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.
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- Part 1: Background and beginning of the uprising, May 13-18
- Part 2: Development and insurrection, May 19-22
- Part 3: Commune and repression, May 23-27
- Part 4: Legacy and aftermath, 1987 to today
- Part 4.1: Bonus episode with more of David Dolinger’s recollections – available exclusively for our patreon supporters
- 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.
- Han Kang, Human Acts – A superb but heartbreaking historical novel about the rebellion.
- Lee Jae-eui, trans Kap Su Seol and Nick Mamatas, Gwangju Diary: Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age (UCLA, 1999).
- Kap Su Seol, “The US Didn’t Bring Freedom to South Korea — Its People Did,” Jacobin, June 25, 2020, , accessed July 14, 2021, https://jacobinmag.com/2020/06/gwangju-uprising-korean-war-seventieth-anniversary.
- Kim Dong Won et al, The May 18 Gwangju democratic uprising (May 18 History Compilation Committee of Gwangju, 2013).
- Michael Newton, Famous Assassinations in World History (ABC-CLIO, 2014).
- Kim Yoo-chul, “Defense chief apologizes over rapes during 1980 Gwangju crackdown,” Korea Times, November 7, 2018, accessed June 29, 2021, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2018/11/356_258314.html.
- “South Korea apologises for rapes during 1980 Gwangju protest crackdown,” BBC, November 7, 2018, accessed July 14, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-46123548.
- “Flashback: The Kwangju massacre,” BBC, May 17, 2000, accessed July 14, 2021.
- Se Young Jang, “The Gwangju Uprising: A Battle over South Korea’s History,” Wilson Center, July 17, 2017, accessed July 14, 2021, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/the-gwangju-uprising-battle-over-south-koreas-history.
- Agence France-Presse, “Gwangju massacre: scars still raw 40 years after dictator crushed South Korea pro-democracy uprising,” South China Morning Post, May 17, 2020, accessed July 14, 2021, https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/east-asia/article/3084753/gwangju-massacre-scars-still-raw-40-years-after-dictator.
- “Remains found at former Gwangju prison in S Korea may belong to over 250 people,” United News of India, January 27, 2020, accessed July 14, 2021, http://www.uniindia.com/news/world/agitation-skorea-dead/1867084.html.
- Sheena Choi, “Protesting Identity: Memories of the Kwangju Uprising and Effects on Identity Formation of Youths,” Educational Perspectives vol 46 no 1-2 (2013), accessed July 15, 2021, https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1088346.pdf.
- George Orwell, “The freedom of the press,” 1945, accessed July 15, 2021, https://libcom.org/library/freedom-press-george-orwell.
- “Gwangju massacre,” search of BBC.co.uk, accessed July 15, 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/search?q=Gwangju+massacre&page=1.
- “Gwangju uprising,” search of BBC.co.uk, accessed July 15, 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/search?q=Gwangju+uprising&page=1
- “Tiananmen Square protest,” search of BBC.co.uk, accessed July 15, 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/search?q=Tiananmen+Square+protest&page=1
- “Tiananmen Square protest,” search of CNN.com, accessed July 15, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/search?q=Tiananmen+Square+protest.
- “Tiananmen Square massacre,” search of CNN.com, accessed July 15, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/search?size=10&q=Tiananmen%20Square%20massacre.
- “Gwangju uprising,” search of CNN.com, accessed July 15, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/search?size=10&q=Gwangju%20uprising.
- “Gwangju 1980,” search of CNN.com, accessed July 15, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/search?size=10&q=Gwangju%201980.
- Lilit Marcus, “Human rights museum opens in former Seoul torture site,” CNN, October 9, 2019, accessed July 15, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/democracy-and-human-rights-memorial-hall-seoul/index.html.
- Tobita Chow, “The Forgotten Workers of Tiananmen Square,” Nation, June 4, 2020, accessed July 15, 2021, https://www.thenation.com/article/world/tiananmen-massacre-neoliberalism-china/.
