by Erica Sweett
The atrocities that ravage countries are pushed into the shadows of history by those who are threatened by the weight of its truth. In the late 1970s Korea was very different. The country was still under military dictatorship. Citizens fought tirelessly for their basic rights. The assassination of President Park Chung Hee on October 26th 1979 sparked unrest across the country. Army general Chun Doo Hwan quickly replaced Park. In an attempt to divide and weaken the unified voices of the people he executed martial law. In response, students and citizens rose up in protest.
Pro-democracy demonstrations spread across the country. The May 18th History Compilation Committee of Gwangju recounts that, “By that time Gwangju had already shown itself to be the center of the fiercest demonstrations…” . The strength of the movement in Gwangju posed a serious threat to the Chun Doo Hwan regime. Operation Choongjung (True Heart) was created to control and ultimately to destroy the growing solidarity movement. Choongjung was made up of paratroopers who were specially trained to violently break up crowds. On May 18th 1980, what started as a peaceful protest for democracy quickly became a bloody ten day battle. The uprising ended with the loss of hundreds of innocent lives.
Lee Shin was fourteen during the Gwangju uprising. He has spent the past twenty five years fighting for reunification. He also gives lectures on the events of May 18th and is actively involved in the Gwanjgu community. He explained that as the movement grew it was matched with violence. “The first day they hit the people with batons. The second day they impaled them with bayonets. The third day they shot them. The fourth day they massacred them in the provincial building.”
During the height of the uprising, soldiers blocked off Gwangju from the rest of the country. On May 22nd, the fifth day, the army retreated to Gwangju’s outskirts. During this time the community came together: They shared food, water, blood. Despite open banks and weapons, there was no violence. On May 23rd people started to clean streets and restore order. Volunteers stayed and guarded the town all night long. Lee Shin described the time using the Korean word 정 Jeong: “In Gwangju people came together as one. This is Jeong, it is difficult to explain in English. It means emotional feeling, love. It’s a very Korean word.” The violence of the paratroopers was intended to suppress the very thing that emerged in their short absence from the city. Unity had formed out of the chaos.
The uprising did not end peacefully. On May 27th, Operation Choongjung carried out its final phase. The paratroopers murdered all in their path. “The troops kicked down doors and shot at anything that looked or sounded like a person” . The Martial Law forces entered and took control of the city. At 7 am, the Provincial hall was handed over and the military had full control. Those who had survived were sent to military camps. Extreme violence was the only way the corrupt government could silence the community. “In less than 90 minutes the ten day Gwangju uprising had been brought to an end” .
The media and government painted the protesters as violent rebels and communists who posed a threat to the stability of the country. The government physically divided the community. They destroyed evidence of the massacre and manipulated the truth. While they were successful in suppressing the uprising, they did not destroy the spirit of the movement. During those dark times a deep connection in Gwangju was formed. The power of The Gwangju Uprising is found not in its brutal end but in the communities fight against injustice.
The Gwangju Uprising and other pro-democracy movements helped the country achieve its first direct presidential election in 1987. Korea’s rapid economic and social development has brought new challenges. Shin notes that, “Through industrialization, Korea had much development. It built large buildings and cars. Superficially, it seems like a lot of growth. But the community structure has collapsed.” Korea struggles to find unity amidst the growing pressures of capitalism. Shin explained that Korea, in the wake of another tragedy (the Sewol Ferry Tragedy), is again, trying to find the essence of the Jeong that was felt in Gwangju.
Dedicated people like Shin and groups like The May 18th Historical Compilation Committee of Gwangju are working towards rebuilding a stronger community. They are educating people about the past in order to revive the spirit of what was lost. Through their work they share new perspectives that challenge the current state of Korea. The Historical Committee concludes by reflecting on Gwangju’s significance:
The 21st century will be an era of unlimited competition. To prepare for it we must continue to improve our society. Through the realization of a community spirit of selfless assistance trust, the spirit of the Gwangju Democratic Uprising can continue to shine brightly into the future .
Lee Shin, The May 18th Historical Compilation Committee of Gwangju and other leaders are creating space for people to visualize a more unified future.
As a foreigner I have but a fragmented outsider perspective of Gwangju and Korea’s political situation. Despite this, the Gwangju Uprising resonates with me. There are many words that can’t be translated and feelings that I can’t articulate. In times of pain and suffering people show their strength and resilience. Like the word Jeong – the truth is beyond translation. It is found deep within communities; it is not linear and cannot be eradicated.
Dictator regimes and capitalist institutions are disconnected from the community. This disconnect allows institutions to be ruthless; acting out of self-interest and being accountable to no one. Yet this perceived power that allows them to divide and weaken societies will also be their downfall. The truth found within unity is strong. Korea has shown that people find strength in their struggle. While the May 18th uprising is unique to Korea, the movement’s powerful message of truth found within solidarity is universal.
1. May 18 History Compilation Committee of Gwangju; The May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising; 2013. 47
2. Ibid., 109.
4. Ibid., 119