Gwangju movement bitter turning point for democracy
By Lee Tae-hoon
Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Gwangju Pro-Democracy Movement, which is remembered by many as one of the most tragic chapters in modern Korean history since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
During the 10-day uprising, hundreds of innocent people in the southwestern city of Gwangju were killed by armed forces who were controlled by a new generation of military elites trying to find an excuse to seize power.
On Dec. 12, 1979, a group of politically minded soldiers arrested Martial Law Commander Gen. Jeong Seung-hwa on charges of conspiring with the assassinator of President Park Chung-hee, without authorization from the government.
Having devised a secret master plan to seize power, Chun Doo-hwan and the new military elites began to put it into action by mid-May, when demonstrations starting taking place nationwide in demand for the "return of democracy to the people."
Prelude to Gwangju Pro-Democracy Movement
While large demonstrations were staged in Seoul and other cities, massive rallies also took place in Gwangju in May, 1980.
Some 6,000 students from Chonnam National University took to the streets and held a demonstration in front of the South Jeolla Provincial Hall on May 14.
The number of protesters more than doubled the next day as students from other universities joined the campaign.
On May 16, some 30,000 students from nine universities in Gwangju held a massive rally and promised to gather at the front gate of Chonnam National University the following morning, should an "extraordinary situation" take place.
What they feared became a reality as military leaders pushed expansion of the Martial Law throughout the country on May 17 and attempted to dissolve the National Assembly.
The Cabinet forcibly approved the extension, foreshadowing an establishment of another military regime and crackdown on dissidents.
Outbreak of uprising
With the Cabinet endorsement, hundreds of democracy fighters, including Kim Dae-jung who later became president, were detained
At dawn on May 18, Special Forces paratroopers were also deployed to quell dissidents in Gwangju, who were against the re-establishment of "law and order" by the militant elites.
In the morning, hundreds of students gathered at the university in defiance of its closing and chanted ``Withdraw martial law," and ``Expel Chun Doo-hwan."
Some 500 students clashed with paratroopers at around 10 a.m.; Students threw stones, while the paratroopers charged into them and clubbed them.
Protesters moved to Geumnam-no, a downtown street that leads to the South Jeolla Provincial Hall. As the number of student demonstrators exceeded 1,500 in the afternoon, paratroopers were dispatched downtown to quell them.
The troops clubbed not only demonstrators, but also onlookers, often forcing them to strip down to their underwear and made them crawl around with their hands tied with ropes.
As they witnessed the brutal violence, an increasing number of citizens began to resist with clubs and wooden sticks.
On May 20, many shopkeepers closed their stores to join the rallies and some 200 taxi drivers joined the protests with their taxi headlights flashing and horns blaring. The number of protesters exceeded 100,000 by then.
Many taxi drivers were also assaulted when trying to assist the injured or while taking them to hospital. Infuriated protesters set a local television station on fire.
Frustrated by the growing chaos, the military began to fire at civilians, killing two people near the Gwangju Railway Station.
Violence reached its peak on May 21 as the army fired at a crowd of protestors gathered in front of the provincial hall.
Some protesters began to raid armories and police stations in nearby towns and armed themselves with rifles and other weapons.
Later that afternoon, bloody gunfights between armed demonstrators and the military broke out near the Provincial Hall Square.
At around 5 p.m., the army started to retreat from the downtown area as the militias fired at them with machine guns.
The next day, citizens cleaned up the streets and began to restore order.
Local government officials and pro-democracy leaders formed a settlement committee and offered to negotiate with the Martial Law authorities.
Meanwhile, the Martial Law Command announced a statement, accused Kim Dae-jung of "attempting rebellion" and pulling the strings behind the insurrection.
This only further infuriated Gwangju citizens.
Last struggle for democracy
Students who were in favor of fighting to the end formed a new leadership on May 25, as Gwangju citizens relished their temporary ``liberation'' while all troops retreated to suburban areas for reinforcements.
As the news of the imminent attack spread, armed citizens ordered high school students and women to leave the Provincial Hall, which they were using as their headquarters.
Early the next morning, led by tanks, an army unit advanced into the outskirts of the city from several directions.
And at around 4 a.m. on May 27, troops from five divisions launched their operations against the militias, defeating them in only 90 minutes.
The Gwangju popular uprising was put to a tragic end by the new military elites' brutal force. Shortly after the uprising in Gwangju, Chun was elected as president in an indirect vote in August 1980, in which he was the only running candidate.
Chun's authoritarian government referred to the uprising as the ``Gwangju affair,'' a riot or rebellion backed by some seditious power scheming to overthrow the government. It also described the movement as a riot or insurrection by ``hooligans orchestrated by North Korean spies and communist sympathizers.”
The official number of victims of the brutality is 4,369; 154 killed, 74 missing, 4,141 wounded including those who died from their wounds and were placed under arrest.
The number of people illegally taken into custody during the period of Martial Law was more than 3,000, and nobody knows how many people were unjustly arrested.
Recent history has proven that the Gwangju movement was a victory for citizens, not a defeat, and that the people who lost their lives did not sacrifice their lives in vain.
The movement is an inspiration for the democratic consciousness that fueled opposition to the dictatorship of the 1980s in the nation.
It also paved the way for later movements in the 1980s that eventually brought democracy to the country.
The movement has become a symbol of the nation's struggle against authoritarian regimes and their fight for democracy.
Chun Doo-hwan rose to power in the 1979 coup.
Kim Young-sam, who became the nation's first civilian president, launched an anti-corruption drive that led to a sensational court trial for former President Roh Tae-woo and his predecessor Chun on charges of bribery.
Both Roh and Chun were charged for accepting bribes of more than 200 billion won from conglomerates while in office. In addition to the bribery, they were charged with mutiny and treason for their respective roles in the 1979 coup and the bloody crackdown on the 1980 Gwangju Pro-Democracy Movement.
Roh was sentenced to 22 years in prison to become the nation's first former head of state to serve a prison term, but was later pardoned by then President Kim Dae-jung and released from jail in December 1997.
Chun's death sentence was reduced to life imprisonment. He was also pardoned and released from jail in late 1997.