April 19 Student Revolution
The American poet T.S Eliot famously mused, in his poem ``The Waste Land," ``April is the cruelest month because it stirs dull roots with spring rain, mixes materials and desire and breeds lilacs out of dead land.”
For Korean university and high school students, too, April was cruelest month half a century ago. Even with the passage of time, memories of the blood they willingly shed, and the lives they sacrificed for the democratic movement are still as fresh as the spring rain.
Although President Syngman Rhee is highly respected by the Korean people for his dedication in establishing the Republic of Korea in 1948, irregularities and deception were widespread in the period leading up to his election as the first president of the republic.
Nationwide demonstrations against electoral corruption erupted in 1960, led by students in Masan, South Gyeongsang Province. Subsequently, massive formations of university, high and middle school students marched into downtown Seoul, and the student demonstrators were fired on by police directly in front of the presidential residence.
Tragically, 186 people sacrificed their lives and 6,026 were wounded in demonstrations that spread from Masan to Seoul to other cities across Korea. Their sacrifices for democracy were not in vain. The citizen demonstrations succeeded in overthrowing the despotic President of the first Republic of Korea on April 19, 1960. The democratic movement created momentum to restore democratic principles in politics and galvanized and directed the growing sense of justice which stood in firm opposition to dictatorship.
Inspired by the younger generation’s quest for justice based on democratic principles, the Korean people expressed a yearning for the establishment of human rights across Korea. Regrettably, full democracy was not realized in Korea at that time as a military coup took place in 1961.
Therefore, the April heroes' courage, sacrifice and youthful energy failed to fully accomplish true democracy until the end of the 1980s due to successive dictatorial regimes of military governments. However, the youthful demonstrations played an instrumental role in achieving accelerated and sustained economic growth and democratization, at a speed quite unprecedented in world history.
On reflection, Korea has a lengthy tradition of popular movements which demanded freedom, equality and political reform. For example, the ideology of “Tonghak” (Eastern Learning) called for equality, justice and the reform of society for the sake of the oppressed and stood courageously against the corrupt and unjust feudal Joseon Kingdom.
Tonghak, which was later transformed into “Chondo-gyo” (Religion of the Heavenly Way), was Korea's first and most influential indigenous religion. It was established by Choe Che-u in April 1860, exactly a century before the April Revolution. The fundamental beliefs and practices of Tonghak promote egalitarianism and stand opposed to any form of discrimination.
Remarkably, the egalitarian and humanistic ideals of Tonghak played a formative role in the development of Korean nationalism, the struggle for independence against Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945), which eventually lead to the establishment of modern Korea. The tradition of democratic political processes instigated by citizen power continued in the modern era.
There is definite ideological synergy between the April Revolution of 1960 which overthrew the authoritarian regime of Syngman Rhee, the Gwangju Uprising of May 1980 and the nationwide demonstrations for democracy in July 1987 which resulted in Korea's first direct presidential election.
While the historical circumstances of these movements may differ, their roots against injustice can be traced to back to Choe Che-u's vision expressed in Tonghak principles of equality and respect.
The April Student Revolution which strove for the restoration of freedom and justice, tapped into a rich vein of democratic idealism that, for over a century and a half, guided Koreans along the path of democracy. As democracy is an absolute value in relation to human dignity, it is my fervent wish that the flame of the April Student Revolution will be spread to North Korea for prompt unification of the Korean Peninsula.
Choe Chong-dae is a guest columnist of The Korea Times and the president of Dea-kwang International, as well as a director of the Korean-Swedish Association. You can reach him at email@example.com.