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Re-making a place-of-memory: The competition between representativeness
and place-making knowledge in Gwangju, South Korea
Article in Urban Studies · November 2016
DOI: 10.1177/0042098015614481
1 author:
Haeran Shin
Seoul National University
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Re-making a place-of-memory: The
competition between
representativeness and place-making
knowledge in Gwangju, South Korea
Urban Studies
Ó Urban Studies Journal Limited 2015
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/0042098015614481
HaeRan Shin
Seoul National University, The Republic of Korea
This paper looks at how place-making at a historic site via collective memory provokes and
embraces issues of memory and representativeness. It examines how the power of place-making
knowledge and the power of collective memory compete and negotiate in the city of Gwangju,
South Korea. Through the analysis, primarily, of archives and in-depth interviews, the research
investigates the case of conflicts surrounding the construction of the Asian Culture Complex in
Gwangju. The construction included the demolition of the Byeolgwan, where ordinary protesters
were killed in the 18 May democratic uprising of 1980. During public consultations and the
consensus-making process, victims developed an adaptive preference and agreed to changes proposed without realising what exactly would happen. The controversy that emerged after they
expressed their belated criticism clarified the collective memory of 18 May. Intellectuals challenged the power of the 5.18 organisations, bearing professional knowledge and appropriate manners in debates. The conflict contributed to the re-arrangement of power relations in the city
and to the clarification of issues that had not been openly discussed before. The power of mourning and symbolising tragedy, usually located with the victims of such tragedy, is challenged by the
power of place-making for the future.
collective memory, Gwangju, place-making knowledge, place-of-memory, representativeness
Received April 2015; accepted October 2015
This paper looks at how place-making at a
historic site via a tragic collective memory
provokes and embraces issues of memory
and representativeness. Based on the theoretical framework of the politics of knowledge
in making a place of memory, it examines
how the power of place-making knowledge1
and the power of collective memory compete
and negotiate in the city of Gwangju,2 South
Corresponding author:
HaeRan Shin, Seoul National University, Geography,
Institute for Korean Regional Studies, Institute for Gender
Research, 1 Gwanak-ro, Gwanak-gu, Seoul, 151-742, The
Republic of Korea
Email: [email protected]
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Urban Studies
Korea. This research focuses on the key
actors who have been involved in the reconstruction of a historic landmark. These key
actors consist, on the one hand, of those who
have been at the centre of the tragic collective
memory of the past, and on the other, of
those who are knowledgeable about urban
place-(re)making in the city. Through the
analysis, primarily, of archives and in-depth
interviews, the research investigates how
knowledge and representation of memory
constitute power and how the future as well
as the past is contested. Despite increasing
attention to contested representations of collective memory, the issue of knowledge has
not received enough attention. By investigating the case of conflicts surrounding the construction of the Asian Culture Complex in
Gwangju, this study contributes to understandings the ways in which knowledge,
power and collective memory intertwine and
re-define one another.
The city of Gwangju looms large in the
South Korean imagination as the location of
the 1980 Gwangju Massacre of antigovernment protesters by the Chun Do
Hwan military regime. This event is considered a touchstone of the democracy movements which took root early on in the
decade, eventually leading to the democratisation of the country in the later 1980s.3
This study focuses on plans to renovate the
former South Jolla provincial hall, one of
the key locations of the 1980 events at
Gwangju, into an Asian Cultural Hall.
What became controversial was a part of the
plan which called for the removal of a portion of the former provincial hall called the
Byeolgwan,4 the location where a final group
of protestors were killed during the 18 May
democratic uprisings. 5.18 organisations5
objected to the demolition of the Byeolgwan
at a time after several public consultations
on the project had taken place and a consensus considered to have been achieved by the
planners, architects and intellectuals in
charge of the project.
This study asks: How do different actors
compete over who is entitled to represent tragic collective memory in the project of placemaking? What role does conflict play in the
politics of memory? This research argues that
place-making knowledge plays an important
role in the politics of collective memory. A different understanding or misunderstanding of
what are more widely understood as established ‘facts’ is a good indicator of differing
power (education and knowledge) or differing
interests (because of different interests, they
come to an issue ready to understand it in different ways). In a transition from mourning
to memorialising, the focus shifts from who is
entitled to speak to who is entitled to make
the place speak. Victim’s representation comes
to be challenged by new groups armed with
professional knowledge on how to (re)make a
place. In the case of Gwangju, tensions
erupted between a group of professionals
including architects, planners and academics,
who are focused on place-making for the
future, and those who continue to focus on
the memory of Gwangju and who are victims
of the 1980 crackdown by the military (i.e. are
family members of those who were killed).
Expert knowledge in place-ofmemory making
In recent years, the theme of collective memory has received increasing attention from
geographers and urban scholars. In cases of
wounded cities bearing tragic memory (Till,
2012),6 questions over how massive traumas
are remembered and interpreted continually
emerge and are contested over (Robben,
2012, 2005). Cultural and artistic or activist
memory-work often provokes new controversies. Working on wounded places is critical in examinations of the politics of
memory because they are ‘both a communal
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reminder of loss and a personal reserve for
‘‘constructive forgetting’’’ (Till, 2008).
Culture-led urban regeneration plans for
places of collective memory, such as that
focused on Gwangju (see below) become
battlegrounds among victims, the government and experts for engaging in culture
(Du Gay and Pryke, 2002; Flew, 2009; Shin
and Stevens, 2013; Yúdice, 2003).
