‘’독재타도! 독재타도!’ [phonetic translation: dok jae ta do! Meaning ‘overthrow the regime!’], a sea of people demand. It’s 1987, and years of demonstrations against the dictator Chun Du Hwan’s rule of South Korea (since 1980) are coming to a head. Corrupt State police torture and murder a young university student and pro-democracy activist Park Jong Chul during interrogations.
The State callously covers up the murder as an accidental death, but inevitably the truth trickles, then floods, through the back channels of whistleblowers and pro-democracy activists, and eventually the media. Tragically, Park is not the only innocent life ended by the State. However, the film focuses on Park’s death and the beginnings of revolution that follow, also known as the June struggle.
These June Democractic Uprising demonstrations lead to the democratic elections and the establishment of the Sixth Republic, the current South Korean government.
I rewatched this movie recently on a weekend at my parents’. The first time I watched it, I was pretty unaware about this period of Korean history. I immigrated with my immediate family in 1995 from Korea, less than a decade after the first democratic elections. I was 5 years old when we left, and then grew up mostly in New Zealand and Australia.
In fact, when I was younger, I identified as Australian, and felt quite disconnected from my Korean cultural background. I didn’t learn much about Korean culture or history, and had no real idea of the enormous socioeconomic and political changes the country had undergone in just the last few decades.
But over the years, I’ve started to identify with my Korean background, more than in the past. And movies like 1987 have helped develop me understand Korea’s history, which my parents and grandparents lived.
Back in the 1970s, as a young university student in Seoul, my dad participated in a pro-democracy protest, and his image was captured by police, who often took photos at protests for evidence. He spent just a week in a holding location and was released. Unfortunately, he was suspended from his university for a year for his involvement in the protest and arrest. He decided to complete his military service (compulsory for South Korean males over 18 years old) during this time, and eventually returned to university and completed a degree in English lit.
When I first learned this part of my dad’s past long before I watched 1987, I didn’t know much about South Korean history. I didn’t realise that he’d participated in one of the many protests that helped Koreans break free from totalitarian rule, and develop into the democracy it is today. And many decades later, Koreans including me can enjoy the benefits of a free society. My dad for his part says he wasn’t heavily involved in the movement, and many people around this time had some involvement in protests. Main movement organisers were persecuted and tortured, sometimes to death, by state police.
I’m in awe of the bravery of the country and its people to fight for freedom. History is not only the past, but it imprints an indelible mark on the current and future. And it’s not only on a societal level. Individuals, real people, lived in these societies and through these seismic cultural and political shifts, and these transformative experiences have an intergenerational effect through families. I’m just at the start of this journey, but as I keep learning, I’m sure I’ll keep discovering a more nuanced and richer history and deepen my understanding of my family including myself.
Somewhat coincidentally, I developed a passion for social justice during my university studies. I’m proud to hail from a country rich with activism, even though part of me still wrestles with my cultural identity. As I hear ‘’독재타도!’’, I imagine ordinary people like me toiling for a better future in the 1970s and 80s, and the blood, among many other things, shed along the way. The history feels so distant from me, yet so poignant.