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5.18 Liberty Place 30.Mar.15

'The Gwangju Democratic Movement' ... 'The Gwangju Massacre'

sunny 68 °F

The people of Gwangju are very patriotic, and proud of their history. Alexis and I went in search of some understanding, and we found it here, at 5.18 Liberty Park. The grounds were empty, it was just the two of us. As we entered buildings, motion sensors activated gruesome audio recordings. Our discovery of the events that took place, coupled with Korean recordings (including bone chilling, torture screams), “creeped us out”.

*I like to keep my posts short. However, as this was a huge national and human rights movement, I feel I must elaborate.


This is one of the Korean national flags which covered the corpses, who were sacrificed, in the Gwangju Uprising in May, 1980.

Tens of thousands of students, and other protestors, poured into the streets of Gwangju, 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.

As the protests spread to other cities, and the protestors raided army depots for weapons, the new president expanded his earlier declaration of martial law. Universities and newspaper offices were shut down, and political activity was banned. In response, the protestors seized control of Gwangju. On May 17, President Chun sent additional army troops to Gwangju, armed with riot gear and live ammunition...


-May 18, 1980:
A deaf, dumb 29-year-old, Kim Gyeong-cheol, became the first fatality. He was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the soldiers beat him to death.

-May 20:
By this morning, 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 into the crowds, which included women and children.

Troops shot dead twenty girls at Gwangju's Central High School. Ambulance and cab drivers who tried to take the wounded to hospitals were shot. One-hundred students who sought shelter in the Catholic Center were slaughtered. Captured high school and university students had their hands tied behind them with barbed wire, many were then arbitrarily executed.


-May 21:
The violence in Gwangju escalated to its height. As the soldiers fired round after round into the crowds, protestors broke into 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.

The local police refused further aid to the army. Troops beat some police officers unconscious for attempting to help the injured. It was all-out urban warfare. By 5:30 that evening, the army was forced to retreat from downtown Gwangju, in the face of the furious citizens… The people ruled Gwangju for five days.

-May 27:
At 4:00 in the morning, five divisions of paratroopers moved into Gwangju's downtown. After an hour and a half of desperate fighting, the army seized control of the city, once more.

Census figures reveal that almost 2,000 citizens of Gwangju disappeared during this time period. Eyewitnesses tell of seeing hundreds of bodies dumped in several mass graves on the outskirts of the city. There were also many students buried, in unmarked graves, on Chonnam University.


During the May 18th Democratic Uprising this area was a military police compound. Citizens who stood up against the new military dictatorship, to protect their right to democracy, were brought here for detention and trial. This park gives the citizens a tangible place to praise those who defied a dictatorship that pilfered political power from the people. It is also a symbol of Korea’s struggle for human rights, peace, and unity. It is a place where generations to come will remember the determination and sacrifice of those who fought for democracy in Korea.




Investigators inflicted brutal beatings on the detainees to induce feelings of helplessness and vulnerability. The captives made coerced and false confessions in fear that they also would be beaten like those in adjoining rooms. Groans and screams emanated from other chambers terrifying those imprisoned. Pickaxes, ice picks, and other sharp objects were placed on the table during the investigations to threaten those under interrogation.


The mess hall was used, following the May 18th Democratic Uprising, as a temporary interrogation room, where those arrested were investigated and tortured.



Cells were jam-packed, 150 men to a bay, where detainees were forced to sit still and upright, from 6am – 10pm. If they moved slightly, or disobeyed, they were tied to iron bars and beaten with clubs. Such brutality was inflicted for hours with no regard for age. Often, victims were hung upside down during the beatings.


The military court was built in August, 1980 to hold trials for those arrested during the May 18th Democratic Uprising. Fearing that the facts of the uprising would become known to the public, the military dictatorship built its own venue. Trials for 421 people were held here. No one received a fair trial because the judges and prosecutors were all soldiers. Armed military police were present in the court, terrifying citizens. Those arrested strongly and defiantly protested against the military trials by singing the national anthem. All defendants were sentenced to death, or life imprisonment, following indictment.


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. Kim Dae-Jung, the politician from Gwangju who had been sentenced to death on charges of inciting the rebellion, received a pardon and ran for president. He did not win, but would later serve as president from 1998 to 2003, and went on to receive a Nobel Peace Prize in 2000.

Former President Chun himself was sentenced to death in 1996 for corruption, and for his role in the Gwangju Massacre. With the tables turned, President Kim Dae-jung commuted his sentence when he assumed office in 1998. *I assume he did so in the name of peace.

Recent history has proven that The Gwangju Democratic Uprising was a victory, not a defeat, and that the people who lost their lives in Gwangju did not give their lives in vain. Now, they are heroes. Although the Gwangju Democratic Uprising seemed to end in failure, that failure became an inspiration for The Democratic Consciousness that fueled opposition to the dictatorship of the 1980s.

In 1993, on May 13th, with the start of a civilian government, President Kim Young-Sam made clear his position on The Gwangju Democratic Uprising in a speech: “The bloodshed of Gwangju in May, 1980 is the cornerstone of this country's democracy. Its victims dedicated their lives to democracy.”

The Gwangju people rose against a military government, which had originally appeared on the scene through a military coup on May 16, 1961. That coup denied the spirit of the April 19th Democratic Revolution of 1960, and established an oppressive system of government.

The Gwangju Democratic Uprising should not be considered a painful, frustrated chapter of an age, but should be placed in the modern history of this country as the starting point of Democratization. It should go down in Korea's national history, and national consciousness, as an inspiring stand for human freedom and dignity.

Posted by Jason Willis 08:49 Archived in South Korea

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