Podcast miniseries about the May 18 uprising in Gwangju, South Korea, in 1980 against the US-backed military dictatorship of Chun Doo Hwan. We speak with Kim Yong Ho, David Dolinger and Jeon Yong Ho, who took part in the events, as well as researcher and lead translator of the excellent book, Gwangju Diary, Kap Su Seol.

Our podcast is brought to you by our patreon supporters. Our supporters fund our work, and in return get exclusive early access to podcast episodes, bonus episodes, free and discounted merchandise and other content. Join us or find out more at patreon.com/workingclasshistory
You can listen to our podcast on the below links, or on any major podcast app. Links to a few below.

  • Part 1: Background and beginning of the uprising, May 13-18

More information

  • E51: Jeon Tae-il and Lee So-sun – Episode about two important South Korean labour organisers, which contains background information to the political situation in the country in the run-up to the Gwangju uprising.
  • Lee Jae-eui, Gwangju Diary: Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age – The best history of the Gwangju uprising, translated by Kap Su Seol and Nick Mamatas. Buy it here or read online here.

Sources

Acknowledgements

  • Thanks to our patreon supporters for making this podcast possible. Special thanks to Conor Canatsey, Shae, James and Ariel Gioia.
  • Thanks also to the following people and groups for additional assistance with these episodes: Michael Choi, Jiminy Lee, Grayson F. Lee, Rachel Min Park, Heung Coalition and Angela Lee.
  • Photograph used in episode graphic courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Other uprising photographs courtesy David Dolinger.
  • Music used in this episode under fair use was “Marching For the Beloved” by Baek Ki-wan, Hwang Seok-young and Kim Jong-ryul.
  • This episode was edited by Jesse French.

Subscribe

Listen and subscribe to WCH in the following ways: RSS | Apple | Soundcloud | Stitcher | Podbean | TuneIn | Spotify Google Podcasts

Transcript

Part 1

WCH: In May 1980, workers and students in Gwangju, South Korea, rose up against the brutal, US-backed dictatorship. They drove out murderous special forces troops, and ran Gwangju collectively for several days, until eventually government forces retook the city. This is Working Class History.

[Intro music]

Hi and welcome back to the Working Class History podcast. Firstly just a quick reminder that this podcast is only made possible because of support from you, our listeners, on patreon. We have been working on this episode for a bit over a year, and in addition to the dozens of hours of research, writing, recording and so on, we have also had to pay for translation, transcription, editing and so on. So we are extremely grateful for generous support from our listeners which makes this possible. If you can, please consider supporting our work where you also get exclusive benefits like early access to episodes, special bonus episodes including additional content about the Gwangju uprising, and more. Learn more and sign up at https://patreon.com/workingclasshistory. Link in the show notes.
I’ve been wanting to make a podcast about the Gwangju uprising for some time, especially after visiting the city a couple of years ago, and going to some of the sites where key events in the rebellion took place, some of which look pretty much the same as they did in photos from 1980, like the fountain around which thousands of people would gather to rally and make decisions, and the provincial office which became the headquarters of the rebels and the location of their heroic last stand against the paratroopers.
But it wasn’t an easy undertaking, due to both language barriers and finding people who took part in it to speak to. So we are indebted to numerous people who have helped us put these episodes together, who we will mention as we go through the episodes, as well as our patreon supporters without whom we wouldn’t have been able to do this.
A short content note to begin with, this episode contains brief descriptions of graphic violence and sexual violence.
As usual we’re going to start off with a bit of background. We’re not going to go into this in that much detail because we basically did that in our episode 51, about South Korean labour organisers Jeon Tae-il and Lee So-sun. But essentially Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910, and after Japan’s defeat in World War II the southern portion of the country was occupied by the US, and a series of military dictatorships were then set up, with backing and support in the US, which governed the region for most of the next few decades after the 1980s. They were focused on economic development, based on the super exploitation of manufacturing workers, particularly women and girl textile and garment workers earlier on, and later more male workers in heavy industry. Hours were long, pay was low, and conditions were dangerous. There were no genuine independent unions, no real workers’ rights, and any organisation of workers was heavily repressed by state security forces including the police and intelligence services, the KCIA.

Kap Su Seol: To understand that issue, we have to talk about the person called Park Chung Hee, who ruled Korea since 1961 through 1979 when he was assassinated by his right hand man, Kim Jae Gyu. Park was a former army officer of Manchukuo, the puppet state of Japanese imperialism in the 1930s…

This is Kap Su Seol. Kap is a researcher and writer who was a high school student in Seoul at the time of the Gwangju uprising. He also translated the seminal book, Gwangju Diary: Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age.