Places of memory have an inherent
capacity for transformation and ‘come to
act not only as spaces for representation and
re-inscription of political events but also as
sites of contention in and of themselves’ (Yea,
2002: 1571). Culture-led urban regeneration
has become popular among policy-makers
who have pursued the economic growth and
image transformations of their respective cities (Lin and Hsing, 2009; Shin, 2004; Wu,
2004; Yeoh, 2005). As iconic buildings, cultural events, and symbols convey meaning,
and thus conflicts among actors involved take
place over the culture to be invoked and projected via such projects (Mitchell, 2000).
While conflict regarding places of memory (Muzaini and Yeoh, 2005; RoseRedwood, 2008)7 have received attention
from scholars, not enough has involved
attempts to figure out the power structure of
the conflict and point out the importance of
knowledge within the workings of this structure. One of the focuses of the cultural
debate has been contestation regarding who
is entitled to speak for the past in the present
(Hodgkin and Radstone, 2003). The issue of
representation has been critical among
actors as the issue has shifted the focus from
the past to the present. Place-making activities regarding collective memory tell us
‘more about the people building a memorial
than the peoples and pasts being commemorated’ (Till, 2005: 18). The process of collective memory is evident during political
change (Forest et al., 2004). This is because
of the key actors, who drive place-ofmemory making, change. Victims and
survivors of events that are being memorialised ‘lack the skills and resources to successfully compete’ (Lewis, 2002: 153) while they
may not be completely powerless. In the
process of re-interpreting collective memories through culture, different knowledge,
interests and approaches meet, are negotiated over and evolve (Bassett et al., 2002;
Beazley et al., 1997; Boyle and Hughes,
The question of who is entitled to speak
about the past has different implications and
involves a re-composition of the qualifications of who can play what role in memorialising the past for the future (Till, 2005)
when compared with other kinds of memorialisation. Especially in cases where spatial
representations such as monument building
and historic sites are funded by the public
sector or private sector, experts play a leading role in place re-making. While victims of
a tragedy at a place that is being memorialised have place-relevance, there is not necessarily a consensus among all actors involved
that they should take the lead on such memorialising. So in the shift from mourning to
memorialising as part of urban regeneration,
legitimacy becomes based on the knowledge
of place-making and the entitlement of the
victims can come to be challenged. Power
relations are rearranged as knowledge and
networks oriented towards place-making
become important, challenging placerelevance and the symbolic importance of
the victims. This is why I approach contestation and conflicts surrounding collective
memory in the framework of place-making
knowledge. Cases of consensus-making in
place-making involve negotiations between
different groups. Public consultants have
witnessed that knowledge plays a critical
role in such negotiations (Walker, 2014),
and that knowledge and power constitute
each other (Flyvbjerg, 1998). The politics of
knowledge in place-of memory making,
however, has not received enough attention.
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This paper argues that studies of urban
collective memory should embrace the discussion of the politics of knowledge in the
making of places of memory, with attention
especially to the dynamics between expert
knowledge and lay knowledge (Fraser and
Lepofsky, 2004; Owens et al., 2006). Despite
increasing awareness of the importance of
interactive knowledge and shared understanding in place-making (Innes and Booher,
1999; Kelman, 1996; Merkel, 2013), a number of previous case studies have witnessed
that lay knowledge has been marginalised
(Petts and Brooks, 2006). Lay knowledge
(local knowledge) provides tacit and comprehensive knowledge about a sentiment in a
specific context (Barthel et al., 2015), but it
has tended to be neither translated into nor
invited into processes of collective knowledge formation (Blake, 1999). In the context
of memorialisation, as an example, translation of professional jargon and knowledge is
necessary to establish an understanding
between local needs for collective memory
and professional considerations.
A number of previous studies on grassroots engagement in the context of cultural
regeneration have discussed conflicts, exploring discrepancies between different forms of
knowledge and the dominance of professional knowledge (Petts and Brooks, 2006).
In the making of a place of memory, knowledge is located in the very subtle area not
only where domination exists but where the
less powerful acquiesce to their domination
(Dowding, 2006) by developing adaptive
preferences.8 Because a preference may not
be clear, is distorted by unexpected factors,
and in many cases is constantly changing,
knowledge and power play an important role
in the interplay of true preference and adaptive preference (Shin, 2010). In negotiation,
participants, especially less powerful participants, develop adaptive preferences because
they do not expect their true preferences to
be accepted. The third-dimensional power
theory (Dowding 2006; Lukes, 1974; Swartz,
2005) explains that consensus is so naturally
and subtly manipulated through control of
information, ideology and myths, and that it
becomes difficult for the less powerful to
even recognise their own grievances
(Gaventa, 1980; Lukes, 1974). Rather than
being explicitly prohibited from saying
something that occurs to them, they voluntarily, or more exactly are forced to voluntarily, choose not to speak out, and instead
simply agree with others. Regret or disagreement takes place only retrospectively
(Boonstra and Bennebroek Gravenhorst,
1998; Culley and Hughey, 2008; Eliasoph,
1996; Norgaard, 2006; Speer and Hughey,
1995; Tauxe, 1995). Social status, including
education, buttresses such power imbalances. Formally educated knowledge accompanies an education into manners by which
agents maximise their use of knowledge.
The politics involved in the (re)-creation
of a place of memory may block a cooperative mood and productive dialogue. Yet they
can also serve to clarify what each actor
means to argue, which actors likely do not
recognise in themselves explicitly when they
enter an argument or conflict. Such confusion and contestation provide conditions of
possibility for a public sphere (Sennett,
2000). ‘Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It
stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates invention. It shocks us from our sheeplike passivity and sets us at noting and
contriving – conflict is a ‘‘sine qua non’’ of
reflection and ingenuity’ (Dewey, 1922: 207).
Conflict triggers learning and change as
actors are challenged in their understanding
and perspectives (Termeer and Koppenjan,
1997). Conflict clarifies a context by urging
those involved to formulate what they mean
as precisely as possible (Eshuis and Stuiver,
2005), clarifying their meanings not only to
their interlocutors, but to themselves as well.
