Forty years ago, in May 1980, the South Korean military brutally crushed the popular uprising in the southwestern city of Gwangju with Washington’s knowledge and approval. For ten long days, from May 18 to 27, 1980, the bloodlust continued, which is still stirring up emotions – especially in the Republic of Korea (South Korea). There, May 18 is considered a” day for the democratic uprising”, which is solemnly remembered during numerous commemorations.
In May 1980, people protested in numerous cities in South Korea for better living conditions, shorter working hours, freedom and democracy. For too long, a military junta led by Park Chung-hee, who during the Second World War had served as a collaborator of the hated colonial power Japan in its imperial army as an officer, had forcibly left its mark on the country. Dissent, Protest and resistance have already nipped Park’s henchmen in the bud.
At the end of October 1979, the president himself was the victim of his Soldateska, shot by his own intelligence chief. However, the brief political thaw ended with a bloodbath. By the spring of 1980, Chun Doo-Hwan established his power – he too was a General. The military clique around Chun felt that the people, especially in the south-west of the country and in the city of Gwangju, had demanded democracy. Elite commandos finally crushed the angry protests of the townspeople and took back control of the City on May 27, 1980. The Regime saw” national security " at risk and feared that North Korea might exploit the unstable situation in its favor. Faced with the Alternative of standing up for freedom and human rights or the protection of its own – primarily military strategic – interests, the long-standing “protecting power” USA opted for the latter at the height of the Cold War.
The wounds of Gwangju are not scarred to this day. Many people in South Korea are suffering from the post-traumatic effects of the brutal suppression of the uprising in may 1980. Numerous commemorative ceremonies remind each year to the terrible Events. But at the same time, the name Gwangju marks the beginning of a new era of broad and vital movements for democracy on the Korean Peninsula, still divided 75 years after the end of World War II.
After a short democratic spring …
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) experienced rapid, state-controlled industrial development. Double-digit growth rates per year were the rule. Although a middle class slowly emerged in the urban centers. However, the mass of the population had to suffer under martial law and no share in the new wealth. The representatives of the chaebol, the powerful financial and economic conglomerates, and the politico - military leadership of General Park Chung-Hee, who ruled the country with an iron fist divided among themselves. In 1979, after years of martial calm, protest marches and strikes took place across the country: the call for democratization, improved working and living conditions, freedom of Assembly and organization, and reunification with North Korea were now joined by bourgeois - moderate - but politically marginalized-forces around the well – known opposition politicians Kim Dae – Jung and Kim Young-Sam.
After all, the White House was home to James Earl (Jimmy) Carter (1977-81), a US president who was not only the Supreme Military patron of the south of the divided Korean Peninsula, but who had made the worldwide preservation and enforcement of human rights, at least when he took office, the maxim of his policy. Under such conditions, president Park became more and more a mortgage even under the rulers. Within the South Korean power apparatus, he had lost the ability of an integrative leader. On 26. In October 1979, Park was shot dead by his own intelligence chief, Kim Jae-Kyu.
Subsequent unrest in the country and internal military frictions, a group led by Lieutenant General Chun Doo-Hwan knew how to use it skillfully for their own interests. In mid-December 1979, Chun and his loyalists staged a coup against the military leadership at the time, which seemed too lax for him, put the head of security Chung on trial as an accomplice of the tyrant murder, and avenged Park’s death by hanging the assassin Kim Jae-Kyu and four co-conspirators. The new “strongman” perfected his own power in April 1980, when he was also able to attract the leadership of the powerful secret service KCIA, the South Korean counterpart of the US CIA. Since Chun already controlled the military security service, he possessed an unprecedented amount of power, which predestined him to eventually move into the Blue House, the official seat of the president, and thus replace the weak interim president Choi Kyu-Hah.
