Having lived in Korea for three years, with various short and long term visits added in, I've come to learn a lot about the country. Quite appropriately, my first round of learning was through food, language and entertainment, after which I began learning more about the intricacies of the people and culture. What I've been lacking though, is a deeper understanding of the history and politics in Korea. I blame High School, scarred by too much note taking, but the currently political situation in Korea has sparked some interest. South Korea has had quite a year in politics, a political scandal, months of peaceful protests and finally the impeachment and arrest of president Park Geun Hae. Now, with the election of Mood Jae In, the country is buzzing with excitement and curiosity for the future, and I too am interested to see what's in store. Having been in Mokpo for the last two weeks I decided last Friday to take a trip to Gwangju for a history lesson.
I've never had an interest in politics and generally fail at any attempts to education myself, but I'm mildly shocked and a bit disappointed that I was unaware of the May 18th Democratic Uprising until now. Although I'm a bit late to the game, I'm glad that the interest has finally been sparked, and I'm coming to learn about the events that shaped the country I currently call home.
This interest grew from a visit to the Gwangju 5.18 Memorial and Liberty parks which serve as both a place of remembrance as well as an education center. The events which occurred on May 18th, 1980 were for a long time considered an act of rebellion, a "riot", but eventually recognized as an act of resistance and given the credit they so deserved.
"The bloodshed in Gwangju in May 1980 is the cornerstone of this country's democracy. Its victims gave their lives for democracy"
This story needs a little background, so before I jump into 5.18 let's back up; October 26th, 1979 [then] president Park Chung Hee (father of recently impeached Geun Hae) was assassinated by his own CIA director, Kim Jae-Kyu. This event in and of itself was a pivotal moment in Korean history, Park is credited with building the nation, bringing it back from ruins after the Korean war, but evidently he went too far. With critiques from 'cozy business relations' to rash decision making, it was his parties repressive nature that led to a decrease in popularity and student demonstrations.
Following this was the December 12th Coup, led by Chun Doo Hwan which took only 10 hours to execute and ended with the creation of the "New Military Power". Under this power news was censored and propaganda spread to convince people of the need for the military takeover (eerily starting to sound like the North). Since Park's assassination students across the country began organizing themselves, discussing ways to challenge the corps, but it wasn't until the Spring that action started to materialize.
Demonstrations began at Seoul National University in May and spread to the main gate of Gyeongbok Palace on May 12th This continued across the nation, every city with a university saw action, but without support from the general population and with rumors of military moment, students began to withdrawal. It was different in Gwangju, after months of Student Council meetings and elections, Park Gwan Hyeon led the students at Chonnam Univeristy and on May 6th decided to expand their focus from Campus Democratization to a National Political Change.
The students began a "sacred rally" on May 8th, continuing for seven days on campus, but on the eighth day (May 15th) expanded to the streets. While the rally began with only students, it continued for three days and ended with the support of nearly 50,000 individuals. With public support there was no confrontations or violence and the rally ended peacefully with plans to wait two days for a response from the government.
While the students had been rallying, the government made a call for an emergency martial law. This meant closure of all schools, prohibition of any political actions, a censoring of all medial, and a dispersal of military troupes across the country. It was only in Gwangju though that they met resistance, on the morning of May 18th, hundreds of students took to the streets, as previously agreed, shouting to "End the Emergency Martial Law".
With numbers only in the hundreds demonstrators were easily controlled by the police however measures of brutality were not avoided. Clubs and bayonets were used, ending in bloodshed and a shocking experience for all who witnessed it. Troops specifically targeted University aged students and any resistance was met with rash behavior, with reports of troops breaking into houses and even stripping their victims before arrest.
The following day Universities remained closed, but business was meant to go on as usual, instead curious citizens ventured downtown and by late morning more than 3,000 had gathered. In an attempt to break up the crowd troops fired tear gas, but angry from the previous days violence citizens fought back and things took a turn for the worse. Troops began an assault, regardless of age, gender or participation and even began ransacking houses and buildings, beating and arresting young men. Despite the brutality and deteriorating situation the government made no comment and media failed to report on the situation.
On May 20th the growing tensions caused the people of Gwangju to unite, nearly 100,000 people surged Geumnam Street to demonstrate against the military. The use of tear gas didn't dis-sway the citizens and throughout the day only more would join, from shopkeepers to taxi drivers, the people of Gwangju united. The battle continued all night and into the next day, while the government tried to cut off Gwangju from the rest of the country, setting up road blocks and preventing media from reporting on the situation.
The turning point came May 21st at 1 p.m. when troops began firing upon the crowd and ended after only 10 minutes with crowds of dead, dying and wounded. Arming themselves with stolen weapons the demonstrators fought back and around 8 pm entered Provincial Hall to find that the army had retreated. It appeared a success, but the government was in the process of cutting Gwangju off from the rest of the country. Left on their own citizens worked together to clean up the city and return to a normal life, while leaders organized themselves at Provincial Hall. Ultimately though the army returned and on May 27th a Special Attack Unit executed operation "mop up".
While the events in Gwangju did not end with a clear 'victory' it was the spark to later ignite change in the country. Due to isolation of the Jeonnam Provice the uprising didn't spread further than surrounding cities, but it did gain significant support and a desire for democracy in Korea. Following the events the push for the truth to be revealed along with a request for acknowledgement of the lives lost brought awareness to the rest of the country. Every May after 1980 the people's desire for a dictatorship, across the country was felt which eventually led to the end of Chun Doo Hwan's dictatorship.
The events of May 1980, although brutal and still not fully understood, did not occur without significance. The actions of the citizens in Gwangju were taken voluntarily, in the face of violence and pure evil, people joined together to fight their oppressors. The people worked together both in the fight and after, showing a moral consciousness, rebuilding their city and living with peace and order, despite police presence. Most importantly it shows the power of the people, drawing parallels to the recent events in Korea, where democracy won. In both instances it was a unification of the people with a belief in one cause which eventually led to change, and I believe to be the reason my interest was sparked. So often politics is a story of the powerful spewing lies, making (and breaking) promises, but this one is a story of the people, often the underdog, joining together and coming out victorious.
Where to start. After living in this country for three years I have memories, experiences and stories galore. I'll now always be a bit partial to the Land of the Morning Calm. Filled with delicious foods, beautiful nature and friendly people, I'm always happy to return.