Kap Su Seol: We don’t know much about Manchukuo, they never teach at school about Manchukuo, but it was… Manchukuo was where Park was trained and where Park got his first vision about what country he should build in South Korea. And in the 70s South Korea was more like Manchukuo where there was no democratic process. You were completely ruled by bureaucracy and the military. All resources, human, economic, were mobilized to build a strong state with a strong military what they call bugukgangbyung. So there’s no individual political freedom whatsoever and the labour unions were smashed, many protesters were imprisoned, but it all broke down on October 26, he was murdered by his right hand Kim Jae-Gyu. But prior to his assassination, there was for the first time in his rule there was a mass strike and a mass protest. There were mass protests in two major cities, Masan and Busan, in Southeastern area where he comes from and where his main supporters were living and uh, making some of them rich. It was a big shock to Park Chung Hee.

Through the 1970s, there was a wave of self-organisation and struggles by textile and garment workers, which we spoke about in episode 51. This culminated in some major struggles in 1979 by women workers in places like the YH wig factory factory, and then urban uprisings in Masan and Busan. Then all of a sudden Park Chung Hee got assassinated one night at dinner by Kim Jae-gyu, his personal security chief and head of the KCIA. Even today no one is quite sure exactly why this happened. It could have been, as Kim later claimed, to try to restore democracy, or it could have been due to political or personal rivalries, or some other reason. In any case, in the chaos that ensued, a military general named Chun Doo-hwan seized power in December 1979.
A contributing factor to this upsurge in struggle was collective efforts to educate working class people, by church groups and others. One member of such a group was Jeon Yong Ho, a Chonnam University student, who Michael Choi kindly interviewed for us when he attended the 40th anniversary commemorations of the uprising in Gwangju last year. Jeon is a man, and his words were dubbed and translated by Angela Lee.

Jeon Yong Ho: I was born in 1957 in Jeongnam, choongchun. My childhood and elementary school years was in Ohsun, then I moved to Jeongju, where I have lived until now. I was a  student in JunNam university(전남대), and I volunteered as a teacher with this group, Dul-bool-ya-hak , or the Wildfire Night School (들불야학 / “Yahak” is shortened for evening school)
In 1978 in Gwangju, the Wildfire School was created as part of a workers’ awakening.
Mr. ki-soon Park 박기순교사, 김영철 Youngchul Kim, (inaudible)… were involved in the formation.
In the mid-70s. The intent was create a space for workers to realize their consciousness and discover their rights, to grow and educate themselves.

Going back a bit again, Park Chung Hee initially took power in a military coup in 1961, which was subsequently ratified by elections, although the political environment of South Korea at the time was hardly conducive to free and fair elections. And he was very much focused on economic growth.

Jeon Yong Ho: At the time, in the 70s, many cheap industrial products were being produced and exported. There were a lot of factories being built. People from rural areas flocked to the cities to work as low-wage factory workers.

Kap Su Seol: Actually what we should note is that economic growth under Park Chung Hee was very real, actually it lifted so many people from poverty but many more were left behind. Typically in Honam area where Gwangju is located, there was a strong regional bias against Gwangju and Honam, and anti-area were left out. There’s no big factory in this area, or the regime began to make huge investments in the Southeast area where their leader came from. So there’s big disparity and inequality in South Korea, and basically people were very unhappy with Park Chung Hee as his regime grew older. So that’s what happened.

To explain the geography a bit, Honam is the south-westerly portion of South Korea, which used to be the historical Jeolla province, which contains the modern day provinces of North Jeolla, South Jeolla and the city of Gwangju, which was then the provincial capital of South Jeolla. So the terms Jeolla and Honam are used interchangeably in these episodes.

David Dolinger: That region is referred to as Chollanam-do or the Province of South Cholla. It was actually forgotten about by the Korean government. We didn’t really have the highest standard of living.

This is David Dollinger. He was a Peace Corps volunteer from the US, working at a health centre in tuberculosis control about 30 miles outside of Gwangju.

David Dolinger: As I tell people about living back then, there were no paved roads in the town or in the county where I lived. Everything was dirt roads. We had one road that just came to the edge of town and that was what the bus drove on. Other than that, it was all dirt. We still had homes, at that point in time, that had thatched roofs. We were not that well off. We were mainly in a farming area and a farming community but because of the politics of Korea at that time, Jeollanam-do, especially, was forgotten by the government. That was because Park Chung-hee had come from a rival province which was on the east coast of Korea.

Park’s regional bias was deeply political: in elections in 1971, 95% of the vote in Gwangju went to Kim Dae Jung, probably South Korea’s most famous pro-democracy opposition figure. Park won the election overall, in very suspicious circumstances, and soon afterwards he granted himself even more dictatorial powers, which were then codified in the Yushin Constitution enacted in 1972.

