Gwanju People’s Uprising

25 May



Gwangju, Korea, May 18, 1980: Soldiers are deployed against the people to brutally quell the Gwangju Democratic Uprising.
The Gwangju People’s Uprising took place in the city of Gwangju, south Korea, from May 18-28, 1980. It was a glorious revolutionary action undertaken to oppose the brutal military dictatorship of General Chun Doo-hwan. Chun had come to power through a U.S.-engineered military coup that overthrew the government of President Choi Kyu-hah and imposed martial law in south Korea in May 1980.

According to various news and eye-witness reports, the Gwangju People’s 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. The police were unable to hold the organized resistance of the people so a Special Forces unit trained for assault missions was dispatched to smash the uprising. The Special Forces used tear gas, batons and rubber bullets to try and suppress the uprising but still workers, shopkeepers, and parents took to the streets to defend their children. Then the military opened fire, killing close to two hundred people and wounding hundreds more.

Memorial in Gwangju, Korea, dedicated to those who gave their lives during the democratic uprising of May 1980. (ChrisJ/TrekEarth)

On May 20, some 10,000 people demonstrated in Gwangju. Due to the widespread militarization of the society, most major workplaces in south Korea had caches of weapons. Protestors seized these weapons, buses, taxis and even armoured personnel carriers, forming armed militias to fight the army. On May 21, the Special Forces were forced to withdraw and the city fell to the citizens.

The next five days were unprecedented in south Korean history. The people organized themselves into citizens’ committees to ensure the well-being and security of everyone. Food, medical and transportation systems were organized and lively political discussions took place where the people gathered to discuss their future and their opposition to the U.S. occupation of south Korea and the military dictatorship.

On May 24, 15,000 people attended a memorial service in memory of those who died at the beginning of the uprising at the hands of Special Forces. On May 25, about 50,000 people gathered for a rally in Gwangju and adopted a resolution calling for the abolition of martial law and the release of Kim Dae Jung. (Kim, who passed away in August 2009, was at the time of the uprising a well-known political prisoner. He would later become the eighth President of the Republic of Korea and play a significant role in moving forward the north-south dialogue for reunification. Along with the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Kim Jong Il, Kim Dae Jung co-signed the historic June 15 North-South Joint Declaration which paved the way for a new period in the struggle for Korean reunification.)

Soon after this, the U.S. government of Jimmy Carter intervened because the Gwangju Uprising was seen as a threat to U.S. strategic interests on the Korean peninsula and Asia. The U.S. ordered the Chun regime to move troops from the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) separating north and south Korea and to re-occupy Gwangju. On May 27, at 3:30 am, the army swarmed Gwangju in Operation Fascinating Vacations. The people of Gwangju resisted courageously against this act of state-terror.

In the ensuing battle, thousands of civilians were killed and close to 15,000 people were injured. More than 1,500 people were taken into custody and many were tortured. Seven people were executed and 14 received life sentences for taking a stand against the U.S.-sponsored military dictatorship and to demand their rights.

The Gwangju People’s Uprising delivered a decisive blow to U.S. imperialism on the Korean peninsula and signalled a turning point in the struggle of the Korean people’s collective will to rid their nation of the U.S. military occupation of the south.

It was also a decisive battle in the Korean peoples’ project of national reunification, their fight for democratic reforms and an end to U.S.-installed military dictatorships in the south.


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