TV shows tarnish Gwangju historyA foundation to honor the May 18 Gwangju uprising condemned programs run by two conservative TV channels that aired interviews with North Korean defectors claiming North Korea was involved in the civilian massacre.
It further threatened to take legal action against the broadcasters for damaging the spirit of the democratization movement. “It is a serious misdeed that some television programs deliberately distorted the truth of the May 18 uprising,” Oh Jae-yiel, head of the May 18 Memorial Foundation, said on Sunday. “After evaluating the response from the government, we will take all available legal action.”
Ahead of the 33rd anniversary of the uprising, right-wing broadcasters Channel A, owned by the Dong-A Ilbo, and TV Chosun, owned by the Chosun Ilbo, featured interviewees that said North Korean agents secretly penetrated into the South in 1980 and pretended to be civilians in order to cause social turmoil and the collapse of the government in the South.
The programs were even supported by some far-right people, who argued the uprising was just an anti-government riot directed by North Korean agents and Gwangju people were all “reds,” or communists.
TV Chosun broadcast a talk show on May 13 featuring a North Korean defector, identified as Im Cheon-yong. Im said he was a former North Korean military officer of a special force unit that was involved in the Gwangju uprising in 1980.
“A battalion composed of 600 North Korean soldiers penetrated into [Gwangju],” Im said. “It was North Korean guerillas who occupied the South Jeolla Provincial Office at the time.”
However, the allegation contradicts official records. According to the Web site of the state-run National Archives of Korea, it was Gwangju citizens who raided the South Jeolla Provincial Office on May 21 and forcibly removed the government soldiers from the office.
Although the civil forces were later dragged out by government forces, the occupying of the provincial office is seen as a symbolic incident that showed the people’s democratic spirit. Another North Korean defector then appeared on Channel A last Wednesday and made a similar claim.
The defector, who used the pseudonym Kim Myeong-guk, said he was one of several North Korean soldiers sent to Gwangju during the uprising.
Unlike Im, his face was blurred, apparently to protect his identity.
“On May 21, 1980, soldiers of the special forces unit arrived on shore near Gwangju by ship,” Kim said. “We pretended to be Gwangju civilian forces and even attacked the South’s government forces together.
“Among the North Korean soldiers who participated in the uprising, some were promoted to be generals in the North later,” he said.
After the programs were broadcast, roughly 17,000 comments were posted on Ilbe, a far-right online Web site that many young people visit, denouncing the May 18 uprising.
They mostly believed in the allegations by the defectors and denigrated the achievement of the movement.
Most users ridiculed the activists and the victims of the uprising, by describing them as hongeo, or Korean name of skate, a fish and regional specialty of the South Jeolla region.
The fish is red in color and is often used as a nickname for South Jeolla people when accusing them of being a “commie,” or “red.”
The allegation that North Korea was possibly involved in the Gwangju movement was first raised by the Chun Doo Hwan administration in 1980.
On May 21, 1980, Lee Hui-sung, then-Army Chief of Staff for the Chun administration, spread leaflets that said, “The agitation is being led by [North Korean] spy agents and rebellious gangsters.”
However, in 1995, during questioning by the prosecution, Lee reversed his words, saying, “At the time, that allegation was just a suspicion. It was a bit exaggerated.”
Many military experts also say that the possibility of North Korean agents’ involvement is highly unlikely, as Gwangju was under thorough military surveillance by martial law at the time.
Politicians and civic activists protested the programs and the comments of the Ilbe Web site.
You Seung-hee, a Democratic Party lawmaker, issued a statement on Sunday saying: “The actions of the so-called general-programming cable channels, distorting the history of the protest against the military coup, which is part of the identity of South Korea, are no different than the acts of Japan that distort history [regarding their colonial rule during World War II and territorial claims].”
Kim Si-won, an 18-year-old high school student, also staged a one-man protest in central Seoul.
“The Ilbe members, who deny the spirit of the May 18 Democratization Movement, are not entitled to be citizens of this country.”
Kim Seo-jung, a media studies professor at Sungkonghoe University, said “[TV Chosun and Channel A] just ran the programs to get ratings without checking the facts about the Gwangju uprising, which is an important incident in Korean society. They failed to keep their responsibility as media for uncovering the truth.”
Kim Mun-jo, a sociology professor at Korea University, also said, “The far-right netizens, including the Ilbe members, are trying to solidify their status by making those anti-social allegations. Their acts, which lack understanding of history, could become a serious factor in hindering social unity.”
Shin Kyeong-jin, chairman of the Association for the Wounded from the May 18 Democratization Movement, said, “The broadcasters, who led the distortion of history regarding the May 18 uprising, are not qualified to be called media.”
Incheon Mayor Song Young-gil also said, “There’s no difference between the distortion of the May 18 history and the comments of Japan’s right-wing Shinzo Abe or Toru Hashimoto.”
By Kim Hee-jin, Lee Seung-ho [firstname.lastname@example.org]