Midway through global K-pop sensation BTS’s 2015 track “Ma City,” J-Hope raps a lyric that’s both a personal homage and a history lesson: “Everyone dial it, 062–518.” Those digits are a cleverly encoded reference to his beloved hometown Gwangju. The South Korean city’s area code is 062, and 518 harkens back to May 18, 1980, and the prodemocracy mass uprising that took place in Gwangju on that date.
A little more than a week later, a military crackdown that included tanks and helicopters stormed the hundreds of thousands of civilians who had gathered to protest Chun Doo-hwan’s military coup and dictatorship. The brutal attack left 144 civilians dead, according to official government figures, although surviving eyewitnesses claim that the true death toll surpassed 2,000. Thousands more were injured, with many falling victim to indiscriminate beatings, rapes, disembowelments, and torture carried out by riot police and paratroopers. The state massacre is widely considered to be one of the darkest moments in Korea’s struggle for democracy.
In 2010, BTS’s Suga released the hip-hop track “518-062,” which pays tribute to courageous victims and calls a new generation to join him in “memorizing” the scars and wounds from “that dark past day”:
their bodies are filled with scars from the flag
darling, I’ll ignite your will again
brothers, I’ll memorize your scarred Korean flesh without pause
“[I want] to ask people not to allow the uprising to fade little by little from their memories and to remember it once again,” Suga said when the track debuted.
Chun Woo-won, the 27-year-old grandson of the late former president Chun Doo-hwan, has not allowed the uprising to fade from his memory. His recent actions vividly illustrate the biblical practice of intergenerational responsibility and confession and its capacity to engender the healing of old, festering wounds.
A public confession
The younger Chun, who lives and works as an accountant in New York, made international headlines on March 31 when he visited Gwangju to offer a formal apology to surviving victims and bereaved families of the 1980 massacre.
“I sincerely apologize for coming so late, and I am grateful to the people of Gwangju for graciously welcoming me for doing something that should have happened a long time ago,” Chun said that day, appearing visibly emotional.
Although he gestured towards his own flaws and failings, Chun expressed remorse primarily as a stand-in for his grandfather, who died in 2021: “As a family member, I acknowledge that my grandfather Chun Doo-hwan was a sinner and a slaughterer who committed such a great crime.”
Chun concluded his visit by paying respects to the deceased at Gwangju’s May 18 National Cemetery, which holds the graves of 764 victims. He vowed to “repent and express regret for my family’s wrongdoings for the rest of my life.”
While the immediate reaction was mixed, no one could deny that this public gesture of contrition was remarkable for having happened at all: Chun Woo-won is the first member of his family ever to apologize for the 1980 massacre. His grandfather, nicknamed “The Butcher of Gwangju,” denied issuing a shoot-to-kill order in a 2016 magazine interview, claiming, “I had nothing to do with the Gwangju incident.” He died, still defiant, at the age of 90.
Even after Chun Doo-hwan’s passing, victims ached for acknowledgment from the family. “A truthful apology would require Chun’s family coming to and kneeling at the victims’ graveyard,” insisted Choi Hyung-ho, the head of the Seoul branch of The May 18 Memorial Foundation.
And this is precisely what Chun Woo-won did. Besides offering a verbal apology, he also knelt before massacre survivors and family members of victims and offered the deepest and most formal way of expressing humility and respect in Korean culture: keunjeol, or a full-prostration bow, in which all five points of the body, including elbows, knees, and forehead, touch the ground.
Videos of the powerful moment immediately went viral across social media platforms around the world. Some expressed skepticism about Chun’s sincerity and motives, which were undermined by his personal vices and indiscretions. But many were hopeful. One individual commented on Twitter, “This has me shedding tears.” Another said, “This is so powerful. It’s such a simple gesture. But an apology goes a long way.”
Reflecting on this incident, King’s College professor Anthony Bradley wondered what America might be like today “if US white conservative descendants of slavery’s Master Class and Jim Crow supporters (who were in every state) had practiced this Nehemiah 9:2 act in local communities across America in the 1970s.”
Such is the potential for public apologies to heal and to mend. Such is the power of intergenerational confession.
Nehemiah 9, the text Bradley cited, offers a salient example of intergenerational confession from the Bible. With their bodies draped in sackcloth and dirt smudged on their faces—a cultural analog to keunjeol, perhaps—the restored exiles of Jerusalem gather to confess not only “their sins” aloud but also “the iniquities of their fathers” (v. 2). They do so, first, by rehearsing the history of God’s dealings with their ancestors in judgment and redemption (vv. 6–32), and then by identifying with that story and those ancestors in a penitential prayer: “You have been just in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly” (v. 33).
Us. We. With these pronouns of remorseful solidarity, the people join a chorus of voices in Scripture that own and acknowledge their predecessors’ sins. “Both we and our fathers have sinned,” Psalm 106:6 sings. “We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord, and the iniquity of our fathers, for we have sinned against you,” laments the prophet Jeremiah (14:20).
“Our fathers sinned, and are no more; and we bear their iniquities,” the author of Lamentations bemoans (5:7). This ancient chorus echoed once more in the voice of a grandson in Gwangju, a voice that grieved “the hideous crime we had committed.”
In spite of this broad biblical precedent, there will be some in the Christian tradition who appreciate Chun’s apology for its symbolic and sentimental value but resist any suggestion that apologizing for the sins of one’s deceased forebears should be a normative practice.
Two possible reasons for this skepticism are worth examining briefly.
