The unforgettable May 18 Gwangju Incident
The unforgettable May 18 Gwangju Incident
  • 유정은 기자
  • 승인 2008.05.06 00:00
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 On May 18, 1980 citizens of Gwangju took to the streets. They were shouting for democracy, claiming their right to freedom, and protesting against the injustice of military rule. From then to May 27, the people of Gwangju dedicated themselves to establishment of grassroot democracy: this incident is now known as the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement.

Although this was an important first step, the process toward democracy was not smooth, and events leading up to this incident are .equally important to understand. After President Park Chung-hee was assassinated on October 26, 1979, ending his 18 years rule, the growing power of the Republic of Korea Army General Chun Doo-hwan led him to take control of the government through a coup d’etat on December 12. As the new military regime tried to prolong his dictatorial rule, thousands of citizens and students held a demonstration at the Seoul Station on May 15, 1980 calling for abolishment of martial law and the withdrawal of the Chun Doo-hwan and his followers.

In a harsh response, the military government expanded martial law to the whole nation and elevated the level of suppression of democratic forces by arresting student leaders and shutting down schools by force.

On May 18, 1980 about 200 Chonnam National University students protested at the gate of the university against its closing, hurling stones at paratroopers who were blocking the gate. The paratroopers responded with violent measures. Citizens became infuriated by the violence and the number of protesters rapidly increased, exceeding 100,000 by May 20. As the conflict escalated, the army suddenly began to use gunfire, killing unknown numbers of citizens near the Gwangju Station on May 20.

The violence climaxed on May 21. After the army fired at a crowd of protesters gathered at front of the Jeonnam Provincial Office, which led to many casualties, citizens began to arm themselves with rifles and carbines taken from armories and police stations in nearby towns for their own defense. During this period, the army blocked all transportation routes and means of communication going in and out of the city.

On May 22, citizens formed the Citizens Settlement Committee to calm the incident. The committee negotiated with the army, demanding the release of imprisoned citizens and compensation for victims. But the ruthless massacre by the army continued. Innocent victims ranging from little children to adult citizens were indiscriminately injured and killed.

This democratization movement was denounced as a rebellious uprising during the time of Chun Doo-hwan’s administration, but in 1988 the National Assembly held a public hearing on the Gwangju massacre and officially renamed the incident as May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement.

In 1995, the National Assembly passed the Special Law on May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement, which enabled the prosecution of those responsible for the coup d’etat of December 12 and the ensuing massacre in Gwangju. In 1997, May 18 was declared an official memorial day.

The May 18 Memorial Foundation states that the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement is a product of Republic of Korea’s voluntary popular movement that has continued in Korean national history. It is in the line with the March 1 Korean Independence Movement, which did not opposed Japanese imperialism and the April 19 Movement, which instigated abolishment of the Rhee Syng-man dictatorship. The May 18 Democratization Movement reaffirmed that the masses can be a driving force for the development of a democratic society. The movement was also a watershed in Korea’s history in pushing forward the country’s democratization and the people’s autonomous unification, as well as the evolution of society towards the advancement of an equal society.

Although the May 18 Democratization Movement was defeated by the bloody suppression of the government, it openly revealed the immorality of the Chun administration and it further opened people’s eyes on the military government that had taken power by illegal military force. Eventually this event was recognized as an active exercise of the national people’s right to resist tyranny and unjust authority.

The May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement is now embraced as everyone’s legacy, and symbolizes the noble value of Korean history for the sake of the realization of solidarity among communities.





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