Gwangju Uprising

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Gwangju Uprising
Part of the Minjung Movement
May 18th Memorial Monument.jpg
May 18th Minjung Memorial Tower
Date May 18–27, 1980
Location Gwangju, South Korea
Caused by The coup d'état of May Seventeenth, the assassination of Park Chung-hee in 1979, the seizure of power by Chun Doo-hwan, state authoritarianism, and social and political discontent in Jeolla
Goals Democratization
Methods Protest marches and civil disobedience, later armed uprising
Resulted in Uprising pro-democracy movement; several civilian and military casualties
Parties to the civil conflict
Gwangju citizenry
Lead figures
Decentralized leadership, subsequently Settlement Committees
165 killed, 76 missing, 3,515 injured[citation needed]
41 killed (37 soldiers, 4 police officers) and 253 wounded (109 soldiers, 144 police officers) (14 soldiers killed by mistaken shootings)[citation needed]
Up to 2,000; see Casualties section.

The Gwangju Uprising (Hangul광주 항쟁; Hanja光州抗爭), alternatively called May 18 Democratic Uprising by UNESCO,[2] and also known as May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement[3] (Hangul5·18 광주 민주화 운동; Hanja五– 八光州民主化運動), was a popular uprising in the city of Gwangju, South Korea, from May 18 to 27, 1980. Estimates suggest up to 606 people may have died.[4] During this period, Gwangju citizens took up arms (by robbing local armories and police stations) when local Chonnam University students – who were demonstrating against the martial law government – were fired upon, killed, and beaten by government troops.[5][6] The uprising ended on May 27, 1980. The event is sometimes called 5·18 (May 18; Hangul오일팔; Hanja五 – 八; RROilpal), in reference to the date the movement began.

Some critics[who?] of the event point to the fact that it occurred before Chun Doo-hwan officially took office, and so contend that it could not really have been a simple student protest against him that started it; however, Chun Doo-hwan had become the de facto leader of South Korea at that time since coming into power on December 12, 1979, after leading a successful military coup of the previous South Korean government.[7][8]

During Chun Doo-hwan's presidency, the authorities used to define the incident as a rebellion instigated by Communist sympathizers and rioters.[9] By 1997, a national cemetery and day of commemoration (May 18), along with acts to "compensate, and restore honor" to victims, were established.[10]

In 2011, 1980 Archives for the May 18th Democratic Uprising against Military Regime located in Gwangju city hall were inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.


A series of democratic movements in South Korea began with the assassination of President Park Chung-hee on October 26, 1979. The abrupt termination of Park's 18-year authoritarian rule left a power vacuum and led to political and social instability. While President Choi Kyu-hah, the successor to the Presidency after Park's death, had no dominant control over the government, South Korean Army major general Chun Doo-hwan, the chief of the Defense Security Command, seized military power through the Coup d'état of December Twelfth and tried to intervene in domestic issues. The military however could not explicitly reveal its political ambitions and had no obvious influence over the civil administration before the mass civil unrest in May 1980.[11]

The nation's democratization movements, which had been suppressed during Park's tenure, were being revived. With the beginning of a new semester in March 1980, professors and students expelled for pro-democracy activities returned to their universities, and student unions were formed. These unions led nationwide demonstrations for reforms, including an end to martial law (declared after Park's assassination), democratization, human rights, minimum wage demands and freedom of press.[12] These activities culminated in the anti-martial law demonstration at Seoul Station on May 15, 1980 in which about 100,000 students and citizens participated.

In response, Chun Doo-hwan took several suppressive measures. On May 17, he forced the Cabinet to extend martial law, which had previously not applied to Jeju Province, to the whole nation. The extended martial law closed universities, banned political activities and further curtailed the press. To enforce martial law, troops were dispatched to various[which?] parts of the country. On the same day, the Defense Security Command raided a national conference of student union leaders from 55 universities, who were gathered to discuss their next moves in the wake of the May 15 demonstration. Twenty-six politicians, including South Jeolla Province native Kim Dae-jung, were also arrested on charges of instigating demonstrations.

