Years and years ago, I read a book which mentioned the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights. That was both the first time I heard (or rather, read about) the city of Gwanju, and about the Gwangju Democratization Movement. Ever since it occurred to me that I might ever travel in South Korea, Gwangju was a destination I knew I wanted to visit.
Gwangju is the 6th largest city in South Korea, and the largest city in the Jeolla region (Jeolla is split into Jeollabuk and Jeollanam Provinces). Jeolla is the agricultural heart of Korea, due to having the mildest weather on the entire peninsula and relatively abundant flat land. In particular, Jeollanam, where Gwangju is located, has traditionally produced crops such as bamboo (in Damyang) and tea (in Boseong) which are much harder to grow elsewhere in Korea.
This favorable environment for agriculture has often been a curse for the people of Jeolla. They were treated particularly harsh by the Joseon dynasty, and later by the Japanese empire, because extracting as much rice and other crops from the region was important to those regimes. Thus Jeolla has a long tradition of peasant uprisings.
In the mid-20th century, communism was very popular in Jeollanam, which greatly disturbed the anti-communist South Korean government, and led to conflicts between the people of Jeollanam and their government (for example, the Yeosu-Suncheon Rebellion).
The place where I stayed in Gwangju, Namdo Hostel, has a book in English about the Gwanju Uprising in the early 1980s, and I read the whole book.
I also visited the May 18th National Cemetery. They have an exhibition documenting the Gwangju Uprising, and showed me a short documentary in English.
Park Chung-hee, the long-time dictator of South Korea, was assassinated by the chief of his own security services. This started a chain of events which led to a coup d’etat, making Choo Dun-hwan the de facto dictator of South Korea.
The South Korean people hoped that, with the death of Park Chung-hee, there might finally be a democracy, and there were many pro-democracy demonstrations. However, after Park’s assassination all of South Korea except Jeju Island was put under martial law. The rise of Choo Dun-hwan further dashed the people’s hopes, and one of the things he did to suppress dissent was close universities.
A group of students protested the closing of Cheonnam University on May 18, 1980. The government responded with paratroopers. The protests moved to downtown Gwangju, with the numbers of protesters rising, and more paratroopers went in, who violently attacked both the protesters and bystanders.
The number of protester dramatically increased on May 19 and May 20.
On the night of May 20th, there was a parade of hundreds of taxis in support of the protests. The paratroopers violently attacked them as well.
On May 21, the troops opened fire on a crowd, killing over 500 people. It is still not known who gave the order to fire. The Chun Doo-hwan administration destroyed many incriminating documents while it was in power. The victims’ bodies are currently buried in the May 18th National Cemetery.
After the massacre, some protesters raided police stations and armories near Gwangju, and formed a citizens’ militia which drove the Republic of Korea (ROK) army out of downtown Gwangju.
On May 22, the ROK army withdrew temporarily from Gwangju City, and set up a blockade. Chun Doo-hwan’s government controlled South Korea’s media, and the mass media practically lied about what was happening in Gwangju.
However, some of the Gwangju protesters managed to get out of the blockaded city, and spread news around Jeollanam Province, sparking protests in many Jeollanam towns. The Gwangju protesters also tried to go up to Jeonju in Jeollabuk Province, but they were blocked by the ROK military.
Meandwhile, during the period that the army was no longer in Gwangju City, the citizens governed themselves. When a hospital treating victims of the army’s brutality had a blood shortage, news spread fast and many citizens were soon offering blood donations.
The city organized itself into committees, both for dealing with the upcoming clash with the ROK military, and for running the city, seeing to it that the citizens’ needs were met.
It was a profound experience for the people of Gwangju. They found that they could in fact govern themselves.
On May 27, the army re-entered downtown Gwangju, fought with the citizen militias, and defeated them.
The Gwangju Uprising temporarily failed to bring democracy to South Korea, but it had a lasting impact. The people of Gwangju continued to protest every year, demanding acknowledgement of the truth about the uprising and compensation for the victims.
The United States government had supported the Chun Doo-hwan administration and failed to support the protesters during the Gwangju Uprising, officially because of fears about North Korea (they felt they needed Chun Doo-hwan’s cooperation to counter North Korea, and that political instability – such as the instability caused by protesters – might offer North Korea an opportunity to attack). Before, the South Koreans had considering the United States to be a promoter of democracy in South Korea (and indeed, President John Kennedy had forced Park Chung-hee to hold elections in the 1960s), but after the Gwangju Uprising, many young South Koreans considered the United States to be pro-authoritarianism, and anti-Americanism became much more popular.
In the late 1980s, more and more South Koreans learned the truth about the Gwangju Uprising, and it was very influential to the political movements which finally succeeded in making South Korea a democracy.
In the 1990s, Chun Doo-hwan and many of the people in his administration who were responsible for using the military to suppress the Gwangju uprising were put on trail, charged with crimes, and sent to prison. When I read about the crimes they were charged with and the prison sentences, I was surprised at how short many of the sentences were (aside from Chun Doo-hwan himself, who was sentenced for life). However, initially there were going to be no punishments at all, and the trials were supposed to merely uncover the truth so that ‘history could judge’. It was only after the friends and families of the victims protested that it was decided that the people responsible for the military’s violent attacks would be put on real criminal trials.
The Gwangju Uprising offers many lessons on how to create – and in my opinion, to maintain – a democracy. One of these lessons is that the citizens have to get directly involved and organize themselves.
You can learn more about the Gwangju Uprising at the website of the May 18th Foundation.
What made the greatest impression on me was learning about the Gwangju Democratization Movement itself, both by reading the book at the hostel and seeing the exhibit at the cemetery. But what of the cemetery itself?
Beside many of the graves are photographs of the deceased. Most of them looking like typical young people of the late 70s/early 80s.
There are also artworks created around the them of the uprising.
The staff at the cemetery were all friendly, and seemed to be glad that I was paying a visit.
The cemetery is on the edge of Gwangju City, and it took me over an hour by bus to get there from the city center each way. However, it was worth it, not just to learn more about the Gwangju Uprising, but to pay respects to people who lost their lives to bring South Korea closer to democracy.