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Research methods
The data for this research is drawn from
archival research, in-depth interviews and
informal interviews, participant observation
and site visits. The archives analysed include
the official website of the Hub City of Asian
Culture, newspaper articles, blogs and public
For in-depth interviews, I selected 21
interviewees based on the name-dropping
method, asking participants of the negotiations over the Gwangju regeneration who
key actors of the debate over the reconstruction were. Resulting interviewees included
actors in public, private and voluntary sectors, including 5.18 organisations and those
who work in the media. Because the tension
among actors was high, many of the potential interviewees contacted hesitated to
respond. Some of these eventually refused to
talk altogether, saying that they could not
mention anything about the conflict because
it hurt that they had been misunderstood.
They were also suspicious that I was going
to take sides. During the course of the interviews, I maintained an active and neutral listening demeanour, minimising any verbal or
body response that would indicate that I
was taking a side.
The in-depth semi-structured interviews
lasted one to two hours in general; I also
gained data from three short informal interviews that I was able to conduct serendipitously while in the field as an observer.
Interview questions included whether or not
the interviewee supported the demolition of
the Byeolgwan and why, how in detail they
expressed their opinions, what they thought
about other perspectives on the issue, and
how they wrestled with and negotiated over
the issue with other interested groups. Only
one interview subject, an individual who
used to be in the May 18 Memorial
Foundation claimed to be neutral regarding
the demolition, and he personally knew key
actors well and specific stories of both sides
as he coordinated in the dispute. I asked
what points of view he maintained and how
he observed each side during the debate.
Most in-depth interviews used in this study
were recorded in full in Korean and then
translated into English. Four interviewees
did not agree to be voice-recorded, so I took
notes either during or after the interview in
these cases.
One key aspect of participant observation
was attending a forum regarding the memory of 18 May to observe speeches and listen
to the subsequent floor discussion. I
recorded the whole discussion with the permission of the meeting’s participants. I also
observed who participated in the verbal discussions, who received attention and whom
other participants marginalised.
The case: Gwangju’s collective
memory reinterpreted in a
culture-led urban regeneration
The Gwangju Uprising also referred to as
the Gwangju Massacre and the 18 May democratic uprising, took place between 18 May
and 27 May 1980. It took place in the aftermath of the assassination of President Park
Chung Hee, a military dictator who ruled
from 1962 through to his death in 1979, and
the subsequent takeover of the country by
General Chun Doo Hwan. The regime used
military force to react to pro-democracy
demonstrations, which had been gathering
pace throughout the late 1970s, and which
flared up again during the transition from
the Park to the Chun regime. When approximately 200 students started a demonstration
in Gwangju, a Korean Special Forces assault
launched in response provoked widespread
outrage. During the period between 18 May
and 27 May 1980, citizens liberated the city
and placed it under their own peaceful
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control, until Chun’s military forces brutally
retook the city and perpetrated a massacre.
Many were killed, although the number of
victims is highly controversial, ranging from
190 to 2000. During the uprising and massacre, the army blocked all routes to and
from Gwangju, and the national government
prohibited any media reports about the
The memory of Gwangju played a critical
role in the history of democratisation in
Korea in the subsequent decades. ‘Many
people reckoned the 1980s, and indeed the
entire post Liberation era, as an ebb and
flow of popular quiescence, punctuated by
outbursts of popular outcry or protest’
(Abelmann, 1996: 15). Since the first nonmilitary presidency began in 1993, the special May 18 Special Law has been enacted,
and surviving victims and their families have
received compensation from the National
Government (Vink, 2010; Shin, 2004; Yea,
In the city of Gwangju, urban regeneration has been thoroughly imbricated with
the collective memory of the city, particularly with regards to the 18 May uprising.
After democratisation in the late 1980s, the
national government tried to compensate for
the losses and disadvantages faced by
Gwangju city and the surrounding region.9
Yet efforts on the part of the national government and the local government were not
intended to focus on projects on the history
of Gwangju and its tragic memory. In fact,
the national government tried to distance
themselves from the dispute on the content,
focusing on financial investment for events
and constructions. In the meantime, the local
government wanted to shift the image of the
city by means of culture-led regeneration
projects, ones with no link to Gwangju’s past
in relation to the prior military dictatorship.
However, this kind of culture-led urban
regeneration brought about resistance and
criticism, and the projects ended up being
linked with the history and memory of the
The Gwangju Biennale, an international
art exhibition, was one of the regeneration
projects initiated by the city government,
and received significant financial support
from the national government (Lee, 2007;
Yea, 2002). The programme was subsequently expanded, the city being designated
the Hub City of Asian Culture by the
national government’s President Roh Moo
Hyun in 2002.10 The overall agenda of
regenerating Gwangju by means of cultureled urban regeneration has included a number of such culture-oriented projects, with
the construction of the Cultural Hall of Asia
(Lee, 2007) a significant part of this agenda.
