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(LEAD) S. Korea honors May 1980 pro-democracy uprising

GWANGJU, May 18 (Yonhap) -- South Koreans on Tuesday commemorated a pro-democracy movement in this southern city against the military junta of Chun Doo-hwan 30 years ago, a watershed event in the nation's transition to democracy.

   Prime Minister Chung Un-chan opened the event with a solemn speech honoring the hundreds of thousands of Gwangju citizens who participated in the uprising on this day in 1980.
Political party leaders took a pause from local election campaigns to attend the ceremony at the May 18 National Cemetery.

   "Our democracy today was achieved by the blood and sweat of the democracy fighters," Chung said in a speech read on behalf of President Lee Myung-bak. "And we need to reflect on whether it is taking root and ripening in our consciousness and culture."

   With the country under the iron grip of martial law following a military coup, more than 200,000 citizens in Gwangju took to the streets to protest the new military junta and demand democracy. Chun, an army general, had seized power in an internal coup immediately after President Park Chung-hee was assassinated by his top intelligence aide in December 1979.

   Protesters initially marched peacefully, but some later armed themselves with weapons from police stations and reserve forces in face of the approaching paramilitary. Some 25,000 soldiers were dispatched to the city at dawn of May 27, cracking down on the protesters. Those who refused to relent were arrested or killed.

   The incident left 154 people dead, 70 missing and 3,028 wounded by official count, but civic reports give a much greater number of casualties.

   As democracy picked up in South Korea in the following decade, Chun and his successor Roh Tae-woo, who provided key aid in the coup, were sentenced to life imprisonment and 17 years in prison, respectively. Their sentences were commuted by Kim Dae-jung, who they once accused of masterminding the May 1980 uprising and sentenced to death. Kim was elected president in 1997.

   Like last year, President Lee did not attended the ceremony, in contrast to his liberal predecessors whose annual presence had bolstered the significance of the event. His absence deepened the animosity against his conservative government.

   "The Lee Myung-bak government is belittling May 18," said Kang Wun-tae, opposition lawmaker and Gwangju mayoral candidate, criticizing Lee for his absence and for banning a resistance song at the ceremony.

   The song, "March for Thee," composed in memory of the protesters and the brutal suppression, was forbidden from the ceremony for its gory lyrics.

   Tension rose briefly as some family members of the victims protested when lawmakers of Lee's Grand National Party entered the ceremony, but no clashes occurred. One family member swung an umbrella at party chairman Chung Mong-joon in protest when he entered, but did not strike him.