May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement
May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement
  • Reporter Kim Seo-yeon
  • 승인 2019.05.17 11:00
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▲Citizens of Gwangju protesting in front of the JeollaNamdo Provincial Office on May 21, 1980. / mediacity
▲Citizens of Gwangju protesting in front of the JeollaNamdo Provincial Office on May 21, 1980. / mediacity

Soon is May 18, a national day of commemoration for those who fought and died during the ‘May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement’. Although South Korea is presently a ‘democratic republic’, from 1961 to 1987, South Korea was a country under authoritarianism where indirect elections, media manipulation, and mass-shootings happened. Only after many years of struggles and sacrifices did South Korea finally have her first truly ‘elected’ president and become a genuine ‘democratic republic’ in Dec. 1987. 
The ‘May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement’ took place for ten days in Gwangju and JeollaNamdo from May 18 to 27, 1980. It was led by those who came together to fight for the abolishment of former president Chun Doo-hwan’s military dictatorship, the abolition of martial law, and the establishment of a democratic government. The uprising can be interpreted as one of the most influential movements in the Korean history as it prompted the foundation of the current democratic government; the movement influenced the later ‘June Democracy Movement’, 1987, which eventually triggered the shift of power from authoritarianism to democracy. However, the ‘May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement’ is not a pivotal moment in Korean history only, but also in that of East Asia. UNESCO enlisted the ‘May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement’ in ‘Memory of the World Register’, a list of documentary heritage which has world significance and outstanding universal value, since the movement “affected other countries in East Asia by dissolving the Cold War structure and achieving democracy”: the movement influenced “various democratic movements [that] took place in the Philippines, Thailand, China, Vietnam, and elsewhere”, leading democratization of a whole continent.
After Park Chung-hee, former President of South Korea who ruled from 1963 to 1979, was assassinated in Oct. 1979, the vacancy of his dictatorship left the country with hope for democracy. However, the legitimate government was soon abducted by the back then South Korean Army major general Chun Doo-hwan through an internal military coup. This eventually led to Chun’s expropriation of political power, appointing himself as Head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency in April 1980 and declaring the martial law in the following month. 
Nevertheless, the people of Korea called for democracy; soon Chun was facing a series of nationwide protests, students, civilians, and labour activists coming together to free Korea from Chun’s dictatorship. In response, on May 18, 1980, Chun’s government extended the martial law to the whole country, closing all universities, arresting protestors, and restricting all political activities, including the parliament. The government also secretly dispatched special force paratroopers to the major cities of Korea, including Seoul, Busan, and Gwangju. These specially trained soldiers, who had fought at the frontline in the Korean War, were now being used to suppress the nationwide protestors; to Chun, his people were no longer ‘people’, but merely enemies to be wiped out. The streets were no longer filled with people shouting for democracy and it seemed like Korea had been silenced by Chun’s tyranny.
Whilst the whole country had surrendered to Chun’s tyranny, the people of Gwangju did not stop. On the morning of May 18, around 200 students gathered at the gate of Chonnam National University, shouting for the dismissal of the martial law and Chun’s dictatorship. The martial law forces tried to break up the protest, relentlessly bashing and striking the unarmed students. However, instead of surrendering, the protest moved downtown, and the students spread the news of how the troops had started to exercised violence. This angered the citizens of Gwangju and led to the formation of a demonstration, consisting of more than 2000 students and citizens insisting in front of the JeollaNamdo Provincial Office. This marked the start of the ‘May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement’.
Although the government tried to put down Gwangju, the number of protestors continued to increase; despite the assaults on the protestors, the citizens were infuriated, instead of dismayed, by the bloodshed, and the number of protestors rapidly increased, exceeding 200,000 by May 20. In response, the government dispatched more and more heavily armed special forces, with more than 20,000 troops abusing the citizens under the name of ‘putting down of protestors’. 
Eventually, the government ordered shootings at the unarmed civilians. On May 21, Chun’s government cut off all communication and transportation through of Gwangju and ordered the martial troops to open fire at the indefensible civilians protesting in front of the JeollaNamdo Provincial Office; the shooting continued for 10 minutes, and uncountable civilians were killed. The enraged civilians swiped police stations and ammunition storages, arming themselves with weapons to combat the martial forces, and formed the “Citizen Army”. After hours of shoot-outs and confrontations, around 5:30 P.M., the civilians eventually succeeded in withdrawing the martial forces from the centre of Gwangju. 
Gwangju was free from Chun’s dictatorship for a week; for the seven days, the civilians formed an autonomous community, cleaning up the city, sharing food, and donating blood for the injured; UNESCO acknowledged the exclusive morality of the citizens, stating that “amazingly, not a single case of robbery or burglary was reported despite having no proper administration or security force.” However, on May 26, the martial forces re-entered Gwangju, with tanks and helicopters firing and killing innumerable civilians, and the ‘May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement’ came to an end. 
It is estimated that, during the 10-day-long movement, 165 citizens died, 76 went missing, 3,383 were injured, and 1,476 were arrested, affecting 5,100 in total. Survivors were traumatised by the ruthless ransacking of the martial forces - striking, stripping, and even raping the citizens - and many committed suicides. However, despite the many victims, none claim to be responsible for the crimes. Chun has still not apologised for his misacts and is even refusing to admit to his actions. It is still not known who ordered the first open fire at the unarmed civilians nor who ordered the helicopter firing at the civilians who were protesting inside the JeollaNamdo Provincial Office. 
After conquering South Korea by with force, Chun became the 11th President in Nov. 1980. His military dictatorship lasted for eight years, until he was forced to resigned from his presidency, surrendering to the ‘June Democracy Movement’, 1987. In 1996, Chun was sentenced to was sentenced a life imprisonment and a fine of 225 billion KRW for ‘mutiny’, ‘corruption’, and ‘murder’. However, after serving in prison for two years, in 1997, Chun’s life sentence was commuted by former President Kim Young-sam with the purpose of ‘political reconciliation’. Instead of repenting for his atrocities, Chun refused to pay for his fine, claiming to have only 290,000 KRW and called the ‘May 18th Gwangju Democratization Movement’ a “riot”. His wife even appraised Chun as ‘the father of democracy’.
However, Chun is currently going through a series of trials for ‘defaming the dead’ in his memoirs; he called priest Cho Bi-oh, who claimed to have witnessed the shootings of the helicopters during the movement, a “shameless liar” and a “masked Satan”, denying the helicopter shooting at the protesting civilians in the JeollaNamdo Provincial Office during the ‘May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement’. Yet, recently, the government officially acknowledged the helicopter shooting, based on the National Forensic Service’s investigation on the traces of bullets left on the office building. If it is found out that Chun ordered the firing, there will be no-one to commute his life imprisonment this time. 
As people who live in a democratic country based on the blood and tears shed by the many protestors, all Koreans must remember the invaluable efforts and unmeasurable pain of the citizens who led Korea to democracy and must never cease to shed light on the truth.