Memories of massacre linger in GwangjuGWANGJU, South Jeolla
It’s been 24 years since the tanks rolled into town, full of soldiers intent on hunting down student activists, but memories of that day are still fresh for the residents of this provincial town. The Gwangju Democratization Movement, also known as the May 18 Resistance, was no ordinary student protest ― it was more like a war.
Kim Ok-ja, then a 41-year-old housewife, remembers how, on that day in 1980, she hid her six children inside the house, pulling bedclothes over their heads so that they wouldn’t hear the guns firing.
As she anxiously waited for her husband to come home, Ms. Kim looked at the scene outside her home, which was close to Chonnam University, a hot spot for student activists, and could not believe what she was seeing. The army had taken control of the campus, blocking several hundred of the youth protesters. She couldn’t understand why soldiers aimed their guns at the people, when they should have been protecting them.
A few hours later, she came to fully understand the extent of the day’s horrors ― her 46-year-old husband, Ahn Du-hwan, wasn’t an activist, but a bullet happened hit his head while he was on his way to a nearby temple. Ms. Kim fainted upon hearing the news.
May 18, 1980 was the culmination of many months of tension in the country. After the assassination of military regime leader Park Chung Hee on Oct. 26, 1979, turmoil spread all over the nation. Activists were hoping that his death would herald the beginning of a long-awaited democracy. Unfortunately, Chun Doo Hwan, who brought about a coup d’etat in December 1979, didn’t see things their way.
To the activists, Chun’s regime was intolerable, an obstacle to democracy that had to be removed. In the spring of 1980, frustrated and agitated, they started to take action.
On May 15, about 100,000 college students gathered at the Seoul Station square. The following day, activists from 24 colleges agreed to a temporary halt in demonstrations while they waited to see what the government would do.
Student activists in Gwangju also agreed to suspend their protests and went home on May 16 after staging one last torchlight demonstration in front of the provincial government building.
Chun Doo Hwan’s regime, however, was not in the mood for reconciliation. When the clock hit midnight on May 18, the government expanded martial law nationwide.
Riot police invaded campuses to root out student activists and detain their leaders. The nation’s future presidents, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, were caught in the raids. On the morning of May 18, the regime ordered every university to close and told soldiers to stop students from entering campuses.
If the government was hoping to discourage the activists, it failed. The sight of the soldiers only increased the students’ anger, especially in Gwangju.
More than 200 students of Chonnam University in Gwangju tried to enter the campus, only to be attacked by the army, as Ms. Kim witnessed. The sight of the injured students who had escaped to the city’s downtown area was enough to move citizens to join the crowd. The army, however, again beat them with clubs and their rifle stocks.
The following day, army leaders were alarmed to hear that the number of protesters in Gwangju had risen to more than 5,000. The army then brought out armored vehicles and closed government and public offices.
By the afternoon of May 20, 30,000 pro-democracy citizens had gathered downtown. At night, the number added up to more than 200,000, who took command of the provincial government building and targeted police stations as well. The army then cut all the phone lines in the city, leaving Gwangju isolated from the rest of the world.
By 11 p.m., the army felt the protesters were getting out of control and decided to open fire on citizens. By 1 p.m. the next day, May 21, 54 citizens had been shot to death, according to the official record.
The pro-democracy forces, by then numbering more than 300,000, started to think of themselves as a civilian army. Attacking local car factories, they took about 80 buses and armored vehicles and tried to break through the army lines, only to be stopped by the machine-gun fire.
As they watched their comrades fall, the activists went ballistic. Running to police stations nearby, they took guns and cartridges and got ready to do battle with the army.
“It was just hell,” recalls Kim Hu-jin, 65, who was injured by the army and now heads a group that represents the casualties of the Gwangju attacks.
“Bodies scattered everywhere, soldiers killing at random, whose victims included pregnant women and children.”
Mr. Kim wasn’t an activist at the time, but when he saw soldiers beating students to death and dragging them on to a dump truck, he joined the pro-democracy crowd with other citizens.
