|Main opposition Liberty Korea Party Chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn eats tteokbokki at a snack bar near Sungkyunkwan University in central Seoul, Sunday, during his election campaign. Yonhap|
By Kim Rahn
Main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) head Hwang Kyo-ahn has been under fire for a remark that critics say downplayed the May 18 Gwangju movement for democracy.
The remark came on Sunday when he visited a snack stall near Sungkyunkwan University in Jongno-gu, as he started his campaign in the central Seoul district where he will run for the April 15 general election.
Recalling his college days, he told reporters, "I attended this school. In 1980, there was some kind of incident or whatever … so the school was shut down."
The school closure he referred to in 1980 came after the then-dictatorial regime declared emergency martial law on May 17 and ordered all schools nationwide to temporarily close to prevent college students' pro-democracy protests. This led to clashes between students of Chonnam National University in Gwangju and the army, leading to the May 18 uprising. Hwang was a senior majoring in law at Sungkyunkwan at the time.
Criticism toward Hwang mainly came from the term "incident." After the uprising, where hundreds of Gwangju citizens were killed, the regime called it an "incident of riot" and distorted relevant facts. It was not until 1995 that it was officially referred to as the "May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement." In 1997 the tragic event was designated by the government as a day of commemoration.
Political parties other than the LKP and civic groups said the remark derogated the historic movement, adding Hwang holds the same perception of history as the leaders of the then-dictatorial authority.
"This year marks the 40th anniversary of the May 18 pro-democracy movement. We are just shocked at the historical view of the person, who is the leader of the main opposition party and hopes to become the nation's president," Lee Kyung, a deputy spokesman of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, said in a statement, Monday. "If he thinks of the movement as just 'some kind of incident,' I strongly recommend he learn more about history."
Other minor opposition parties also denounced Hwang and demanded he apologize to Gwangju citizens. "Are you insulting the blood of the Gwangju people and denying the nation's democracy?" Bareunmirae Party spokeswoman Kim Jeong-hwa asked.
As criticism rose, Hwang said he did not specifically refer to the Gwangju movement but a series of protests and movements that took place in 1980.
The LKP also issued a press release, Tuesday, and said its leader only recalled the time when the school was shut down due to the chaotic political situation. "We urge other parties to stop the smear campaign that distorts his remark, which was unrelated to the May 18 pro-democracy movement, as if he had an incorrect view of history," it said.