Excerpt: Inside the Gwangju Uprising, a Key Moment for South Korean Democracy

News Abroad
tags: Protest, Korean history, Gwangju Uprising

Editor's Note: In May, 1980, a protest movement of students and blue-collar workers was violently suppressed by the South Korean martial law government of General Chun Doo-hwan, which arrested, tortured or killed thousands of participants. Survivors worked to preserve and compile a record of their experiences, frequently in secret as activists remained subject to surveillance. The publication and distribution of the texts as contraband was a key driver of the 1987 "June Struggle" democracy movement.

Sporadic and Passive Resistance (Sunday, May 18: Day 1 of the Uprising)

The fuse

The morning of May 18 began with a chill that quickly gave way to warmth. It was a clear spring day; the mood in the city, however, was bleak. Every street and avenue brimmed with silence and tension. Older plainclothes policemen temporarily transferred to Gwangju from police stations and precincts in other communities in the province stood guard in pairs at key locations. Distraught locals came out into the side streets and exchanged news under their breaths. The torchlight demonstrations that lit up the city only two nights earlier were still clear in their minds, and the absence of the flames was keenly felt. People gathered in small groups in the downtown area and the main street of Geumnam-ro, sharing rumors. Even passersby stopped to listen. Citizens clashed with stationed police officers on occasion, but there was no sign of unusual activity.

At 7:00 a.m., students attempting to enter Chonnam National University to access the library were beaten by the paratroopers at the main gates. They had been completely oblivious to the political changes sweeping the nation—and the expansion of martial law—and had only focused on studying for employment or civil service examinations. Half a dozen or so injured students were taken to the Noh Jun-chae Clinic for treatment. As time passed, more and more students crowded the main gates. Some had gathered to use the library or meet for group excursions, while others had come for sports. Yet others had come out because of the pact to gather at the main gates at 10:00 a.m. if the school was ordered to close. The students circled the gates, which were defended by the paratroopers, and refused to depart. They had no idea that those who had stayed on campus overnight had been taken into custody.

Lee Gwang-ho (age 21), a third-year student at the College of Social Sciences and Humanities at Chonnam, had learned of the expansion of martial law and headed to school early to put away documents detailing the student council’s activities. He arrived at 8:00 a.m. and encountered Student Council President Park Gwan-hyun and his small party walking out from the vicinity of the College of Agriculture. They exchanged glances warning one another to be careful.

At that time, eleven soldiers from the 7th Company of the 9th Field Battalion of the 33rd Battalion of the 7th Brigade stood guard at the gates to Chonnam University. However, as the number of congregating students increased, Lieutenant Colonel Kwon Seung-man—commander of the 33rd—deployed an additional thirty soldiers to the gates. Kwon was anxious to resolve the situation quickly because Brigadier General Shin Woo-sik, commander of the 7th Brigade, was scheduled to visit at 11:00 A.M.

Lee Gwang-ho noted that by 9:00 a.m., the number of students had risen to about 50. They put themselves into a formation and attempted to break through the barricade at the gates with cries of “End martial law now!” However, their attempts were unsuccessful, and they were forced to simply circle the gates from the outside. By 10:00 a.m., their numbers had grown to over 100, and the crowd of onlookers also increased in number. An officer picked up a megaphone to demand that students disperse. In response, the students assembled by the bridge in front of the gates for a sit-down demonstration. Their numbers soon rose to over 200. The demonstrators shouted rallying cries of “End martial law now,” “Down with Chun Doo-hwan,” “Down with martial law troops,” and “Open schools again.”

Lieutenant Colonel Kwon, the highest-ranked officer of the special forces troops stationed at Chonnam, sensed that something was amiss and personally stepped forward. He warned demonstrators, “Disperse immediately, or you will be disbanded by force.” The students simply chanted more loudly.

In response, Kwon roared, “Charge!”

Paratroopers rushed into the crowds with menacing yells, clubbing students indiscriminately; unlike the police, they showed no restraint. Soon many bleeding students fell to the ground. The students wererattled by the violence, fleeing into alleyways to regroup and fighting back by throwing rocks. The 7th rushed the students again without hesitation. They chased down one of the demonstrators, clubbing them in the head until they were unconscious, and dragged them away. The skirmish went on for about thirty minutes, but unarmed university students ultimately stood no chance of defeating special forces who were trained in riot suppression and guerrilla warfare.