In South Korea, planning and construction projects are implemented usually
through the subcontracting of planning and
architecture experts from outside the government.11 The task force team of such
experts for the creation of the Cultural Hall
of Asia consisted of an architect (Sung
Ryong Cho), three professors in architecture
(Jung Man Lee from Hanyang University
and Jae Pill Choi from Seoul National
University) and their university teams and
an architect and his non-profit architectural
organisation (Pill Hoon Lee and Korea
Architects Institute) in 2005. The team had a
contract with the Hub City of Asian Culture
Office. The office is part of the national government, and the office and the team members are all based in Seoul. Local planning
and architecture experts based in Gwangju
or even from anywhere in Jeolla province
were not involved in the construction of the
hall; few were part of the planning research
team for the Hub City of Asian Culture,
The Hub City of Asian Culture website
notes that the Hall:
is planned to be constructed on and around
the site of the former Office of Jeollanamdo
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Province, which is a historically important
area in this city known for its spirit of democracy, human rights, and peace. The location12
also serves as a bustling centre for the people
of Gwangju. The lot is 128,621m2 in size, with
a total floor space of 178,199m2. The sum of
the project costs amounts to $680 million.
jsp, accessed 3 June 2014)
The city government thus planned to rehabilitate the former South Jolla provincial hall,
turning it into the Cultural Hall of Asia. The
South Jolla hall has been highly symbolic in
the political history of Gwangju. The final
victims of the 18 May democratic uprising
died in a part of the building, and many
anti-government demonstrations later took
place around the hall.
A contest was held to decide upon a
design for the renovated South Jolla hall.
The winning design13 proved to be controversial. First, unlike what many people
expected, the proposed building was neither
tall nor particularly visible, rendering it far
short of a landmark in the minds of many.
The architect’s idea was to locate most of the
building underground so that the Moodeung
Mountain which, he explained, had been an
important Gwangju landmark, could be
seen. Those who expected the economic
boom effect of a landmark, especially those
with businesses in the area, were thus highly
critical of the design. But the leading group
from the Hub City of Asian Culture Office
supported the design, and the argument that
the mountain constituted a genuine landmark eventually gained more support.
Second, the design included the demolition of part of the former South Jolla provincial hall, the Byeolgwan. The plans for
demolition were based on the design instructions for the 5.18 Memorial Business Master
Plan, published by the city of Gwangju. This
aspect of the design was not well noticed in
the process of public consultation, with no
strong objections being raised at the time. A
consensus was thus claimed to have been
achieved with regards to the demolition of
this part of the hall. In terms of the design,
the demolition was important in that it
would allow for a tunnel symbolising
communication to be constructed. On 24
June 2008, the 5.18 DTA (Detainees
Association14) openly criticised the plan for
the demolition of the Byeolgwan. They began
a demonstration consisting of building a
small tent where they squatted day and night
outside the building. This belated criticism
turned into conflict, a conflict which spiralled in severity. As a result, construction on
the site was stopped on 9 December 2008,
postponed, and a renegotiated compromise
reached whereby the Byeolgwan section of
the original site would be maintained.15
The politics of (re)-making placeof-memory: Did victims
understand the plan?
For the case analysis, knowledge is operationalised as knowledge through which people
can understand social agendas and the plans
constructed by experts, comment on them
and suggest alternatives. The agendas
involved in the process of place-making can
be seen in the design instructions that the
city provided for the design competition in
2005. The official website of the Hub City of
Asian Culture said that when the 5.18 organisation representatives visited the Hub City
of Asian Culture Office and discussed what
to do in terms of the preservation of buildings in the area, the organisations submitted
‘The plan for 5.18-related preserved sites in
the Asian Culture Complex’. The website
stated that the plan submitted on 19 October
2006 by the organisations did not include
the Byeolgwan in the list of buildings to be
preserved. When the Asian Culture Complex
was designed by US-based architect Kyu
Seung Woo as a ‘Forest of Light’, intellectuals and civic organisations welcomed the
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nature-friendly idea, as did the 5.18 organisations. They were positive about the final
instruction, which did not, in fact, include
the preservation of Byeolgwan. Based on the
plan and subsequent discussions among civic
organisations, the city government, the
national government and the general public,
a master plan was established, and a
ground-breaking ceremony took place on
10 June 2008 (
annex02.jsp, accessed 15 April 2014).
As such, the 5.18 organisations agreed to
the plans during the process of consensusmaking and started opposing the construction only after this consensus had been
officially achieved. Explanations for this discrepancy were clearly divided. People in
favour of the demolition – cultural organisations and intellectuals16 – said that the opposition was due to the fact that 5.18
organisations had become used to gaining
small financial benefits as a result of opposition to the government’s plans. In the past,
victims of 18 May have indeed received
financial compensation and opportunities
from the national government. In turn,
according to one of my interviewees, they
have become manipulative interest groups
who use the name of democracy and
Gwangju’s political spirit to their own benefit. Such criticism was quite common,
describing victims as having become compensation ‘queens and kings’, receiving easy
opportunities such as ownership of vending
machine businesses that ran in new governmental buildings.
The actual reason, however, why the 18
May associations started criticising the project so late, according to another interviewee,
a 5.18 organisation member, was that:
Actually, we did not understand what was
going on in the public consultation. We did
not know that the part that was planned to be
demolished was where the family members
He was reluctant to make that statement
and said that it was embarrassing to admit
their gaffe, but that they did not know that
what they heard meant that the Byeolgwan
itself was going to be demolished. He argued
that although they had listened, they did not
‘understand’ what exactly would happen and
now that this was understood, that they were
against the removal plan, a stance taken in
order to keep up Minjuhwa Jung-shin (the
spirit of democracy). People from the 5.18
organisations did not understand what the
architect had explained, some interviewees
told me, but that what they had heard and
understood was the principle that historical
sites would be preserved.
The boundary between knowing and not
knowing was thin, and the lack of clarity in
their understanding reinforced their adaptive
preference. It seemed that they did not recognise the fact that they actually did not understand the planning process, and/or they did
not want to lose face by asking a lot of questions in the context of that process. In the
mood of celebrating the rehabilitation of the
place of memory to be allowed even to
remember the event, they did not come to
the realisation the degree to which they were
following the lead of experts. The issue of
whether those actors really understood what
would transpire remained unsolved. The
proponents of the demolition, however, said
that it was a lie that their opponents did not
understand. It was certainly true that the
master plan and explanations included a
great deal of professional architecture and
planning jargon that would be difficult for
ordinary people to understand. Besides, the
debate about whether landmarks ought to be
underground or overground took priority in
the context of the consensus-making process,
wherein discussions about historical sites did
not pick up steam and was thus not a focus
of explicit public attention by anyone.