Ensuing strife was focused in South Jeolla Province, particularly in the then-provincial capital, Gwangju, for complex political and geographical reasons. These factors were both deep and contemporary:

[The Jeolla, or Honam] region is the granary of Korea. However, due to its abundant natural resources, the Jeolla area has historically been the target for exploitation by both domestic and foreign powers.[13]

Oppositional protest had existed in Korea historically – especially in the South Jeolla Province region{{snd}during the Donghak Peasant Revolution, Gwangju Students Movement, Yeosu–Suncheon Rebellion, regional resistance to the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–1598), and more recently under the Third Republic of South Korea and Fourth Republic of South Korea, as can be seen by the excerpts below:

Park Chung Hee's dictatorship had showered economic and political favors on his native Gyeongsang Province in the southeast, at the expense of the Jeolla region of the southwest. The latter became the real hotbed of political opposition to the dictatorship, which in turn led to more discrimination from the centre. Finally, in May 1980 the city of Gwangju in South Jeolla province exploded in a popular uprising against the new military strongman, General Chun Doo Hwan, who responded with a bloodbath that killed hundreds of Gwangju's citizens.[14]

The city of Kwangju was subject to particularly severe and violent repression by the military after [nationwide] martial law was imposed. The denial of democracy and the heightening authoritarianism that accompanied the coming to power of Chun Doo Hwan to replace Park prompted nation-wide protests which, because of Cholla's [Jeolla's] historical legacy of dissent and radicalism, were most intense in that region.[15]


May 18–21[edit]

The former South Jeolla provincial office building

On the morning of May 18, students gathered at the gate of Chonnam National University, in defiance of its closing. By 9:30 am, around 200 students had arrived; they were opposed by 30 paratroopers. At around 10 am, soldiers and students clashed: soldiers charged the students; students threw stones. The protest then moved to the downtown, Geumnamno (the street leading to the Jeollanamdo Provincial Office), area. There the conflict broadened, to around 2000 participants by afternoon. Initially, police handled the Geumnamno protests; at 4 pm, though, the ROK Special Warfare Command (SWC) sent paratroopers to take over. The arrival of these 686 soldiers, from the 33rd and 35th battalions of the 7th Airborne Brigade, marked a new, violent, and now infamous phase of suppression.[16]

Witnesses say soldiers clubbed both demonstrators and onlookers. Testimonies, photographs, and internal records attest to the use of bayonets. The first known fatality was a 29-year-old deaf man named Kim Gyeong-cheol, who was clubbed to death on May 18 while passing by the scene. As citizens were infuriated by the violence, the number of protesters rapidly increased and exceeded 10,000 by May 20.

As the conflict escalated, the army began to fire on citizens, killing an unknown number near Gwangju Station on May 20. That same day, angered protesters burned down the local MBC station, which had misreported the situation then unfolding in Gwangju (acknowledging only one civilian casualty, for example).[17] Four policemen were killed at a police barricade near the Provincial Government Building after a car rammed into them.[18]

On the night of May 20, hundreds of taxis led a large parade of buses, trucks, and cars toward the Provincial Office to meet the protest. As the drivers joined in the demonstration, troops used tear gas on them, and pulled them out of their vehicles and beat them. These "drivers of democracy" showed up to support the citizens and the demonstration because of troop brutality witnessed earlier in the day, as well as out of anger after many taxi drivers were assaulted when trying to assist the injured and while taking people to the hospital. Some were shot after the drivers attempted to use the vehicles to block soldiers or as weapons.[19]

The violence climaxed on May 21. At about 1 pm, the army fired at a protesting crowd gathered in front of the Chonnam Provincial Office, causing casualties. In response, some protesters raided armories and police stations in nearby towns and armed themselves with M1 rifles and carbines. Later that afternoon, bloody gunfights between civilian militias and the army broke out in the Provincial Office Square. By 5:30 pm, militias had acquired two light machine guns and used them against the army, which began to retreat from the downtown area.

