May 18th Gwangju People's Uprising
From Korean Resource Center
On May 18, 1980, President Chun Doo Hwan's hard-line military rule led to a confrontation in the city of Kwangju, located south of Seoul. The uprising, triggered by student demonstrations led to Chun’s deployment of Special Forces unit trained for assault missions. Shocked and angered by the indiscriminate shooting of tear gas and rubber bullets, workers, shopkeepers and parents took to the streets to defend their children. In the end, 200 people were killed and hundreds wounded. The Gwangju Uprising gave birth to the national struggle for democracy in South Korea after decades of dictatorships following the Korean War. The spirit and legacy of the Gwangju Uprising resonates today with Koreans all over the world in the global movement for democracy and human rights.
 The Gwangju Democratic Uprising, May 1980
Following the Korean War, the South Korean people discovered that democracy was not to be their reward. The United States viewed South Korea as integral to its strategic defense against Communism and supported any pro-US regime, regardless of its human rights record or views on democracy. Thus, when Park Chung Hee took power through a military coup and instituted a military dictatorship from 1961 through 1979, the US supported his government.
President Park was assassinated in October of 1979 on a wave of pro-democracy student protests. After Park's death, South Korea went through a brief period of political liberalization but this liberalization was abruptly ended by a military coup d'etat on December 12, 1979 led by Chun Doo Hwan. He, like President Park Chung Hee used the tensions between North and South Korea to legitimize martial law in the name of “national security”.
On May 18, 1980, President Chun Doo Hwan's hard-line military rule led to a confrontation in the city of Gwangju, located south of Seoul. The uprising and bloodbath lasted from May 18 through May 27. The Gwangju massacre became an important landmark in the struggle for South Korean democracy.
According to reports, the uprising was triggered by student demonstrations on the morning of May 18 in defiance of the new military edict closing the universities and stifling any political dissent. City police were unable to control the crowd so the military dispatched a Special Forces unit trained for assault missions to quell the protest. The troopers used tear gas, batons and rubber bullets to put down the uprising but still workers, shopkeepers, and parents took to the streets to defend their children. Then the military opened fire, killing dozens of people, and wounding hundreds more.
On May 20, some 10,000 people demonstrated in Gwangju. Due to heavily militarization, most major workplaces in South Korea had caches of weapons. Protestors seized these weapons, buses, taxis, and even armored personnel carriers, forming armed militias. They fought against the army until finally, on May 21, the Special Forces withdrew and the city was left to the citizens.
The next five days were unprecedented in Korean history. Instead of trade, people shared. Massive communal meals for hundreds were cooked and distributed. Motor vehicles were handed out to keep the city safe and to create a new distribution system that depended on neither state nor capital. 15,000 citizens attended a memorial service for those killed on May 24.
On May 25, 50,000 people gathered for a rally and adopted a resolution calling for the abolition of martial law and the release of Kim Dae Jung, a leading pro-democracy political prisoner. The citizens were sure that the massacre and resultant victory would surely convince the United States to come to their aid.
Instead, the US, who held joint-command with the South Korean military, gave the military government the go-ahead to take troops from the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea to take back Gwangju. On May 27, at 3:30 A.M., the army swarmed Gwangju in Operation: Fascinating Vacations. After light skirmishes, the army quashed the revolt in less than two hours. They arrested 1,740 rioters, of whom 730 were detained for further investigation.
 Lessons From Gwangju
Looking back, the uprising started as student demonstrations but the military’s random killings angered citizens into joining the student demonstrators, escalating it into a massive uprising. According to later reports, nearly 200 persons were killed, including 26 soldiers and policemen; of the more than 150 civilians killed, only 17 died on the final day of assault.
South Koreans were shocked that the government would use such brutal force against its citizens. They felt further betrayed by the United States after discovering that General John A. Wickham, Jr., had released South Korean troops from the DMZ to end the rebellion and that President Reagan had strongly endorsed Chun's actions.
Clearly, the Gwangju Uprising had an enormous impact. It ignited the floundering pro-democracy movement in Korea culminating in 1987 when the People's Power movement finally broke the power of the South Korean military. In Asia, first-hand accounts of the uprising were passed around Tiananmen Square in 1989 and Indonesia in 1999.
 Chronology of 5•18 Gwangju People’s Uprising Related Events in Los Angeles
1980 Blood donation campaign for Gwangju citizens and protest at the American Red Cross expose the massacre during the Gwangju Uprising further spur a Koreatown protest for Korea's democracy. The Honam Friendship Association of Southern California is formed as a result.
1981 5•18 Fugitive Yoon Han Bong escapes to the U.S.
1982 Fasting protest is held in response to Park Gwan-Hyun's death in prison. / The Committee to Support Victims of the Gwangju Uprising is formed. / “Oh! Gwangju” is published to expose the massacre during the Gwangju Uprising.
1983 Inspired in part by the 5•18 Movement, the Korean Resource Center is founded.
1984 Inspired by the 5•18 Movement, Young Koreans United of USA is founded.
1985 A committee is formed to commemorate 5•18 and support the memorial tower construction ($35,000 raised by 1986).
1986 Protest is held against then-ROK President Chun Du Hwan's U.S. visit. / Rally condemns Chun Du Hwan's fascist brutality. / Conference launches the Committee Against the Suppression of Democracy and Reunification Movement. / A vigil and forum to commemorate the 6th Anniversary of 5•18 is held and the city of Berkeley passes a resolution to announce the event date as “GwangJu Citizens' Day”).
1987 “Korea's Division and 5•18” Forum commemorating the 7th anniversary of the 5•18 Gwangju People’s Uprising
1988 Protest is held against then-ROK President Roh Tae Woo's U.S. visit. / Pan-Korean Conference is held to commemorate the 8th Anniversary of 5•18 Gwangju People's Uprising. / The National Assembly of the Republic of Korea holds 5•18 Hearings.
