By Alex Jensen
SEOUL (AA) - South Korean officials gathered Wednesday in remembrance of the bloody Gwangju Uprising involving more than 200,000 protesters on May 18, 1980 -- seen as a key driving force toward the country’s democratization years later.
Nearly four decades after hundreds of students and other civilians were killed in the crackdown, politicians remain divided over whether to sing March for the Beloved in unison when commemorating the uprising.
The song was used in a North Korean production of the early 1990s and has become a protest symbol.
In line with the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration’s decision in 2009, officials no longer have to sing the iconic anthem at the annual official ceremony in the southern city of Gwangju.
Instead, a choir leads the rendition and attendees may choose whether to join in.
Current President Park Geun-hye’s government once more upheld her predecessor’s stance earlier this week -- Park was absent from Wednesday’s ceremony but was notably silent during the singing when she attended in 2013.
This time it was her Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn who refrained from singing.
He somewhat dampened his words when during the ceremony he recognized the struggle “to establish a liberal and righteous country under the democracy built on the spirit of the May 18 movement”.
Opposition floor leader Park Ji-won issued a public apology for unsuccessfully attempting to return March for the Beloved to the official standing it previously held since 1997.
Victim relatives also blocked Patriots and Veterans Affairs Minister Park Sung-choon from appearing at Wednesday’s event, as he bore the blame for the song’s downgraded status.
The minister’s position has thereby come under pressure from the main opposition parties, who dealt a heavy blow to the ruling Saenuri Party in last month’s general election.
The government and conservative politicians have struggled to contain unrest stemming from planned labor reforms along with a number of other points of contention, while the authorities were accused of heavy-handedness when cracking down on street protests in Seoul last year.
As a result, President Park has failed to persuade critics that she has moved on from her father Park Chung-hee’s legacy.
The senior Park held power in South Korea for nearly two decades ahead of the Gwangju Uprising, which took place under military leader Chun Doo-hwan -- who remained president until 1988.