“Citizens, government troops are invading. Their guns and swords are killing our beloved brothers and sisters. The time has come! Rise up and fight! We will defend Gwangju to the death. Do not forget us! We will fight to the last.”
These words were spoken by 21-year-old university student Park Yong-Sun from the back of a truck in the early hours of 27 May 1980. Park, a member of the publicity bureau of the Popular Leadership Committee of the Gwangju Uprising, had volunteered to alert the people of Gwangju to the imminent invasion by the South Korean military.
For the previous 10 days, from 18 to 27 May, the people of Gwangju had defied the military junta of Chun Doo-Hwan, who had seized power in December 1979 after the October assassination of military dictator Park Chung-Hee. Throughout this time, the people of Gwangju had battled the South Korean military. For five of those days, the city of Gwangju was a liberated zone, under the collective control of its people.
Ultimately, the popular uprising ended in bloody defeat when more than 20,000 troops stormed the city, killing thousands and disappearing hundreds more. However, Gwangju’s popular uprising became the driving force behind the South Korean pro-democracy movement of the 1980s. It was the clarion call that ushered in the next phase of working class popular struggle, spurring thousands into action against both the Chun dictatorship and US imperialism.
The road to Gwangju began 20 years earlier, in 1961, when General Park Chung-Hee seized control of the country in a military coup. Park (the father of disgraced former president Park Geun-Hye, who was impeached and jailed for corruption in 2017- 2018) ruled South Korea for the next 18 years with an iron fist. Within a week of Park’s coup, all political parties and social organisations were dissolved, all political assemblies were banned, police powers were increased, and thousands were arrested, accused of being communist sympathisers.
Park’s coup was backed by the US, both militarily and financially. After Korea’s liberation from Japan in 1945, the US took control of the region. In the aftermath of the Korean War, the US continued to exercise operational control of the South Korean military. By 1957, South Korea was the largest recipient of US aid in the world, and by the 1960s, more than 500 US officials were stationed there as part of the US Operations Mission. Their job, for all practical purposes, was to oversee and shape South Korea’s major political, social and economic policies.
In wake of Park’s assassination, students and workers mobilised in the streets calling for democratic elections and an end to repression. The “Seoul Spring” culminated on 15 May 1980, when 150,000 students and workers – in defiance of martial law – staged a protest at Seoul railway station against Chun’s military junta.
In Gwangju, the provincial capital of South Jeolla province and an overwhelmingly working class city of more than 700,000, pro-democracy protests were also being staged by students. On 17 May, having received notice that Washington would not stand in the way of using troops to quell the protests, Chun dispatched 3,000 Special Forces paratroopers trained in counter-insurgency warfare to suppress the protests in Gwangju.
On the morning of 18 May, 600 students gathered to protest outside Chonnam National University in Gwangju. They were confronted by Chun’s Special Forces, who indiscriminately attacked the young protesters. When the students moved the protest to downtown Gwangju, the soldiers wantonly charged students and citizens with batons and bayonets, killing several and injuring hundreds.
Throughout the day, paratroopers attacked anyone on the streets: men, women and children, young and old. Young men were targeted, dragged from their houses, stripped, brutally beaten and taken away. Their murdered bodies were later found discarded in shallow graves or dumped near the outskirts of the city.
The students, however, continued to battle the paratroopers, chanting “Chun Doo-Hwan is a traitor! People join us!” By late afternoon the protest numbers had grown to more than 2,000.
The following day, more military and riot police entered the city, sealing off sections of Gwangju and launching tear gas at the more than 4,000 students and workers who continued to protest. The brutality was shocking: protesters were beaten, shot and burned to death when the troops used flame throwers.
As the military’s violence intensified, more workers, students and others joined the protests and stood their ground. Running battles took place throughout the city streets, as the students and workers armed themselves with molotov cocktails. Women students joined housewives on the front lines, shattering cobblestones to make them easier to throw. At one point during the battle, the people of Gwangju drenched cars and buses with gasoline, setting them on fire and crashing the burning vehicles through the military barricades.
“Nobody would run anymore”, wrote Lee Jai-Eui in what is recognised by both South Korean political scholars and activists as the most definitive participant account of the uprising and who was a student at Chonnam University at the time. “They sat on the intersection of Kumnan and Chungang Avenues, screaming ‘Kill Us All!’. Several college students led the sit-in. One of them made a speech on why they were fighting and read a statement from the paper. They sang ‘Our Wish is National Reunification’, ‘Justice’ and ‘A Militant’s Anthem’. At first the crowd did not follow the songs, but people quickly learnt the lyrics, when they sang ‘Arirang’, a popular folk tune, men and women began to weep.”