- Michel Oksenberg, Lawrence R. Sullivan, Marc Lambert, Beijing Spring, 1989 – Confrontation and Conflict: The Basic Documents (ME Sharpe, 1990), 364.
- Jun Mai, “Explainer | Tiananmen Square crackdown: what the ‘June Fourth incident’ in 1989 was about,” South China Morning Post, May 28, 2021, accessed July 15, 2021, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3135075/tiananmen-square-crackdown-what-june-fourth-incident-1989-was
- Erin Blakemore, “Tiananmen Square turned into a massacre,” National Geographic, June 4, 2020, accessed July 15, 2021, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/how-protest-tiananmen-square-turned-into-massacre.
- Choe Sang-Hun, “‘Historical Distortions’ Test South Korea’s Commitment to Free Speech,” New York Times, July 18, 2021, accessed July 19, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/18/world/asia/korea-misinformation-youtube.html.
- Clyde Haberman, “Seoul student’s torture death changes political landscape,” New York Times, January 31, 1987, 1, accessed July 19, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/1987/01/31/world/seoul-student-s-torture-death-changes-political-landscape.html.
- John Burgess, “Seoul Accused of Torture,” Washington Post, August 6, 1986, accessed July 19, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1986/08/06/seoul-accused-of-torture/fdfc7223-3e11-4e0e-8c1e-c5090d1c58ef/.
- “Kwon In-Suk, Korean sexual abuse victim, sentenced to 18 months´ imprisonment,” UCA News, December 9, 1986, accessed July 19, 2021, https://www.ucanews.com/story-archive/?post_name=/1986/12/10/kwon-insuk-korean-sexual-abuse-victim-sentenced-to-18-months-imprisonment&post_id=34724.
- Sam Jameson, “Korea Student’s Death Sparks Clash in Seoul : Police Disperse Demonstration With Tear Gas; Protesters Spurn Ruling Party’s Condolences,” Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1987, accessed July 19, 2021, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1987-07-06-mn-1311-story.html.
- George Lakey, “South Koreans win mass campaign for democracy, 1986-87,” Global Nonviolent Action Database, June 10, 2009, accessed July 20, 2021, https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/south-koreans-win-mass-campaign-democracy-1986-87.
- Sam Lowry, “1987: The Great Workers’ Struggle in South Korea,” libcom.org, August 18, 2008, accessed July 19, 2021, https://libcom.org/history/1987-the-great-workers-struggle.
- André Munro, “Park Geun-Hye,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, updated February 11, 2021, accessed July 20, 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Park-Geun-Hye.
- Choe Sang-Hun, “Choi Soon-sil, at Center of Political Scandal in South Korea, Is Jailed,” New York Times, October 31, 2016, accessed July 20, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/01/world/asia/south-korea-park-geun-hye-choi-soon-sil.html.
- BTS, “Ma City,” (song) KPOP. Vine YouTube, September 16, 2018, accessed July 21, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOCyL3SVsi0&ab_channel=KPOP.vine.
- Seol Kap-su, “The “Dream-like Witness” of the May 18 Uprising, Kim Yong-jang Was Not a U.S. Military Intelligence Officer,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, June 4, 2019, accessed July 21, 2021, http://english.khan.co.kr/khan_art_view.html?code=790000&artid=201906041632027&medid=enkh.
- “Chun Doo Hwan,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, updated January 14, 2021, accessed July 21, 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Chun-Doo-Hwan.
- Andrew Pollack, “New Korean Leader Agrees to Pardon of 2 Ex-Dictators,” New York Times, December 21, 1997, accessed July 21, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/1997/12/21/world/new-korean-leader-agrees-to-pardon-of-2-ex-dictators.html.
- 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.
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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.
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 until 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 co-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.
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.
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.
Hi and welcome back to the Working Class History podcast miniseries about the Gwangju uprising of 1980. If you havent listened to part 1 yet, we would recommend going back and listening to that first.
We left off last week at the end of 19 May, where the uprising the previous day had escalated, and the South Korean military dictatorship of Chun Doo Hwan was bringing in additional police and troops to try to put an end to it once and for all. As a content note, this episode contains short but graphic descriptions of violence and sexual violence.
