The historical process of Korea’s democratization in the 20th century shares many similarities with that of Taiwan, as not only were both nations previously colonized by the Japanese and subsequently ruled by military dictatorships, but their democratic development was also successfully prompted by people power in both cases. In recent years, Korean films that explore the topics of military dictatorship and democratic development have struck a chord in Taiwan, making Korea’s pursuit of transitional justice an important point of reference and comparison for the Taiwanese people.
Although the process of democratization was not a smooth path in either Taiwan or Korea, fortunately, people power in both nations vigorously supported the realization of democracy. One particular point of commonality can be observed in the promotion of democratization in both nations: a distinctive, deep longing that demanded governments redress the historical wounds caused by state violence. In Taiwan, the origin of this longing was the February 28 Incident in 1947; while in Korea, it was the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement (also known as the Gwangju Uprising) in 1980.
The February 28 Incident was a scar buried in the hearts of the Taiwanese people for many decades. It was also a taboo that could not be discussed. This inner pain only started to be gradually soothed after nearly half a century of suffering.
In Korea, on the other hand, people initially expected their country to become a democracy after Park Chung-hee, who took power by a military coup in 1961, was assassinated in 1979. However, Chun Doo-hwan, then the head of the Defense Security Command, started the Coup d'état of December Twelfth, which dealt another massive blow to Korea’s democratic development.
In May 1980, Chun Doo-hwan’s brutal suppression of the democratic activism of Gwangju citizens left Korean society with scars that were difficult to heal. However, a hope to right the wrongs of the crackdown on the Gwangju Uprising continued to inspire the Korean people to stand up to state violence in the following years. Although Chun Doo-hwan consolidated his reign over Korea step by step through political repression and authoritarian rule, Koreans could no longer sit back and watch him attempt to extend his personal rule after he broke off negotiations on constitutional reforms on April 13, 1987, rejecting the people’s demand for the direct election of the president by popular vote.
In June 1987, tens of thousands of Koreans voluntarily joined the June Struggle, which officially sounded the death knell for Chun Doo-hwan’s authoritarian regime. While the dictator was still plotting his permanent rule, the people of Korea, regardless of gender, age or occupation, took to the streets, demanding democratic reforms and the overthrow of the authoritarian regime. This forced Roh Tae-woo to yield to public opinion and make the June 29 Declaration, promising the direct election of the president by popular vote and other democratic reform measures, which officially signaled the beginning of Korea’s democratization. Coincidentally, in the same year, the Taiwanese government also announced the lifting of martial law after 38 years, officially opening the door to Taiwan’s democratization.
Democratic development in Korea was punctuated by many scenes, such as protests, crackdowns, stumbles and resurgences, that were both strange and yet familiar in the eyes of the Taiwanese. In 1987, a Korean-based correspondent from a Taiwanese newspaper candidly recorded the protest scenes of the June Struggle, preserving many precious records for history. These images bring us back to scenes where blood and tears were shed and pro-democratic slogans were chanted. These photographs are naturally unable to give a complete picture of the historical scenes and cover everyone and everything, such as the ordinary citizens who covertly supported the movement from the margins, the people at home who secretly cheered for the marching demonstrators, the voices and the tears of the innocent who were forced to make confessions, and the strong determination to fight for democratic reforms. Nevertheless, we hope that the general public can come together to understand and appreciate the value of democracy and freedom through these valuable photographs.
Having grown up in Taichung, Taiwan, Chu Li-Shi majored in Korean during his undergraduate studies in the Department of Oriental Languages and Cultures at National Chengchi University. His academic training in the Korean language became the cornerstone of his life-long relationship with Korea. After graduation, he started his media career as a first-ranked photojournalist. His assignment to Seoul, the capital of Korea, as a foreign correspondent between 1985 and 1988 allowed him to witness and record the most turbulent and intense scenes of Korea’s democratization, bringing us these valuable photographs from the protests’ frontlines.
