The Gwangju Uprising was a popular uprising in the city of Gwangju, South Korea, from May 18 to May 27, 1980, which pitted local, armed citizens against soldiers and police of the South Korean government. The event is sometimes called 5·18 (May 18; Korean: 오일팔; Hanja: 五一八; RR: Oilpal), in reference to the date the movement began. The uprising is also known as the Gwangju Democratization Struggle (Korean: 광주 민주화 항쟁; Hanja: 光州民主化抗爭), the Gwangju Massacre, the May 18 Democratic Uprising, or the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement (Korean: 5·18 광주 민주화 운동; Hanja: 五一八光州民主化運動).

The uprising began after local Chonnam University students who were demonstrating against the martial law government were fired upon, killed, raped and beaten by government troops. Some Gwangju citizens took up arms, raiding local police stations and armouries, and were able to take control of large sections of the city before soldiers re-entered the city and put down the uprising. At the time, the South Korean government reported estimates of around 170 people killed, but other estimates have measured 600 to 2,300 people killed.

During Chun Doo-hwan’s unelected presidency, the authorities defined the incident by classifying it as the ”Gwangju Riot,” and claimed that it was being instigated by “communist sympathizers and rioters”, possibly acting on support of the North Korean government.

Denial of or support for the Gwangju Uprising has long acted as a litmus test between conservative and far-right groups and beliefs, and mainstream and progressive sectors of the population, within modern Korean politics.

The far-right groups have sought to discredit the uprising. One such argument points to the fact that it occurred before Chun Doo-hwan officially took office, and so contend that it could not really have been a simple student protest against him that started it. However, Chun Doo-hwan had become the de facto leader of South Korea at that time since coming into power on December 12, 1979, after leading a successful military coup against the previous South Korean government which was itself also authoritarian.

In 1997, a national cemetery and day of commemoration (May 18), along with acts to “compensate, and restore honor” to victims, were established.[15] Later investigations would confirm various atrocities which had been committed by the army. In 2011, 1980 Archives for the May 18th Democratic Uprising against Military Regime located in Gwangju’s city hall were inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

Background

A series of democratic movements in South Korea began with the assassination of President Park Chung-hee on October 26, 1979. The abrupt termination of Park’s 18-year authoritarian rule left a power vacuum and led to political and social instability. While President Choi Kyu-hah, the successor to the Presidency after Park’s death, had no dominant control over the government, South Korean Army major general Chun Doo-hwan, the chief of the Defense Security Command, seized military power through the Coup d’état of December Twelfth and tried to intervene in domestic issues. The military however could not explicitly reveal its political ambitions and had no obvious influence over the civil administration before the mass civil unrest in May 1980.

The nation’s democratization movements, which had been suppressed during Park’s tenure, were being revived. With the beginning of a new semester in March 1980, professors and students expelled for pro-democracy activities returned to their universities, and student unions were formed. These unions led nationwide demonstrations for reforms, including an end to martial law (declared after Park’s assassination), democratization, human rights, minimum wage demands and freedom of press.[18] 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, Chun Doo-hwan took several suppressive measures. On May 17, he forced the Cabinet to extend martial law to the whole nation, which had previously not applied to Jeju Province. The extended martial law closed universities, banned political activities and further curtailed the press. To enforce martial law, troops were dispatched to various[which?] parts of the country. On the same day, the Defense Security Command raided a national conference of student union leaders from 55 universities, who were gathered to discuss their next moves in the wake of the May 15 demonstration. Twenty-six politicians, including South Jeolla Province native Kim Dae-jung, were also arrested on charges of instigating demonstrations.

Ensuing strife was focused in South Jeolla Province, particularly in the then-provincial capital, Gwangju, for complex political and geographical reasons. These factors were both deep and contemporary:

[The Jeolla, or Honam] region is the granary of Korea. However, due to its abundant natural resources, the Jeolla area has historically been the target for exploitation by both domestic and foreign powers.

Oppositional protest had existed in Korea historically – especially in the South Jeolla Province region – during the Donghak Peasant Revolution, Gwangju Students Movement, Yeosu–Suncheon Rebellion, regional resistance to the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–1598), and more recently under the Third Republic of South Korea and Fourth Republic of South Korea, as can be seen by the excerpts below:

Park Chung Hee’s dictatorship had showered economic and political favors on his native Gyeongsang Province in the southeast, at the expense of the Jeolla region of the southwest. The latter became the real hotbed of political opposition to the dictatorship, which in turn led to more discrimination from the centre. Finally, in May 1980 the city of Gwangju in South Jeolla province exploded in a popular uprising against the new military strongman, General Chun Doo Hwan, who responded with a bloodbath that killed hundreds of Gwangju’s citizens.