Kap Su Seol: Park wanted to sideline Gwangju and the Honam area because that’s where his arch rival Kim Dae Jung came from, and Kim Dae Jung almost defeated Park Chung Hee some years back in 1971. Basically the election was rigged, so Park somehow managed to steal the presidential election. After that, basically he institutionalized some kind of racism against, regional bias against, Honam people. Typically Samsung, one of the largest companies in South Korea, does not hire college graduates from Gwangju or Honam. There are two major factories in Gwangju area, one is Asian Motors, the other is Isshin Bangjik. Isshin Garment factory. They are all beat during the Japanese colonial times. There was no major plant newly built in Gwangju and Jeonnam area in the past forty years, especially during Park Chung Hee’s rule. So people, average worker in Gwangju took half the wage other workers earned in other cities such as Seoul or Busan. There are many many people who we now call precarious workers, who had to make a living on a daily basis. They worked in small factories, restaurants, and just whatever they can do they provided their service, whatever they can do. It was an extremely poor city, at the same time Gwangju was the logistic hub of the region, and the education centre of the province. So there are many young students in the city. There are more high school students than junior high school students in the city, and there are about twenty colleges in this city of 730,000 people. So Gwangju was packed with young people who were very discontent and had this grudge with Park’s regime because Park’s regime does not offer any real future for them.

Across South Korea as a whole, there were not a large number of students. But in Gwangju they made up a substantial proportion of the population – around 25% of the total.

Jeon Yong Ho: So there weren’t too many people going to universities. Only 20~30%. Young people were so poor at the time – it wasn’t even about what your career and salary was – it was worrying about what to eat.

So this was the general background in Honam province when Chun Doo-Hwan seized power.

Kap Su Seol: Chun Doo-Hwan… There’s-I think there’s major difference between Chun Doo-Hwan’s generation and Park’s generation. Chun Doo-Hwan is educated in the US. He was trained in Port Benny, where many American ally soldiers were trained. He was the first, one of the first, South Korea generals who got trained in special warfare and psychological warfare. And his older generation, Park’s generation, were all educated in Japan and they fought in the Korean War and Chun Doo-Hwan fought in the Vietnam War. There is a slight difference, Chun is more like… He knows how things work better than Park Chung Hee, in terms of politics. He tried to employ a combination of appeasement of repression through his rule. That said, Chun Doo-Hwan has two stages of coup. First one happened in December 1979, he shot his way to power by rounding up senior generals and killing some. And it was not just a coup, but it was also as I told you, it was a generation shift in the military. So now the new generation who fought in Vietnam, who were educated in US, hold the power in the military. Then six months later in May 18, he staged another coup by lifting martial law to the maximum level. So practically every single part of Korea, including Jeju Island, becomes under martial law and he disband national assembly and shut down the administration body of the government.

On 13 May, large street demonstrations began in Seoul, calling for an end to martial law. These spread to Gwangju the following day, when students from Chŏnnam and Chosun universities taking to the streets and battling with riot police.
On 15 May, the protests in Gwangju grew, with students being joined by other local people, also demanding workers’ rights and democratic reforms.
At the end of the day the 15th, protests in Seoul and other cities were called off by organisers.

Jeon Yong Ho: On May 14, 15, 16 – for three days –we all gathered at the  MonJoo University plaza to demonstrate and demand for a quicker transition to democracy. That was the beginning of the demonstrations – university students would gather at their respective schools to demand democracy or stand up against abusive acts squashing democracy. (unintelligible))

Kap Su Seol: Gwangju was the only city where there was demonstration on May 16, a day before, May 15, students in other regions decided to stop them protesting and basically they want to see what happens. That’s because they couldn’t win any popular support over the weeks of protest before. But Gwangju was different. Many citizens joined the student protest and even the college professors joined the student protest on May 16…

David Dolinger: On Friday 16th, I went to Gwangju because I was on the way to a friend’s wedding that was going to occur on the Saturday. I spent the night in Gwangju because of having worked all day and the bus system at that point in time. Actually, I had a lot of friends that were college students. I had met one young lady, who I knew, on the bus going to Gwangju and she and I went to see her brother. At that point in time, I was actually told about the candlelight march that they were going to have on Friday and so I took part in the candlelight march, not actually in the street but on the sidewalk. So I visualised that as that went from the train station to the Provincial Office Buildings. The next morning, I actually took off for the wedding because I didn’t really want to miss that and after having talked with the students, that was the last protest they were going to have. They’d been asked by the government to stop protesting, to go back to the campuses and allow democracy to occur. They had acquiesced and said, ‘Okay, we’ll do that,’ but they had this one last candlelight march and the next day, they went back to the universities.