In the context of my interviews, it also
became clear that it had become
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questionable what constituted an agreement
if members did not understand the contours
of the debates themselves. Some expert interviewees who were based in universities and
the media argued that leaders of the 5.18
organisations had come to certain agreements among themselves with regards to the
renovation plan. One interviewee from a 5.18
organisation, however, argued that the
‘agreement’ was achieved based on the personal networks of a few top people of the
organisations. The interviewee asked how an
agreement is defined. He argued that attending in forums to discuss what to demolish
and what to preserve does not necessarily
mean that they agreed to any plan. A so-called
consensus was based on the fact that a few
well-connected people from policy-making circles and the 5.18 organisation had had dinner
and a drink together and had a good time. So
the organisation leaders listened, discussed and
implicitly considered agreement of the plan to
have taken place. But as it turned out, the
‘agreement’ on the part of the 5.18 people was
a sort of adaptive preference to a situation in
which they wanted to be relevant while not
understanding the situation completely. The
5.18 organisation interviewee argued that
experts should have researched about what
was to be demolished and clarified the plan
with the organisation membership. Some other
interview subjects from the 5.18 organisations
said that organisation leaders verbally agreed
to the project at the personal level with project
officials, not as leaders who had ever listened
to the opinions of the organisation
It seems clear that the 5.18 organisations
submitted the plan without knowing that
their own plan was contrary to what they in
fact wanted. One interviewee from one of
the 5.18 organisations said:
The 5.18 organisations agreed on the principle
of preserving historical memorial sites. But,
we were not capable of dealing with the
government and convincing other organisations, specifying what we wanted in terms of
professional and practical knowledge. We are
an organization of victims, of lay-people, not
experts. If we had understood what was going
on exactly, we would have responded, but they
realized [the gap in their knowledge – author]
only as of May 2007.
Another interviewee, who was teaching at a
university, one who was critical of the 5.18
organisations, said that the families of those
killed in 1980 did, in fact, realise what the
proposal involved; and that it was only while
watching the emerging conflict that was
being negotiated over that they, too, belatedly came to the opinion that the Byeolgwan
should be preserved.
The matter of knowledge was rather
directly pointed out by one interesting perspective from an interviewee who claimed to
have adequate distance from the interest
groups to have a relatively balanced take on
the matter. He knew key actors in both sides
well and tried not to affiliate strongly with
any of them. He said that this conflict was a
matter of education level and social status.
Specifically, he stated:
The victims’ families and relatives are not
highly formally educated because those who
were killed in the democratic uprising were
not intellectuals from middle class families.
They were uneducated, ordinary people from
poor families. And because they died, their
families and relatives suffered from financial
limits and political repression. So they [the
surviving family members] became opportunistic to survive and they adapted to those
small financial benefits [that they received as
compensation – author]. And those who are
very critical about them are intellectuals.
When the winning architect and other
experts explained the master plan during
public consultations, not all members of the
5.18 organisations attended, and although
those that did attend nodded, they either did
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not understand the content of the presentation or did not even recognise their ignorance, the above interviewee said. This
interviewee was also cautious in saying that
it was about the victims’ educational level,
concerned about whether what he said
would be insulting to them. He was critical
of the idea that people tend to think that the
18 May victims should be ethical and novel.
He asked why their proud history necessarily
meant that the victims should not actively
seek charity and said that the survivors had
merely lost their breadwinners and thus
become impoverished and angry.
Worry about the success of the urban
regeneration project seems to have been the
biggest motivation in terms of why those
who were for the original project plan
argued so strongly that it (the historic space
with so many memories attached to it)
should be demolished. They were nervous
that the central government would withdraw
their financial support because of the conflict. In the past, urban mega projects that
were to be financially supported by the central government had been cancelled for a
variety of reasons. This prior history caused
local elites to worry and experience anxiety
over the successful completion of the Asian
Culture Complex.
Conflict as reflective knowledge
The renewed discussion as to whether the
historical part of the former South Jolla provincial hall should be demolished brought
about significant tension among civil groups
and citizens. Most of all, the conflict was
eventually about representativeness, about
who is entitled to speak for this place from
the past in the present and for the future.
The two groups, pro- and anti- demolition,
had conflicting ideas regarding memory
configuration and the meaning of the
Byeolgwan. The Byeolgwan became the spatialised symbol of the conflicts between two
different interests. The anti-demolition
group, consisting mainly of the 5.18 organisations, expressed their opinions through
demonstrations. That conflict gave the
actors involved a chance to negotiate about
the issues. The transition from agreement to
conflict implies that the 5.18 organisations
stopped developing adaptive preferences and
began to clarify and express what they in
fact wanted. In the process, however, their
legitimacy was significantly challenged, and
they did not gain access to the negotiation
tables and were instead represented by civic
organisation elites (, accessed 7 July
2015). Tensions were stoked as antidemolition actors found themselves without
direct access to negotiating milieus, their
opinions instead being represented by such
elites, who did little to consult with them.
A focal point of the struggle between the
two groups came to be over the meaning of
what 5.18 Jung-shin (spirit) is. In the promotion of regeneration projects, elites focused
on cultural restructuring the meaning of the
5.18 Jung-shin. While the 5.18 organisations
were not involved much, there was still
broad agreement across all groups concerned on the principles that remembering
history was necessary, that democracy was
the root of the Gwangju Jung-shin, and that
the Byeolgwan was an important place of
memory. When it came to the issue of the
demolition of the Byeolgwan, however, different approaches on the following two
issues clashed. First, how to re-configure the
history of the place was an important issue.