… the unlimited power of the generals followed
In the six months of turmoil since the assassination of Park Chung-hee, large-scale demonstrations have been commonplace in numerous cities. There was an atmosphere of optimism in the country. Above all, the student body, the low-paid, shurified industrial workers and trade unionists and parishioners of the churches working in illegality or semi-legality pushed for democratic conditions. The Press wrote more freely than ever in 18 years under Park, political prisoners were released. The universities were given more autonomy and the Opposition was able to express itself relatively freely.
On 20 May 1980, Parliament was to vote on the opposition motion to repeal martial law. That went too far for the military. They knew how to prevent the vote and imposed martial law two days earlier, closed Parliament, party offices and universities, banned all political activity and threw hundreds of opposition members, but also some rivals of the military leaders from the government camp, into prison. Their reason: the security of the country is in danger, suspicious troop movements along the 38th Parallel are in danger. According to him, the border of the divided country, the Latitude, had been identified, which the high command of the US-American UN troops in South Korea denied.
Opposition politician Kim Dae-Jung (president of the country from 1998 to 2003), who was already in prison under Park and had the most supporters in the working class, was again locked behind bars. Kim Jong-Pil, the stock Conservative leader of the ruling Republican Party, who had been instrumental in organizing Park’s seizure of power in 1961, was arrested “for corruption.” Kim Young-Sam, leader of the opposition party, was placed under house arrest. The deposed Cabinet resigned closed.
Kim Dae-Jung came from the southwestern province of South Cholla (Cholla Namdo), in whose capital Gwangju the most violent demonstrations against the arbitrary measures of the military took place. Traditionally, Cholla had been neglected by the central government; in state development projects, the Region was always considered last, while its citizens were disproportionately burdened with taxes and other levies. In May 1980, 200,000 citizens and students of the city, about a quarter of the total population at that time, expressed their anger at the powerful in Seoul in peaceful parades. Only the brutal intervention of an elite unit of paratroopers led to violent street battles, as a result of which numerous people were killed and wounded. The situation radicalized very quickly. Students were stripped naked in the street and stabbed with bayonets, others had their breasts cut off. Injured people in hospitals were torn from the operating table and thrown out of the window. Such atrocities eventually led Gwangju’s citizens to storm weapons and ammunition depots and proclaim the “free city of Kwangju”. Peaceful demonstrations turned into armed insurrection, the troops fled the rebellious city.
After that, Kwangju experienced six days of deceptive freedom. The captured weapons were collected and stored in the government building, where a provisional administration was also established. The active Rebels found multiple support. President Choi Kyu-Hah promoted a solution to the conflict through dialogue instead of confrontation in a televised address, while the siege ring around Gwangju was drawn closer and closer. He promised “extreme leniency “and” no acts of revenge " by the military. When the troops arrived on the night of 27. After the May 11 attacks stormed the city center, ransacked every house, arrested hundreds (including ten-year-old children), all promises were null and void. Again, the most brutal violence reigned. Despite all this, the inhabitants of Gwangju did not give up. Immediately after the troop invasion, another 40,000 people demonstrated in the streets.
They ruled by murder and cruelty-smothered resistance of the people
Here are notes and reports from witnesses who survived the massacre:
A heavily pregnant woman, who had to be on the verge of giving birth, was dragged along the street like a dog by two soldiers from the military special forces. “Hey, whore, what have you got in your pocket?“someone shouted. I did not understand this question at first, as the woman had nothing in her hands and her dress, as far as I could see, had no pockets. “Don’t you fucking whore know if it’s a snot or a Pisserin?“It was only when the second soldier asked this question that I understood. I couldn’t hear the woman’s soft voice, but she probably said something like, “I don’t know.““Then I’ll show you.“With these words one of the two soldiers, without giving her further time to answer, tore off her dress and she stood naked, the other soldier stabbed her with the bayonet and I had to see her intestines swell out. Then they slit her abdomen, tore out the fetus and threw it at her; she was obviously still alive. The people who witnessed this incredibly brutal scene turned away foaming and trembling with rage.