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The city of Kwangju was subject to particularly severe and violent repression by the military after [nationwide] martial law was imposed. The denial of democracy and the heightening authoritarianism that accompanied the coming to power of Chun Doo Hwan to replace Park prompted nation-wide protests which, because of Cholla’s [Jeolla’s] historical legacy of dissent and radicalism, were most intense in that region.

Uprising

May 18–21

The former South Jeolla provincial office building

On the morning of May 18, students gathered at the gate of Chonnam National University, in defiance of its closing. By 9:30 am, around 200 students had arrived; they were opposed by 30 paratroopers. At around 10 am, soldiers and students clashed: soldiers charged the students; students threw stones. The protest then moved to the downtown, Geumnamno (the street leading to the Jeollanamdo Provincial Office), area. There the conflict broadened, to around 2000 participants by afternoon. Initially, police handled the Geumnamno protests; at 4 pm, though, the ROK Special Warfare Command (SWC) sent paratroopers to take over. The arrival of these 686 soldiers, from the 33rd and 35th battalions of the 7th Airborne Brigade, marked a new, violent, and now infamous phase of suppression.

May 18th Movement Archives

Witnesses say soldiers clubbed both demonstrators and onlookers. Testimonies, photographs, and internal records attest to the use of bayonets. The first known fatality was a 29-year-old deaf man named Kim Gyeong-cheol, who was clubbed to death on May 18 while passing by the scene. As citizens were infuriated by the violence, the number of protesters rapidly increased and exceeded 10,000 by May 20.

As the conflict escalated, the army began to fire on citizens, killing an unknown number near Gwangju station on May 20. That same day, angered protesters burned down the local MBC station, which had misreported the situation then unfolding in Gwangju (acknowledging only one civilian casualty, for example). Four policemen were killed at a police barricade near the Provincial Government Building after a car drove into them.[24]

On the night of May 20, hundreds of taxis led a large parade of buses, trucks, and cars toward the Provincial Office to meet the protest. These “drivers of democracy” showed up to support the citizens and the demonstration because of troop brutality witnessed earlier in the day. As the drivers joined in the demonstration, troops used tear gas on them, and pulled them out of their vehicles and beat them. This in turn led more drivers to come to the scene in anger after many taxi drivers were assaulted when trying to assist the injured and while taking people to the hospital. Some were shot after the drivers attempted to use the vehicles as weapons or to block soldiers.

The violence climaxed on May 21. At about 1 pm, the army fired at a protesting crowd gathered in front of the Chonnam Provincial Office, causing casualties. In response, some protesters raided armories and police stations in nearby towns and armed themselves with M1 rifles and carbines. Later that afternoon, bloody gunfights between civilian militias and the army broke out in the Provincial Office Square. By 5:30 pm, militias had acquired two light machine guns and used them against the army, which began to retreat from the downtown area.

May 22–25

Blockade of Gwangju, and further atrocities

At this point, all troops retreated to suburban areas to wait for reinforcements, including troops from the 3rd Airborne Brigade, 11th Airborne Brigade, 20th Mechanised Infantry Division and 31st Infantry Division. The army blocked all routes and communications leading into and out of the city. Although there was a lull in fighting between militias and the army, more casualties were incurred on May 23 when soldiers fired at a bus that attempted to break out of the city in Jiwon-dong, killing 15 of the 18 passengers, and summary executing two wounded passengers. The following day, soldiers mistook boys swimming in the Wonje reservoir for an attempted crossing and opened fire on them, resulting in one death. Later that day, the army suffered its heaviest casualties when troops mistakenly fired at each other in Songam-dong, resulting in the deaths of 13 soldiers.

Settlement Committees

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.

Order in the city 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; some wanted immediate surrender, while others called for continued resistance until their demands were met. After heated debates, those calling for continued resistance eventually took control.

Protests in other regions

As the news of the bloody crackdown 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; in Mokpo, protests continued until May 28.

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May 26

By May 26, the army was ready to reenter Gwangju. Members of the Citizens’ Settlement Committee unsuccessfully tried to block the army’s advance by lying down in the streets. As the news of the imminent attack spread, civil militias gathered in the Provincial Office, preparing for a last stand.

