Military fired at Gwangju protesters from helicopters: study

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Military fired at Gwangju protesters from helicopters: study

The military, under the junta of Chun Doo Hwan, had opened fire on protesters from helicopters during the democratization uprising in Gwangju in May 1980, a special investigation committee of the Ministry of National Defense said Wednesday.

Chairman Lee Kun-ri of the special committee announced the outcome of the probe, which investigated the massacre of pro-democracy protesters by the Martial Law Command in 1980.

The probe discovered that a joint operation of the Army, Navy and Air Force was conducted to end a series of demonstrations that took place in Gwangju from May 18 to 27, 1980.

The committee confirmed for the first time that the military fired upon demonstrators from helicopters. The Army mobilized 40 helicopters to Gwangju during the 10-day demonstration, and 500MD attack helicopters and UH-1H utility helicopters were used to open fire on Gwangju protesters on multiple occasions on May 21 and 27, the committee said.

The committee also confirmed that the Martial Law Command made multiple verbal and written orders for the helicopters to conduct strafing runs starting from May 21.

The helicopter operation plan specifically ordered them to “open fire and sweep the center of the armed demonstrators.” The execution guidelines also stated that 20-milimeter Vulcan automatic guns, as well as 7.62-millimeter guns, were appropriate for firing upon demonstrators.

The Martial Law Command also ordered troops to broadcast three to five warnings before helicopters opened fire. After the warnings, the troops were ordered to shoot to kill.

Officials of the Martial Law Command have so far insisted that no armed helicopters were sent to Gwangju until the right of self-defense was evoked by its commander at 7:30 p.m. on May 21. But the investigation confirmed that three armed helicopters were on standby at the 31st Division of Gwangju starting from May 19.

The committee also said five pilots gave statements that they had flown over the city with armed helicopters, but had not opened fire on protesters. Other pilots refused to cooperate with the investigation and no flight log was found.

Despite eyewitness testimonies, the military has long denied that helicopters made strafing runs in Gwangju, but a recent investigation by the National Forensic Service concluded the opposite. The committee’s announcement on Wednesday is the latest disproof.

“The May 21 helicopter firing was an indiscriminate and inhumane act,” Lee said, “and it is evidence demonstrating the savagery, cruelty and criminality of the Martial Law troops’ operation.”

The Air Force also had a fleet of fighter jets and bombers on standby in Suwon and Sacheon. Although it was out of the ordinary to put aircraft loaded with bombs on standby, the committee said, further investigation is needed to conclude whether they were intended to drop bombs in Gwangju or if there was any consideration of such a bombing plan.

The committee also confirmed that the Navy put Marines on standby in Masan starting from May 18 for a dispatch to Gwangju, but later canceled the order.

The May 18 Memorial Foundation, however, said the committee’s probe is unsatisfactory. “The committee relied on testimonies of Gwangju residents and records,” it said, “failing to identify specific pilots or the unit that used helicopters to fire on protesters.”

It demanded that the National Assembly create a special law to allow a more thorough investigation, as the statute of limitations has expired.

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