At around 10:30 a.m., Kim Han-jung (age 20) cried, “We should relocate to Province Hall instead of staying here to fight a battle we can’t win.” The students accepted the proposal and headed downtown. Fellow Chonnam students Park Monggu (age 25), Lee Don-gyu (age 22), Cheon Yeong-jin (age 20), and Cho Gil- yeong (age 22) and Chosun students Park Chae-yeong (age 21) and Na Jeong-sik (age 21) were also at the scene.

Paratroopers were engaged in violence at the rear gates of Chonnam as well. However, the situation was completely different. Students did not congregate at the rear gates, but the soldiers stationed there indiscriminately attacked postsecondary-aged passersby and took them into custody for no reason. Paratroopers even charged into buses that had stopped to let off passengers, dragging off young people and beating them.

At 10:00 a.m., Beom Jin-yeom (male, 21)—who was on the cusp of starting his mandated military service—was on his way to pick up pesticides on an errand for his father, when the bus he was on stopped briefly at the rear gates of Chonnam University. The doors opened, and soldiers poured inside and started beating passengers around his age. About twenty of them were taken away to Chonnam University for no reason. A female student who was unable to walk because of a leg injury was dragged off bodily. Jang Cheon-su (male, 24), who was in the furniture business, disembarked from the bus at Chonnam’s rear gates for personal business around 10:30 a.m. and was immediately taken to the guardhouse by two soldiers who kicked and clubbed him. Arms locked and helpless to defend himself, Jang sustained heavy injuries to his head and back without so much as an explanation. During the investigation by the Prosecutors’ Office, Lieutenant Colonel Kwon admitted that the 7th had used excessive force at the very beginning of the Gwangju situation:

Captain Ko, commander of the 7th Field Battalion, which was stationed at the rear gates of Chonnam University, said that “There was jeering from the bus, so the sentries dragged out several people, struck them several times, and had them kneel while the field commander re-educated them before sending them away.” Because of the nature of the re-education process, they would have struck those people several times.

Resistance in the Downtown Core

As the 7th Airborne Special Forces Brigade hunted down small groups of students putting up resistance at the main gates of Chonnam University, one of the students proposed heading downtown to inform people that martial law troops had taken control of the campus. With raised voices, students called to regroup at Gwangju Station. They scattered and made the one-kilometer journey to the plaza outside Gwangju Station in groups of twos and threes. With the plaza outside the South Jeolla Province Hall as their destination, the students ran from the station to the Intercity Bus Terminal to the Catholic Center on Geumnam-ro Street with cries of “End martial law now,” “Release Kim Dae-jung,” “Open schools again,” “Down with Chun Doo- hwan,” and “Down with martial law troops.” The majority of citizens at the time had no idea that Kim had been taken into custody. It took only two sentences for them to learn that their hopes for democratization had been cruelly dashed by the remnants of the Yusin regime and the Singunbu forces that composed a large portion of the military:

“Chun Doo-hwan has led a coup d’état.”

“Kim Dae- jung has been taken into custody.”

The students were met with little resistance as they reached the Catholic Center downtown at 11:00 a.m. There, they marched to the YMCA in a large group and were met by riot police. The group changed course and headed to the Chungjang-ro Street Post Office. Riot police had already been stationed at the entrance to Chungjang-ro 1-ga Street, forming a blockade with their shields. The demonstrators split into two groups: one headed straight toward Gwangju River, and the other turned into Chungjang-ro 2-ga Street. The number of students continued to snowball. Around 11:25 a.m., the students threw rocks at Chungjang-ro Street Police Substation, breaking nine windows.

Pushed toward Gwangju River by the police, the students took a break at the Gwangju Park plaza around 11:30 A.M. before heading to the Catholic Center on Geumnam-ro Street via Jungang-ro Street. Two to three hundred staged a sit-down demonstration on Geumnam-ro Street. Hundreds of locals gathered on sidewalks to watch, but no one stepped up to join them. Some time passed, and the number of demonstrators grew to over 500. Police surrounded the students and fired tear gas canisters over their heads.