The first involves the skeptic’s cultural vantage point. Sociologists have long noted that the social function and meaning of an apology can vary widely in collectivist cultures like South Korea, as opposed to individualist cultures like the US. In the former, people tend to see themselves as connected to others, define themselves in terms of their relationships, and apologize as an expression of eagerness to repair a damaged relationship. In the latter, people tend to see themselves as separate from others, define themselves by their individual traits and choices, and associate apologies primarily with personal guilt.
These two groups will tend to read the Bible differently when encountering collectivist and intergenerational concerns in places like Nehemiah 9. Individualistic observers are more likely to resist the idea of apologizing to strangers they have never met for wrongs they didn’t personally commit.
This brings us to a second reason for skepticism toward intergenerational confession. Some say that the practice is theologically invalid because it unjustly punishes people as if they had personally committed the sins of others. But this reflects a misunderstanding of the concept.
Intergenerational confession doesn’t rely on a reckless imputation of an individual’s personal guilt to another. The prophet Ezekiel clearly asserts that a person “shall not die for his father’s iniquity” (Ezek. 18:17; also Jer. 31:29–30), even as he affirms the fairness of Israel’s communal judgment by exile (Ezek. 16–17). Individual culpability remains distinct from collective responsibility.
The Gwangju apology does not imply that Chun bears personal guilt for his grandfather’s atrocities, as though he himself had committed them. Neither does it serve as an equivalent substitute for the repentance his grandfather owed but never offered—“his blood shall be upon himself” (Ezek. 18:13). Rather, Chun’s apology represents an embrace of corporate responsibility for the sins of one member (Chun Doo-hwan) of a collective (the Chun family) in which the person apologizing (Chun Woo-won) is also a member.
Whether by instinct or learning, Chun, who is Christian, appears to understand that he is implicated in his grandfather’s evils, even if he is not personally to blame for them. He bears responsibility “as a family member.”
The road to healing
What does this collective, intergenerational responsibility entail? The obligation to ameliorate, and not merely acknowledge, the harms of the past.
Old Testament scholar Michael Rhodes points to the Year of Jubilee as a key example (Lev. 25–26). Israelite families that had acquired land from other families, sometimes by sinful and oppressive means, were required to return the land to the original owners every 50 years. “If the damage one generation does is not fixed in their own day, that damage does not simply disappear at their death. The wrong must be righted, and the job may well fall on their descendants,” Rhodes explains.
This biblical principle applies to Chun Doo-hwan’s descendants: They may not have broken it, but they must repair it. They should not only “confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers” (Lev. 26:40), as Chun Woo-won did, but also “make amends for their iniquity” (Lev. 26:43).
What kind of amends can be made to the residents of Gwangju? What emblems of repentance, healing, and neighborly love can be offered? This is a matter for Chun to determine for himself, guided by the input of victims and their families. But he already appears inclined toward this frame of mind. In a press conference after the event, Chun expressed his intent to “continue to contact” the bereaved families “as much as needed” and to “continue the dialogue.” Perhaps that dialogue could include the possibilities of repair.
To be clear, the process of healing did not begin with Chun’s apology. It has taken place over the past 40 years at the local and national levels through efforts around truth-seeking, criminal prosecution, memorialization, and government reform. It has also included material reparation. Beginning in 1990, the government—which bears primary responsibility for the massacre—passed a series of measures, including the Kwangju Compensation Act, that provided compensation to families of the deceased and missing and to those who were injured. A total of 5,185 cases were handled, and 233 billion Korean won (approximately $202 million USD) was paid to victims, for an average amount of 45 million Korean won ($39,000) awarded per person, according to one estimate in 2009.
Transitional justice advocates will insist that redress to victims is an essential pillar of social healing. Old Testament law apparently agrees. Yet, $39,000 is a relatively modest sum when considered in light of the full extent of the actual damage that was done—the murders, the brutalization, and the rape and sexual assaults carried out by soldiers during their crackdown on the uprising.
Reparation is necessary for healing, reconciliation, and peace. But its limited payout brings into brighter focus the sheer enormity of the loss, together with what political philosopher Hannah Arendt called the “predicament of irreversibility,” the plain human inability to undo what has been done.
No amount of recompense can undo what was done in Gwangju, and we would be wise not to sentimentalize the tearful goodwill displayed there. “Transgenerational forgiveness cannot be achieved with a simple apology and its acceptance,” said Ani Kalayjian, a scholar and descendant of Armenian genocide survivors.
Forgiveness, like collective responsibility and confession, is a scriptural imperative (Matt. 6:14–15; Luke 17:3–4; Eph. 4:32). It brings about a mutual release from the oppressive bonds of vengeance. But it is also complex. Sometimes forgiveness proves elusive in a sin-scarred world. Very often, forgiveness involves a long and arduous process, especially when it is generationally delayed and involves remorseless or deceased perpetrators of state brutality.
Survivors and families whose loved ones perished in the Gwangju massacre received Chun Woo-won warmly in Gwangju. Some of the bereaved, including elderly mothers who lost their college-aged children decades ago, burst into tears and accepted his apology. Others commended him for his courage and hugged him. One woman, whose son was killed in the uprising, expressed her hope that Chun would “think of Gwangju as his second home.”
Whether these visible gestures of goodwill can be accurately interpreted as forgiveness is unclear. Whether they reveal that the original perpetrator, Chun Doo-hwan, is hereby forgiven on account of his grandson is even less certain. Still, the victims’ magnanimous response indicates that some kind of release from indebtedness, some kind of freedom from vengeance, may have pierced through the decades-old fog of bitterness and grief that day.
If so, that too is a kind of healing. That too is a legacy worth memorizing.
Duke Kwon is coauthor of Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair and lead pastor of Grace Meridian Hill, a neighborhood congregation in the Grace DC Network. He lives in Washington, DC, with his wife and three children.