Gwangju residents again started taking to the streets on the morning of 20 May, exchanging stories of state brutality, and those that had been savagely murdered. And most schools in the city shut down, including Kim Yong Hos. Kim’s words here have been translated by Jiminy Lee and dubbed by a member of the Heung coalition.
Kim Yong Ho: One day, it was an ordinary day that I went to school, but, without any explanation, my teacher announced, “Do not come to school until there’s a further notice.”
I didn’t even have any question. All I could think about was, ‘I can go home! I don’t need to stuck in school studying!” I was so excited, packed up my bags with my friends, we were heading back home. Then we were like, if we ever tell our parents that we go home early, they would put us in the room to study more anyway. Soon, we decided to hang out til late at night, so they would think that we had come back home after 10pm while studying.
We all were heading to the city center, it used to be around Jeollanam-Do Provincial Office where was the core of 518 gwangju democratic uprising. On our way there, we met the demonstrators, and we found them very interesting.
They shouted like, “Go away, Jeon Doo Hwan”, they clapped, chanted, and sang songs. There were a few songs that were familiar to me, I mean, even for a high school student, such as national anthem or gospel songs from church at that time. There’s a song called “I’ve Got Peace Like a River”, well, yeah, it’s a hymn. Some people sang hymns, others sang pop songs, and they were marching while doing all of them. Because it was so much fun to watch the protesters, we felt like there was no point going to the city center. My friends and I were like, “Hey guys, let’s just follow them!”, and we started to follow those people.
At one point along the demonstration, there were barricades, and the tanks were rolling in to those barricades. I remembered it as a tank, but later when I grew up, I realized it was an armored vehicle. But the memory of my eyes as a student, I remember it as a tank. After the tank rumbled, the soldiers with guns stood in line in front of the tank. And I was startled. There is a tank that you could only see in a war movie, then soldiers were blocking the frontline with guns, and this was a moment of surprise and confusion. Yet, the citizens were not scattered, so we were still watching it, but you know we are just young kids, and we got nervous. We were like, “Hey guys, what should we do?” And they were like, “Hey, if something ever happens, we should just run away.” We’ve discussed our meeting point then we ran into certain alley, and we’ve been still looking around how it goes for a while, but I don’t remember exactly the rest of it. After some time, all of sudden, I heard the gun shooting repeatedly, bang bang bang, at the same time, I was nervous as hell, so I ran off to our meeting point. While I still here the sound of the guns, I just ran as fast as I could. If somebody ever measured the record, I am pretty sure that I would have run fast enough to make it the record, well not the world record, but it could have made the domestic record.
While I was running away, I heard some citizens shouting, “Come back here!”, but I ran off to the meeting point where I was supposed to meet my friends. When I got there, I saw some of them made it while some of them did not. There we started to discuss again what we are gonna do, some said we should go back there to see what happened, and I agreed, so we went back to the venue. When we got there, protest was still going on, some shouted and sat down, or lay down. Because all the citizens were sitting in the area, I couldn’t go any further from the alley, but I was just watching from there, then again, I could see the situation clearly because all the citizens were sitting there…
Elsewhere in the city, troops were again resorting to violence, in some places using flamethrowers to incinerate protesters. Journalists on a local newspaper went on strike. Meanwhile, Kim Yong Ho was still in the streets.
Kim Yong Ho: The soldiers who were standing in front of tanks or armored vehicles, their guns were pointing in the air, they then came straight down towards the front, and they began shooting. I ran away again then, but I can’t remember well. Well, what I guess from my timid memory, the moment I ran into the alley, the citizens came at once and I might have fallen down. When I woke up and looked around, the soldiers came all the way over and assaulted the citizens, and what I remember most vividly, there were bayonets attached to their guns. Having a gun with a bayonet on it, not stabbing but I remember soldiers were turning over some people’s fallen bodies, I think they were trying to make sure that the person in front of me was dead.