Chu Li-Shi has served as editor-in-chief of the news department at STV News, editor-in-chief of the Taipei Times, and deputy general manager at Chinese Television System Inc. He has also published Changes by the Banks of the Han River, Farewell Arirang, Taking Stock of Past State Violence, A History of Korea: Recurring Tragedies and a Nation’s Destiny, and seven other books related to Korea. Today, inspiring younger generations of Taiwanese people to understand the value and meaning of democracy and freedom has become the work to which he is most dedicated.
Currently a lecturer at National Chengchi University and National Taiwan Normal University, Chu Li-Shi asks his students to “understand Korea” whether they adore or abhor it. Only after they a gain correct understanding of the Republic of Korea can they make further judgement. He teaches courses such as “The Modern History of Korea,” “Analyzing Korean Films Related to Transitional Justice,” “The Politics and Democratization of Korea,” and “North Korea Studies.” He often gives speeches in central and southern Taiwan to encourage Taiwanese young people to look beyond popular culture like Korean drama and Korean music and to understand the modern historical development of Korea and Koreans’ efforts to promote transitional justice. He teaches Taiwanese people to see Korea from different perspectives and thus inspires the Taiwanese and Korean people to learn from each other.
- Taiwan→ Fifty years of Japanese colonial rule over Taiwan.
- Korea→ Thirty-five years of Japanese colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula.
- Taiwan→ Japan was defeated. The Chinese Nationalist government took control of Taiwan.
- Korea→ The Korean Peninsula declared independence.
- Taiwan→ The February 28 Incident, the most serious infringement of human rights in post-war Taiwan, broke out.
- Korea→ The March 1 Shooting Incident took place in Jeju.
- Korea→ The Jeju April 3 Incident, a tragedy in the modern history of Korea which recorded casualties second only in number to the Korean War, took place. The Korean Peninsula was split into the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
- Taiwan→ Martial law was declared in Taiwan. The Chinese Nationalist Party was defeated in the Chinese Civil War and relocated the central government of the Republic of China from Nanjing to Taiwan.
- Taiwan→ The Korean War broke out. The United States ordered the Seventh Fleet to maintain the security of the Taiwan Strait and prevent Taiwan from being conquered by Communist China.
- Korea→ The Korean War broke out. The United Nations dispatched troops to curb the North Korean invasion of South Korea.
- Taiwan→ Lei Chen announced the formation of a new political party. Lei Chen and other participants were arrested.
- Korea→ The April 19 Revolution: Korean President Syngman Rhee rigged his fourth presidential election, sparking demonstrations and protests by students and other citizens. Syngman Rhee’s authoritarian regime was thus overthrown.
- Taiwan→ Huang Wen-shiung and Cheng Tzu-tsai’s attempted assassination of Chiang Ching-kuo failed in the United States.
- Korea→ The self-immolation of garment factory worker Jeon Tae-il raised awareness of labor rights. His death also influenced Taiwanese pro-democracy activist Cheng Nan-jung.
- Taiwan→ Taiwan was forced to declare its departure from the United Nations, after which many countries successively severed their diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
- Korea→ Park Chung-hee was elected as the seventh President of the Republic of Korea. In December, he declared a state of emergency in Korea.
- Taiwan→ Lei Chen wrote a political proposal titled Suggestions Regarding the Survival of the State which he submitted to Chiang Kai-shek and other key figures in the government, but did not receive a response.
- Korea→ Park Chung-hee initiated the October Restoration and removed constitutional restrictions on the number of terms he could serve as the President of the Republic of Korea.
- Taiwan→ In January 1979, the Ciaotou Incident broke out in Kaohsiung, which was the first political demonstration to take place since the declaration of military law in Taiwan. On December 10, the Formosa Incident took place in Kaohsiung, which was the largest pro-democratic demonstration to have ever taken place in Taiwan.