May 22–25[edit]

Blockade of Gwangju, and further atrocities[edit]

At this point, all troops retreated to suburban areas to wait for reinforcements. The army blocked all routes and communications leading into and out of the city. Although there was a lull in fighting between militias and the army, more casualties were incurred when soldiers fired at a bus that attempted to break out of the city in Jiwon-dong, killing 17 of the 18 passengers, on May 23. The following day soldiers mistook boys swimming in Wonje reservoir for an attempted crossing and opened fire at them, resulting in one death. Later that day the army suffered its heaviest casualties, when troops mistakenly fired at each other in Songam-dong.

Settlement Committees[edit]

Meanwhile, in the "liberated" city of Gwangju, the Citizens' Settlement Committee and the Students' Settlement Committee were formed. The former was composed of about 20 preachers, lawyers and professors. They negotiated with the army demanding the release of arrested citizens, compensation for victims and prohibition of retaliation in exchange for disarmament of militias. The latter was formed by university students, and took charge of funerals, public campaigns, traffic control, withdrawal of weapons, and medical aid.

Order in the city was well maintained, but negotiations came to a deadlock as the army urged the militias to immediately disarm themselves. This issue caused division within the Settlement Committees; some wanted immediate surrender, while others called for continued resistance until their demands were met. After heated debates, those calling for continued resistance eventually took control.

Protests in other regions[edit]

As the news of the bloody crackdown spread, further protests against the government broke out in nearby regions, including Hwasun, Naju, Haenam, Mokpo, Yeongam, Gangjin, and Muan. While protests ended peacefully in most regions, in Haenam there were gunfights between armed protesters and troops.[citation needed] By May 24, most of these protests had died down; in Mokpo, protests continued until May 28.

May 26[edit]

By May 26, the army was ready to reenter Gwangju. Members of the Citizens' Settlement Committee unsuccessfully tried to block the army's advance by lying down in the streets. As the news of the imminent attack spread, civil militias gathered in the Provincial Office, preparing for a last stand.

May 27[edit]

At 4:00 a.m. troops from five divisions moved into the downtown area and defeated the civil militias within 90 minutes.


Mangwol-dong cemetery in Gwangju where victims' bodies were buried

There is no universally accepted death toll for the 1980 Gwangju Uprising. Official figures released by the Martial Law Command[when?] put the death toll at 144 civilians, 22 troops and four police killed, with 127 civilians, 109 troops and 144 police wounded. Individuals who attempted to dispute these figures were liable for arrest for "spreading false rumors".[20]

According to the May 18 Bereaved Family Association, at least 165 people died between May 18 and 27. Another 76 are still missing and presumed dead. Twenty-three soldiers and four policemen were killed during the uprising, including 13 soldiers killed in the friendly-fire incident between troops in Songam-dong. Figures for police casualties are likely to be higher, due to reports of several policemen being killed by soldiers for releasing captured rioters.[21]

The official figures have been criticized by some as being too low. Based on reports by foreign press sources and critics of the Chun Doo-hwan administration, it has been argued that the actual death toll was in the 1,000 to 2,000 range.[22][23]


The government denounced the uprising as a rebellion instigated by Kim Dae-jung and his followers. In subsequent trials, Kim was convicted and sentenced to death, although his punishment was later reduced in response to international outcries. Overall, 1,394 people were arrested for involvement in the Gwangju incident, and 427 were indicted. Among them, 7 received death sentences and 12 received life sentences.

The Gwangju Uprising had a profound impact on South Korean politics and history. Chun Doo-hwan already had popularity problems due to his taking power through a military coup, but authorizing the dispatch of Special Forces against citizens damaged his legitimacy even further. The movement also paved the way for later movements in the 1980s that eventually brought democracy to South Korea. The Gwangju Uprising has become a symbol of South Koreans' struggle against authoritarian regimes and their fight for democracy.

