I am so fortunate to live in Gwangju where I am able to experience the feelings of Koreans regarding the events that happened, today, 28 years ago. There are numerous memorial and liberty parks set up all over the city and I visited the May 18 Memorial Park with the most astounding statue I have seen so far. I would love to visit the May 18 Cemetery as well, but the weather these past view days weren’t ideal for traveling and taking the best pictures, so I do apologize for the lack of a good visual of the memorial park statue.
The Gwangju Democratization Movement refers to a popular uprising in the city of Gwangju, South Korea from May 18 to May 27, 1980. During this period, citizens rose up against Chun Doo-hwan’s military dictatorship and took control of the city. During the later phase of the uprising, citizens took on arms to defend themselves, but were crushed by the South Korean army. It is simply called 5.18 by South Koreans to avoid politicizing the event. (Those who condemn it call it “5.18 Incident” and those who support it call it “5.18 Uprising”)
For the period of Chun Doo-hwan’s reign, the incident was denounced as a rebellion inspired by Communist sympathisers. But after civil rule was reinstated, the incident received recognition as an effort to restore democracy from military rule. The government made a formal apology for the incident, and a national cemetery was established for the victims.
How it all began…and ended
President Park Chung-hee, after 18 years’ rule, was assassinated on October 26, 1979. This abrupt ending of an authoritarian regime left Korean politics in a state of instability. New President Choi Kyu-hah and his Cabinet had little control over the growing power of ROK Army General Chun Doo-hwan, who took control of the government through the Coup d’etat of December Twelfth.
The nation’s democratization movements, which had been suppressed during Park’s tenure, were again awakening. With the beginning of a new semester in March, 1980, professors and students expelled for pro-democracy activities returned to their universities, and new student unions were formed. These unions led nationwide demonstrations calling for abolition of martial law declared after Park’s assassination and democratization of the government. These activities culminated in the anti-martial law demonstration at Seoul Station on May 15, 1980 in which about 100,000 students and citizens participated.
In response, the government took several suppressive measures. On May 17, the Cabinet decided to expand martial law to the whole nation, which had previously not applied to Jeju island. The expanded martial law included prohibition of political rallies and strikes, press censorship, and closure of universities. To enforce the martial law, troops were dispatched to various parts of the nation. On the same day, police raided a conference of student union leaders from 55 universities nationwide, who were gathered to discuss their next moves in the wake of the May 15 demonstration.
26 politicians including Kim Dae-jung were also arrested on charges of instigating demonstrations.
May 18 - May 21
On the morning of May 18, students protested at the gate of Chonnam National University against its closing, hurling stones at paratroopers who were blocking the gate. The paratroopers responded by clubbing down the protesters. After the incident, students moved into the downtown area and continued to protest, demanding abolition of martial law and the release of Kim Dae-jung. Paratroopers soon followed and again clashed with demonstrators.
The suppression was marked by violence. Witnesses say soldiers clubbed both demonstrators and onlookers. The first known fatality was a 29-year-old deaf man named Kim Gyeong-cheol, who never participated in the protest but was clubbed to death on May 18 while passing by the scene. Some testimonies and photographs even suggest the use of bayonets. As citizens were infuriated by the violence, the number of protesters rapidly increased and exceeded 100,000 by May 20.
It was inevitable that casualties would occur in the military and police during the conflict with civilian demonstrators. As the conflict escalated, the army suddenly began to use gunfire, killing unknown numbers of citizens instantly near Gwangju Station on May 20th. That same day, angered protesters burned down the local MBC station which denounced Gwangju civilians as rioters as well as fabricated facts about the situation in Gwangju at that moment.
The violence climaxed on May 21. At about 1 p.m., the army fired at a protesting crowd gathered in front of the Jeonnam Provincial Office, causing many casualties. Citizens began to arm themselves with M1 rifles and carbines taken from armories and police stations in nearby towns for their own defense. Later that afternoon, bloody gunfights between civilian militias and the army broke out in the Provincial Office Square. By 5:30 p.m., militias had acquired two light machine guns and used them against the army, which began to retreat from the downtown area.
May 22 - May 25
At this point, all troops retreated to suburban areas, waiting for reinforcements. During this period the army blocked all routes and communications leading into and out of the city. Even though there was a lull in fighting between militias and the army, more casualties were incurred when soldiers fired at a passing bus in Jiwon-dong, killing 17 of the 18 passengers on May 23. The following day soldiers fired at boys swimming in Wonje reservoir and killed one of them. Later that day the army suffered its heaviest casualties, when troops mistakenly fired at each other in Songam-dong.