- Korea→ The Bu-Ma Democratic Protests: on October 16, more than 5,000 students took to the streets to protest Park Chung-hee’s October Restoration. Park Chung-hee’s assassination: Kim Jae-gyu, the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, shot Park Chung-hee with a pistol, ending the October Restoration.
- Taiwan→ The Lin family residence murders: Unknown assailants broke into the home of democracy advocate Lin Yi-hsiung, murdering his mother and two twin daughters and seriously injuring his eldest daughter.
- Korea→ The Seoul Spring: after a campus pro-democratic movement developed into a nation-wide political struggle, the protesters issued a statement demanding “the immediate lifting of martial law.” The Gwangju Uprising was a spontaneous pro-democratic movement launched by the citizens of Gwangju. Chun Doo-hwan, who then held military power, ordered a crackdown on the movement, resulting in extensive death and injury.
- Taiwan→ Cheng Nan-jung and other activists launched a movement opposing martial law.
- Korea→ The sexual assault by a police officer of Kwon In-suk, a Seoul National University student, sparked a mass protest.
- Taiwan→ The 228 Peace Day Promotion Association was established, heralding the start of a pivotal movement to right historical wrongs. On July 15, martial law was lifted after 38 years.
- Korea→ Park Jong-chul was tortured to death during interrogation. Lee Han-yeol was killed after being hit by a tear gas grenade. Protesters launched the June Struggle, which forced Roh Tae-woo to yield to protesters’ demands and to make the June 29 Declaration, promising the democratization of Korea.
- Taiwan→ On January 13, Chiang Ching-kuo died, his death symbolizing the end of the authoritarian regime.
- Korea→ The 1988 Summer Olympics were successfully held in Seoul.
- Taiwan→ Cheng Nan-jung died after setting himself on fire in a fight for absolute freedom of speech.
- Korea→ A memorial ceremony for the victims of the Jeju April 3 Incident was held for the first time, breaking a long-held taboo.
- Taiwan→ The Wild Lily student movement that took place from March 16 to March 22 was the largest student protest since the central government of the Republic of China had relocated to Taiwan.
- Korea→ Korea established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union.
- Taiwan→ The Provisional Amendment for the Period of Mobilization of the Suppression of Communist Rebellion was repealed, ushering in a new stage of democratization in Taiwan.
- Korea→ North Korea and South Korea were both admitted to the United Nations. Both countries were simultaneously acknowledged as independent sovereign states.
- Taiwan→ In May, the Legislative Yuan made revisions to Article 100 of the Criminal Code and abolished the laws that criminalized freedom of speech, ushering in an era of freedom of speech in Taiwan. The February 28 Incident Research Report was announced.
- Korea→ Korea established diplomatic relations with China and at the same time severed its ties with Taiwan.
- Taiwan→ President Lee Teng-hui officially apologized to the victims of the February 28 Incident.
- Korea→ The Special Act on the 5.18 Gwangju Democratization Movement and the Special Law on Time Limitation of Public Prosecutions for Crimes against the Constitutional Order were passed by the Korean parliament.
- Taiwan→ The first direct presidential election was held, truly realizing the concept of popular sovereignty.
- Korea→ Chun Doo-hwan, Roh Tae-woo and 14 others were prosecuted for their participation in the Coup d'état of December Twelfth and the military crackdown on the Gwangju Uprising.
- Taiwan→ The Taipei 228 Memorial Museum was opened to the public.
- Korea→ May 18 was designated as a memorial day commemorating the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement.
- Taiwan→ Alternation of ruling parties took place for the first time in Taiwanese history.
- Korea→ The June 15th North–South Joint Declaration, a monumental milestone in the development of North Korea–South Korea relations, was signed by the leaders of both Koreas after they met for the first time in history.
- Taiwan→ The Referendum Act was enacted by the Legislative Yuan.
- Korea→ The investigation report into the Jeju April 3 Incident was published. The president of Korea apologized for the massacre for the first time.
- Taiwan→ Research Report on the Responsibility for the 228 Massacre was published.
