BLOOD TUESDAYApril 19, 1960 was a truly fine spring day, recalls Kang Jae-sik, who was a high school student at the time.
What lingers in his mind, however, are not sunshine or cherry tree blossoms, but the muzzles of carbines that riot police pointed at him and fellow students. That was a day Mr. Kang, now 64, cannot forget.
It was Bloody Tuesday, a day of revolution.
More than 20,000 students hit the streets, chanting "Down with the Dictatorship" against the Syngman Rhee administration. Amid the upheaval, Mr. Kang witnessed the power of the people until bullets glanced off his head, knocking him unconscious.
"This April 19 Revolution marks a crucial turning point in Korean history, when a class of citizens began voicing their opinions," says Hong Seuk-ryule, a professor of history at Sungshin Women's University. "Until then, there was no such thing as a civil society in this country. Starting April 19, 1960, however, the top-down social hierarchy was demolished with a new bottom-up structure from the grassroots."
The spark for the revolution was then-President Syngman Rhee's yearning for lifelong office after his inauguration in 1948. An overarching desire to retain the presidency blinded Mr. Rhee, a leading hero of the movement against Japanese colonial rule.
In 1954, Mr. Rhee even amended the Constitution to make his reappointment possible. But the people were not blind. Public sentiment was against him, making it unlikely he would win re-election in May, 1960. Mr. Rhee was prepared to win at any cost, including manipulating the elections. With loyalist Lee Kee-bung by his side, Mr. Rhee first rescheduled the election date to March 15, a move simplified since opposition party leader Jo Byeong-ok was in the United States getting medical treatment.
After setting a March 15 date, Mr. Rhee set about fabricating the election process by mobilizing toadies and government officials to buy votes and discourage citizens from attending the opposition party's rallies.
On election day, it was officials from Mr. Rhee's Jayu (Freedom) Party escorting voters to the polls, and inspecting the ballots. In case of unfavorable return, substitute ballot boxes full of pro-Rhee votes were prepared.
Mr. Rhee's scheme worked, and he carried 99 percent of votes with Mr. Lee as vice president. On March 17, the Rhee administration announced victory, even though few trusted the legitimacy of the win.
Demonstrations against this contaminated election had occurred sporadically even before the election. The first to take action were students in Masan, just west of Busan.
On election day, a crowd of activists confronted armed riot police, who showed no mercy in quelling the demonstration. Je Su-zong, then a 15-year-old student in Masan, remembers the day:
"Around 10:30 p.m., people ran to a police station, asking for the ballot box. I was in the crowd and witnessed with my own eyes the riot police firing bullets," says Mr. Je, one of many to suffer casualties that day after a bullet grazed his head.
He was lucky to survive. Kim Ju-yeol, a 16-year-old student, was not as fortunate.
A tear gas grenade shredded Mr. Kim's right eye, and he was reported missing until his body surfaced on the sea a month later. The riot police and political henchmen had conspired to cover up the death by dumping the body into the sea. "Before the body came up to the surface, Masan citizens tried hard to find the whereabouts of the body," says Mr. Je. "We dug up the ground, ponds and everything."
The teenager's death fired up people's emotions, pouring fuel on demonstrations elsewhere on the peninsula. On April 18, more than 3,000 Korea University students gathered outside the National Assembly in Yeouido, Seoul, lambasting the Rhee administration. The students stopped only after the university's president pleaded with them to do so. On their return to campus, however, they came face to face with political goons sequestered in Jongno, central Seoul. One student was beaten to death, lighting the fuse for an even more colossal demonstration on April 19.
At 1 p.m. that day, Mr. Kang was seated in a classroom at Myongji High School in Hongeun-dong, western Seoul, digesting his lunch. He, along with everyone else in the room, was aware of the demonstrations.
His teacher was busy explaining some math formula, something certain to appear on the college entrance exam, but Mr. Kang was barely listening. His spirit moved by the political turmoil, words failed to reach him. It was not quite the right attitude, Mr. Kang realized at the time, but he had no choice, he says.