At that very moment, I thought I must get up and run away to survive, well, I don’t know if you ever had that experience, my mind says that I must get up and run away, that’s the only way to survive, but my body won’t move quickly as my will. I was just a little kid who got totally scared, I think I raised my body a little, then my memory went blank.
He didn’t realise it at the time, but he had been shot in the arm. At the provincial office, then elsewhere, soldiers started to open fire on the crowds with live ammunition.
Kim Yong Ho: I woke up in some house, it is hard for me to explain everything, but yes, I woke up and saw my body was covered with a cotton blanket, and then the blanket soaked up my blood, and the smell was awful. The old lady from the house and the evacuees, they tried to stop my blood, but they did not have any first aid kits, so they ripped off the covers of the blankets, instead of medicine, they applied the korean seasoning called Doenjang on my heads and medicine, and I woke up with the blanket covers wrapped around my head. That’s how I ended up going to the hospital after. I heard that I was shot. Yeah, the gun shot over my head like this, if I had raised my body a little bit more, I wouldn’t have a chance to see you right now.
By the afternoon of 20 May, a group of workers who had been particularly affected by the events of the last couple of days began organising: taxi drivers, as Kap Su Seol explains. As we discussed last week, taxi drivers frequently found themselves subjected to violence the army as they tried to transport the wounded with many having their cars smashed or being pulled out their vehicles and murdered in the street.
Kap Su Seol: So they’re very upset with all of the situation. And they’re small scale at the… At the city stadium, that’s where they have hang out time together, they exchange trade information, between shifts. And that usual hang out place becomes a political forum during the Uprising and they organize mass protests. What they called the parade of taxi, or car parade of taxis. They filled up the Geumnan Avenue, that’s the biggest avenue where the battle between the military and protestors took place…
Hundreds of taxi drivers assembled, and prepared to try to smash through the military barricade outside the provincial office, the major government building on a large square around a fountain at the end of Geumnan Avenue. Backed up by a couple of buses, they were cheered by protesters in the streets as they arrive, who tried to clear the way for them using steel pipes and petrol bombs.
Kap Su Seol: About 400 vehicles tried to smash the cordon of the military, but it failed. Actually, the military somehow managed to stop them from smashing the barricade, but it turned around the situation in favour of the protestors bargain. Finally, protestors could almost breach the military barricade. It was a very big morale boost for the protestors. Along the way they developed new ways to attack the barricades. They used vehicles, as you put battering ram, smashed through the barricade. It was, that point on, protestors began to have some confidence that they could defeat the military, out of the city.
Seeing that sight started to turn the tide. Protesters started calling people into the streets, to bring whatever weapons they could from home. Farmers arrived with hose, rakes and home-made spears, and fire engines sprayed their water at the soldiers. And others took tactical inspiration from the taxi drivers, as Jeon Yong Ho explains.
Jeon Yong Ho: So the soldiers have guns, weapons, knives… and the civilians have nothing but their bare hands, completely outmatched. So the civilians came up with an idea – cars. They would mobilize by lines of vehicles. You place a rock on the accelerator, get out of the car, and that became the civilians’ weapon. This was an overnight revelation of a means for us to push back, since we didn’t have any weapons.
On the night of the 20th, there were gatherings of vehicles, buses, taxis because civilians had no other weapons. It was a mess.
Paratroopers continued to kill large numbers of people, but far more kept joining them. Soon, 200,000 people were on Geumnan Avenue, and the two biggest TV broadcasters had their offices firebombed and occupied. By 9 PM, demonstrators had seized City Hall, and started burning down police stations, which continued overnight.
By midnight, only the provincial hall and the train station were in the hands of the military. The following day, there would be an all-out insurrection.
On the morning of 21 May, the rebels found the bodies of two protesters who had been killed at the train station. All the rest of the dead had been taken away by the army.
Around a hundred thousand people gathered on Geumnan Avenue, and decided to requisition vehicles from the Asia Motor factory, which made buses, military trucks and armoured vehicles. The plant was initially shut down by street protests, and workers stopped turning up.