- Taiwan→ The National 228 Memorial Museum was officially established. An amendment was made to the February 28 Incident Disposition and Compensation Act and all references to “making up for the loss” were changed to “compensation.”
- Korea→ The 60th anniversary of the Jeju April 3 Incident was commemorated. The Jeju 4.3 Peace Memorial Hall was officially opened to the public.
- Taiwan→ The National 228 Memorial Museum was officially opened to the public.
- Korea→ UNESCO registered documentary items of the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising as World Heritage.
- Taiwan→ The Sunflower Student Movement broke out, with students protesting against the "Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement" that was forcibly passed without proper review.
- Korea→ April 3 was designated as a memorial day commemorating the victims of the Jeju April 3 Incident.
- Taiwan→ Thirty years after the lifting of martial law. Academia Historia released the declassified archive related to Chiang Kai-shek online.
- Korea→ President Park Geun-hye was impeached for abuse of power.
- Taiwan→ The “Demonstration against pro-China Media” was organized on Ketagalan Boulevard, opposing the infiltration of pro-China media while showing solidarity with protestors in Hong Kong.
- Korea→ Eighteen victims of the Jeju April 3 Incident were exonerated and their verdicts were revoked. A miscarriage of justice that had lasted for 71 years was finally corrected.
- Taiwan→ Report on Truth and Transitional Justice for the 228 Massacre was published.
- Korea→ The 40th anniversary of the Gwangju Democratization Movement was commemorated.
On April 13, 1987, Chun Doo-hwan’s authoritarian regime outrageously refused to amend the constitution and provoked the anger of the masses. On June 10, more than a thousand civic organizations organized the “National Movement Headquarters for a Democratic Constitution,” urging motorists from all major cities in the country to honk their car horns for 30 minutes at 6 p.m. A roar of protest against the dictatorship was sounded throughout the country. June 10 is thus called the “day of the beginning of democratization” in Korea.
- On this day, the ruling Democratic Justice Party convened an assembly at the Jangchung Arena, where Chun Doo-hwan appointed his successor Roh Tae-woo as the party’s candidate to join a presidential election in which no other candidates were allowed.
- A sense of excitement could be felt inside Jangchung Arena, where participants were cheerful about the prospect of Roh Tae-woo, a co-conspirator in the military coup, inheriting Chun Doo-hwan’s authoritarian regime and protecting their interests.
- Outside the arena, riot police were deployed to safeguard the assembly and prevent the masses from upsetting the happiness of the ruling party.
- At about 5 p.m. on the same day, the Myeong-dong area was filled with protestors. The anger of the ever-expanding crowd soon became uncontainable.
- A high-ranking white-collar manager even used plastic wrap to cover his eyes and stood on the street urging motorists to honk their horns as a protest against the authoritarian regime.
- Passengers on a bus wore goggles and opened the windows to witness the scene of the protest.
This day, just like other weekends in June, was marked by constant street protests. Ordinary citizens and students adopted guerrilla tactics in their fight against riot police, forcing police to react defensively. Every corner of the city center was covered in tear gas smoke.
- On the windows of an office building, there were slogans urging the public to join a peace rally for a democratic constitution at 6 p.m. on June 26.
- Even the national treasure Namdaemun Gate (also known as Sungnyemun Gate) was surrounded by riot police, which was very unusual in the history of Korea.
- Successive rounds of tear gas were fired to disperse the protestors.
- Office workers posted slogans on the windows of a building to show their solidarity with the protesters.
- At midnight, a police bus used to transport riot police was set on fire after its windows were broken in front of Namdaemun Gate.
- A police bus parked in front of Namdaemun Gate was set on fire by furious protesters.
- Protesters gathered at the Catholic Myeongdong Cathedral, demanding the release of 2,500 political prisoners.
