오일팔 (5·18)
May 18, 2020 6:02 PM   Subscribe

Forty years ago, the citizens of Gwangju rose up to fight for their democracy.

It was a difficult time in South Korea. Just seven months prior, in October 19791, President PARK Chung-hee2, who had come to power 18 years prior by coup d'état, had been assassinated by KIM Jae-gyu, the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency3. Barely a month had passed before CHUN Doo-hwan led elements of the ROK Army in his first coup d'état to rip power from Prime Minister/Acting President CHOI Kyu-ha, who had promised new democratic elections and a new constitution to replace the Yushin Constitution written by PARK.

On 17 May, CHUN Doo-hwan initiated a second coup to consolidate his power and extend military rule over all of South Korea; as part of this expanded martial law, closed all universities, further censored the press, and banned all political activities. Concurrently, he arrested numerous opposition figures, including favored regional son4, future South Korean President, and Nobel Laureate KIM Dae-jung5. In response, over 200 students of Cheonnam National University6 began protesting at the gate of the University, before marching into the city, gaining additional support. That night, soldiers beat an innocent to death who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, escalating the conflict. When the soldiers began to fire on citizens on the 20th, over 10,000 people were protesting; the gunfire led to armory raids and bloody gunfights between civilian militias and the army over the next five days. There is no complete list of those who were murdered by the regime.

While the CHUN dictatorship attempted to block news of the protests, foreign reporters such as Jürgen Hinzpeter of ARD and Tim Shorrock broke the news globally, which helped set the stage for the successful June Struggle of 19877.

After its transition to a functional democracy, the government South Korea began to remember the Uprising, which included creating a memorial cemetary and the formation of a Truth Commission this year, and multiple films and books have been written about the events: ---

1This is a fictionalized, satirical retelling of the events of 1979-10-26.
2PARK Chung-hee has a complex legacy. A 친일파, he was also responsible for kick-starting South Korea's economic growth while disappearing people. He's also the father of impeached President PARK Geun-hye, who was removed from office due to gross corruption (as well as some gross incompetence).
3Shortly after CHUN Doo-hwan came to power, it was reorganized as the Agency for National Security Planning, where it continued its abuses. In 1999, during KIM Dae-jung's term, it was renamed the National Intelligence Service, where its powers were further curtailed even as it continued its abuses.
4Regionalism is a factor here; Gwangju is in the Jeolla region, which has typically been more leftist, and had often found itself deprived of resources and support due to governmental baises. These biases were driven by PARK and CHUN, who were both from the Gyeongsang region, which is typically more rightist.
5This was not KIM Dae-jung's first brush with dictatorship; he'd been arrested by the PARK regime, exiled, forced into house arrest, and had assassination attempts on his life.
6Chonnam, derived from Cheolla-Nam, or "South Cheolla" Province.
7The additional attention being paid to South Korea for the 1988 Seoul Olympics prevented CHUN from violently suppressing these demonstrations; it is reported that American President Ronald REAGAN also wished to avoid supporting another situation similar to Ferdinand Marcos.
8Magnificent director of: Oasis, Secret Sunshine, Poetry, and Burning.
9Magnificent actor, seen in so many Korean movies of renown.
posted by anem0ne (10 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have a lot of background with which to contribute, so I just want to say that this is a fantastic post. I first (and so far, have only) learned of this through watching A Taxi Driver, so I'm appreciating things that I don't remember it mentioning or depicting like that there were civilian militias that fought back against the army.
posted by coolname at 7:29 PM on May 18 [4 favorites]

Thank you for posting this! It is embarrassing how much Korean history I don't know. I have some reading to do.
posted by later, paladudes at 8:06 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]

My parents asked (yesterday because of the int'l date line), you know what day this is right?

I can't find the photo of the mothers cooking vats of rice for the protesters, but I did find this photo of a middle aged woman confronting riot police with a bouquet of flowers.

I think when I first learned about the uprising I thought it was all about the young people. But revolutionaries need to eat lunch. Dissidents have aunts and uncles. Martyrs make mourners.
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:56 PM on May 18 [7 favorites]

So I had no idea about this until a few of years ago when I visited with my husband and we went to Gwangju. We didn't even go to learn about this event, we were passing through and decided to visit the local park. There was a memorial and museum and we were both shocked at the story and that we had never heard of this event before and how *recent* it was!

I was born in 1979. My parents moved to America when I was about 3 years old. Puts some of their motivations into perspective! Thanks for the post.
posted by like_neon at 2:27 AM on May 19 [6 favorites]

Excellent post
posted by eustatic at 4:35 AM on May 19

On the movie front, although not exactly about the citizens' uprising, 26 Years is a pretty remarkable film that is currently available on Netflix.
posted by Not A Thing at 5:00 AM on May 19

See also, Lee Jae-eui’s samizdat Kwangju Diary, recently republished in English translation and downloadable here
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 9:56 AM on May 19 [2 favorites]

Strange, how the people always rise up against authoritarianism, but it gets excised from history or not transmitted or paved over as much as possible. It’s hard to imagine a Reagan objecting, since he was cut from the same cloth as Chun, just less able.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:46 PM on May 19

REAGAN didn't object to the Gwangju Massacre--but in 1987, Secretary of State George SHULTZ recommended that Reagan put pressure on CHUN to avoid a repeat of Gwangju.
posted by anem0ne at 5:10 PM on May 19 [2 favorites]

That’s what I get for skimming Google books on my phone....

Thanks for the FPP; I have a little familiarity with Modern Korean history but not much detail, so a close look at an important moment/movement is super welcome. Also, I like the footnote design for a post with a lot of links.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:39 AM on May 20

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