SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea marked the anniversary of a pro-democracy uprising on Thursday with new President Moon Jae-in leading a large crowd in singing an iconic song of protest, a symbolic closure to nearly a decade of conservative rule.
“March for the Beloved” has been a call to arms in protest movements since the early 1980s and an anthem for the country’s often deadly struggle for democracy.
The song was played officially for the first time since 2008 at a national cemetery in the southwestern city of Gwangju, where hundreds and possibly thousands were believed to have been killed when local citizens rose up against the military dictator Chun Doo-hwan on May 18, 1980 and were crushed by police, paratroopers and tanks.
An official death toll has never been disclosed.
“‘March for the Beloved’ isn’t just a song,” Moon said at the commemoration event in Gwangju. “It is the spirit of the May 18 democracy movement itself.”
More than 10,000 people attended, media said, the largest ever at the annual event.
Moon’s decision to have the song be part of the official program was among the moves the former human rights lawyer has made since taking office last week to reaffirm his liberal convictions and reverse the conservative legacy of his predecessor, the disgraced leader Park Geun-hye.
Moon has picked a former student activist, Im Jong-seok, once accused of being a pro-North Korea sympathizer, as his chief of staff.
Moon also ordered the project of drafting a state-issued history textbook be scrapped immediately. It was a signature initiative of Park, who said a standard textbook was needed to correct the bias in how history is taught at schools.
Critics have said the project was an attempt to whitewash the oppressive rule of military dictators, including that of her father, Park Chung-hee, who is credited with building a modern industrial country at the expense of democracy during his 18 years in power.
Moon was elected in a snap election after Park Geun-hye was removed from office in March over a corruption scandal. He has vowed to cut the cozy ties between big business and government and be more transparent and accessible to the public.
Moon, however, will need cooperation from conservative lawmakers to push through his agenda in the fractured parliament, including boosting fiscal spending to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs.
“I understand that (the liberals) are in a party mood over their victory,” said Jeong Tae-ok, a lawmaker at the conservative opposition Liberty Korea Party said.
“But singing ‘March for the Beloved’ and removing the textbooks and such won’t help them when they need a lot of help (from the opposition) over bigger issues like job creation and North Korea.”
Like Moon himself, some of the political leaders attending the Gwangju commemoration had been jailed for taking part in democracy movement. They stood singing with hands joined, pumping their fists to signal defiance against injustice.
It was an extraordinary reversal after Moon’s two conservative predecessors attended the memorial event in Gwangju standing while a choir sang “March for the Beloved” and protesters scuffled with security guards.
Moon suggested he may try to reverse a landmark agreement reached by the Park administration with Japan in 2015 to resolve the issue of “comfort women,” as those forced to work in Japan’s wartime brothels are known.
Scrapping the agreement, which he said most South Koreans cannot accept, would be another move to erase Park’s legacy, who sought to move past the issue that has long plagued ties between the neighbors as they try to forge efforts to end the North Korean nuclear crisis.
“Moon is no different from any other new governments in terms of removing old legacies,” said Lee Jun-han, a political science professor at the Incheon National University. “These are no big policies, but he is taking symbolic steps to show that the liberals are now in the driving seat.”
Reporting by Cynthia Kim, Editing by Jack Kim and Bill Tarrant