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Kwangju Massacre

In the infamous 1980 Kwangju Massacre [aka Gwangju Uprising, aka May 18 Democratic Uprising], at least 2,000 people were killed and thousands more seriously injured. Kwangju is a city of 600,000 people [in 1980] located 170 miles south of Seoul, in South Cholla Province, the scene of an uprising and bloodbath between May 18 and 27, 1980.

The people of Kwangju took to the streets when martial law was imposed throughout South Korea. The Government responded by mobilizing its frontline army troops and ordering an attack on its very own people. By the South Korean Government's count, nearly 200 people were killed. But according to human rights sources, many more were killed-their bodies mutilated by the soldiers who had murdered them.

Kwangju was a product in part of the undesirable conflicts of regionalism. The chronic politics of regional hegemony had been a fact of life for decades. South Korea had successive presidents who "ruled by regional division" and who promoted regional division between the east and the west of the land.

As noted in a report issued by the Martial Law Command, the students and "hot-blooded young soldiers" confronted each other; angry citizens joined in, driven by alleged rumors that the "soldiers of Kyongsang Province origin came to exterminate the seeds of the Cholla people."

Some historians trace regionalism in Korea to the Three Kingdom period, two thousand years ago, when Goguryeo represented the DPRK, Baekje standing for Honam (Southwest Jeolla Provinces) and Silla for Yeongnam (Southeast Gyeongsang Provinces). Many blame the late president Park Chung-hee for modern-day regionalism in Korea due to his centrally-planned economic measures that heavily favored the Gyeongsan Provinces. Coming from Gumi in North Gyeongsang Province, Park actively turned the voters in his home region of Yeongnam against his dissident archrival, Kim Dae-jung, in the 1971 presidential elections.

Like the elephant in the living room, regionalism is an obvious truth that South Korean politicians like to pretend to ignore. Most Koreans are ashamed that there should be such a divide between the east and west. The Park Chung-hee administration concentrated development efforts in the southeast in the 1960s and 70s. As a result, the population in Jeolla Provinces experienced a chronic decrease in the 1970s, while that of Gyeongsang province rose sharply.

According to the report, the sequence of events was triggered by student demonstrations on the morning of May 18 in defiance of the new edict. Some 200 Chonnam University students began demonstrating in the morning, and by 2:00 P.M. they had been joined by more than 800 additional demonstrators. City police were unable to control the crowd. At about 4:00 P.M., the Martial Law Command dispatched a Special Forces detachment consisting of paratroopers trained for assault missions. The report did not mention it, but the paratroopers killed a large number of people.

On May 20, some 10,000 people demonstrated in Kwangju. On May 21, the Special Forces were withdrawn, and the city was left to the rioters. A memorial service was held on May 24, with approximately 15,000 citizens in attendance.

On May 25, approximately 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 committee of leading citizens was organized on May 23 to try to settle the impasse, but "impure elements" and "maneuverers behind the scene" allegedly obstructed an effective solution. On May 27, at 3:30 A.M., an army division that had been circling the city for three days launched an attack. After light skirmishes, the army quashed the revolt in less than two hours. The army arrested 1,740 rioters, of whom 730 were detained for investigation.

A number of conclusions can be drawn from the Martial Law Command's account. The uprising started with student demonstrations. The Martial Law Command dispatched assault troops whose random killings angered citizens who had not participated in the initial student demonstrations. According to later reports by the command, nearly 200 persons were killed, including 22 soldiers and 4 policemen; of the civilians killed, only 17 died on the final day of assault. And, regardless of who spread the "wanton rumors," they evidently were credible enough to prompt the gathering of 50,000 Kwangju citizens.

Chun, touring the city after the revolt had ended, told the people of Kwangju not to make an issue of what had happened, but to learn from it. The specter of Kwangju, however, was to haunt him for years to come.

There were several after-effects resulting from the Kwangju incident. It deepened the chasm that had existed between the Kyongsang provinces (from which Park and Chun originated) and the Cholla provinces, of which Kwangju is a capital and from which the opposition leader Kim Dae Jung came. The United States' role also was controversial. General John A. Wickham, Jr. had released South Korean troops from the South Korea-United States Combined Forces Command to end the rebellion, and President Reagan had strongly endorsed Chun's actions.

The Kwangju massacre was to became an important landmark in the struggle for South Korean democracy. It heightened provincial hostility and marked the beginning of the rise of anti-American sentiment in South Korea. The Kwangju massacre was a watershed in US relationship with South Korea and in the South Korean perception of the United States. Among young South Koreans, the USA never recovered from the impression that, in some fashion, the USA was associated with this massacre.

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Page last modified: 14-01-2018 18:37:57 ZULU