Students were shocked to find that the police’s attitude had done a full 180 from the torchlight demonstrations only two days earlier. People watching from either end of the road jeered the police and showered them with profanities. The police forces vastly outnumbered the students and arrested many of them, but the students stubbornly dispersed and regrouped again and again.

Geumnam-ro Street and the fountain outside Province Hall remain the most symbolic places in Gwangju today, similarly to Gwanghwamun in Seoul and the plaza in front of Seoul City Hall. News of these events in downtown Gwangju quickly spread across the rest of the city.

Helicopters Deployed Against Demonstrators

The students found themselves growing more cornered over time. Although the people of Gwangju were outraged at their treatment, they did not dare to join the demonstrations. Slowly pushed out of Geumnam- ro Street, the students elected to avoid unnecessary con-frontations with the police in favor of collecting stray students in the Geumnam- ro area. By 12:30 p.m., events unfolded similarly in the areas north and south of the street. About 300 of the students who had been scattered from Geumnam- ro regrouped in front of the Municipal Student Hall and made their way to the bridge at Bullo- dong. There, they ran into 300 more demonstrators who had been marching from the Dong- gu district. The two groups had not been aware of one another and raised a cheer at the encounter.Next, the demonstrators went to the Intercity Bus Terminal in the hopes that news of their open opposition to the military coup d’état would spread across the region. Students raised their voices, some speaking directly to passengers in waiting areas and asking them to spread news about the demonstrations in Gwangju to the country-side. In response, the police surrounded the terminal and shot tear gas canisters into the building. The demonstrators desperately fled in the direction of Daein Market.Outside, they were chased past the terminal roundabout and toward the Gwangju Citizens’ Center, at which point an unprecedented event took place—a helicopter joined the chase. It was apparent that personnel on the helicopter were delivering the demonstrators’ locations to the riot police. Chonnam student Im Nak- pyeong (age 22), who was among the crowd, testified that the wind from the helicopter threatened to blow away the demonstrators on the ground.9 The demonstrators scattered into narrow alleyways but were met by police at every turn and dis-persed. The deployment of the helicopter accelerated the riot police’s movements, with police on land and air cooperating to suppress the demonstrations.10Violent police tactics pushed the demonstrators all the way to Gyerim Cinema, located about 1 kilometer from Geumnam- ro Street. Countless students were taken in the process, and the rest dispersed almost entirely. Only about twenty were left remaining. The helicopter continued to circle overhead in search of the main group behind the demonstrations.

The first victim Hearing-Impaired Kim Gyeong-cheol

The first recorded loss of life during the Gwangju Uprising was the death of Kim Gyeong-cheol (age 24), who was hearing-impaired and unable to speak. On the morning of May 18, family and relatives gathered at his home to celebrate the 100th day since the birth of his daughter. Kim ran a shoe- shining and crafting business in the Kkachigogae area of Baegun-dong with fellow hearing-impaired friends Hwang Jong-ho (age 22) and Park In-gap (age 25). They would visit cafés and businesses in the city to offer their services. That afternoon, Kim and his friends wandered the downtown core in search of work, when three or four paratroopers appeared out of nowhere at the entrance to the alley by Jeil Cinema on Chungjang-ro Street and struck Kim in the head. Kim fell on the spot, bleeding. Hwang and Park fled in terror and watched from a hiding place in the alley as Kim was beaten. They too were quickly discovered by soldiers coming from the opposite direction and beaten with rifles and kicked. They gestured desperately to explain that they were unable to hear or speak, until blood ran down their hands. But the more they tried to plead, the more the soldiers assaulted them and accused them of pretending to be disabled. The soldiers dragged the half-conscious men away and hauled them into their armored vehicles. It was 11:00 p.m. when the soldiers finally realized that the men were indeed hearing-impaired and released them.

Kim, who was taken to the Red Cross Hospital in the afternoon, was moved to the Korean Armed Forces Hospital and was declared dead at 3:00 a.m. on May 19. According to the autopsy of Kim’s body, conducted jointly by the Gwangju District Prosecutors’ Office and the military, Kim suffered “abrasions and lacerations to the back of the head, lacerations to the superior palpebral region of the left eye, blunt trauma to the upper right forearm, blunt trauma to the left shoulder joint, and blunt trauma to the anterior tibia, buttocks, and femoral region.” In other words, the back of his head was caved in, his left eye was ruptured, his right arm and left shoulder were broken, and his buttocks and thighs were crushed. According to the death certificate, the direct cause of death was cerebral hemorrhaging caused by blunt trauma to the back of the head.