Meanwhile, in the “liberated” city of Gwangju, the Citizens’ Settlement Committee and the Students’ Settlement Committee were formed. The former was composed of about 20 preachers, lawyers and professors. They negotiated with the army demanding the release of arrested citizens, compensation for victims and prohibition of retaliation in exchange for disarmament of militias. The latter was formed by university students, and took charge of funerals, public campaigns, traffic control, withdrawal of weapons, and medical aid.
The city’s order was well maintained, but negotiations came to a deadlock as the army urged the militias to immediately disarm themselves. This issue caused division within the Settlement Committees; doves wanted immediate surrender, while hawks called for continued resistance until their demands were met. After heated debates, eventually the hawks took control.
Protests in Other Regions
As the news of the Gwangju massacre spread, further protests against the government broke out in nearby regions including Hwasun, Naju, Haenam, Mokpo, Yeongam, Gangjin, and Muan. While protests ended peacefully in most regions, in Haenam there were gunfights between armed protesters and troops. By May 24, most of these protests had died down, except for Mokpo where protests continued until May 28.
By May 26, the army was ready to reenter the city. Members of the Citizens’ Settlement Committee unsuccessfully tried to block the army’s advance by lying down on the street. As the news of the imminent attack spread, civil militias gathered in the Provincial Office, preparing for the last stand.
At 4:00 a.m., troops from five divisions moved into the downtown area and defeated the civil militias in only 90 minutes.
There is no exact death toll of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising. “Official” figures released by the Martial Law Command put the death toll at 144 civilians, 22 troops and 4 police killed, with 127 civilians, 109 troops and 144 police wounded. Individuals who attempted to dispute these figures were liable for arrest for “spreading false rumors”.
According to the May 18 Bereaved Family Association, at least 165 people died between May 18 and 27. Another 65 are still missing and presumed dead. 23 soldiers and 4 policemen were killed during the uprising, including 13 soldiers killed in the friendly-fire incident between troops in Songam-dong. Figures for police casualties are likely to be higher, due to reports of several policemen being themselves killed by soldiers for releasing captured rioters.
According to the 2007 Korean movie May 18 (Hwaryeohan hyuga), directed by Kim Ji-hun, “the incident resulted in 207 deaths, 2,392 wounded, and 987 missing people, but the exact number of casualties has been subject to considerable dispute. Members of the military government were indicted with rebellion but the culprit of ordering open fire against the citizens has yet to be identified”.
The government denounced the uprising as a rebellion instigated by Kim Dae-jung and his followers. In subsequent trials, Kim was convicted and sentenced to death, although his punishment was later reduced in response to international outcries. Overall 1394 people were arrested for some involvement in the Gwangju incident and 427 were indicted. Among them, 7 received death sentences and 12 received life sentences.
At the Mangwol-dong cemetery in Gwangju where victims’ bodies were buried, survivors of the massacre and bereaved families have held an annual memorial service on May 18 every year since 1983. Many pro-democracy demonstrations in the 1980s demanded official recognition of the truth of the Gwangju massacre and punishment for those responsible.
Official reevaluation began after the reinstatement of direct presidential elections in 1987. In 1988, the National Assembly held a public hearing on the Gwangju massacre, and officially renamed the incident as the Gwangju Democratization Movement.
In 1995, as public pressure mounted, the National Assembly passed the Special Law on May 18 Democratization Movement, which enabled prosecution of those responsible for the December 12 Coup d’etat and Gwangju massacre despite the fact that the statute of limitations had run out. Subsequently 8 politicians were indicted for high treason and the massacre in 1996. Their punishments were settled in 1997, including a life sentence for former President Chun Doo-hwan. But all convicts were pardoned in the name of national reconciliation on December 22 by President Kim Young-sam.
In 1997, May 18 was declared an official memorial day. In 2002, a law privileging bereaved families took effect, and the Mangwol-dong cemetery was elevated to the status of a national cemetery.
Like so many South Africans want to believe, South Africa is NOT the only country that had to fight battles of democracy. There are so many other countries with the same or even far worse problems, we are just not aware of them.
It was indeed an interesting and beautiful walk in the Memorial Park