Making the Connection: May 4, 1970, and May 18, 1980

South Korean Visiting Scholar Sees Links Between Kent State Shootings and Gwangju Uprising

A literature professor from Chonnam National University in Gwangju, South Korea, is wrapping up a year as a visiting scholar at Kent State University with hopes of creating an exchange program between the two schools based on their historic campus tragedies. 

Before he leaves the Kent Campus at the end of June, Yeonmin Kim, Ph.D., ’13, hopes to have plans in place for a continued exchange of students between the two universities, to further the understanding and legacies of May 4, 1970, at Kent State and May 18, 1980, at Chonnam. 

On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on students protesting the United States’ escalating involvement in the Vietnam War, killing four and wounding nine others, and directly changing the course of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.    

The May 18, 1980, Gwangju Uprising began when a group of Chonnam National University students raised their voices to protest the military dictatorship ruling South Korea at the time. Demonstrators were fired upon, killed and tortured by the military government during the 10-day uprising. 

Many from the community joined the student protests, which had an official death toll of about 250, but Kim said the unofficial death toll numbers 2,000 or more. It would be another 13 years before South Korea became a fully democratic government in 1993. 

“Thousands of people were missing after and they are still unearthing bodies,” Kim said. 

Kim studied at Kent State from 2009 to 2013, earning his doctorate degree in English literature. As a member of the faculty at Chonnam, Kim said he was able to take a year off to focus on research and contacted Kent State about spending the year here in the Department of English

“I came back home to Kent State,” said Kim, whose teaching focuses on British poetry, modern Irish literature and memory studies.  

Work on Translation 

During the past year, his work has included serving as editor for the English translation of the first volume of oral histories titled “The Gwangju People’s Uprising,” first published in 1990 by Chonnam National University. 

This first volume features 26 eyewitness accounts from more than 500 oral histories gathered, Kim explained. Plans call for additional volumes to be released about every two years. 

Kim said it is his hope that translating the survivors’ stories into English will further a greater global understanding of the significance of May 18, 1980.  

Memory Studies and May 4  

Kim was born the same year as the uprising and said that, like many students who only know about the Kent State shootings through history and the memory of others, his own knowledge of the May 18 uprising was passed down to him through a concept known as “post-memory trauma,” which is part of what he teaches in memory studies. 

“The concept of post-memory trauma is how our trauma is handed down from generation to generation, but as a cultural phenomenon, which includes pictures, films, family photographs or songs and annual commemorations of the events,” Kim said. 

As May 4 is commemorated at Kent State, May 18 is a national day of commemoration in South Korea. 

Such public commemorations are so important, Kim said, because they give younger generations the chance to learn about the events from those who experienced them.  

“Sometimes the next generation doesn’t feel as if they own the legacy,” Kim said. “With the commemorations, we can all join in and belong to that great legacy. It’s a great opportunity for unity among the generations and for educational purposes.” 

A highlight of this year’s May 4 commemoration for Kim was being able to meet with the Northern Ireland documentarian who produced the film “Young Plato,” which was screened on campus. As someone who specialized in modern Irish literature, Kim said being able to discuss the film with the crew was a great opportunity. 

Sarah Malcolm, executive director for the Office of Global Education at Kent State University.

Before he departs in June, Kim will be holding a meeting with Kent State staff from Peace and Conflict Studies, the Office of Global Education (OGE) and the May 4 Visitors Center to try to lay the groundwork for a future cultural exchange program that would enable Chonnam students to come to Kent State for the May 4 commemoration, and Kent State students to travel to Chonnam for the May 18 commemoration. 

Landon Hancock, Ph.D., professor in the Peace and Conflict Studies school,  is an expert on the 1980 Gwangju Democratic Uprising. Kim said he is hopeful the exchange could begin as soon as next year. 

Student Exchange 

During the past year, Kim was able to work with the English department and the OGE to establish an English student exchange program with Chonnam, in which three of his graduate students were able to come to Kent State for about four months during the spring semester to conduct research. 

Babacar M'Baye, chair of the English Department

 “The library system here is so excellent for their research,” Kim said. 

Kim said the exchange would not have been possible without the aid of Babacar M’Baye, Ph.D., chair of the English department, who worked to bring the students to Kent State and OGE. 

Sarah Malcolm, executive director of OGE, said the partnership with Chonnam National University is an excellent example of a successful international collaboration because it has enabled faculty and students from both institutions to come together to share research and ideas around the theme of cultural memory. 

“Both universities bear the scars of tragedy and through growth and commitment to healing have been able to do the important work towards reconciliation. This partnership represents the importance of coming together to heal, teach and learn,” she said. 

Malcolm credited M'Baye and Kim for the partnership that has allowed for an excellent opportunity for cultural exchange and scholarship.  

“We appreciate the dedication of Dr. Kim, who has ensured that his students get an important research opportunity at his alma mater,” she said 

As part of the exchange, the English departments at Kent State and Chonnam collaborated for two graduate student colloquiums, which also included participation from the School of Peace and Conflict Studies. Each event featured a faculty lecture and three graduate student presentations. 

Returning home 

Aside from his work, Kim said he enjoyed coming back to Kent State and the opportunity to spend time with friends he made while a student here. 

The two oldest of Kim’s three sons, ages 14 and 12, accompanied him for the year, while the youngest, 9, remained home with Kim’s wife, as she was not able to leave her teaching job in South Korea for the year. 

“Our middle son was actually born here while I was working on my doctorate,” Kim said. Both boys, he said, enjoyed attending school here for the year and playing youth soccer.  

“They really loved it here,” Kim said. 

POSTED: Monday, May 15, 2023 09:41 AM
Updated: Thursday, June 1, 2023 04:04 PM
Lisa Abraham