Gwangju: The Long Version and the Too Long Didn’t Read (TLDR)

In the fall, Sandy and I visited the city of Gwangju. Originally, we had been offered a job to work there but it fell through as some things do. But, I had done a lot of research about the city when we first intended to live there and so had to see it anyways!Gwangju has a powerful history. It is seen by some as the centre of the democratic movement in Korea because of its history but also its continued focus on the rights associated with this form of government.

Thanks to this website, here is the rundown that stays quite true to the history materials that were available in the city. (Scroll down for the TLDR):

Tens of thousands of students and other protestors poured into the streets of Gwangju (Kwangju), a city in southwestern South Korea in the spring of 1980.  They were protesting the state of martial law that had been in force since a coup that previous year, which had brought down the dictator Park Chung-hee and replaced him with military strongman General Chun Doo-hwan.

Outraged by the crackdown [on the rights and movement of students and other activists], about 200 students went to the front gate of Chonnam University in Gyungju [sic] early on the morning of May 18.  There they met thirty paratroopers, who had been sent to keep them off the campus.  The paratroopers charged the students with clubs, and the students responded by throwing rocks.

The students then marched downtown, attracting more supporters as they went.  By early afternoon, local police were overwhelmed by 2,000 protestors.

By the morning of May 20, there were more than 10,000 people protesting downtown.

That day, the army sent in an additional 3,000 paratroopers.  The special forces beat people with clubs, stabbed and mutilated them with bayonets, and threw at least twenty to their deaths from high buildings.  The soldiers used tear gas and live ammunition indiscriminately, shooting in to the crowds.

On May 21, the violence in Gwangju escalated to its height.  As the soldiers fired round after round into the crowds, protestors broke in to police stations and armories, taking rifles, carbines and even two machine guns.  Students mounted one of the machine guns on the roof of the university’s medical school.

By the morning of May 22, the army had pulled out entirely from Gwangju, establishing a cordon around the city.

Meanwhile, inside Gwangju, teams of professionals and students formed committees to provide medical care for the wounded, funerals for the dead, and compensation for the families of victims.  Influenced by Marxist ideals, some of the students arranged to cook communal meals for the people of the city.  For five days, the people ruled Gwangju.

On May 27, at 4:00 in the morning, five divisions of paratroopers moved in to Gwangju’s downtown.  Students and citizens tried to block their way by lying in the streets, while the armed citizen militias prepared for a renewed firefight.  After an hour and a half of desperate fighting, the army seized control of the city once more.

In the aftermath of the horrific Gwangju Massacre, the administration of General Chun lost most of its legitimacy in the eyes of the Korean people.  Pro-democracy demonstrations throughout the 1980s cited the Gwangju Massacre, and demanded that the perpetrators face punishment.

General Chun held on as president until 1988, when under intense pressure, he allowed democratic elections.

TLDR: When the government was seizing too much control and taking away the rights of citizens a pro-democracy uprising occurred in Gwangju. When the protest turned violent the protestors forced the military out and held the city. In the end, the army took back Gwangju. Thousands were either dead, missing, or injured. This incident has been remembered as the turning point in the democratic movement in Korea.

The Meeting for National Democratization

We went to see the memorial and found a somber and beautiful site with the requisite student protester statue and wall of names for the dead.

May 18 Memorial Gwangju

History as a reminder for the future wall piece May 18 Memorial in Gwangjy

It was a nice memorial but nothing spectacular.

Going to the archive of the events leading up to May 18, 1980 and spanning until the adoption of democracy in Korea proved to be much more interesting. There, we were given thorough information for further reading which I devoured in some unknown lust for dull university-esque material.

Gwangju was a really pretty city and all the leaves were changing there and along the way by train which was so nice.

Gwangju, Korea fall 2012

A random note on Gwangju: I felt more aware of my ‘foreign-ness’ in Gwangju. Perhaps living close to Seoul means that people in this area of the country are used to seeing many foreigners and generally you only get the blatant stare of disbelief from babies (so funny! they look at you like you have 6 arms!) or small kids. But, in Gwangju I felt more stares and comments. It didn’t feel all together unfriendly but was something I noticed nonetheless.


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