Kap Su Seol: I heard that about 200,000 ordinary citizens and the students joined together, marched together, past the curfew back then. So tension is still there. In other region tension is kind of died down, and to be honest they’re a little bit scared of what will happen. But Gwangju was kind of imbued excitement of some expectation of what’s going to happen to their country…

On 17 May, the government said that the National Assembly was going to meet to discuss lifting martial law and bring in reforms, so activists were heartened by this. But then from that afternoon, the government started rounding up dissidents en masse. In Seoul, all known democracy activists were rounded up, and 11 PM in Gwangju police and intelligence agents raided the homes and arrested of almost every known dissident, other than those who managed to evade officers and go into hiding. Kim Dae Jung was one of those arrested.
Shortly before midnight on 18 May, the government declared a state of emergency and announced that martial would be extended to cover the whole country. Here Jeon says midnight on 17 May, that basically refers to 0 hundred hours on 18 May.

Jeon Yong Ho: That’s when soldiers were deployed at each of the universities. At midnight on May 17th, every university outside Seoul were crawling, and eventually just overrun with soldiers.
This all happened overnight, so the Chonnam university students didn’t know of the military presence. All they knew was of the plan to meet again to demonstrate.

Back in Seoul, Kap experienced the crackdown as well.

Kap Su Seol: I was lucky enough to go to an elementary school which was part of a college campus. One day when I went to school, on May 18, my elementary school was occupied by paratroopers because of martial law. And as a kid, every Korean kid learned to respect soldiers, and love them. And I said hello to the soldiers and they were very nasty, even with children. They swore at us. The pushed us. They even occupy our playground, we didn’t have any physical training class over the three months. So that was when I first questioned what these soldiers are. What they are here for? My teachers could not explain anything because they fear for the worst thing that might happen if they might explain anything about this. I still vividly remember in late May, the paratroopers left the campus and then it was repressed by average infantry units. They were more kindly, more like brotherly, uncle kind of figures. They were very kind to us, I even played soccer with them! The paratroopers were very nasty, and they swore at us. I saw one paratrooper swearing at my teachers, too. So, there was first, as a kid it was the first time to question “what are these soldiers? Why are they so aggressive with us? We are just kids. Why they didn’t let me play on my playground?” Those questions mostly answered by the time I went to high school, I began to read a book, “The Gwangju Diary,” which was semi-legal back then. I somehow got a copy. So, the question was finally answered, why the soldiers were so nasty to me and what they did in Gwangju…

On the morning of 18 May in Gwangju, riot police and paratroopers were everywhere. As a bit of background, to this day, the United States maintains effective control of the South Korean military. Although the paratroopers – elite special forces soldiers – were under the direct control of Chun Doo Hwan. We are going to talk more about US involvement in the events later. As well as security forces, Gwangju residents and students also began to take to the streets in protest at the escalating repression.

Jeon Yong Ho: Chosun students gathered at Chosun, and other university students at their respective schools. At around 9am the students began to gather at the entrance of Chonnam university, but the soldiers were preventing entry.
By 10am, there were about 200 students gathered at the entrance. That’s when the conflict began. But the students just have their bare hands, and the soldiers are armed with guns. So the students are being chased out, pushed around. So Chonnam university and the student conflict there was the starting point.
I arrived a bit late there, and came by the city bus. The bus route was supposed to pass South Jeonla전라? around 11am, and then to Chonnam University. I was supposed to be at Chonnam University by 10am, so I’m was late, you see. So on the way there, I saw about 100 students running in a panic. So those were the students that were at Chonnam University at 10am.  That’s when I got off the bus and joined the demonstration, and we protested until the 27th.

Clashes spread through the city. In some places, riot police used tear gas to try to disperse demonstrators. Elsewhere, paratroopers rushed in, grabbed individual demonstrators, and savagely beat them.
As the violence of the security forces escalated, so did the resistance. Protesters began picking up rocks and pieces of wood to fight the soldiers, and making petrol bombs. They raided a police substation and demolished it, and threw stones at the most luxurious mansion in the city.

Jeon Yong Ho: The paratroopers would come and harass civilians. They would stop and capture people on the street and beat them. They’d make people kneel on the street and take their clothes off. That’s why we were demonstrating.

