceremony, and singing March for the Beloved 님을 위한 행진곡, the protest anthem of the uprising. Previous conservative presidents, Lee Myung-bak 이명박 and Park Geun-hye 박근혜, each attended the memorial ceremony once in their five-year terms.
Under those presidents, singing the protest anthem had been controversial - the last bit of foot-dragging for South Korea’s conservatives whose political heritage traces back to the military dictators. Yoon, on the other hand, appeared more comfortable singing the song. Yoon also had a commemorative meal of rice balls, the battle ration for the armed civilians who resisted Chun’s paratroopers.
There is no reason to understate the significance of Yoon’s Gwangju attendance, which is commendable. As the president-elect, Yoon also attended the memorial ceremony for the Jeju Massacre 제주학살 on April 3, the first conservative president or president-elect to do so.
But there is no need to overstate it either. Previous conservative presidents also attended the memorial ceremony at least once, as did conservative party leaders such as People Power Party chairman Lee Jun-seok 이준석 국민의힘 당대표. Yet when the Special Act for May 18 Fact Finding 5.18 진상규명특별법 was up for the National Assembly 국회 vote in December 2020, less than a quarter of the PPP legislators voted in favor.
The ties that bind South Korea’s conservatives to the military dictators remain strong. In the dinner reception for US President Joe Biden, for example, Yoon’s presidential office served wine from Dana Estates in Napa Valley, California, a Korean-owned winery as a symbol of ROK-US friendship. The co-owner of Dana Estates is Chun Jae-man 전재만, son of Chun Doo-hwan.