I closed my eyes and bit my tongue; I was paralyzed. When I opened my eyes again, the soldiers and the body had disappeared. One of the men next to me said, “the soldiers put them in a bag like garbage and drove them away with the garbage collection.“I began to feel ashamed because I silently watched this cruelty from my hiding place to save my own life. I was immensely disappointed in myself when I had to experience myself as such a coward. The people next to me snuck away and disappeared one by one.
Screams from all directions and corners, screams of pain and death, cries of people. The earth seemed to open its pores and slowly absorb the blood sucked out of the young people’s spirit of freedom. The sky sometimes threatened to burst under the violence of the screams.
I was saving myself in a building when I suddenly felt a gun on my shoulder as I entered. Fortunately, someone had entered the house immediately in front of me and at that Moment lowered a lattice door so that I escaped the soldier’s blows to my head by seconds. For the first time in my life, I experienced up close what being close to death means. I was not alone there and, together with other refugees, peered anxiously through the grid into the street like a mouse. Everywhere shots, sharp knives, iron clubs, everywhere cruel murders. Old and young, students and citizens, they were all beaten, stabbed and shot indiscriminately.
At that moment, my attention was drawn to a 70-year-old man who received savage blows to the head from a soldier with an iron club, and from whose mouth blood spattered as from a fountain. Silently he fell to the ground. I didn’t know what to do and just sat down helplessly on the stone stairs.
The dying of a city
May 19 and 20, 1980 were the days when the beautiful, idyllic city of Gwangju, which has produced so many Democratic figures, became a bloody battlefield. That day, when I saw how fast the express bus spat out the passengers to get to safety, I sensed how serious the situation had become. I threw myself exhausted into the back seat of a taxi and told the driver to drive me to the government building. He reacted so violently that I almost felt sorry for him. He slowed down abruptly and indicated with an unmistakable gesture that I would like to go there on foot. So I got out and continued towards Im-dong. Soon I saw burnt-out police stations, as you only see them after wars, and armed soldiers everywhere, so that you believed yourself at the Front.
The crowd fled head over heels into the alleys, tea houses, Restaurants, shops and houses. The soldiers had bloodshot eyes and seemed to suck blood like leeches, shooting, stabbing and beating wildly with iron clubs. Around them, people fell to the ground in rows. These soldiers seemed to have an unlimited murder license in their pocket. Again and again I had to watch such brutal scenes that I never thought possible before. Do these people really use the same language as I do? Not even North Korean guerrillas could be so cruel.
Then refugees, who were witnesses of the slaughter, cried out in blind rage. One made himself the spokesman and shouted: “dear fellow citizens, we must rise now before all our children die. Grab hoes and poles and whatever else you can get hold of, but take up the fight!“He got spontaneous approval, the crowd formed. Within a short time, people were seen armed with sticks and clubs, without being able to tell where they came from so quickly. The people, who had been hunted and hounded a short time before, now resolutely resisted the soldiers. The spit had been literally turned.
- May. Throughout the night, shots were heard, as is usually only known from war films. Meanwhile, word spread that the special units of the raiding command had been withdrawn. An officer later reported that there had been serious conflicts within these special forces. One of these soldiers, he came from the region (Cholla Namdo), is said to have been indirectly responsible for the rapid withdrawal. When this soldier witnessed the indiscriminate stabbing and shooting of innocent citizens of his province, he fired volleys of rifles at his own comrades in a furious rage, killing five of them and then shooting himself. The special units were then moved to the suburbs of the city. For this, regular combat troops deployed and continued the killing. At all junctions of the city, they took up positions and mowed down the citizens in rows.
A song in May
Like petals in Kumnam Street please your young souls. Like a piece of soy bean cheese cut off your chest. Whenever those may Days return, the red blood throbs in our hearts.
Shot why? Why stabbed? Where did the truck go? In Mang-Wol-Dong, there stare thousands of eyes, yet open, bloodshot, still full of anger.
