“A passionate oath to march our whole lives, leaving neither love nor reputation nor name. Our comrades are gone; only a fluttering flag remains. Let us stand firm until a new day comes.”
This year, the solemn melody of “March for the Beloved” reverberated majestically at the national memorial ceremony for the 1980 Gwangju Incident (commonly dubbed the “5.18 Incident”) as the participants — including newly elected president Moon Jae-in — chanted the lyrics in unison.
But for decades, this emblematic song — now a symbol of labor and progressive civil movements in South Korea and beyond — has been mired in controversy.
During the military regime of Chun Doo-hwan, the song, which expresses a yearning for democratization, was censored – for obvious reasons. But even after the progressive Kim Dae-jung administration elevated its status in 1997 to be sung in official commemorative event for the 5.18 Incident, the anthem became a point of contention between progressives and conservatives.
At the center of the dispute is the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs (MPVA) and its former chief Park Seung-chun, whose resignation Moon Jae-in accepted on May 11, just before this year’s annual commemoration of the Gwangju Incident.
The MPVA oversees national commemoration events. The ministry first condemned the song in 2009, under the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration, for alleged pro-North-Korean bias — but the controversy has resurfaced every May until this year.
For one, novelist Hwang Sok-yong, who modified the song’s lyrics to create its current version, was sentenced in 1993 to seven years in prison for illegally visiting North Korea. While Hwang himself has denied having a favorable stance towards North Korea and that the song has anything to do with the North, opponents are unyielding. Some have also claimed that “the beloved” refers to former North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, citing the fact that a North Korean film about the Gwangju Incident featured part of the original song. (Those who dub the Gwangju Incident an “uprising” also accuse North Korea of being behind it.) Ironically, it seems the North has actually banned the song, supposedly for its pro-democracy tendencies, according to a North Korean defector who is now a journalist in South Korea.
The argument has colored another debate about whether “March for the Beloved” should be sung collectively at the memorial event or left to the choice of participants. For ten years after the Kim Dae-jung administration officialized the song at the ceremony, participants would stand up and sing in unison at the end of the event. But given that “March” is very much an anthem for the South Korean progressives, it’s likely that the conservatives were reluctant to partake in singing it.
So came the conservatives’ attempts to limit the use of the symbolic song. In the second and third year of the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration, the song was excluded from the actual official commemoration event (and only sung by the choir beforehand).
While the “March” returned in 2013, it was no longer sung collectively at the event due to the MPVA’s disapproval. Most of the participants near president Park Geun-hye therefore remained seated as the song played. But once Park herself grudgingly stood up mid-song (but without singing along), her entourage followed suit (and also didn’t sing along). Patriots and veterans minister Park Seung-chun, who was sitting next to the president, was one of the last to stand up. Still, it’s surprising that he even did, considering his role at the center of the violent suppression of the Gwangju Incident, as head of Chun Doo-hwan’s presidential guard. (Some families of victims kicked him out of the commemoration ceremony last year.)
But this year, newly elected president Moon Jae-in explicitly stated the importance of singing the song in unison, thereby restoring its status as official.
“Singing ‘March for the Beloved’ together will heal the wounded spirit of [the] Gwangju [Incident]. I hope today’s collective singing will put an end to unnecessary controversy,” said Moon at the memorial event.
“It’s good to have a peace-loving president. [Previous] presidents tried to get rid of the song or stop it being sung at the event. … But this year, I’m really thankful to have a peace-loving president who embraces the people — even the dead,” Choi Ok-sun, older sister of Choi Pan-sul, who was shot with other activists during the Gwangju Incident, told Korea Exposé.
Cover image: Moon Jae-in sings to the “March” at the 37th memorial ceremony of the Gwangju Incident (Source: Videomug)