While the 5.18 organisations focused on
remembering and mourning what happened
in the building itself, and in Gwangju at
large, the proponents of the project looked
forward to preparing for the future and
focusing on urban development and growth
in the future. According to one interviewee,
the people from the 5.18 organisations did
not trust that the so-called 5.18 Jung-shin,
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the 5.18 spirit (Lewis, 2002), would be maintained through a reconfiguration of history,
i.e. rearranging how to speak about their
tragic memory through memorialisation.
Jung-shin Gyeseung is a phrase that has been
a key aspect of the agenda for Gwangju’s
culture-led urban regeneration as financially
supported by the national government. The
ways in which cultural regeneration had
taken place thus far been had not convinced
people of the 5.18 organisations that it was
the right direction to take for a reconfiguration of history. One interviewee involved in
the organisations asked me what on earth
the reconfiguration of history really meant.
He said that various places of memory stemming from Gwangju’s democratic spirit have
undergone transformation in the name of
re-configuring or developing memories.
There was suspicion that those who supported the original design, including the
demolition of the Byeolgwan, did not consider the importance of the Byeolgwan in
any adequate sense. The proponents of the
demolition, on the other hand, said that the
accession and reconfiguration of memory
did not have to be material. There are various creative ways to memorialise a history,
they argued. Some of them took examples
from advanced societies such the USA and
its approach to the Oklahoma City National
Memorial17 to demonstrate how those societies had developed ways by which to memorialise their historical events immaterially.
Second, the meaning of the Byeolgwan
was interpreted differently between the two
groups. Interview subjects who were professionals in universities and media argued that
the Byeolgwan was not necessarily one of the
most important historical places of memory
in the area. The most important places
would include the 5.18 park where the dead
bodies were re-located, for instance. Yet to
the 5.18 organisations, the Byeolgwan constituted the grave of the dead, and to them,
was the most symbolic place, one where
non-elites had died. It was a fact that it was
because it had been ordinary people who
had perished here that made the 18 May
event a popular democratic uprising rather
than an elitist protest, interviewees from the
opponents’ side told me. Therefore, it was
not something that they could compromise
upon. Other people were suspicious of the
motivations of the opponents to the original
plan and believed that the logic of non-elite
protest places was employed only after the
5.18 organisations realised that they wanted
to win a power game; to these people, the
meaning of Byeolgwan was clearly different.
Conflict played notable roles in the
renewed process of discussion. The first of
these was that the conflict clarified different
actors’ different interests and promoted
competition between them. Competition
implies that the question of who is entitled
to speak about the memory was actually cast
and discussed. The critics, the 5.18 organisations, were located in a complex position in
terms of influence in the decision-making
process over urban matters. As some interviewees pointed out, they consisted of lowincome people lacking in formal education.
But, it did not mean that they were powerless in 18 May-related decision-making.
Rather, they had normative power that
exerted an insuperable influence in a way.
One interviewee in the Hub City of Asian
Culture Office said that their voices were
accepted when they asked questions such as
‘What did you do at that time (in 1980)?’ or
‘Have you ever experienced what it was
like?’ He said that no one could beat the
dead. In a way, it meant that the 5.18 organisations had some basis of power. This is
part of the reason why these organisations
were able to stop being quiet and start arguing against the decision that had been made.
Owing to such symbolic importance on
the part of 5.18 organisations, they have
been approached and mobilised for urban
development projects and political events
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since democratisation. The financial rewards
offered have influenced the internal politics
of the three 5.18 organisations. The three
organisations have become interest groups,
and internal conflicts have increased, one
interviewee, an organiser insider, said. The
development of different views on the demolition of Byeolgwan held by different
segments of the organisations was noted
by a majority of the interviewees. The dramatic change in the stance of the Minjuhwa
Undong Busangjahoe [Wounded Persons
Byeolgwan (towards being against demolition and later supportive of it) in particular18 caused suspicion in that accusations
were floated that they changed their position
because of economic interest. These insinuations brought about a negative image of the
18 May victims.
It should be noticed how knowledge
works in terms of how it is embedded in the
way that discourse works by means of the
way it is presented. There was a feeling that
the anti-demolition group was not civil, was
spoiled and was unreasonable. The proponents of the demolition said that they were
ashamed by the uncivilised attitudes conveyed by the means of speaking and physical
conduct. Protesting after all public consultations and decision-making were complete
was considered neither reasonable nor considerate. In what happened afterwards, these
critics raised their voices in negotiations and
discussions and were sometimes violent in
expressing their misgivings, a physicality
that including pulling people. Describing
what they had done, interviewees who were
working at universities and who were critical
of the 5.18 organisations said that they were
ashamed of them. There was fatigue regarding 18 May (Vink, 2010) among citizens in
general, a sentiment directed mainly at 5.18
organisation members. Every single interviewee of this research mentioned it. According
to a majority of the interviewees, the
memory of the historical event should be
reconfigured and the reconfiguration should
constitute how collective memory ought to
be reconstructed in a reasonable way.
Annoyance regarding the members of the
5.18 organisations was well-observed at a
symposium at which I attended as a participant-observer. In the middle of discussions
that were taking place after presentations,
one man stood up and started speaking
about the importance of 18 May. The man’s
outfit looked less formal than many others,
and he did not use the professional art of
presenting his opinion that is usually used at
professional conferences and symposiums.
Rather, he raised his voice, his pronunciation was unclear and his logic was not
strong. Many other participants, including
the presenters and members of the audience,
looked uncomfortable and annoyed. Some
of them made faces, and only a few seriously
looked at him while he was speaking.