Beginning in 2000, the May 18 Memorial Foundation has offered an annual Gwangju Prize for Human Rights to a notable human rights defender in memory of the uprising.[24]

On May 25, 2011, the documents of Gwangju Uprising were listed as 'UNESCO Memory of the World.’ (The official registration name of these documents is 'Human Rights Documentary Heritage 1980 Archives for the May 18th Democratic Uprising against Military Regime, in Gwangju, Republic of Korea.') [25] Since then, the necessity for conservation facility to systematically collect and preserve these documents arise rapidly among the people. Gwangju Metropolitan City government then decided to establish’ May 18 Archives'[1] by legislating an ordinance so-called 'Management Act on the Archives of May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement.'[2] Since then, Gwangju Metropolitan City government decided to use the former Gwangju Catholic center building for record conservation facility by re-modeling it. The construction for building this facility started in 2014 and it was completed in 2015 and has been operating its facility so far.


At the Mangwol-dong cemetery in Gwangju where victims' bodies were buried, survivors of the democratization movement and bereaved families have held an annual memorial service on May 18 every year since 1983. Many pro-democracy demonstrations in the 1980s demanded official recognition of the truth of the uprising and punishment for those responsible.

Official reevaluation began after the reinstatement of direct presidential elections in 1987. In 1988, the National Assembly held a public hearing on the Gwangju Uprising, and officially renamed the incident as the Gwangju Uprising. While this official renaming occurred in 1987, it can also be found translated into English as "Gwangju People's Uprising".

In 1995, as public pressure mounted, the National Assembly passed the Special Law on May 18 Democratization Movement, which enabled prosecution of those responsible for the December 12 coup d'état and Gwangju Uprising despite the fact that the statute of limitations had run out. Subsequently, in 1996, 8 politicians were indicted for high treason and the massacre. Their punishments were settled in 1997, including an initial death sentence, changed to a life sentence for Chun Doo-hwan. Former President Roh Tae-Woo, Chun's successor and fellow participant in the December 12 coup, was also sentenced to life in prison. But all convicts were pardoned in the name of national reconciliation on December 22 by President Kim Young-sam, based on advice from then president-elect Kim Dae-Jung.

In 1997, May 18 was declared an official memorial day. In 2002, a law privileging bereaved families took effect, and the Mangwol-dong cemetery was elevated to the status of a national cemetery.

On May 18, 2013, President Park Geun-hye attended the 33rd anniversary of the Gwangju uprising, and said "I feel the sorrow of family members and the city of Gwangju every time I visit the National May 18 Cemetery", "I believe achieving a more mature democracy is a way to repay the sacrifice paid by those [killed in the massacre]."[26]

In February 2018, it was revealed for the first time that the army had used McDonnell Douglas MD 500 Defender and Bell UH-1 Iroquois attack helicopters to fire on civilians. Defense Minister Song Young-moo made an apology.[27][28]

In popular culture[edit]

Literature (available in English translation)[edit]




See also[edit]