1989 Southern California Korean American Conference is held to commemorate the 9th Anniversary of 5•18 People's Uprising
1990 Korean American Forum is held to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of Gwangju People's Uprising. / In Korea, the Gwangju Democratic Movement Reparation Bill is passed.
1991 Southern California Korean American Conference is held to commemorate the 11th Anniversary of 5•18 Gwangju People's Uprising. The program includes a commemoration ceremony, film screening of “Mother, It's Your Son,” and musical performance of “When the Blue Mountain Calls.”
1992 Organizations and individuals affiliated with 5•18 form the May Festival Committee.
1993 The 13th Anniversary Commemoration Ceremony is held. / A forum is organized on “The Historical Meaning of Gwangju Uprising and the Proper Resolution.” / 5•18 Commemoration Event Action Committee is formed / Yoon Han Bong, the last fugitive of the 5•18 People's Uprising returns to Korea and founds the “Research Institute for the Future of Our People” in Gwangju.
1994 The 14th Anniversary Commemoration Ceremony is held. / A walk-a-thon commemorates the 5•18 spirit. / Theater group “ToBakYi” performs play “Peony Flower.” / The May 18 Memorial Foundation is formed in Gwangju, Korea.
1995 The 15th Anniversary Commemoration Ceremony is held. / A walk-a-thon commemorates the 5•18 spirit / Park Moon Ok and Oh Chang Gyu performs music concert “Gwangju! Our Songs!” / Rally in front of the Korean Consulate protests the dropping of charges on the 5•18 case by the prosecutor's office. / Overseas Koreans Petition Campaign is launched to introduce the Special Bill on 5•18 (20,000 signatures collected) / The Korean government introduces the Special Bill on 5•18 Democracy Movement.
1996 The 16th Anniversary Commemoration Ceremony is held. / Video “When the day comes” is presented. / Prof. Kang Jeong Gu speaks at forum. / A walk-a-thon commemorates the 5•18 spirit. / Theater group “ToBakYi” performs the play, “KeumHee's May.”
1997 5•18 Memorial Park Democracy Tree Planting Campaign is coordinated. / The 17th Anniversary Commemoration Event – Commemoration ceremony and video screening of “Yoon Sang Won, a citizen soldier” --- is held. / Former Presidents Chun Du Hwan and Roh Tae Woo's military revolt and treason charges are finalized by the Korean Supreme Prosecutor's Office.
1998 5•18 People's Uprising Commemoration Committee is formed. / The 18th Anniversary Commemoration Ceremony is held. / Visit to 5•18 Memorial Park is organized.
1999 The 19th Anniversary Commemoration Event is held – Commemoration ceremony and Video screening of “Red Brick.”
2000 The 20th Anniversary Commemoration Event is held – Commemoration ceremony, forum and talk by Prof. Han Yong Seop: “The US role on 5•18” and video screening of “Documentary 5•18.” / The 20-year Anniversary Commemoration Conference gathers at UCLA.
2001 The 21st Anniversary Commemoration Event is held – Commemoration ceremony, forum and talk by Prof. Kim Man Heum, video screening of “Documentary 5•18.”
2002 The 22nd Anniversary Commemoration Event is held – Commemoration ceremony, forum: “22nd anniversary of 5•18 and the building of equitable relationship between Korea and the U.S.” 5•18 Photo Exhibition. 2003 The 23rd Anniversary Commemoration Event is held – Commemoration ceremony, bilingual symposium “Remembering Gwangju: Peace, Democracy, and Community” with invited non-Korean activists.
2004 The 24th Anniversary Commemoration Event is held – Commemoration ceremony, talk and forum: Prof. Edward Taehan Chang and “Reflections of the 5•18 Solidarity Committee,” Prof. Yang Pil Seung and “Protest at the American Red Cross and the Blood Drive Campaign.”
2005 The 25th Anniversary Commemoration Event is held – Commemoration ceremony, forum: “Our community's action and direction” (guest Speaker: Prof. Edward Chang and KRC Executive Director Dae Yoon).
2006 The 26th Anniversary Commemoration Event is held – Civic Empowerment and Student Movement in Light with guest speakers and cultural peformance: Prof. Glenn Omatsu, Young Koreans United of Los Angeles, Eunsook Lee (NAKASEC), Eddie Kim, Skim, HanNuRi Korean American Cultural Troupe.
2007 The 27th Anniversary Commemoration Event is held – “Our Stories of May 1980.” / On June 26, Yoon Han Bong, the "Last Fugitive" involved in the May 18th Gwangju People's Uprising of 1980, and leader of the progressive Korean American grassroots movement, passes away at the age of 58.
2008 Symposium “The Movement of People” commemorates the 28th Anniversary of 5•18 People's Uprising and the 25th Anniversary of the founding of the Korean Resource Center – Korean American activists around the nation join with migrant rights activists from Asia, Australia, and Europe to participate in this multigenerational event.
2009 Community Forum is held: “Late Kim Gu / May 18th 1980 / Communities in the U.S” (guest speakers: Ho Kie Eun, Eun Sook Lee, Marqueece Harris-Dawson) / Essay contest “The Community I Want” on the spirit of civic participation and justice.
- “Korea, South The Kwangju Uprising “, (The Library of Congress Country Studies, June 1990)
- Mamatas, Nick. “Kwangju Twenty Years Later: A Guide to Urban Insurrection“, (July 02, 2001)
- Watkins, Thayer. “The Regimes of Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo in South Korea” (San Jose State University Economics Dept, May, 2002)