May 27

At 4:00 a.m., troops from five divisions moved into the downtown area and defeated the civil militias within 90 minutes.

Role of the police

The National Police Agency, then called the National Security Headquarters, initially dealt with controlling the protests, but was soon assisted by paratroopers from the 7th Airborne Brigade, before being ordered to evacuate and allow the army to fully take over duties in controlling unrest. The police suffered some of the first casualties of the uprising, when four policemen were killed during a car ramming attack. Commissioner General of the Jeonnam Provincial Police, Ahn Byung-ha, refused to order policemen to open fire on civilians, as instructed by Chun Doo-hwan, leading to his eventual replacement as Police Chief, and subsequent torture by the Army Counterintelligence Corps, which in turn led to his death 8 years later. As such, the police played little role in the violent suppression of the uprising, and several policemen were themselves targeted by the army and government for expressing sympathies with protesters.

Mangwol-dong cemetery in Gwangju where victims’ bodies were buried

Aftermath

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, 1,394 people were arrested for involvement in the Gwangju incident, and 427 were indicted. Among them, received death sentences and 12 received life sentences. It is estimated that up to 200,000 people may have participated in the uprising, at various stages, facing roughly 3,000 paratroopers and 18,000 policemen.

137 victims were carried in handcarts and garbage trucks to be buried at the Old Mangweol-dong Cemetery located on the outskirts of Gwangju. A New Mangweol-dong Cemetery was created by the state to educate on and commemorate Gwangju’s history.

The Gwangju Uprising had a profound impact on South Korean politics and history. Chun Doo-hwan already had popularity problems due to his taking power through a military coup, but authorizing the dispatch of Special Forces paratroopers against citizens damaged his legitimacy even further. The movement preceded other democratic movements in the 1980s that pressured the regime into democratic reforms, paving the way for the election of oppositional candidate Kim Dae-jung in 1997. The Gwangju Uprising has become a symbol of South Koreans’ struggle against authoritarian regimes and for democracy.

Beginning in 2000, the May 18 Memorial Foundation has offered an annual Gwangju Prize for Human Rights to a notable human rights defender in memory of the uprising.

On May 25, 2011, the documents of Gwangju Uprising were listed as a ‘UNESCO Memory of the World.’ (The official registration name of these documents is ‘Human Rights Documentary Heritage 1980 Archives for the May 18th Democratic Uprising against Military Regime, in Gwangju, Republic of Korea.’) It then became clear that there was an urgent need to systematically collect and preserve these documents. Gwangju Metropolitan City government then decided to establish May 18 Archives by legislating an ordinance known as the ‘Management Act on the Archives of May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement.[38] Since then, the Gwangju Metropolitan City government decided to re-model the former Gwangju Catholic center building for record conservation. The construction of this facility started in 2014 and was completed in 2015.

Re-evaluation

At the Mangwol-dong cemetery in Gwangju where victims’ bodies were buried, survivors of the democratization movement and bereaved families have held an annual memorial service on May 18 every year since 1980 called the May Movement (O-wol Undong). Many pro-democracy demonstrations in the 1980s demanded official recognition of the truth of the uprising 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 Uprising and officially renamed the incident the Gwangju Uprising. While the official renaming occurred in 1987, it can also be found translated into English as “Gwangju People’s Uprising”.

Prosecutions

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’état and Gwangju Uprising although the statute of limitations had run out.

In 1996, eight politicians including Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo were indicted for high treason and the massacre. Their punishments were settled in 1997, including a death sentence, which was changed to a life sentence, for Chun Doo-hwan. Former President Roh Tae-Woo, Chun’s successor and fellow participant in the December 12 coup, was also sentenced to life in prison. However, all convicts were pardoned in the name of national reconciliation on December 22, 1997 by President Kim Young-sam, based on advice from President-elect Kim Dae-jung.

Developments from 1997 to 2013

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.

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On May 18, 2013, President Park Geun-hye attended the 33rd anniversary of the Gwangju uprising and stated, “I feel the sorrow of family members and the city of Gwangju every time I visit the National May 18 Cemetery”, and that “I believe achieving a more mature democracy is a way to repay the sacrifice paid by those [killed in the massacre].

2017 investigation

After Park Geun-hye’s impeachment and removal from office, newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in vowed to reopen the investigation into the South Korean government’s role in the suppression of the uprising in May 2017.

