Remembering April 19, 1960 Student Revolution

By Kyung Moon Hwang

"April is the cruelest month," wrote T.S. Eliot to begin his epic poem, "The Wasteland." He referred to the often agonizing mixture of "memory and desire" that accompanies the onset of spring, when hopes for a nourishing new beginning — "April showers bring May flowers" — are tempered by experiences of pain and disappointment.

For observers of modern Korean history, these perceptions of both the promise and peril of April usually bring to mind the student revolution of April 19, 1960, also known as "Sa-il-gu," when students led mass protests against the oppressive and corrupt Syngman Rhee government. The protests led to scores of deaths and injuries among the protesters at the hands of the police, but eventually toppled the regime.

A half-century later, Korean students, particularly those in college, seem to be less motivated to forge a better society. It seems they have forgotten, or are not aware of, the sacrifices people in the previous decades made to achieve the democracy that they and the rest of society now enjoy.

Perhaps it is worth revisiting the event of April 1960 to contemplate the role that students played in South Korea's turbulent past. In doing so, we will find a story of heroism that connects that fateful moment to other major events in recent history, particularly other struggles for democracy. It is a story filled with short-term suffering for the sake of long-term gain.

The students who led the April 1960 demonstrations came from what can be called "the Korean War generation." They were born at the end of the Japanese colonial period, amid the regimented mobilization for war, the deprivations from which many of them likely remembered.

In fact, some might have even attended school before the liberation in 1945, although school had been out of reach for most Koreans at the time. Their childhoods were marked by the dislocations of the subsequent post-liberation period, which led directly to the Korean War.

Their transition to adolescence came amid the devastation and calamities of the Korean War, and then was seared by the hardships of the reconstruction in the 1950s.

Not all was bleak, however, for the environment of the 1950s also molded the students into the first generation in Korean history to become educated en masse through public schooling and, just as importantly, through the widespread use of the Korean alphabet. The world of knowledge opened up to them, and they gained an awareness of the connections between their experiences and the larger issues of the day.

These ideas prompted them to march through the streets in April of 1960, when a clearly rigged national election dashed their hopes for a better, more just Korean society. But their accomplishments that fateful spring day would lay the groundwork for a fundamental social and political change through student leadership for the rest of the 20th century.

Students, both in college and high school, protested in the southern city of Masan in March 15, 1960. The death of Kim Ju-yul, a student protester, by the police, many believe, eventually led to enormous demonstrations in the capital city.

It was this same spirit of student activism, led by some of the same student leaders, that spurred the marches the following year calling for an immediate resolution to the national division. In response, general and statesman Park Chung-hee staged a coup d'etat in May of 1961 that quickly ended the Korean experiment in democracy.

The students, however, were not discouraged. They were part of a powerful movement of student unrest around the world in the 1960s. They would rise up again to lead mass protests against the normalization of relations with Japan in the mid-1960s and against a constitutional amendment legalizing a third consecutive presidential term for Park in 1969.

After absolutist rule ("Yushin") was implemented in 1972, the students remained at the forefront of resistance, joined by laborers, religious leaders, intellectuals and others. Their work cemented the role of student leadership in the democratization movement throughout the 1970s and 1980s, during which the end of Park's dictatorship led to yet another one through the bloody suppression of student-initiated demonstrations in Kwangju in 1980. Finally, in 1987, the students led the breakthrough to electoral democracy by serving as the shock troops of mass street protests.

Throughout their terrible ordeals, including unrelenting harassment, arbitrary arrests, routine beatings and horrific prison sentences when they were tortured, the students persisted. Although they weren't the only ones who have made such great sacrifices for the greater good of society, we could not have achieved democracy in 1987 without them.

History around the world has taught us that those who hold autocratic power and undeserved privilege do not relinquish them without a challenge. In the case of South Korea, the students' activism in April of 1960 nurtured the soil for the May flowers of democracy.

Kyung Moon Hwang is associate professor in the Department of History, University of Southern California. He is the author of "A History of Korea — An Episodic Narrative" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) and "Beyond Birth — Social Status in the Emergence of Modern Korea" (Harvard Asia Center, 2004). He is also co-editor of "Contentious Kwangju — The May Uprising in Korea's Past and Present" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).

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