By 5:00 p.m., an hour after paratroopers were deployed to the downtown core, the last of the student demonstrations on Geumnam-ro Street were disbanded in front of Cheongsan Private School. However, the soldiers continued to carry out their violent suppression. They crawled through shops, cafés, barbershops, restaurants, offices, homes, and billiard halls, hunting down students with dogged obstinance. Those still in hiding or who had failed to escape were dragged out like animals.

Signs of Reversal

At 6:00 p.m., about 300 young people clashed with a small number of paratroopers in the Gyerim-dong neighborhood. The demonstrators were armed with pieces of lumber, metal pipes, and kitchen knives. Where other demonstrators scattered helplessly in the face of military might, this group met the soldiers head-on and refused to give in. A fierce struggle ensued with injuries on both sides. Lee Jang-ui (age 30), a blue-collar worker at the Asia Motors factory, had attended the first birthday celebration of a friend’s child in Gwangcheon-dong and was on his way back when he happened to stumble upon the scene. Lee attempted to pass by the paratroopers stationed in front of Gyerim Cinema at 6:00 p.m. when, with a cry of “Get him!” the soldiers swarmed him, beating him with their batons and stabbing him four times.

Demonstrators responded with horror and indignation. They surrounded the paratroopers without care for their own safety. The soldiers were pushed back little by little until suddenly, they broke ranks and fled in the direction of the Sansu-dong five-way intersection with the demonstrators in hot pursuit. It was not long, however, before military reinforcements arrived to strike back, forcing demonstrators to fall back and scatter, taking shelter in local residences.

The paratroopers surrounded the neighborhoods of Sansu-dong and Punghyang-dong and combed the area late into the night, taking away anyone who seemed to be postsecondary student-aged. Rumors spread that martial law forces would search boarding houses and studio apartments in the Chonnam and Chosun University areas at night to take students into custody.

At 6:00 p.m., Jeolla Province martial law authorities moved up curfew time in Gwangju to 9:00 p.m. with Martial Law Command Branch Announcement 4 and urged citizens to return home early. At 7:00 p.m., Lieutenant Colonel Kim Il-ok, commander of the 35th Battalion, reported to Commander Chung Ung of the 31st Division that the demonstrations had been put down. However, demonstrators continued their activities guerrilla-style late into the night. A group of more than 600 amassed in front of the Catholic Center on Geumnam-ro Street downtown at 8:00 p.m. and clashed with martial law troops before being driven off. Dozens were taken into custody and over 2,000 young people were pushed toward the Labor Supervision Office and Hanil Bank until they scattered. Pockets of resistance flared up across the city. Demonstrators were taken away until late that night, and screams continued to echo down the streets. The commotion finally grew quiet at 11:00 p.m. The alleyways were rank with the stench of blood.

That night, Chonnam University students Noh Jun-hyeon (age 24) and Im Nak-pyeong made countless telephone calls in the dark to confirm the safety of their friends and to spread word about what they had seen on the streets that day. Their hushed voices carried across phone lines and over walls from house to house. Word of the military’s brutal actions spread across the city like wildfire. The people of Gwangju spent the night wide awake, simmering with fear and anger.

Officially, 405 people were taken into custody on May 18: 114 university students, 35 college students, 6 high school students, 66 young people studying for university entrance exams, and 184 ordinary civilians. Of them, 68 suffered head injuries, blunt trauma, or puncture wounds, and 12 were in critical condition. However, the real number of injuries and arrests was much higher than reported.

That day, the 31st Infantry Division collected 4,717 firearms and 1.16 million rounds of ammunition from storage locations across the city and the armories of workplace reserve units and moved them onto their base, fearing that they might be seized by civilians. An additional 550,000 rounds of ammunition from local armories were collected to be stored on base or at a police station. The 31st also requested permission from the Singunbu to open fire on anyone who attempted to approach any of the armories in the city.