In February 2018, it was revealed for the first time that the army had used McDonnell Douglas MD 500 Defender and Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopters to fire on civilians. Defense Minister Song Young-moo delivered an apology.

On November 7, 2018, Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo issued another apology for the South Korean military’s role in suppressing the uprising and acknowledged that soldiers had engaged in acts of sexual violence during the crackdown as well.

In May 2019, Kim Yong-jang, a former intelligence officer at the 501st Military Intelligence Brigade of the U.S. Army testified that Chun Doo-hwan personally ordered troops to shoot protesters based on the intelligence he saw at the time. According to Kim, Chun secretly came to Gwangju on May 21, 1980, by helicopter to meet four military leaders including Chung Ho-yong, then-commander of special operations, and Lee Jae-woo, then-colonel of the Gwangju 505 security unit. Kim also said there were undercover soldiers among the Gwangju citizens acting as agents provocateurs to discredit the movement. The soldiers were “in their 20s and 30s with short hair, some wearing wigs” and “their faces were burnt and some wore worn-out clothes”.

2020 Truth Commission

In May 2020, 40 years after the uprising, the independent May 18 Democratization Movement Truth Commission was launched to investigate the crackdown and use of military force. Under legislation passed in 2018, it would operate for two years, with a one-year extension allowed if necessary. In an interview held to mark the 40th anniversary, President Moon announced his support for inscribing the historic value and significance of the May 18 Democratization Movement in a new constitution of South Korea following the liberals’ landslide victory in the 2020 National Assembly elections.

May 18 Special Act

Subsequently, with its new three-fifths majority in the National Assembly, the Democratic Party implemented a series of reforms and were approved by the National Assembly in December 2020 including revisions to the May 18 Special Act, penalizing those involved in making false factual claims regarding the 1980 Gwangju Uprising.

Revelations of U.S. foreknowledge

Declassified United States Department of State documents in July 2021, requested by the South Korean government, revealed that the U.S. ambassador William H. Gleysteen was informed by the Chief Presidential Secretary Choi Kwang-soo of the plans for an army crackdown on 26 May 1980, a day before it took place. The diplomatic cables showed Gleysteen expressed Washington’s concerns over growing anti-American sentiment in and around the Gwangju area, amid “broadcasts” asserting that the U.S. was involved in the military crackdown. Prior to the declassification, the notion of American foreknowledge and involvement of the Gwangju Massacre was already immediately known after the event, but had been officially denied by the United States.

In popular culture

Literature

  • Human Acts (novel) by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith, Portobello Books, (January 6, 2016). ISBN 978-1-8462-7596-8[57]
  • The Old Garden (novel) by Hwang Sok-yong, translated by Jay Oh, Seven Stories Press (June 1, 2009). ISBN 978-1-5832-2836-4
  • I’ll Be Right There (novel) by Shin Kyung-sook, translated by Sora Kim-Russell, Other Press (June 3, 2014). ISBN 978-1-1019-0672-9
  • There a Petal Silently Falls: Three Stories by Ch’oe Yun, translated by Bruce Fulton and Ju-Chan Fulton, Columbia University Press (May 31, 2008). ISBN 0-231-14296-X[58]
  • The Seed of Joy (novel) by William Amos ISBN 978-1-5176-2456-9
  • Dance Dance Revolution (poetry) by Cathy Park Hong, W. W. Norton Company (May 17, 2007). ISBN 978-0-3930-6484-1

Compositions

  • “518-062” by D-Town (production by Suga)
  • “Ma City” by BTS
  • “Exemplum in memoriam Kwangju” for large orchestra by Isang Yun

Television

Sandglass (1995)

  • 5th Republic (2005)
  • Reply 1988 (2015-2016)
  • Youth of May (2021)

Film

  • 1987: When the Day Comes
  • 26 Years (film)
  • The Attorney
  • Fork Lane
  • May 18 (film)
  • Peppermint Candy
  • A Petal (1996 film) (adapted from the short story “There a Petal Silently Falls” by Choe Yun)
  • Symphonic Poem for the Beloved (DPRK Video Archive on YouTube)
  • Sunny (2011 film)
  • A Taxi Driver (2017 film)[59]
  • The Man Standing Next
  • National Security 1985 (2012 film)

Music videos

  • “That’s My Fault” (Drama Version) by SPEED feat. Davichi’s Kang Min-kyung
  • “It’s Over” (Drama Version) by SPEED feat. Park Bo-young
  • “May” by Wings of the ISANG

General references

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