- This is the tear gas grenade that hit the left arm of the photojournalist. Luckily, it did not explode either when it hit him or when it fell on the ground. The photojournalist picked it up, took it home and put it on top of his television, as though it were a trophy from a hard day covering the street conflict. Two weeks later, some Japanese and Korean journalists visited his home. A Korean colleague was shocked to see the tear gas grenade, warning him that if it exploded after being heated by the television, the house would be uninhabitable for at least three months. Only when the photojournalist “reluctantly” returned it to the police the next day did he understand that Korean-made tear gas grenades were the best in the world. All sorts of substances that have an irritating effect, including chili, garlic, pepper and chemical compounds, are used as ingredients in the tear gas. At that time, Korea exported tear gas grenades to Israel and South Africa. From 2011 to 2014, it was revealed that a large amount of Korean tear gas was exported to Turkey and Bahrain.
This day marked the culmination of the "June Resistance.” Almost every member of the white-collar middle class took to the streets to protest against the authoritarian regime. The political storm had reached a critical point, and people power had almost toppled Chun Doo-hwan’s dictatorship. Facing the United States government’s warning against a military crackdown as well as pressure from the International Olympic Committee, which had announced a possible cancelation of the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988, Korean authorities had to surrender to public opinion. Only after Roh Tae-woo announced the June 29 Declaration promising the democratization of Korea did the political turbulence that had ravaged the country for months subside. A similar pattern of development was seen in Taiwan, where Chiang Ching-kuo announced the lifting of martial law on July 15, 1987 to meet the demands of the Taiwanese people.
- Members of the white-collar middle class took to the streets even during office hours.
- On the street next to the Bank of Korea, office workers joined the protest holding a banner reading “fight for democracy.”
- "The fraudulent regime can go to hell!” United Democratic Party staff members from the Seongbuk District party committee joined the protest holding a banner.
- Even hospitalized patients dressed in hospital gowns took to the streets to protest.
- Staff members of the Catholic Myeongdong Cathedral protested in front of the Seoul Central Post Office.
- A female shop owner in Myeongdong, unable to do business as usual, sat on the street waving a flag in solidarity with the protesters.
- Near Myeongdong, medical staff from Paik Hospital bandaged a wounded passerby on the street.
- In an image full of contrast, riot police marched past a traffic sign scribbled with “topple the dictator via direct election.”
- An unprecedented scene of riot police marching past the Shinsegae, a department store owned by the Samsung Group.
- This out-of-focus photo was taken after the photographer was bumped by a passerby. Despite its blurriness, the photo is still filled with the tension of the crackdown.
- A protester arrested by Baekgoldan, Korean plain-clothes riot police.
- The United States Embassy in Korea was lit up overnight as it collected intelligence and monitored the possibility of a coup d'état by the military.
On June 9, the day before the June Struggle, Lee Han-yeol, a Yonsei University student, was seriously injured by a tear gas grenade that penetrated his skull. He was officially declared dead on July 5 after being brain-dead for four weeks. From July 6, saddened and enraged students from Yonsei University held various memorial services to commemorate the deceased.
In addition to the memorial services and demonstrations initiated by Yonsei University students, protests also moved to Korea University on July 7, where student representatives from universities all over the country gathered. Sixty thousand people chanted the slogan “Down with the dictatorship!” together on the Korea University oval. This resounding roar of anger was unprecedented in the history of Korea.
Lee Han-yeol’s funeral took place on July 9. On July 8, Yonsei University students were led by Woo Sang-ho, who is currently a Member of the National Assembly of Korea from the Democratic Party of Korea, in continuing to protest on the streets after the campus rally had finished. They held portraits of Lee Han-yeol as they fought to bring the police authorities to justice. The demonstration was peaceful, but the fury and sorrow seen on the students’ faces and their banners that read “Don’t let martyr Lee Han-yeol die in vain!” were deeply moving.
- A long piece of black cloth printed with commemorative words was hung outside the Administration Building at Yonsei University.
- A photo was made into a large print with the words, “Bring back the martyr Lee Han-yeol!”
- A rally was held in front of the Yonsei University Library.
