SEOUL – In Korea’s history of fighting for democracy, the 1980 Gwangju uprising stands out as one of the proudest moments. Thousands of ordinary citizens took to the streets to protest against the military dictatorship, and hundreds were shot down by security forces. The bloody incident has been glorified in the textbooks as the “Gwangju Democratization Movement”.
However, right-wing extremists have offered an alternative, painful view of what happened: Gwangju, they say, was not a heroic sacrifice for democracy, but a a “riot” instigated by the North Korean communists infiltrated the protest movement.
Such conspiracy theories, which few historians take seriously, have been spreading rapidly in South Korea, where a political divide – rooted in the country’s often violent and often violent modern history – being amplified on the network.
President Moon Jae-in’s ruling party has enacted a series of laws, some of which have become laws, aimed at stamping out misinformation on a number of sensitive historical topics, including Gwangju. His supporters say he is defending the truth. Free speech advocates, and Moon’s conservative enemies, have accused the president of using censorship and history as political weapons.
Democracies around the world are struggling to deal with the corrosive effects of social media and political misinformation, debating whether to draw the line between fake news and freedom of speech or not and where. In the United States and elsewhere, the debate centers on the power of social media companies, the left that propagates hate and false conspiracy theories, and the right that bans users like Donald J. Trump.
But some democratic countries have sought to police speech to the extent that South Korea is reviewing, and an ongoing debate is over whether efforts to weed out misinformation will lead to censorship. broader or encouraging authoritarian ambitions.
“Whether I am right or wrong should be decided through free public debate, the engine of democracy,” said Jee Man-won, a proponent of the theory of North Korean involvement in Gwangju. “Instead, the government is using its power to manipulate history.”
Debates about which messages to allow and which to exclude are often about history and national identity. In the United States, debates raged about the past and present effects of racism and slavery in this nation, and about how those topics should be taught in schools. Supporters of the new law say they do what Germany did in attacking the Holocaust’s lie of denial.
South Korea has long prided itself on its commitment to free speech, but it is also a country where going against the mainstream can have dire consequences.
Historical issues, such as cooperation with the Japanese colonialists or massacres of civilians during wartime, have divided the country for decades. Defamation is a criminal offense. Under bills pushed by Moon’s party, promoting revisionist narratives on sensitive topics such as Gwangju or “comfort women” – Korean sex slaves for the Japanese military World War II version – could also be a crime.
By cracking down on misinformation, Moon is delivering on his campaign promise to give Gwangju its rightful place in history. But by criminalizing so-called “falsification of history”, he is also entering a political minefield.
The Korean Historical Society and 20 other historical institutions issued a joint statement last month warning that Mr. Moon’s progressive government, which presents itself as a champion of democratic values, was secured through sacrifices like Gwangju, is actually sabotaging them using criminal threats. punishments to dictate history.
A law sponsored by Moon’s party, which went into effect in January, provides for up to five years in prison for those who spread “false” about Gwangju. In May, the party’s legislators also introduced a bill that would provide prison sentences of up to 10 years for those praising Japan’s colonial rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945. .
The bill would create a “truthful history” expert panel to detect distortions – and order corrections – in interpretations of sensitive historical topics, including the killing of civilians. during the Korean War and human rights abuses under past military dictators.
Yet another party bill would criminalize “denial” or “falsify or misrepresent the facts” of a much more recent event, the Sewol ferry sinking in 2014, a murder disaster. killed hundreds of students and humiliated the conservative government that then took power. For their part, conservative lawmakers introduced a bill last month to punish those who deny that North Korea sank a South Korean navy ship in 2010.
Kim Jeong-in, head of the Korean Historical Association, said: “It’s a populist historical approach that appeals to widespread anti-Japanese sentiment to consolidate their political power. ,” said Kim Jeong-in, head of the Korean Historical Association. “Who would study colonial history if the results of their research were tried in court?”
Family members of the Gwangju protesters applauded Moon’s efforts to punish those who spread disinformation who scorned them.
Cho Young-dae, the grandson of Cho Pius, a Catholic priest in Gwangju who participated in the uprising and testified years later about the murders. “They abused our freedom of speech to add insult to our wounds.”
Mr. Cho, also a priest, said survivors in Gwangju have suffered for so long while people like Mr. Jee spread misinformation about the massacre. “We need a version of Korea’s Holocaust law to punish those who beautify Gwangju, as European countries have laws against Holocaust denial,” he said.
Recent surveys have found that the biggest conflict that divides Korean society is between progressives and conservatives, both eager to shape and censor history and textbooks to benefit them.
Conservative dictators who have arrested, tortured, and executed dissidents in the name of the National Security Act have criminalized any “praise, instigator, or propaganda” any behavior that is considered pro-North Korea or communist sympathizers.
Today’s conservatives want history to highlight the positive aspects of their heroes – such as Syngman Rhee, the founding president of South Korea’s dictatorship, and Park Chung-hee, a military dictator – and their success in fighting communism and lifting the country up into poverty after the Korean War.
Radicals often emphasize the bad side of conservative dictatorships, like the Gwangju murders. They also denounced what they called “chinils,” pro-Japanese Koreans who they said collaborated with colonial leaders and thrived during the Cold War by changing their names. anti-communist crusaders.
However, Mr. Jee said that there are progressives who harbor communist views that threaten the country’s democratic values.
Much of this debate is being conducted online, where some highly partisan podcasters and YouTubers have as many viewers as national TV shows.
“At best, conspiracy theories and irrational ideas should be dismissed or dismissed,” said Park Sang-hoon, head of political science at Political Power Station, a citizen group based in Seoul. outside the social margins of public opinion. “But they have become part of the political agenda here.” The mainstream media is “helping them gain legitimacy,” he said.
During the Gwangju Uprising, a handful of journalists were able to cross military cords around the city. They found mothers crying over the bodies of loved ones. An army of armed “citizens” was commanded from police stations, as people on the sidewalk chanted “Down with the dictatorship!” Protesters dug into one of their last government buildings, doomed to resist the army.
For many South Koreans, the protesters in Gwangju won. Students across the country have followed in their footsteps and rebelled against the government.
Chun Doo-hwan, the army general who took power in a military coup before the protests, blamed “violent rioters” and “communist agitators” for the violence. In the late 1990s, he was convicted of seduction and mutiny related to the coup and murder in Gwangju. (He was later pardoned.)
“Thanks to the sacrifice in Gwangju, our democracy can survive and stand again,” Moon said while visiting the city shortly after the 2017 election, he said. “reincarnated” in the mass protests that toppled his predecessor, Park Geun-hye – the daughter of dictator Park Chung-hee – and warned against “unacceptable” attempts to “distorted and disparaged” the 1980 uprising.
But Mr. Jee said his experience of voicing inappropriate historical views should serve as a warning to South Koreans. In 2002, he published a newspaper claim that Gwangju was a secret North Korean operation.
He was then handcuffed to Gwangju and jailed for 100 days for defamation, until the end of his prison term.
Since then, he has published 10 books about Gwangju and fought more defamation prosecutions. Although critics accuse him of selling mythical conspiracy theories, his views draw on a few of the following.
“If they hadn’t treated me the way they did in 2002, I wouldn’t have come this far,” he said.