It started with the December 12, 1979 coup by Chun Doo-Hwan's military junta who occupied the Chonnam Provincial Hall with armed forces sent to Gwangju by the Martial Law Enforcement Headquarters. After the assassination of President Park Chung-hee, a group of politically minded soldiers undertook Operation Chungjung (Operation True Heart) to quell the Uprising in Gwangju. In this way, the Fifth Republic came into existence. The victims of The martial law force's brutality numbered 4,369 all told: 154 killed, 74 missing, 4,141 wounded (including those who died from their wounds). This data is based on the present condition of compensation related to The May 18 Uprising, as of November 31, 2006. Among the 7,173 requested cases, 5,060 were admitted. The number of people illegally taken into custody during the period of martial law was more than 3,000, and nobody knows how many people were unjustly arrested while they were demonstrating against martial law.
Recent history has proven that the Gwangju Democratic Uprising was a victory, not a defeat, and that the people who lost their lives in Gwangju did not give their lives in vain. Now they are our heroes. Although the Gwangju Democratic Uprising seemed to end in failure, that failure became an inspiration for the Democratic Consciousness that fueled opposition to the dictatorship of the 1980s. However, it was only after many twists and turns that the Gwangju Democratic Uprising was properly defined as a people's resistance, and not a riot. At the time, government authorities referred to the Uprising as the 'Gwangju Affair', a riot or rebellion backed by some seditious powerscheming to overthrow the government. In June 1987, however, people throughout the country slowly started to recognize the true nature of the Gwangju Uprising of May, 1980. In June 1988, with the advent of the Sixth Republic, the Uprising was renamed the Gwangju Democratization Movement in order to restore national harmony.
Additionally, during the 13th National Assembly, the change in the balance of political power made it possible to hold a hearing concerning the Gwangju Uprising. This hearing was televised all over the country, and it played an important role in spreading the truth of what had happened in Gwangju. It brought to light how brutally martial law forces had treated the citizens during those ten days in May. In 1993 on May 13th, with the start of a civilian government, President Kim Young-Sam made clear his position on the Gwangju Democratic Uprising in a speech: The bloodshed of Gwangju in May, 1980 is the cornerstone of this country's democracy. Its victims dedicated their lives to democracy. He continued by indicating the shift in perception that had taken place: This government today stands in line with the Gwangju Democratization Movement. In this announcement, he redeemed the Gwangju Democratic Uprising. Again, thanks to a drive to set history right, after that speech on May 13, the 5.18 Special Law was enacted. It is rated as a great contribution in bringing the military junta, which had cruelly trampled upon Gwangju, to trial, by upholding law, justice, and history and in healing the wounds that the nation had suffered in the past.
Contrary to this new perspective, however, the Supreme Court then ruled that the Gwangju Uprising was a peoples' rebellion and declared the people who took part in The Uprising to be a mob. So the Gwangju Democratic Uprising will remain a rebellion and the participants a mob, until there is a reversal of the ruling through retrial. The full truth of the Gwangju Democratic Uprising has yet to be disclosed. After the extension of martial law on May 17, 1980, several questions remain: (1) why were the martial law forces sent to Gwangju reinforced; (2) who acted as the leader of the army; and (3) who gave orders for the army to fire? We still do not know. Equally, we are still unsure about what role the United States military and government played in the decision process, and how many innocent citizens were killed. Even though most military officers have been strictly judged by law and history, the truth is that even now we are as much in the dark as ever. It is therefore our duty to set the matter straight.
In order to correctly establish the historical meaning of the Gwangju Democratic Uprising, we should evaluate its character.
Opinions can be roughly summed up as follows:
1.The Gwangju Democratic Uprising offered important inspiration to the traditional spirit of Democratic Uprisings in Korea. The Gwangju people, in the last analysis, rose against a military government which had originally appeared on the scene through a military coup on May 16, 1961. That coup denied the spirit of the April 19th Democratic Revolution of 1960 and established an oppressive system of government.
2.The Gwangju Democratic Uprising shows that people are able to be a dynamic power in national histories. During the 1980s, thanks to the Gwangju Democratic Uprising, people from all quarters of life, laborers, farmers, students, the poor, the religious, artists, intellectuals, and dissidents, came to be profoundly conscious of their power in the Democratic Movement. The Spirit of Uprising gave rise to the development of a national Democratic Movement.
3.The Gwangju Democratic Uprising demonstrated that armed resistance against an unjust government is a human right and that the justice of such resistance could be officially sanctioned. The Gwangju Democratic Uprising which had been denounced by the authorities as a rebellion of armed rioters has been renamed by the government, 'the Gwangju Democratic Movement'. The people's rights, which not even the Peasant Uprising in 1894, the Donghak Revolution, nor the conflict of arms with Japan had not yet officially established, was properly recognized through the Gwangju Democratic Uprising.
4.The Gwangju Democratic Uprising led to a rejection of the Chun Doo-hwan regime's claims of legitimacy and morality. In the end, the Uprising played a decisive part in overthrowing the regime which had continued the oppressive policies of President Park Chung-Hee's Yushin (Renovation) System. Chun's regime tried to make use of every loophole possible, and it grossly abused its authority, but finally, it collapsed under the waves of resistance which broke out a-new every May in Gwangju in the years following the Uprising. From this point of view, the Gwangju Democratic Uprising played a decisive role in motivating the national democratic movement. Furthermore, it established a new political precedent for the people by overthrowing Chun's Fifth Republic through the people's general agreement.
The Gwangju Democratic Uprising should not be considered a painful chapter of an age, but should be placed in the modern history of this country as the starting point of democratization. It should go down in Korea's national history and national consciousness as an inspiring stand for human freedom and dignity.