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Gwangju Uprising
Part of the Minjung movement
[[File:{{{image_name}}}|240x240px|May 18th Minjung Memorial Tower]]
May 18th Minjung Memorial Tower
Date May 18–27, 1980
Location Gwangju, South Korea
Outcome Several civilian and military casualties
Death : under 165
Injured : 3515
Death : 28(Soldier 24, Police 4)
Up to 2,000; see Casualties section.

The Gwangju Uprising or May 18 Democratic Uprising (Hangul: 광주 민주항쟁; Hanja: 光州民主抗爭; RR: Gwangju Minju Hangjaeng) by UNESCO,[1] also known as Gwangju Democratization Movement[2] (Hangul: 광주 민주화 운동; Hanja: 光州民主化運動; RR: Gwangju Minjuhwa Undong) refers to a popular uprising in the city of Gwangju, South Korea from May 18 to 27, 1980. Estimates suggest up to 165 people may have died.[3] During this period, citizens rose up against Chun Doo-hwan's dictatorship and took control of the city. In the course of the movement, citizens took up arms (by robbing police stations and military depots) to oppose the government, but were ultimately crushed by the South Korean army. The event is sometimes called 5·18 (May 18; Hangul: 오일팔; Hanja: 五一八; RR: Oilpal), in reference to the date the movement began. Contrary to what many people may believe, the uprising occurred before Chun Doo-hwan took office. This leads to speculation surrounding the uprising's motive – a protest against dictatorship.

During Chun Doo-hwan's presidency, the incident was misrepresented by the media as a rebellion inspired by Communist sympathizers.[dubious ]By 2002, a national cemetery and day of commemoration (May 18), along with acts to "compensate, and restore honor" to victims, were established.[4]

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


President Park Chung-hee was assassinated on October 26, 1979 after ruling for 18 years. This abrupt ending of an authoritarian regime left Korean politics in a state of instability. New President Choi Kyu-hah and his Cabinet had little control over not to mention the country, but also the growing power of ROK Army General Chun Doo-hwan, who took control of the government through the Coup d'état of December Twelfth in 1980.

The nation's democratization movements, which had been suppressed during Park's tenure, were again awakening. 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 an array of reforms, including an end to martial law (declared after Park's assassination), democratization, minimum wage demands, and freedom of press.[5] 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, Chun Doo-hwan forced the Cabinet to expand martial law to the whole nation, which had previously not applied to Jeju-do. The expanded martial law closed universities, banned political activities and further curtailed the press. To enforce the martial law, troops were dispatched to various parts of the nation. 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 Jeollanam-do native Kim Dae-jung, were also arrested on charges of instigating demonstrations.

Ensuing strife focused in the Jeollanam-do area, particularly in the then-provincial capital, Gwangju, for a number of 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.[6]

Oppositional protest has existed in Korea historically, 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.

Park Chung Hee's dictatorship had showered economic and political favors on his native Gyeongsang region 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.[7]


May 18–21Edit

Korea-Gwangju-The former South Jeolla provincial office building-01A

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 moved then 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, paratroopers took over. The arrival of these 686 soldiers, of the 33rd and 35th squadrons of the 7th Brigade, marked a new, violent, and now infamous phase of suppression.[8]

Witnesses say soldiers clubbed both demonstrators and onlookers. Testimonies, photographs, and internal records attest 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 1 civilian casualty, for example).[9] Four policemen were killed at a police barricade near the Provincial Government Building after a car rammed into them.[10]

On the night of May 20, hundreds of taxis led a large parade of buses, large trucks and cars toward the Provincial Office to meet the protest. As the drivers drove in the demonstration, the troops used tear gas, pulled them out of the cars 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 even shot after the drivers attempted to use the vehicles to block soldiers or as weapons.[11]

The violence climaxed on May 21. At about 1 pm, the army fired at a protesting crowd gathered in front of the Jeonnam 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 22–25Edit

Blockade of Gwangju, and further atrocitiesEdit

At this point, all troops retreated to suburban areas, waiting for reinforcements. During this period the army blocked all routes and communications leading into and out of the city. Even though 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 attempted crossing and opened fire at the kids resulting in one death. Later that day the army suffered its heaviest casualties, when troops mistakenly fired at each other in Songam-dong.

Settlement CommitteesEdit

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.

The city's order 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; doves wanted immediate surrender, while hawks called for continued resistance until their demands were met. After heated debates, eventually the hawks took control.

Protests in other regionsEdit

As the news of the Gwangju massacre 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, except for Mokpo where protests continued until May 28.

