Gwangju: A Flame of Democracy

Gwangju 광주시 took me by surprise. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting from the sixth-largest city in Korea. Maybe I expected it to be overcrowded, dirty, and to have more of a New York or LA vibe. I certainly didn’t expect to see the natural beauty of Mudansan National Park juxtaposed against lively shopping and bar districts with traditional markets in between. I definitely didn’t expect to be encompassed by history and pride for being the city that inspired a nation to move towards Democracy.

The Gwangju Democratic Movement occurred from May 18th to 27th, 1980. You may hear this referred to as an uprising, but Koreans prefer not to use that word, which would instill pride in many but was used by the government to discredit the peaceful protest. At the time of the uprising, South Korea was, in all sense of the word, a dictatorship, although some still contest this point to this day. So the language that is used when speaking about a moment that turned a country towards Democracy is important. 

The May 18th Democratic movement began as a peaceful student-led protest speaking an end to martial law, government reform, human rights, and freedom of press started across the nation on May 15th. In response, the government, soon to be officially headed by the Military coup leader Chun Doo-hwan, strengthened martial law, arrested political leaders who supported the protest, and closed down many universities. Although Chun Doo-hwan was not the official leader yet, he was part of the assassination of the previous President (dictator) Park-Chung Hee, who had begun the Coup he led, which placed the current President in charge figurehead. An illusion of freedom and Democracy.

On May 18th, in front of Chonnam National University in Gwangju, students from middle schools, high schools, and Universities gathered and walked across the city to what was then the head of Jeollanamdo Provincial government. In front of the government offices by the fountain, the students were met by the police and the military. Shortly after the student’s arrival, the armed police began beating them with clubs, eventually firing freely into the crowd without being provoked, marking the beginning of nine violent days. 

For nine days, the people of Gwangju were cut off from the rest of Korea by blockades on the highways, telephones with no dial tones, and the blackout of all media sources inside Gwangju. For nine days, Gwangju and her people were alone in the fight for freedom. For nine days, the Students protested through gunfire, beatings, and torture.

In the aftermath, 76 people were, and are still to this day, missing. 144 civilians were dead, a number which is still contested by Gwangju citizens and the international press alike. The actual death toll is estimated to be between 1,000-2,000 people. 

The violence and injustice that occurred during those nine days are impossible to capture on-page and give victims justice. So, I’ll leave a recommendation here, watch A Taxi Driver directed by Jang Hoon (Parisite). He does what I can not. He captures the Terror, the Trauma, and the pride in a way that moved me to tears.

I can show you images of memorials and museums placed throughout the city to make sure those who died and ignited the flame that took down the Korean government, creating a pathway for Democracy, are not forgotten.

We often think that after a period of unrest, after we right an injustice, our work is done. Gwangju citizens don’t believe that. Every other time I come to Gwangju, I see a protest, whether it is to get more vaccines during this global pandemic or to stand unified with the citizens of Myanmar against the crimes of the new military regime. Gwangju is a city that takes pride in Democracy, making sure even now when Korean nationalism is on the rise. Many want to return to a conservative head-down way of life that keeps the flame of Democracy and justice alive. Gwangju and her people are inspiring.

Links to more on the May 18th Democratic Movement:

May 18th Democratic Uprising Archives work on documenting and preserving records of this historical event and the has been recognized by UNESCO for World Records Heritage. You can tour the archives for free. They have carefuly curated a combination of documents, Art, recordings, and affects from those nine days and the surounding events. A must see for history nerds like me!

The May 18 Memorial Foundation is actively presuing justuce for the citizens of Gwangju while monertering how the movment is spoken about. Their goal is not just to educate the world about the events of May 18th but “supporting minorities in the world and victims of national violence”Greeting, May 18 Memorial Foundation

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