The uprising continued into the next day, with tens of thousands of people once more flooding the streets. By the evening of 20 May, more than 200,000 workers, students and ordinary citizens were actively defying the 20,000 riot police and troops sent to repress the protests.
In the afternoon, more than 200 taxi drivers used their vehicles to protest the murder of three drivers the previous day. Trucks and buses also joined the protest, five of the buses later being used to charge the military cordon. By 9pm, all the city except the provincial government hall and the Gwangju train station were under the control of the protesting masses. Throughout the night, 200,000 protesters remained on the street, battling the government troops. “The entire city seemed to be on fire”, Lee wrote of the night.
The following morning, more than 100,000 again filled the streets, while others raided the military reserve armoury. With the government enforcing a media blackout on the uprising, workers and students were dispatched from the city to spread the word to surrounding towns. Upon hearing the news, mine workers in one town raided explosive storage facilities, confiscating dynamite and detonators before returning with the protesters to Gwangju. Elsewhere, women textile workers raided police stations, seizing rifles, handguns and ammunition and likewise joining the protest.
By 3:30pm, hundreds of armed demonstrators arrived at the provincial hall, forming a Citizens’ Army. The newly formed militia was primarily made up of workers from construction sites, small workshops, shoeshine men, rag pickers, street vendors, waiters and menial workers. There were also high school students and middle-aged men wearing their reserve uniforms.
That evening, Chun’s military conducted a strategic withdrawal from Gwangju. With the withdrawal of the military, protesters rejoiced, declaring the city a liberated zone.
Over the next five days, between 22 and 27 May, the protesters formed a self-governing community. A popular leadership committee made up of workers and students was established, as were neighbourhood popular committees made up of workers, street vendors, university and high school students, housewives, doctors, nurses, activists and others.
The popular leadership committee was responsible for coordinating daily mass rallies, sometimes twice daily, usually attracting between 100,000 and 150,000 people. Participants could speak and plan city-wide actions. Updates and proposals were brought before the rallies to be voted on.
The popular committees also operated democratically and collectively. They organised street cleaning and food distribution and prepared meals for demonstrators. Medical teams were formed to pick up the wounded and collect the dead, while high school girls washed the corpses and laid them out for families to identify. Other high school girls formed an intelligence gathering committee, reporting back to the Citizens’ Army on the military’s movements.
Students and workers who made up the publicity bureau produced the Militants’ Bulletin, a daily newsletter to inform people about actions, rallies and votes taking place each day, along with the outcomes of previous votes.
The last city-wide demonstration took place at 3pm on 26 May, just 12 hours before the city fell to Chun’s military forces. Although the military had withdrawn on 21 May, they remained on the city’s outskirts, effectively locking it down. After the US joint command gave the go-ahead, Chun ordered the 20,000 troops stationed on the outskirts of Gwangju to retake the city on 27 May.
Entering at 3.30am, it took them just two hours to crush the uprising. While Chun’s junta claimed that 161 people died during the onslaught, survivors of the US-backed massacre put the figure at closer to 2,000. According to the regime, 64 citizens also went missing, while 2,948 were wounded and 1,364 arrested or detained.
Although Gwangju’s uprising ended in defeat, its legacy lives on. It was a touchstone for the South Korean pro-democracy movement of the 1980s. The struggle and sacrifice made by the people of Gwangju, coupled with the intensified brutality of the Chun regime, which threw more than 37,000 journalists, students, labour organisers and civil servants into “purification camps” for “re-education”, resulted in a seismic shift in not only the South Korean pro-democracy movement but also the worker and student movements.
The events in Gwangju also shattered the belief that had been held by many that the US was some sort of strategic partner in the struggle for democracy. Washington’s endorsement of Chun’s junta and bloody repression of the Gwangju uprising convinced a new generation of young people that the US was not their ally or saviour.
Seven years later, when millions of South Koreans took to the streets in June 1987 to overthrow Chun’s dictatorship, “Remember Gwangju” was the rallying cry raised by students and workers during the 19 days of protests.
In his recent speech marking the 40th anniversary of the May 18 Gwangju Democratisation Movement (as the Gwangju uprising is officially known), South Korean president Moon Jae-In announced a new fact-finding mission to examine the many questions that remain unanswered about the state repression that took place. The Chun regime’s cover-up of the crackdown means much of the brutality has still not been brought to light. The Gwangju uprising remains a pivotal moment in modern South Korean history and an important site of student and working class struggle internationally for freedom and democratic rights, symbolised by the “March for the Beloved”, sung by crowds each year at the cemetery in Gwangju.