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Soldiers beat a citizen in the martial law-gripped city of Gwangju, southwestern South Korea, during protests against the then military junta of Gen. Chun Doo-hwan in May 1980. Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/Na Kyung-Taek
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Na Kyung-Taek

South Korea’s Gwangju wounds

Julian Ryall Tokyo
August 24, 2017

South Korean President Moon has ordered his defense minister to carry out a new investigation into the bloodiest incident in the nation's transition from military dictatorship to democratic rule. Julian Ryall reports.


Moon's initiative is one of several that have been instituted in the very early months of his administration to encourage the nation to re-examine its past. These range from the issues of "comfort women" and forced laborers in the years of Japan's colonial control of the peninsula, to investigations - and prosecutions - in cases of corporate and political corruption, shortcomings in society and more specific issues, such as the interference carried out by intelligence agencies in previous general elections.

Defense Minister Song Young-moo has been charged with a re-examination of the military's brutal repression of what is known as the Gwangju uprising, which broke out in the city of Gwangju on May 18, 1980. By the time the tear gas and smoke had cleared nine days later, several hundred locals, students and demonstrators had been killed, along with at least 23 soldiers and four police officers.

The protesters had been rallying against the government of Chun Doo-hwan, a former general in the South Korean Army who seized power in October 1979, after the assassination of President Park Chung-hee.

Südkorea PK Moon Jae-in
President Moon was a prominent human rights lawyer in the 1980sImage: Reuters/Jung Yeon-Je

Broader civil unrest

Events in Gwangju, 300 kilometers southwest of Seoul, were part of broader civil unrest, including protests against the presence of the US military in South Korea and student demands for democracy, minimum wages and a free press.

Clashes broke out on the morning of May 18, 1980, between students and paratroopers on the gates of Chonnam National University, which had been closed by the government. The fighting quickly spread and intensified. Witnesses testified that they saw troops using bayonets and clubs against unarmed protesters before firing into the crowds.

Civilians raided local armories and police stations to acquire weapons, leading to running gunfights across the city. The uprising was only quelled when troops from five army divisions moved into the city and neutralized the rebellion.

After putting down the demonstrations in Gwangju, Chun was named president and served in the role until 1988. In 1996, he was sentenced to death for his role in the Gwangju incident, although that sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. The following year, Chun was released by the incoming president, Kim Dae-jung.

The incident remains an open wound in South Korean history, however, with different groups seeking to apportion blame. Some accuse the US of being complicit in the violence by not demanding that the army stop; those on the right insist to this day that the uprising was triggered by North Korean agents attempting to destabilize Chun's fledgling dictatorship.

Südkorea Unruhen in Kwangju
Clashes broke out on the morning of May 18, 1980, between students and paratroopersImage: Jürgen Hinzpeter

Air attacks investigated

President Moon has said he is particularly keen to determine whether recent reports in the South Korean press that the air force was ordered to put fighter aircraft on standby to attack protesters and whether helicopters were used to fire on buildings in the city.

"Since he became president earlier this year, Moon has been trying to please all sides of South Korean society and an investigation into Gwangju is designed to appease his left-wing base," Bradley Martin, a foreign correspondent covering the Far East for The Baltimore Sun, told DW.

"They are going to be looking for more details of what happened. I think that is an encouraging step because at least he is looking for the truth instead of the various myths that have sprung up around the uprising," said Martin.

"I imagine that the outcome will be to further point the finger of blame at the military for the outcome, but that should help to dispel the claims that North Korea was behind the whole thing or that the US should take the blame," he added.

Read more: Will Moon's olive branch to North Korea bear fruit?

Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University, points out that Moon became a prominent human rights lawyer in the 1980s, taking cases in which he defended labor rights activists and students persecuted for opposing the military dictatorship.

"South Korea has a lot of grievances that have not been addressed down the years, with Japan for its colonial rule, but also internal issues," Kingston told DW.

History whitewashed

"Under previous administrations, including that of Park Geun-hye, these historical problems were largely whitewashed and a lot of people who suffered back then are angry that no one has ever been held accountable," he added.

The uprising in Gwangju was also internationally significant, Kingston said, because it inspired similar pro-democracy movements in the Philippines, Myanmar and the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in Beijing in the summer of 1989.

Read more: What do the Hong Kong and Tiananmen protests have in common?

"The new investigation will also be welcomed by the people of Gwangju, who feel they have been marginalized even after the price that they paid," he underlined.

"These people are his base and are on the liberal end of the political spectrum in South Korea, so I see this as a case of Moon appealing to his political base in part because his initiatives towards North Korea have gained very little traction."

The ministry has invited civic groups to provide information for the investigation, although no time line has been set for the release of its findings.

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