On May 18, 1980, President Chun Doo Hwan's hard-line military rule led to a confrontation in the city of Gwangju, located in the southwestern region of Korea. The uprising, triggered by student demonstrations, led to Chun’s deployment of Special Forces unit trained for assault missions. Shocked and angered by the indiscriminate shooting of tear gas and rubber bullets, workers, shopkeepers and parents took to the streets to defend their children. In the end, 200 people were killed and hundreds wounded.
The Gwangju Uprising gave birth to the national struggle for democracy in South Korea after decades of dictatorships following the Korean War. The spirit and legacy of the Gwangju Uprising resonates today with Koreans all over the world in the global movement for democracy and human rights.
Following the Korean War, the South Korean people discovered that democracy was not to be their reward. The United States viewed South Korea as integral to its strategic defense against Communism and supported any pro-US regime, regardless of its human rights record or views on democracy. Thus, when Park Chung Hee took power through a military coup and instituted a military dictatorship from 1961 through 1979, the US supported his government.
President Park was assassinated in October of 1979 on a wave of pro-democracy student protests. After Park's death, South Korea went through a brief period of political liberalization but this liberalization was abruptly ended by a military coup d'etat on December 12, 1979 led by Chun Doo Hwan. He, like President Park Chung Hee used the tensions between North and South Korea to legitimize martial law in the name of “national security”.
On May 18, 1980, President Chun Doo Hwan's hard-line military rule led to a confrontation in the city of Gwangju, located south of Seoul. The uprising and bloodbath lasted from May 18 through May 27. The Gwangju massacre became an important landmark in the struggle for South Korean democracy.
According to reports, the uprising was triggered by student demonstrations on the morning of May 18 in defiance of the new military edict closing the universities and stifling any political dissent. City police were unable to control the crowd so the military dispatched a Special Forces unit trained for assault missions to quell the protest. The troopers used tear gas, batons and rubber bullets to put down the uprising but still workers, shopkeepers, and parents took to the streets to defend their children. Then the military opened fire, killing dozens of people, and wounding hundreds more.
On May 20, some 10,000 people demonstrated in Gwangju. Due to heavily militarization, most major workplaces in South Korea had caches of weapons. Protesters seized these weapons, buses, taxis, and even armored personnel carriers, forming armed militias. They fought against the army until finally, on May 21, the Special Forces withdrew and the city was left to the citizens.
The next five days were unprecedented in Korean history. Instead of trade, people shared. Massive communal meals for hundreds were cooked and distributed. Motor vehicles were handed out to keep the city safe and to create a new distribution system that depended on neither state nor capital. 15,000 citizens attended a memorial service for those killed on May 24.
On May 25, 50,000 people gathered for a rally and adopted a resolution calling for the abolition of martial law and the release of Kim Dae Jung, a leading pro-democracy political prisoner. The citizens were sure that the massacre and resultant victory would surely convince the United States to come to their aid.
Instead, the US, who held joint-command with the South Korean military, gave the military government the go-ahead to take troops closer to North Korean border to take back Gwangju. On May 27, at 3:30 A.M., the army swarmed Gwangju in Operation: Fascinating Vacations. After light skirmishes, the army quashed the revolt in less than two hours. They arrested 1,740 rioters, of whom 730 were detained for further investigation.
Lessons From Gwangju
Looking back, the uprising started as student demonstrations but the military’s random killings angered citizens into joining the student demonstrators, escalating it into a massive uprising. According to later reports, nearly 200 persons were killed, including 26 soldiers and policemen; of the more than 150 civilians killed, only 17 died on the final day of assault.
South Koreans were shocked that the government would use such brutal force against its citizens. They felt further betrayed by the United States after discovering that General John A. Wickham, Jr., had released South Korean troops near Seoul to end the rebellion.
Clearly, the Gwangju Uprising had an enormous impact. It ignited the floundering pro-democracy movement in Korea culminating in 1987 when the People's Power movement finally broke the power of the South Korean military. In Asia, first-hand accounts of the uprising were passed around Tiananmen Square in 1989 and Indonesia in 1999.
The above document was originally produced by Young Koreans United of USA and the Korean Alliance for Peace and Justice, who led the movement carrying the spirit of the May 18th Uprising in the United States, and has been further edited by volunteers and contributors. Minor modifications were made for clarifications.