"It was a hard time, when a mathematical formula was not a big deal. There was something wrong with society, even to the eyes of young ones like me," Mr. Kang recalls.
What Mr. Kang saw on the blackboard was not mathematical symbols but the dead body of Kim Ju-yeol. And Mr. Kang was not alone -- in the middle of class, he and several classmates stomped out of the room. "I had this gut feeling that I should do something," Mr. Kang says. "We just ran all the way to City Hall square, where college students and citizens had already gathered in swarms."
Just as he reached the plaza, he identified a group of medical students marching in their white gowns. Around 2 p.m., Mr. Kang says, the plaza was jammed with people shouting slogans like "Repeal the foul election," "Syngman Rhee, step out of office" and "Let's overthrow the dictatorship and regain democracy."
The students, Mr. Kang included, soon advanced to Gyeongmudae, now the Blue House. "We tipped over the trolley cars, which we used as blockades, and marched forward," Mr. Kang says. Before reaching the president's compound, however, they were cut off by riot police with loaded shotguns. Mr. Rhee had proclaimed martial law only minutes earlier, sending forth tanks to suppress the students.
"I did not ever imagine that the police would fire their guns on young students," Mr. Kang says.
But that was exactly what they did. Pandemonium broke out with bullets flying and students falling down. Mr. Kang could not avoid the shower of bullets -- two stray bullets struck him, one on the forehead and another on a thigh. He saw a flash of red and passed out.
During Mr. Kang's blackout, the demonstrations went on, with a flood of students and citizens spilling onto the scene. Elsewhere on the peninsula, some elementary students took to the streets, crying out "Do not aim guns at my parents, brothers and sisters."
More than 20,000 students took part in Bloody Tuesday's demonstrations. In the end, an estimated 142 were killed during the course of the protesters' suppression. On April 25 that year, a group of university professors issued the following statement: "The government should pay for the blood from the students on April 19."
Exactly one week after the violent uprising, Mr. Rhee resigned from office. Mr. Lee committed suicide shortly afterward. Mr. Rhee then went into exile in Hawaii.
"This April 19 Revolution is a symbol of student power, and played a crucial role in bringing democracy to this country," says Jeong Kwan-hoe, an official at the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs.
Forty-three years have passed. Mr. Kang is seated at a desk of the Organization of the Wounded in the April 19 Revolution. Between sips of green tea, he says "I'm proud that I was part of history."
But the memories are laced with anguish. "I'm happy to be alive," he says. "Two of my classmates were shot to death."
Through the military regimes of the 1990s, Mr. Kim's experience in the anti-government movement was not something honorable. "I had to hide the fact that I took part in the revolution," Mr. Kang says.
Mr. Kang is now president of the organization, whose offices in Pyeong-dong, central Seoul, once belonged to Lee Kee-boong, Syngman Rhee's vice president.
The revolution, however, was downgraded to an "uprising" during the Park Chung Hee military regime, which called its coup d'etat in 1961 a revolution. It was not until 1993, during the Kim Young-sam administration, that Bloody Tuesday regained the appellation of revolution.
Efforts to commemorate the revolution must continue, Mr. Kang insists.
"For one thing, there are still many bereaved family members, and those wounded who did not get any compensation," Mr. Kang says. Currently, 132 families who lost a relative in the revolution and 236 of the estimated 6,400 wounded receive 642,000 won ($530) a month in compensation, on average; the majority of the injured never learned of the government's compensation plan. Another 103 individuals have been recognized as persons of merit.
"It's hard to grasp the exact number of participants in the revolution after all these years," says Mr. Je.
Mr. Kang champions the necessity of remembrance. "I just get the feeling that the revolution is fading from people's memory. We all have to remember that commemorating the past is a way not to repeat the dark side of history."
by Chun Su-jin
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