Without responding to him, the meeting
moved on, the Chair suddenly asking a university professor for her comments on the
whole symposium. His manner, not the content of what he said, seemed to be taken to
be out of context. In terms of knowledge to
be able to demonstrate an opinion in an
appropriate and convincing manner, the
5.18 organisation members were in an inferior position, a position that influenced the
politics of knowledge.
The conflict also rearranged power structures in terms of place-making. The importance of governance formation and
negotiation increased throughout the whole
urban regeneration process as of the
Gwangju Biennale. Expert knowledge and
networks with experts became critical assets
in the power structure. The proponents of
the demolition emerged as an alternative
group of power because they were capable
of being involved in place-making by means
of their professional knowledge. Because the
office for the Hub City of Asian Culture was
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located in Seoul, the disparity between Seoul
(central) and other areas (local) worked as a
rationale that implicitly remarked that these
people’s perspectives were more advanced
than others. The fact that the architect for
the project worked in the USA also helped
support that rationale. Having access to
powerful networks and Seoul-based actors
on their side, the proponents of the demolition challenged the power of the 5.18 organisations, arguing for the development of a
collective memory in a more sophisticated
way as soon as possible. In that way, they
were influential in decision-making and discourse formation. They said that the Hub
City of Asian Culture project was expected
to improve the urban economy of Gwangju
and to promote its image. Because the project was entirely dependent on funding from
the national government, the proponents
wanted to make the process as smooth as
possible, the majority of interviewees who
were pro-demolition said.
Before a renewed consensus was made
regarding the fate of the Byeolgwan, the central government suggested that only part of
it should be demolished so that the original
plan to make a tunnel would be kept and
that the specific part in question, which was
judged to have historical significance, would
remain. The first reaction from both the pro
and con groups was negative. They said that,
in that case, the Asian Culture Complex
would become a symbol of their own conflict. However, after the safety risk in the
case of a complete conservation was assessed
and eight more negotiations, committee
meetings and public consultations took place
over December 2009 through to July 2010,
the participants accepted the plan for partial
conservation. The central government
announced the final decision, that the building would be partially conserved (with 30 m
out of the building’s 54 m to remain).
One influential figure in the 5.18 organisations said that the period after 2007 has
become a time more difficult even than that
under dictators such as Chun Doo Hwan
and Roh Tae Woo because the conflict
existed within civil society itself. But, he did
say that the conflict would bring about positive results, eventually. He stated:
I think that this conflict around the Byeolgwan
provides a turning point for a fundamental
consideration of how to rehabilitate Gwangju.
Other interviewees also agreed that the conflict would bring about positive changes in
the long-term. The negotiations in the placeof-memory making reminded people that
perhaps there had been no singular collective
memory, but a collection of different memories. The consensus that emerged after the
conflicts was that a part of the Byeolgwan
would remain and that the Byeolgwan would
become museumised, memorialising those
who had been killed in the building. During
the process of consensus-making, they
formed a matrix of governance that included
various actors and enabled continued negotiations. The conflict became a training
ground for governance and interactive
knowledge. Different actors’ different preferences were clearly expressed, and the
knowledge of place-making came to be more
inclusive than before.
Focusing on place-of-memory-remaking,
this study has elaborated on how power
relations are articulated in the rehabilitation
of practices of remembrance by different
actors. The empirical findings of this
research are as follows. The rehabilitation of
the former South Jolla provincial hall as
part of culture-led urban regeneration
included the demolition of the Byeolgwan,
where ordinary protesters were killed in the
18 May democratic uprising of 1980. During
public consultations and the consensus-
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making process, 5.18 organisations developed an adaptive preference and agreed to
changes proposed without realising what
exactly would happen. The controversy that
emerged after they expressed their belated
criticism clarified the collective memory of
18 May. The protagonists and critics of the
demolition of the Byeolgwan focused on different methods of reconfiguration of the history and different meaning of what
constituted the Byeolgwan. Intellectuals
challenged the power of the 5.18 organisations, bearing professional knowledge and
appropriate manners in debates. The conflict
contributed to the re-arrangement of power
relations in the city and to the clarification
of issues that had not been openly discussed
These findings have implications regarding the politics of knowledge and memory in
Place-making shifts power relationships
because it often requires actors with professional knowledge. I find such tension in
knowledge interaction highly relevant to
cases of collective memories in that it
demonstrates a close connection between the
politics of knowledge and the politics of collective memories. It is the power of knowledge that emerges as an alternative power
against the power of victims’ experiences.
So, it is not a tension between different
representations in a consistent setting but a
shift in terms of the key actors that are
involved. The power of mourning and symbolising tragedy, usually located with the
victims of such tragedy, is challenged by
the power of place-making for the future.
The negotiation among different actors in
the case of Gwangju reveals controversies
with regards to expertise, the rehabilitation
of tragic memory and on the representativeness of justice and of the democratic spirit.
Such matters of knowledge are not merely
about education level or academic degrees,
or social status. It is also about the comprehensive assets of a socio-economic class, in
which individuals learn particular manners
of speaking, socialising and learning. Those
manners empower or disempower members
of certain classes in the context of
A theoretical suggestion of this study is
that the making of a place of memory should
be approached comprehensively. In the transition from place-remembering to placemaking, a shift of the representativeness
takes place from victims to experts, and two
different types of power come to compete. In
the past, when talking about how memory
was suppressed, the existence of the victims
exerted the power of representativeness.
When compensations were offered as part of
a set of opportunities to make something for
the future, those able to make adjustments
for such a future gained more power. Power
is challenged especially when financial and
political resources are made available for
place-making. In Gwangju’s case, the compensation from the national government was
made in terms of an urban regeneration project, and the representativeness required in
this context involves professional knowledge
to a greater degree than activities that had
been carried out earlier in the area.