May 26Edit

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

May 27Edit

At 4:00 am, 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 4 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."[12]

According to the May 18 Bereaved Family Association, at least 165 people died between May 18 and 27. Another 65 are still missing and presumed dead. 23 soldiers and 4 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, themselves being killed by soldiers for releasing captured rioters.[13]

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.[14][15]


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 some 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 because he took power through a military coup, but after authorizing the dispatch of Special Forces upon citizens, his legitimacy was further damaged. 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.[16]

The Gwangju Movement and the United StatesEdit

The 1980s marked a surge in Anti-Americanism in Korea, widely traced to the events of May 1980.[17] According to Bruce Cumings:

Gwangju convinced a new generation of young [Koreans] that the democratic movement had developed not with the support of Washington, as an older generation of more conservative Koreans thought, but in the face of daily American support for any dictator who could quell the democratic aspirations of the Korean people. The result was an anti-American movement in the 1980s that threatened to bring down the whole structure of American support for the ROK. American cultural centers were burned to the ground (more than once in Gwangju); students immolated themselves in protest of Reagan's support for Chun.[18]

Fundamental to this movement was a perception of U.S. complicity in Chun's rise to power, and, more particularly, in the Gwangju Uprising itself. These matters remain controversial. It is clear, for example, that the U.S. authorized the ROK Army's 20th Division to re-take Gwangju – as acknowledged in a 1982 letter to the New York Times by then-Ambassador Gleysteen.

[General Wickham], with my concurrence, permitted transfer of well-trained troops of the twentieth ROKA Division from martial-law duty in Seoul to Gwangju because law and order had to be restored in a situation that had run amok following the outrageous behavior of the Korean Special Forces, which had never been under General Wickham's command.[19]

However, as Gwangju Uprising editors Scott-Stokes and Lee note, whether the expulsion of government troops left the situation lawless or "amok" is very much open to dispute. But the gravest questions pertain to the initial, triggering use of South Korean special forces. The United States has always denied foreknowledge of their deployment, most definitively in a June 19, 1989 white paper; that report additionally downplays Gleysteen's and others' characterizations of the U.S. actions.

...Ambassador Gleysteen has stated that the U.S. "approved" the movement of the 20th Division, and a U.S. Department of Defense spokesman on May 23, 1980 stated that the U.S. had "agreed" to release from OPCON [operational control] of the troops sent to Gwangju. Irrespective of the terminology, under the rights of national sovereignty the ROKG had the authority to deploy the 20th Division as it saw fit, once it had OPCON, regardless of the views of the U.S. Government.[20]

However, the report is problematic in two respects: (1) Declassified documents (e.g. the "Cherokee files") contradict its claims.[21] (2) Its judicial focus skirts larger issues of the United States' support of the Chun regime.[17]


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|date= }} 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 May 18 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 and Kwangju Rebellion.

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 8 politicians were indicted for high treason and the massacre in 1996. 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”.[22]

See alsoEdit


  1. "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. 
  2. Embassy of the United States in Seoul, Korea. "South Korea Current Issues > Backgrounder". Retrieved May 16, 2013. 
  3. "5월단체, "5.18 관련 사망자 606명"" (in Korean). Yeonhap News. 2005-05-13. Retrieved 2013-05-25. 
  4. 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. Page 275.
  5. 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. Page 22.
  6. 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.
  7. Armstrong, Charles. "Contesting the Peninsula". New Left Review 51. London: New Left Review, 2008. Page 118.
  8. History of the 5.18 Democratic Uprising, Volume 1. The May 18 Memorial Foundation. Gwangju, 2008. ISBN 978-89-954173-1-7 Pages 236–239
  9. Documentary 518. Produced by May 18 Memorial Foundation.
  10. South Korea's Kwangju Incident Revisited
  11. Lewis, Linda S. Laying Claim to the Memory of May: a Look Back at the 1980 Kwangju Uprising. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002. ISBN 0-8248-2479-2
  12. The Kwangju Popular Uprising and the May Movement
  13. 1980: The Kwangju uprising |
  14. Plunk, Daryl M. "South Korea's Kwangju Incident Revisited." Asian Studies Backgrounder No. 35 (September 16) 1985: p. 5.
  15. "Flashback: The Kwangju massacre". BBC News. May 17, 2000. 
  16. "Gwangju Prize for Human Rights". May 18 Memorial Foundation. Retrieved April 24, 2011. 
  17. 17.0 17.1 Neoliberalism and the Gwangju Uprising
  18. Bruce Cumings in Lee Jai-Eui, Gwangju Diary. University of California, 1999. p. 27
  19. quoted in The Gwangju Uprising. Ed. Henry Scott-Stokes and Lee Jai-Eui, East Gate Publishing, 2000. p. 231
  20. "United States Government Statement on the Events in Gwangju, Republic of Korea, in May 1980"
  21. "Ex-Leaders Go On Trial In Seoul"
  22. Kang Jin-kyu (2013-05-20). "Park attends memorial of Gwangju massacre". Joongang Daily. Retrieved 2013-05-20. 

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