Gwangju and the exhilarating dive into peace

Gwangju South Korea skyline

Gwangju South Korea skyline

In two days, the eyes of the world will be riveted on Gwangju, the “City of Peace” in South Korea that will be the gracious and graceful host of the Fédération Internationale de natation FINA World Championships. The championship will include six highly competitive aquatic sports – Swimming, Diving, Water Polo, Artistic Swimming Open Water, and High Diving- and will last 17 days. Its two ceremonies, at the opening on July 12 and at the closing on July 28, will certainly be as grandiose as the winning spirit that the officials and residents of Gwangju have been proudly displaying. I had the chance to visit Gwangju in March, along with journalists from several countries who were attending the World Journalists Conference organized by the Journalists Association of Korea.

We found a vibrant metropolitan city full of vitality, energy, and excitement where traditions and modernism co-existed peacefully and harmoniously without the clashes that usually occurred between the two vastly different worlds. And, as a marvelous bonus, the picturesque nature and the exquisite scenery surrounding the city nestled in the Southwestern part of South Korea offered a soothing feeling of tranquility and peacefulness.

Another recognition for Gwangju, the sixth largest city in South Korea, is its growing status as a great place for artists that have nurtured famous figures in various forms of local and international music, poetry and painting. The city is now regarded as a hub to promote cultural relations and exchanges between Asian countries. Conversations over a local palatable dinner with the mayor were an opportunity to discover some of the delightful compassion and profound pride that he and other officials had for the city and for its sporting, cultural and culinary character. The FINA World Championships were a hot topic of discussion that enabled us to witness the advanced levels of preparedness and the overtly pronounced enthusiasm and great pride that the city officials had for the games. But while I will always remember Gwangju for its beauty, energy and culture and for hosting a global sporting event in July 2019, I will mainly associate it with the May 18, 1980 uprising against military oppression that inspired and led the country’s great reforms, helped build modern Korea and consolidated human rights, peace and democracy as the foundations for a life in dignity for all Koreans.

Three decades later, this profound impact on Korea could be still fervently felt everywhere, but mainly in the May 18 National Cemetery, the “holy ground for democracy”. Inside it, the two 40-meter parallel pillars, based on a traditional Korean “flagpole” design, make up the Memorial Monument that represents the concepts of new life, survival, and seeds of hope. Looking at the cemetery and learning from our guides how the demonstrations began as small protests and ended in a full-blown insurrection, I compared the situation with the revolutions that swept across Eastern Europe and some Arab countries and brought about regime change and promises of better lives. The promises materialized in Europe, but not in the Arab countries. Through the conversations we had and the observations we made, it was clear that Koreans, and particularly people from Gwangju, were still highly emotional about the uprising and the blood that had been spilled and the lives that had been lost to ensure that peace and dignity prevailed in their country.

They were clear that peace and dignity were the robust foundations for everything that could build a nation and that as such they deserved to be duly protected. The numerous visits organized for school students to the cemetery will help ensure the perpetuation of the nation’s commitment to peace. While throughout the FINA World Championships, swimmers and divers will be diving into the swimming pools to win medals and earn glory for themselves and their countries, Gwangju will be reminding the world that beyond sporting competitions, diving into peace is the most affirmative way to consolidate the values of co-existence, harmony, tolerance, mutual acceptance, and human dignity.

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