The Contested Political Remembrance of the Kwangju Uprising and Presidential Speeches in South Korea

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S/N Korean Humanities Vol.6 No.1 pp.47-92 ISSN : 2384-0668(Print)
ISSN : 2384-0692(Online)

Hannes B. Mosler
University of Duisburg-Essen
University of Duisburg-Essen The author wishes to express his appreciation to the two anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments and suggestions on the submitted draft of the paper.

Received January 3, 2020; Revised version received February 24, 2020; Accepted February 28, 2020


This article analyzes commemorative speeches on the May 18 Kwangju Democracy Movement (1980) by South Korean presidents to investigate how the historical events have been interpreted across alternating political camps in power. Among various other issues regarding the interpretation and evaluation of the country’s political history the May 18 Kwangju Democracy Movement is still not fully accounted for its causes and consequences, and remains contested by conservative forces 40 years after the events occurred. While there is a rich body of research on the May 18 Kwangju Democracy Movement including the topic of memory politics, presidential commemorative speeches so far have been neglected despite the fact that they represent an important mode of political communication in modern societies regarding the production of authoritative remembrance narratives. This article contributes to filling this void by examining all past May 18 Memorial Day addresses by presidents between 1993 and 2019, that is a total of 11 speeches. The study finds a clear tendency in conservative presidents’ speeches toward rhetorical tactics that aim to depoliticize still-contested issues surrounding the May 18 Kwangju Democracy Movement with the effect of potentially forestalling critical engagement with its causes and consequences, and thus frustrating reconciliation.

Key Words : political polarization, memory politics, historical revisionism, state violence, 5.18 Kwangju Democracy Movement, 1980

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