By late afternoon, police and soldiers started beating people to death. Paratroopers picked up the bloodied bodies and threw them into trucks in piles. Many of them had previously been involved in suppressing the rebellions in Masan and Busan the previous year.
Soon, soldiers started using bayonets to stab people. At the bus terminal, they stopped all the buses, dragged off young people and beat them, as well as some drivers and women ticket takers. Elders who saw what was going on just cried in the streets. One middle-aged bystander who saw kids beaten to death said that he had fought in the Vietnam War and killed Vietcong, but even the notoriously brutal South Korean troops in Vietnam had not been this cruel. Even he shouted “We should kill all these bastards!”
By the early evening, school and university students armed themselves with steel pipes and kitchen knives, and forced paratroopers to retreat in some areas, until nightfall when they returned to their homes, while the army declared a curfew and roamed the streets, arresting anyone who looked like a student.
Meanwhile, underground groups hastily organised themselves and began printing leaflets and newsletters about what had happened and handing them out on the streets, while factory workers gathered to discuss what was happening.

Jeon Yong Ho: So this is all happening in the midst of the cities. But people in the suburbs had no way to see what was going on. So we had to inform the suburbians about what was going on, and we wanted them to join us

The government then imposed total martial law, and said that the unrest had to stop.
But the following morning, 19 May, Gwangju residents again took to the streets, in defiance of the military, who were all over the city.
Universities and colleges were shut down, but schools, factories and other workplaces remained open. That day, more and more non-students began taking to the streets, particularly housewives and street vendors. And the paratroopers continued to escalate their brutality. Anyone resisting arrest was bayoneted. Women in particular were stripped naked in the streets, and kicked unconscious. A group of 50 schoolchildren who witnessed and assault had their school raided, were all beaten unconscious and thrown on a truck. Even police officers attempting to assist the wounded were beaten by soldiers.
This brought more people onto the streets, and by the afternoon of the 19th local residents began to outnumber students, and their militancy increased. Women broke up cobblestones to be thrown at the soldiers, while numerous people hijacked vehicles and oil drums, setting them alight and driving them at police barricades. One group of demonstrators armed with steel pipes managed to capture a group of paratroopers and seize their weapons. But this victory was short lived as more paratroopers arrived, beat the demonstrators to death and threw their bodies off the roof of the building.

Kap Su Seol: Actually, one oversized sector in the city was transport because it’s a logistic hub. There are many independent taxi drivers, what New Yorkers say “g*psy cabs”, in Gwangju. And there are many freelance truckers. These drivers were like the first hand eyewitnesses of the carnage by the military. The military smashed their car when they—drivers tried to drive the injured protestors to safety…

In addition to their cars being destroyed, numerous taxi drivers carrying the wounded were pulled from their vehicles and stabbed to death with bayonets. Local hospitals and health centres were overwhelmed with the wounded and dying.
The army called in 18,000 extra police for reinforcements. But on the other side, students at Chungang girls school and other high schools walked out of class, while construction workers and middle-aged people joined the battle. Demonstrators attacked the Korean Broadcasting System building, burned down a police substation, and managed to win a number of small victories.

Jeon Yong Ho: During the demonstrations on the 19th of May, one paratrooper was left behind. All of the people were out in the streets, and this one soldier was isolated in a sea of people. The civilians began throwing rocks and powered over this soldier, and he retreated, limping.

At nightfall, the exhausted rebels who had escaped injury or death returned home and put on the news, to see the events completely ignored. Meanwhile, the government called in more troops.
The following day, the insurrection would dramatically escalate, and while many more would be killed by paratroopers, by the end of 21 May, the workers and residents of Gwangju had succeeded in liberating the city and driving out the police and the army.
[Outro music]
The story continues in part two of this miniseries. Our patreon supporters can listen to this and all other parts of this miniseries now. You can also get other great exclusive benefits. So learn more about this and sign up at
https://patreon.com/workingclasshistory. For everyone else, future parts will be out each week.
As always, weve got more information, sources, photos and transcripts on the webpage for this episode, link in the show notes.
We would like to thank all of our guests for speaking with us, as well as Michael Choi for undertaking interviews in Gwangju, and Angela Lee, Jiminy Lee and the Heung coalition, who helped with translation and dubbing. Huge thanks to our patreon supporters who make this podcast possible.
Special thanks to Conor Canatsey, Shae, James and Ariel Gioia. If you can’t spare the cash, no problem, please just tell your friends and family about our podcast, and give us a five-star review on Apple Podcasts or your favourite podcast app.
Theme music for this episode was the Marching For the Beloved, about the Gwangju uprising, by Baek Ki-wan, Hwang Seok-young and Kim Jong-ryul, link to stream it in the show notes.
Thanks to Jesse French for editing this episode.
And finally thanks to you for listening. Catch you next time.

If you value our work please take a second to support Working Class History on Patreon!