YHB/May in Gwangju - the city of light

This page was last edited on 6 July 2019, at 10:49.

The army had come not to disperse the demonstrators but to terminate them. Even demonstrators who were running away were chased down, into the dead-ends of alleyways, the interiors of private homes. No civilian was safe. Everyone was a target, regardless of age and sex. The soldiers slaughtered indiscriminately. The beaten and bloodied had their hands tied behind their backs with wires. Wearing nothing but underwear, they were loaded onto military trucks. No one knew where the trucks were going.

But the citizens of Gwangju refused to retreat. The demonstrators held together, woven like a net of iron chain mail. When the soldiers advanced, fitting their bayonets onto their rifles, the citizens would disperse – but only momentarily, before they flooded the streets again.

When darkness fell, the demonstrators multiplied. Everyone except infants and the elderly poured out into the streets. The streets were littered with broken pieces of pavement and gasoline bombs, and speckled with blackish red blood. The soldiers continued their ruthless hunt. The city became a battle ground, ringing with the sound of machine guns and the noise of helicopters. The vehicles burning on the streets poured out an endless cloud of black smoke.

Yoon Han-bong’s sister, Yoon Kyung-ja, paced nervously in her house, carrying her son on her back. It was May 20, 1980 -- the demonstrators were waging a fierce battle against the soldiers in a street not far from her house. She listened to the sound of gunshots ringing out over the cries of demonstrators. Her heart was clamoring to burst its way out of her chest.

Her husband, Park Hyung-seon, had been arrested and dragged away by policemen last night. She had heard nothing from her brother for the past few days. The police had already come to her several times to threaten her – Did she know where her brother was? Was she hiding him? She was too terrified to sleep. She wanted to go out into the streets and see what was happening for herself but she couldn’t make her baby inhale tear gas. Standing on tip toes, she peered out of her window into the darkness.

"Soldiers are coming. Run!"

There was a loud moment of panic, and then the protestors began to flee. Adrenaline pumped them over fences that would have been too tall for them to jump otherwise. But one man was walking slowly. He was a next-door neighbor, an aged pharmacist with four daughters. He thought he would be safe – after all, he had not been a part of the protest. He wore only his undershirt, a white one that caught the eyes of the soldiers. He went into his own house and locked the gate.

Yoon Kyung-ja watched as the soldiers ran after him, and broke down the gate of his house with their bayonets. They filed into the house. The pharmacist, alarmed, ran into his room. He tried to hold off the soldiers by holding the door rings closed, but the soldiers tore down the door. The pharmacist rolled out, screaming. The soldiers attacked him. The pharmacist’s wife and daughters came out and wailed, begging the police to leave him alone – Can’t you see? He’s just an old man! He was just coming home from an errand! The soldiers turned on their heels and filed out of the house, leaving the pharmacist bleeding.

Yoon Kyung-ja looked toward the streets again, where the demonstrators were gathering once more. They fought through the night. At 9 p.m., the demonstrators set the building of a TV company on fire. At 4 a.m., another building of the company was burning, too. As Yoon Kyung-ja watched the flames go up, a low and cautious voice called to her.

"Chan! Chan!"[주 1]

She could identify the voice instantly. When she opened the door of her house, a man was standing there, his face masked. He held a long screwdriver and a wooden club. The moment he saw her, he crumpled on the ground.

"My brother!"

Yoon Kyung-ja gasped. Then she shoved him away, turning him back toward the streets.

"Did you come here to die? Do you know how many times the police came to arrest you?"

Yoon had been protesting till dawn, and his strength was failing him. Every last muscle was starting to give. He was too exhausted to speak. Seeing that he didn’t have the strength to flee, his sister dragged him inside and shut the door.

“You have to get out of this city now,” she pleaded. “If you stay here, you’ll die a dog’s death. They’re out to get you!”

Three days prior, May 17, 1980, martial law had been proclaimed by Jeon Doo-hwanj.[주 2] Most organizers of student movements were arrested overnight.

Yoon[주 3] was a known leader of Gwangju's student movement. He had predicted that the military would come down to Gwangju and had tried to prepare for such an attack. But no one had listened. He himself had only narrowly escaped immediate arrest.

Though he had avoided arrest, he now had no comrades that could help him lead an organized protest. He joined the ranks of the demonstrators as a lonely citizen. He shouted slogans, threw stones, and ran, going whichever way the crowd was going. He felt helpless, and fatigue engulfed him. And now, finally, he had come to his sister’s house, resigned.

"Please, you have to go. All your comrades have already escaped to the countryside."

Yoon refused to listen to his sister’s pleas. He was resolved to remain and fight alongside the demonstrators. Yoon Kyung-ja had no choice but to hide him in the closet. She gave him a bedpan and some food, and locked the closet door.

About two hours later, the elder brother, Yoon Kwang-jang, burst into the house. He had been looking for his brother all night, terrified that the police had gotten to him already. He woke up Yoon Han-bong, who had been sleeping in the closet.

"Han-bong, you have to leave this city immediately. If they arrest you, you’ll never return alive. Leave quickly."

Yoon Kwang-jang had been a mentor to Yoon Han-bong. Stubborn as he was, Yoon Han-bong couldn’t defy his older brother.

“I’ll go.”

Yoon Han-bong and Yoon Kyung-ja walked through the streets together, tensing at every gunshot they heard. They parted at the outskirts of the city. Yoon Kyung-ja stuffed her brother into a taxi – “Drop him off somewhere far, far away from here.”

On May 27, 1980, Yoon heard that all surviving leaders of the resistance had been arrested, and Yoon Sang-won, the last of them, had been shot dead by soldiers. Yoon Han-bong and Yoon Sang-won were the two leaders of the Gwangju Uprising. Yoon Han-bong had been an activist for longer – he had been arrested in 1974 for participating in the National Federation of Democratic Youths and Students, and had led the movement since his release from prison the next year. He was well-known, and wanted by the police. Yoon Sang-won had more recently joined the movement, and the police had not been following him as doggedly. And yet, he was dead. At the news of his comrade’s death, Yoon Han-bong stared at the ground, filled with shame and remorse.


  1. Chan is Kyung-ja’s son’s name. It was common to call mothers by their son’s name.
  2. After Park Chung-hee was assassinated, Jeon Doo-hwan took over through a military coup’detat in 1979.
  3. Yoon is the family name and Han-bong is the first name. In Korea, the family name is placed before the first name. This book will use the Korean notation method. Also, recurring full names will be shortened to the family name.