You Survivors! You Survivors! Let’s go together! This story of shame – how should we overcome them without suffering?
You Bald! You Japs! You Pointy-Nosed Yankees! Get out of this country! We will make our own history!
The soldiers ran through the city with bayonets planted like the victors, and I gradually got goose bumps. From half-closed eyelids I secretly watched the events around me and wiped the sweat of fear from my forehead. In the meantime, I reached Kumnam Main Street, which used to welcome visitors with its many flower boxes and fragrance. The coziness and friendliness of the inhabitants, the Pleasant streets and facilities, all that was now only a memory. The city was about to turn into a city ruin. The beautiful time when you could fish on the Kungag River in front of Mudung mountain, this beautiful place of the muses, which has produced and nourished numerous scholars-all this began to sink and disappear behind black clouds.
Tolerated by Washington
On May 27, the self-governing “free city of Gwangju” experienced the blackest day in its history. With the knowledge and tacit acquiescence of the chief of the US-South Korean High Command, General John A. Wickham, some of the South Korean military’s elite soldiers who had left the border region with North Korea blew themselves up and stormed the city. The balance of this martial operation: according to (later) official data 207 people were killed, non-governmental bodies speak however of more than 2,000 dead.
As a result of this massacre – at least approved by the United States-arson attacks were carried out on American cultural institutions in Gwangju, the metropolis of Seoul and the port city of Busan, the second largest city in the country, in the following months. After a Student died in the arson attack in the cultural center of Busan in March 1981, 6,000 opposition members were arrested in nationwide raids and over 50,000 euros were offered as a reward for seizing the perpetrators, the nine students involved in the attack voluntarily surrendered to the police after two weeks.
In a letter to Stephen Cardinal Kim Sou-Hwan, then archbishop of Seoul, the main accused defended the act as an act of patriotism: “(…) moreover, I would like to make it clear to you-said the letter-that we have only set this Institution on fire in order to denounce the injustice committed by the United States in the history of our country. ( … ) To cite as an example the uprising of the citizens of Gwangju: I wonder why they gave the military clique Chun Doo-hwan the right to carry out the massacre in that city. It is a well-known fact that, on the basis of the so-called defence agreement between the Republic of Korea and the USA, the order to deploy South Korean troops is solely subject to the joint high command of the South Korean-US Armed Forces, i.e. the US general Wickham (…).”
Both General John A. Wickham and the then U.S. ambassador to Seoul, William H. Gleysteen, were informed that, among other things, elite South Korean units of the 11th and 13th Special Warfare Command Forces brigades had been detached from their positions along the border with North Korea and then transferred to the capital and Gwangju. Nevertheless, they appeased, weighed, and downplayed these measures as a purely internal Korean matter. Tim Shorrock, an American investigative journalist, had the opportunity in the mid-1990s, on the basis of the Freedom of Information Act, to view and evaluate several hundred pages of files concerning the communication between Washington and Seoul before and after the Gwangju Massacre. In addition to the president, only a small circle of Secret Service personnel and staff from the White House, State Department and Pentagon was inaugurated. This illustrious circle committed itself to strict secrecy (NODIS = no distribution outside of approved channels) and communication among its members was codenamed “Cherokee”.
During his research, Shorrock came to the oppressive conclusion: the responsible US authorities in both capitals ultimately condoned the actions of the South Korean soldiers in their own interests. In his assessment of the situation, US ambassador Gleysteen even conveyed the image that in Gwangju a “mob incited by radical students” was about to cause instability in the country. Finally, a few weeks before Chun’s final consolidation of power, the US had increased its soldiers stationed in Korea by 3,500 men to nearly 42,900 GIs. The Carter administration’s fears were based on the tense situation in Iran, where the U.S. embassy had been besieged and hostages taken for months after the fall of the Shah, as well as the intensified confrontation with the Soviet Union due to the invasion of Afghanistan by the Red Army.
