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Scaled-back events mark 40th anniversary of Gwangju Democratic Uprising amid COVID-19

A scene from “I Was Not in Gwangju” (Asia Gwangju Democratic Uprising Culture Center)
A scene from “I Was Not in Gwangju” (Asia Gwangju Democratic Uprising Culture Center)


It has been 40 years since the Gwangju Democratic Uprising, when hundreds of citizens were killed in a deadly military crackdown during the authoritarian regime of Chun Doo-hwan, who came to power in a military coup in 1979.

Due to the ongoing spread of the novel coronavirus, however, many events to commemorate the anniversary have been canceled or postponed.

An annual event that was scheduled to take place on the eve of May 18, the historic day when the uprising started, has been canceled this year. This event usually includes traditional music performances and marching on Geumnam-ro, the site of bloody clashes between civilians and paratroopers during the uprising. Last year, some 3,000 people participated. This is the first time the event has been called off since it started in 1988.

But other events will proceed as scheduled to mark the special day.

A special exhibition is taking place Monday to June 17 in 518 Jayu Park in Gwangju, where visitors can view photos and videos of the events that took place 40 years ago using new technology. For example, at the former military police headquarters within the park, visitors can experience life in prison at the time and witness scenes from court trials using augmented reality technology.

Also in Gwangju, the Asia Culture Center will premiere the performance “I Was Not in Gwangju” from Tuesday to next Monday. The immersive play deals with the events of May 18-27, 1980.

From May 27-31, the center will stage “A Man Who Paints Time” (unofficial translation), a play about a painter who worked at the South Jeolla provincial office in 1980.

The organizers of the two performances said the government’s distancing guidelines will be observed, so every other seat in the audience will be left vacant. All theatergoers are required to wear masks at all times and have their temperatures checked before entering the facility.

In Seoul, the Korean Film Archive will present more than 20 films about the 1980 uprising from Saturday to May 24 at its cinema in Sangam-dong, Seoul.

The films to be screened include director Kim Tae-young’s film, which was made in 1988 but could not be released at the time. The first commercial film about the historic day, “The Song of Resurrection” directed by Lee Jung-guk, will also be screened.

Admission is free and each person can book one ticket online. Only 100 of the cinema’s 317 seats will be made available.

For those who wish to commemorate May 18 at home, the Seoul Metropolitan Government is holding the Oh-wol Peace Festival online on its own website (http://www.518seoulspring.org), Naver Live (tv.naver.com/518seoulspring) and TBS Media’s YouTube (http://j.mp/MyLoveTB).

“We originally planned to hold the event outdoors at the Seoul Plaza. However, due to the coronavirus spread, we canceled all outdoor events. We will hold the Oh-wol Peace Festival online without an audience,” Seoul Metropolitan Government official Lee Kyu-hong told The Korea Herald.

The festival features events such as KBS’ “Spring of Seoul, Light in Gwangju” concert, the May Concert and the May Musical Play.

The May Concert will be held at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in central Seoul. The arts center originally planned to hold an offline event in which the public would participate in a performance to mark May 18. The center selected 518 people for the project, but due to COVID-19 it has decided to hold a 40-minute online concert with professional musicians instead.

According to the Seoul City government, the online platforms will also stream the May Public Reading on May 27.

Meanwhile, some 60 movies related to the May 18 Democratic Uprising will be streamed May 21-30 as part of Cine Gwangju 1980. The city government’s online channel will also present the May Dance Performance.

In addition to the performances, an international conference in which representatives from human rights groups discuss global trends on democratization and peace will be presented online May 18.

More details can be found on the website http://www.518seoulspring.org.

By Song Seung-hyun (ssh@heraldcorp.com)
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