  1. ^ South Korean Supreme Court of South Korea
  2. ^ "Human Rights Documentary Heritage 1980 Archives for the May 18th Democratic Uprising against Military Regime, in Gwangju, Republic of Korea". UNESCO. Retrieved 2014-02-23. 
  3. ^ Embassy of the United States in Seoul. "South Korea Current Issues > Backgrounder". Archived from the original on March 31, 2013. Retrieved May 16, 2013. 
  4. ^ 5월단체, "5.18 관련 사망자 606명" (in Korean). Yeonhap News. 2005-05-13. Retrieved 2013-05-25. 
  5. ^ Sallie Yea, "Rewriting Rebellion and Mapping Memory in South Korea: The (Re)presentation of the 1980 Kwangju Uprising through Mangwol-dong Cemetery," Urban Studies, Vol. 39, no. 9, (2002): 1556–1557
  6. ^ Patricia Ebrey et al., "East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History (Second Edition)" United States: Wadsworth Cengage Learning (2009): 500
  7. ^ Sallie Yea, "Rewriting Rebellion and Mapping Memory in South Korea: The (Re)presentation of the 1980 Kwangju Uprising through Mangwol-dong Cemetery," Urban Studies, Vol. 39, no. 9, (2002): 1556
  8. ^ "Dying for democracy: 1980 Gwangju uprising transformed South Korea," The Japan Times, May 17, 2014:
  9. ^ "TV shows tarnish Gwangju history," Joong Ang Daily, May 21, 2013:
  10. ^ May, The Triumph of Democracy. Ed. Shin Bok-jin, Hwang Chong-gun, Kim Jun-tae, Na Kyung-taek, Kim Nyung-man, Ko Myung-jin. Gwangju: May 18 Memorial Foundation, 2004. p. 275.
  11. ^ Scott-Stokes, Henry (10 April 1980). "South Korea Leader Voices Worry On Student Unrest; 'Students Are Waking Up Again'". The New York Times. 
  12. ^ May, The Triumph of Democracy. Ed. Shin Bok-jin, Hwang Chong-gun, Kim Jun-tae, Na Kyung-taek, Kim Nyung-man, Ko Myung-jin. Gwangju: May 18 Memorial Foundation, 2004. p. 22.
  13. ^ Documentary 518. Produced by May 18 Memorial Foundation. See also Ahn Jean. "The socio-economic background of the Gwangju Uprising," in South Korean Democracy: Legacy of the Gwangju Uprising. Ed. Georgy Katsiaficas and Na Kahn-chae. London and New York: Routledge, 2006.
  14. ^ Armstrong, Charles. "Contesting the Peninsula". New Left Review 51. London: 2008. p. 118.
  15. ^ Sallie Yea, "Rewriting Rebellion and Mapping Memory in South Korea: The (Re)presentation of the 1980 Kwangju Uprising through Mangwol-dong Cemetery", Urban Studies, Vol. 39, No. 9, (2002): 1557
  16. ^ History of the 5.18 Democratic Uprising, Volume 1. The May 18 Memorial Foundation. Gwangju, 2008. pp. 236–239. ISBN 978-89-954173-1-7.
  17. ^ Documentary 518. Produced by May 18 Memorial Foundation.
  18. ^ "Research". The Heritage Foundation. Archived from the original on February 22, 2008. 
  19. ^ Lewis 2002.
  20. ^ Chung, Kun Sik. "The Kwangju Popular Uprising and the May Publisher". Archived from the original on 2009-02-07. 
  21. ^ Katsiaficas, George (19 September 2006). "The Gwangju uprising, 1980". 
  22. ^ Plunk, Daryl M. "South Korea's Kwangju Incident Revisited". Asian Studies Backgrounder No. 35 (September 16) 1985: p. 5.
  23. ^ "Flashback: The Kwangju massacre". BBC News. May 17, 2000. 
  24. ^ "Gwangju Prize for Human Rights". May 18 Memorial Foundation. Archived from the original on 2011-06-03. Retrieved 2011-04-24. 
  25. ^ "UNESCO Memory of the world registration process of the documents of May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising". May 18 Archives. Retrieved 2018-01-03. 
  26. ^ Kang Jin-kyu (May 20, 2013). "Park attends memorial of Gwangju massacre". Joongang Daily. Archived from the original on June 15, 2013. Retrieved May 20, 2013. 
  27. ^ Herald, The Korea (February 7, 2018). "Panel confirms Army helicopters fired at protestors during Gwangju uprising". Retrieved April 25, 2018. 
  28. ^ "Defense chief apologizes for military's bloody crackdown on 1980 Gwangju uprising". Retrieved April 25, 2018. 
  29. ^ "Human Acts". Portobello Books. Retrieved April 25, 2018. 
  30. ^ "There a Petal Silently Falls". Columbia University Press. Retrieved August 8, 2018. 
  31. ^ "A Taxi Driver (Korean Movie – 2016) – 택시 운전사". HanCinema. Retrieved April 25, 2018. 


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]