“You’re not human if you can be merely an onlooker in such a situation,” Mr. Kim says. He was shot in the forehead and the chest and was in a coma for two weeks. Nurses called it a miracle when he regained consciousness.
Ban on information
People outside of Gwangju, however, had no idea what was happening in that city. The Martial Law Enforcement Headquarters, which also took full control of the local press, announced on May 21 that “student activists and gangsters who managed to leave Seoul went to Gwangju to spread groundless rumors, which resulted in an incident where one citizen and five soldiers died.”
Activists in Gwangju, in the meantime, were trying to negotiate with the regime for a peaceful end. One of the requests was to let the bereaved families claim the bodies of the victims. The soldiers were taking the bodies off the streets and burying them anywhere they could find room.
The activists’ efforts, however, were only met with an ultimatum from the army at dawn on May 26. The army ordered those occupying the provincial government building to turn in their arms. When they didn’t respond, the army again opened fire.
Citizens and students outside the building surrendered by 5 a.m. the following day, but 20 people inside refused to give up. By 2 p.m., the army killed everyone in the building.
For years afterward, the mere mention of what happened in Gwangju in May 1980 was taboo. The democratization movement was belittled as the “Gwangju uprising” or “Gwangju incident,” whose victims included 191 dead, 122 seriously injured and 730 lightly injured, with 26 billion won ($22 million) worth of damage.
The group of survivors and bereaved family members were forced to keep silent in the face of a military regime that was even stronger after the Gwangju massacre. Church ministers and foreign correspondents tried to let the world know what happened, but it wasn’t easy. Only in 1988 could the National Assembly bring up the event, after Chun Doo Hwan stepped down and his crony Roh Tae-woo took over.
After former pro-democracy activist Kim Young-sam took over the Blue House in 1993, he built a memorial park for the victims and designated their burial grounds as a national cemetery. He also worked to publicize the movement and the military’s oppression at the time. In 1997, Chun, Roh and their subordinates were sentenced to long prison terms for their part in the Gwangju massacre.
President Kim also signed the May 18 Democratization Movement Special Law, which officially recognized the democratic movement and outlined the penalties for the military regime leaders. The law also provided compensation to survivors and a national cemetery for the victims.
In 1997, however, Kim Young-sam issued a special pardon for the two former presidents, and President Kim Dae-jung, who took office in 1998, restored their rights as citizens.
The government may have officially forgiven the military regime leaders, but almost all Gwangju citizens over the age of 30 still have bitter memories of May 1980.
Kim Seon-ho, 32, a taxi driver, was 8 years old when he saw a young activist beaten to death by soldiers outside his house.
“We, the people of Gwangju, have a strong sense of solidarity,” Mr. Kim says. “Even the dictator couldn’t break it.”
He sighs deeply. “After all these years, however, the memories started to fade away. Many young people don’t have any idea about what happened, when there are still so many things yet to be known.”
The national cemetery was full of toddlers in yellow hats picnicking last Friday. Watching the children pay their respects along with their teachers, Kim Ok-ja, who buried her husband in the cemetery, fell silent.
“I used to come here every single day,” Ms. Kim says, dabbing at her teary eyes as she sat next to the grave.
After she found out her husband had been killed, she searched for his body. By the time she found it, his corpse had decomposed, his face barely recognizable. But she knew the blue T-shirt and the pants that she had ironed for him the morning before he died.
After the uprising, Ms. Kim turned into an active member of the group representing families whose members died at the army’s hands. She shaved her head and fasted for weeks in Seoul as she pressed the government for compensation.
Even though the government eventually offered compensation, Ms. Kim was dissatisfied with the gesture and the pardons given to Chun Doo Hwan and his friends.
She’s asked the government to make sure she’s buried next to her husband in the cemetery. “We could not be together in this world, so I want to be with him in the next life,” Ms. Kim says, choking up as she touches the grass on his grave.
Her voice gets stronger as she adds, “For the rest of my life, I’m going to fight to make sure the Gwangju massacre is never forgotten. That’s my fate, determined from the very day when the regime sent down the army to kill my husband and neighbors.”
by Chun Su-jin