Track: 바위섬 (Rock Island) | Artist: Kim Won Joong | Album: Unknown

We’re doing something a little different today. Please enjoy this 1984 ballad while you continue to read the rest of this column. It’s a good backdrop.

True democracy in South Korea is only about three decades old, having blossomed in the 1990s with the Kim Young Sam administration. One of the seminal moments leading to eventual democratization was 1980's Gwangju Uprising, during which hundreds of people were killed by the military government.

The uprising happened in the backdrop of a power vacuum; with dictator Park Chung Hee’s assassination in 1979, the military soon moved to consolidate power, installing a puppet President, Jun Doo Hwan, and enforcing even stricter martial law—including closing down universities.

This led to protests across the nation, but the anti-government movement was especially fierce in the city of Gwangju, where discontent was already bubbling thanks to governmental prejudice against the region. Hundreds of college students with nowhere to go gathered in front of the closed university gates. The protests turned violent when the national guard showed up, and soon embroiled the entire city in a multi-day ordeal which turned Gwangju into a battleground with hundreds of civilians killed.

As the tale goes, Kim Won Joong wrote this song as tribute to the victims of the massacre; as he could not explicitly state that it was about Gwangju in the lyrics, he replaced it with a lonely spit of rock, hammered by the sea, slowly disappearing.

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Lyrics, partly translated:

A spit of rock, which waves crash upon

Where no one used to be

The world’s people slowly gathered, one by one

And suddenly vanished one night in a storm

Leaving nothing behind except rock and the breaking waves