General Chun’s uncompromising approach in Gwangju ultimately convinced the politicians and strategists in the USA to henceforth throw their weight in the balance for this man. Carter’s security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Richard C. Holbrooke, then in charge of Asian and Pacific affairs at the State Department, coined a corresponding realpolitik formula. According to this, one should first fully rely on Chun and let him be granted in the interests of his own US interests, in order to urge him to moderate at a later time.
In any case, Chun Doo-Hwan enjoyed the privilege of being the first foreign head of state to be invited to the White House by the newly elected US President Ronald Reagan in February 1981. This encounter demonstrated far more than three and a half decades of fighting Brotherhood. Reagan’s global strategy of “forward defense”, intended to exploit the” Vietnam divide”, included not least the upgrading of South Korea and its new president. Washington spoke of a” new era " in mutual relations, which Reagan explicitly affirmed on the occasion of his return visit to Seoul and during his visit to the 38th parallel with the US troops in November 1983.
It is true that the Regime of ex-General Chun established his rule on the ruins of Gwangju. But the events of May 1980 contributed significantly to shattering the National, staunchly anti-communist consensus as well as confidence in the rulers. The hitherto repeatedly invoked threat scenario that North Korea was almost obsessed with the delusion of “swallowing” the south and turning it around “communist” in its own image turned out to be a brazen purposeful lie. They were South Korean soldiers who had shot at South Korean civilians! In addition, the protecting power myth of the USA crumbles. The GIs stationed in the country had first of all the political and military strategic interests of a great power in mind. The protection of the South Korean population was – if at all – secondary.
The Gwangju Trauma was followed by a leaden period. Political Engagement, not to mention open resistance, had become almost impossible. Leaders of the opposition, unless they were killed, imprisoned or otherwise silenced, had to go underground and work illegally to rebuild resistance networks and create democratic conditions. From 1987, in the run-up to the Summer Olympics one year later, the democracy movement had its first successes. But it was not until the beginning of 1993 that the era of military power in South Korea came to an end with Roh Tae-woo’s tenure in office.
” We must cultivate a democratic culture, “warned the former civil rights lawyer and President Roh Moo-Hyun, who was in office from February 2003 to February 2008, at the graves of the Gwangju victims in May 2005,” in order to solve problems through negotiations and compromises and to accept the results achieved in this way. In all this, it is essential to respect the other side in its human dignity and to respect the laws.“Four decades after the Gwangju Massacre, the way in which South Korea has changed its manners and civilized public life has been proven, among other things. the historic visit to the Gwangju memorial in May 2005 by the country’s chief of Police, General Huh Joon-Young.
Postscript: 40 years ago, a protest movement against the then ruling military junta ended in Gwangju, South Korea, with 207 fatalities, according to official data to date. Since then, non-governmental bodies have spoken of hundreds injured and over 2,000 dead. With a series of commemorative events, the people and official bodies in South Korea are reminding us again of the massacre at that time. The main theme of recent events of this kind was that today’s democracy had been “won by the blood and sweat of the fighters for freedom.” “Although the name Gwangju has been painted in the darkest colors for a long time and many people still suffer from post-traumatic disorders as a result of the brutal suppression of the uprising, “Yoon Kwang-Jang, a survivor of the massacre and president of the” May 18 Memorial Foundation, “had already emphasized in an Interview with the Korea Times in May 2010,” the uprising was a milestone on the road to democracy. "
And it is thanks to the current president of South Korea and former human rights lawyer, Moon Jae-in, that the government in Seoul is working with Verve to set up a bipartisan commission of Inquiry on Gwangju, which, however, has so far failed due to the resistance of political concrete heads and ultra - reactionary hardliners inside and outside Parliament. The latter represent the abstruse Position that North Korean soldiers had instigated an insurrection in Gwangju at that time, the sole aim of which was to destabilize the South Korean government.