KWANGJU, South Korea — Opposition leader Kim Dae Jung, after a 16-year absence forced by imprisonment, exile and house arrest, was given a hero's welcome Tuesday on his return to the city of Kwangju, scene of a 1980 uprising that was put down with the loss of many lives.
About 300,000 people poured into the city's main street to welcome Kim in a triumphant procession lasting three hours. He and his entourage, riding on an open truck, inched their way through the crowd.
"Kim Dae Jung! Kim Dae Jung!" The rhythmic chant rang out from people in the streets and on rooftops, perched on windowsills and fire escapes along the three-mile route.
Thanks Those Who Died
"Thanks to the people who fought and died here in Kwangju, and to the world's attention, and to the grace of God, I am able to stand here with you today," an emotional Kim told the crowd when he reached Provincial Plaza, scene of the bloodiest fighting of the May, 1980, uprising.
"To the fallen souls of Kwangju," Kim said. "Thanks to their contribution, there is now hope for democracy."
Earlier in the afternoon, Kim visited Mangwol cemetery on the outskirts of Kwangju to pay homage to those who died in the revolt, provoked by the imposition of martial law and the arrest of Kim and other leading opposition figures. The official death toll was 194, but many people in Kwangju believe that at least 1,000 died, possibly 2,000.
Kwangju is the capital of Kim's home province, a southwestern region that with its neighbor province to the north traditionally has felt neglected and alienated from the rest of the country. The people of Kwangju and Chollanam province were incensed when the government cracked down on widespread demonstrations in May, 1980, by arresting the opposition leaders including Kim. The Kwangju uprising erupted the next day.
In speeches upon his arrival at the Kwangju train station, at the cemetery, at the central plaza and at a hotel dinner, Kim repeatedly emphasized the martyrdom of those who died in the uprising. At the cemetery, Kim wept over the graves of the protester victims.
"Kwangju will be the Mecca of democracy," Kim told a crowd of several thousand at the wooded hillside graveyard. "This humble cemetery will become a sacred place for the people of today and future generations."
Massive demonstrations in June, which forced the government to agree to direct presidential elections and other democratic reforms, represented a revival of the spirit of those who fell in 1980, Kim told the crowd.
Among those Kim greeted at the cemetery was Paik Ok Gi, 61, who said his only son was killed in fighting at the provincial office building on the main downtown plaza when the army retook the city.
"I did not know anything much about politics at the time," Paik said. "Now I know he was right."
Kim limited his speeches at the railroad station and downtown plaza to only a few minutes, and he included calls to avoid any violence that might provide a pretext for those who "are seeking excuses to act against the will of the people."
Kim, 63, who nearly won the presidency in 1971 in the last free presidential election, traveled to Kwangju from Seoul by train. Crowds of supporters appeared on the platforms at half a dozen stops along the way.
With presidential elections scheduled for mid-December, Kim is locked in competition with Kim Young Sam, president of the opposition Reunification Democratic Party, over which of the two longtime leaders should be the party's nominee. The two Kims have agreed that only one of them should run, but they have not settled the question of who it will be.
Roh Tae Woo, president of the ruling Democratic Justice Party, is his party's nominee. President Chun Doo Hwan, who consolidated his power by crushing the Kwangju uprising, has promised to step down in February.
Speaking with reporters on the train, Kim acknowledged that the three-day provincial tour he began Tuesday might affect his presidential prospects, but he declined to comment on what he expects the effect to be.
Kim also told reporters on the train that he fears the government may not want to honor its promises of democracy.
"The government has started to crack down on dissidents, especially moderate leaders, including students," Kim said. "They want to see a radical reaction to get a good excuse to crack down on democratization. So I want to be careful not to create any disturbances, not to give any excuse to this government."
The vast crowds Tuesday dispersed without violence, happy simply to have honored their hero.
"I could not see him or hear him speak, because there were so many people I could not get near," said So Chang Sik, a shopkeeper from the town of Kwangyang, two hours by bus from Kwangju, who was in the crowd of about 50,000 to 100,000 at the train station. "Still, I was pleased. I saw his car pass by. That was enough."