In practical terms, understanding and
communication occurred in the end because
of the conflict that eventually took place.
Communication eventually worked by
means of the controversy that was caused
over the proposed demolition of the
Byeolgwan. Are the politics of knowledge
bad news for grassroots community engagement? Do they mean that consensus-making
between different actors will eventually fail?
Not necessarily. Increased interaction
among various actors means increased
opportunities to acknowledge differences in
understanding, knowing and sentiment.
Conflicts make actors realise that differences
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exist, that their knowledge is not universal,
and that conflicts emerge in part from those
differences. Deserving attention, though, is
that any actor’s knowledge is not fixed but
evolving. Sometimes, it is not until something serious such as a conflict arises that
actors realise what kinds of knowledge and
understanding they possess about an issue.
This research received no specific grant from any
funding agency in the public, commercial, or notfor-profit sectors.
1. Knowing can mean various things, dependent, for instance, on scope and representativeness. In the context of an organisation,
rather than an individual, ‘knowing’ can
mean a consensus among the members of
the organisation, or the opinion of certain
leaders. As increasing numbers of various
actors become involved, the process of
consensus-making (Shmueli et al., 2008) as
regards the constitution of knowledge
becomes increasingly complicated. The
social construction of knowledge approach
implies that different social segments bear
different knowledges (different interpretations of facts). In this paper, I define knowledge as a collection of different knowings,
which includes knowledge developed in the
context of formal education but also the
local understandings of a particular milieu.
2. The city belongs to Jeolla-Do Province in the
southwest of South Korea. The metropolitan
area covers 501 km2 and has a population of
1.4 million (The city of Gwangju website).
3. While direct presidential elections began in
1987, there are those who hold that the
democratisation process was not complete
until the 1997 election of Kim Dae Jung, a
former dissident who had nearly been executed by the Chun regime. Kim was the first
president elected who had no ties with the
former military regime.
4. Byeolgwan simply means ‘annex’ in Korean,
but it became a frequently used shorthand
referring to this symbolically rich part of the
provincial hall (see below for further details
on the role of this hall in the Gwangju
There were three 5.18 organisations
involved: the Minju Yuguongja Yujoghoe
[Bereaved Family Association (BFA)]; the
Minjuhwa Undong Busangjahoe [Wounded
Persons Association (WPA)]; and the
Yugongja Dongjehoe [Detainees Association
(DTA)]. For the history and membership of
each, see Lewis (2002: 112–113) and Vink
(2010: 46).
Wounded cities are defined as those that
‘have been harmed and structured by particular histories of physical destruction, displacement, and individual and social trauma
resulting from state-perpetrated violence’
(Till, 2012), thus well describing both Berlin,
in Till’s discussion, and Gwangju, in this
Previous literature on collective memory has
mainly taken psychological and neurological
approaches (Kansteiner, 2002), focusing on
the aftermath of catastrophe in terms of the
trauma that results (Radstone, 2008).
Knowledge plays a critical role in forming
adaptive preferences in consensus-making.
Adaptive preference theories say that motivations of preference adaptation include a
realisation that the agent’s true preference
cannot be accepted or addressed (Elster,
1983; Sen, 1997, 1999; Teschl and Comim,
2005). Powerful participants put aside issues
they want to avoid either intentionally, or
unintentionally (i.e. because those issues
simply do not occur to them) (Bachrach and
Baratz, 1963). In such a situation, not wanting to be irrelevant and wanting to be normal (Foucault, 1977) also promote
adaptation preferences. Rather than changing an action, actors engage in coping strategies whereby they take up a different
preference from that which they originally
wanted, and legitimise the changed preference afterwards (Elster, 1989: 48).
Subsequent to the Massacre, the cities and
regions of Gwangju and Jeollado, to which
Gwangju city itself belongs, developed more
slowly than other regions because of a
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paucity of investment by the national government and private businesses. By means
of urban regeneration projects, the government attempted to compensate the paucity.
A promise to do so was a part of Roh’s presidential election campaign in 2002. After
winning the election, in 2003 he initiated a
research and master plan into implementing
the idea, in 2003.
This is mainly because Korean governments,
either national and local, do not have their
own planners and architects on staff.
The city government initially suggested
locating the Cultural Hall of Asia to the outskirts of the city, but as the relocation of the
South Jolla provincial hall to was decided,
the Cultral Hall of Asia was located in the
former site of the provincial hall in the central city so that the urban functions can continue to be alive.
Kyu Seung Woo’s design was finally selected
from among 124 candidates.
The 5.18 Detainees Association used to be
one of three 5.18 organisations, before they
merged into a single organisation. It constituted a group of those who were injured during the political events in Gwangju in 1980.
ex02.jsp, accessed 23 September 2013.
Some members of those cultural organisations were the very experts who were
involved in the project of the Hub City of
Asian Culture. While these organisations
were usually critical about the city government, they were parts of informal networks
that also included the office of the project
that was based in Seoul and the Roh regime
of the national government. These intellectuals mostly teach at universities or work in
media or have their own architecture companies. University professors in particular
have close relationships with policy-makers,
participating in advisory meetings and
The Oklahoma City National Memorial had
168 empty chairs that represent the dead
from the Oklahoma bombing in 1995.
Because the building itself had health and
safety problems, it was demolished.
18. Pro-demolition interviewees suspected that
the office of the Hub City of Asian Culture
offered the the Minjuhwa Undong
Busangjahoe [Wounded Persons Association
(WPA)], one of the three 5.18 organisations,
a management position in another landmark
building in the future. That was the reason
why this organisation undertook a violent
stoppage of the camping demonstration
against the demolition being undertaken by
the other two organisations’ camping
demonstration on 10 May 2009.
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