- At the protest rally, student representatives took turns publicly condemning the dictatorship.
- Posters were displayed in front of the Yonsei University Library denouncing the government.
- Sorrow and fury can be seen in the facial expression of this student.
- A long queue of students waited to pay their respects to Lee Han-yeol in front of the Yonsei University Student Activity Center.
- Yonsei University students sang African-American spirituals in memory of Lee Han-yeol on campus.
- After singing African-American spirituals, students raised their arms and chanted slogans against the dictatorship.
- After the protest rally had finished, students left the campus and continued demonstrating on the streets.
- Furious students walked out of the Yonsei University campus to protest in the streets, where they were met by riot police who looked on cautiously.
- Yonsei University students fought against riot police using wooden clubs or their bare hands.
- The students confronted the riot police with their bare hands.
- Sixty thousand people gathered at the Korea University oval to voice their rage against the regime.
- Lee Han-yeol’s mother yelled, “Where could the murderous devil Roh Tae-woo have escaped to?”
- Every face in the street demonstration was flushed with fury and sorrow.
- Surrounded by tear gas, the leader of the Yonsei University Student Association, Woo Sang-ho, held a portrait of Lee Han-yeol and wept.
- Holding a banner that read "Let the death of martyr Lee Han-yeol be the spark of democracy," the students started to march.
- The demonstrators walked out of Yonsei University.
- Students staged a sit-in protest on the road outside the university despite being confronted by riot police.
- A student held a portrait of Lee Han-yeol in protest against riot police brutality.
- The photojournalist briefly took off his gas mask for a rest. His eyes were already swollen.
- “Don’t let martyr Lee Han-yeol die in vain” reads the banner. Riot police retreated to the side of the road and the students continued their demonstration.
This was the most painful day for Yonsei University. Teachers and students from Yonsei University and other universities, and representatives of different fields held a large “state funeral” for the patriotic student Lee Han-yeol. Following a requiem dance performed by Lee Ae-ju, a dance professor at Seoul National University, the funeral procession for Lee Han-yeol officially started. Forty thousand people filled the Yonsei University campus to pay their respects to the martyr. Some journalists and funeral-goers climbed up on a railway overpass to see the whole of the crowd. Even a passing train stopped so that its passengers could witness the funeral. By the time the funeral procession had walked past Seosomun Road and entered Seoul City Hall Plaza, more than one million people had already gathered there to bid farewell to Lee Han-yeol. After a public ceremony at City Hall Plaza had finished, the hearse carrying the body of the student martyr drove along the highway to Mangweol-dong Cemetery in Gwangju, where he was buried. This funeral ceremony, which was probably the largest in the history of Korea, left a deep impression on the Seoul-based foreign correspondent who took these photos.
- “Patriotic Student Lee Han-yeol’s Farewell Ceremony” reads the banner. His coffin was moved slowly toward the front gate of the university.
- Following the Korean national flag and a banner reading “Eternal vanguard of the national struggle for democracy,” the flag-covered coffin was moved out of the university’s front gate.
- A train on a railway overpass briefly stopped so that its passengers could witness the funeral procession.
- The banner carriers walking ahead of the main funeral procession arrived at Seoul City Hall.
- Seoul City Hall Plaza was already packed with mourning citizens.
- Impressive funeral banners were carried outside Seoul City Hall.
- The funeral procession walked down Namdaemun Road and entered Seoul City Hall Plaza.
- An unprecedented crowd of one million people bid farewell to Lee Han-yeol.
- In the afternoon, the photojournalist revisited Yonsei University, where he took the most precious photo of his life.
- Korean-based foreign correspondents took a group photo as a souvenir. Everyone was deeply impacted by the funeral.
Without the sacrifice and dedication of previous activists, there would be no democracy, freedom and human rights today.
It is the same with the June Struggle in Korea as with the February 28 Incident in Taiwan.
“A nation that forgets its history does not have a future.”
Taiwanese people, please be historically conscious!