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Posted : 2010-05-21 18:07
Updated : 2010-05-21 18:07

Much ado about a song

By Kim Heung-sook
Freelance Columnist

When my fellow students and I were staging demonstrations on and outside the campus protesting the dictatorial rule of then President Park Chung-hee in the early 1970s, we sang many songs. The most important song was ``We Shall Overcome." Nearly 40 years have passed, yet the tune still warms my heart and even brings tears to my eyes. If we were to hold an event commemorating the days, we would definitely sing that song.

When Gwangju became the sacred symbol of democratization in May 1980 owing to the blood spilt and lives sacrificed of hundreds of citizens who rose up against another military general-turned-persecutor, Chun Doo-hwan, the city's righteous uprising was immortalized a few months later by the song, ``Imeul wihan haengjin-gok." The title can be translated to ``The March for Life."

The song was the undisputed anthem for pro-democracy efforts in the 1980s. It was sung wherever and whenever the theme was democracy. After Chun was jailed and the ``Gwangju Incident" was duly redefined as the ``Gwangju Uprising" in 1995, the song was played at all related ceremonies. In 2004, President Roh Moo-hyun deeply moved the nation by singing the song with the bereaved families of the victims of the uprising. Here is my English translation of the song.

``Don't spare love, honor or names

March for life with burning hearts

Gone are the comrades; flags flutter only

Let's not sway until the new day comes

Time will flow yet mountains and streams will know

The awakened souls roar to life:

Follow us, you living, as we march forward

Follow us, you living, as we march forward"


The verses were originally written by Baek Gi-wan, a social reform activist and Korean reunification crusader, as the final lines of a long poem in December 1980. They were revised by novelist Hwang Seok-young for the song. The music was composed by Kim Jong-ryul, then a student of Jeonnam National University in Gwangju. The song made its public debut in a shamanistic ritual marrying two souls _ a man, who died while active as the spokesman for the citizens' army during the uprising, and a woman laborer who died several months earlier.

It is apparent that President Lee Myung-bak and his government don't like the song or care about the uprising anniversary. Lee, who didn't attend the commemorative event last year, failed again to show up at ceremonies on Tuesday on the excuse of a summit with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, which few view had to be held on that very day. Lee sent Prime Minister Chung Un-chan to Gwangju instead.

The Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs omitted the song from the official program last year and reportedly decided to play a folk song from Gyeonggi Province, not even Jeolla's, at the end of the event. The ministry's decision was reported by the Internet news organ Ohmynews on the eve of the event and angered many people.

As a result, the anniversary event held in Gwangju was marred by division and scuffles. While the ``official" ceremonies were observed at the May 18 National Cemetery, some 100 bereaved family members of the victims sang out ``The March…" as they pushed through the barricade of 4,000-strong police force. The ill-chosen folk song wasn't played.

The ministry has repeatedly tried to replace ``The March…" with ``Song of May" with the notion that it didn't fit the present times. However, such attempts only met fierce opposition. Critics say the government doesn't like the song because of such lines as ``Let's not sway until the new day comes" and ``Follow us, you living, as we march forward" for fear that it may agitate people to stand up against it encourage protest.

I love both ``We Shall Overcome" and ``The March for Life" and often hum or sing them. A song is a simple piece of music in peaceful times, but circumstances can turn it into a trigger or a bomb. Both songs were hymns for democracy. As long as the nation is democratic, they will remain as nostalgic, heart-warming numbers. Otherwise, they could have their previous purpose revived. For anyone who has closely watched the government's actions over the past 27 months, it won't be difficult to figure out why it is so sensitive about ``The March."

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