Jeon Yong Ho: Well, at the time, there was the Asia Car Company. They made vehicles for industry – they made military jeeps and trucks. There were dozens of those. And that’s when the civilians broke in and brought all of those vehicles and brought them into the cities. A civil uprising in the streets. That was the 21st of May.
Shots were fired at 1pm, and they continued to shoot. We only heard about it through word of mouth. So that’s when the civilians decided they needed to be armed. There was a big search for guns – amongst the Korean reserve forces… but in certain zones there were absolutely no guns to track down.
In other zones, we’d search for dynamites, any weapons we could find. By 2/3pm, enough civilians found arms – guns, dynamites, any weapons we could find. That’s when the battle began.
Street vendors and poor housewives started preparing and distributing food on the streets, while the wealthy fled the city, and the military set up checkpoints to seal off Gwangju.
Jeon Yong Ho: On the afternoon of the 21st, the civilians finally were armed and ready to fight back. There now was a blockade around Gwangju – you could not leave, you could not enter. Some got shot and died at the new border zones from the blockade.
With no one able to drive to the city, David Dolinger decided to walk 12 miles to get in. After a pretty hairy encounter with KCIA agents, which he talks more about in the bonus episode for our patreon supporters, he eventually arrived in Gwangju, and ran into a friend.
David Dolinger: I finally got to the edge of Gwangju probably around 2-2.30 in the afternoon. What was funny was the same woman that I’d met on the bus to Gwangju on Friday, I met as she was walking out of the city. She turned direction around and walked back in with me and told me everything that she had been witnessing. At one point, as we were starting to head down this small hill that comes down to Geumnam Avenue, which is the main street that runs right into the Provincial Office Buildings, we actually saw some students that had a body of a dead individual. They were using this to show the citizens in the neighbourhood what was being done and how brutal the troops had been because this young man had been beaten to death. When he’d finished telling the neighbourhood about it, he actually came over and talked to me and said, ‘We can’t stand for this. This is not right.’ We continued our walk down towards the centre of town and the next thing I knew, I actually heard helicopters. I’m looking up at the sky and looking to where the helicopter might be and tried to figure out what was going on. I didn’t notice that everyone else had left the street and then, all of a sudden, I just heard people yelling at me and finally, the woman I was with ran out, grabbed me by the arm and dragged me into a store. She said, ‘What are you? Stupid?’ I’m like, ‘What’s wrong?’ The next thing I knew, I understood why because I started to hear the sound of gunfire. They were actually shooting out of the helicopters at any mass of people that were collected on the streets. This is what she then told me. They had been shooting people all through that day from the helicopters and so I needed to be careful. She said, ‘If you hear a helicopter coming, you make sure you take cover.’
With that, we finally went all the way down to downtown. We were able to go under the main street of Geum Nam Ro and we parted company while I went to see if Tim was at home. Unfortunately, at that point in time, Tim wasn’t. He had actually gone to [19:08 – unclear] to work but the man who he lived with said, ‘Don’t worry, he’s coming back.’ So I left my one bag there and I put my camera [19:22 – unclear] went back to Geum Nam Ro to see what was going on. On the side streets, there were citizens taking refuge. I sort of figured out why [19:35 – unclear] and another [19:37 – unclear] because I’m talking to people and they’re trying to find out who I am. When they find out that I’m not a journalist and that I’m a Peace Corps volunteer but I do speak Korean which is okay. they said, ‘Okay, fine. You can go.’ They were trying to find Western journalists that they could actually talk to but as I went to the end of the side street, I started to poke my head around to see what was going on down in front of the Provincial Office Buildings. The next thing I know, I’m jerked back and I’m looking at this young Korean man and he was just sort of shaking his head and, again, he said, ‘Are you stupid?’ [Laughter]. I said, ‘What? What’s wrong?’ He said, ‘They’re shooting anyone that sticks their head out. They’re shooting you. We’ve already had a few people hit that have poked their heads around the corner to try to see what was going on.’
More and more people kept attacking the military barricade on Kumnam Avenue and were being shot down like flies by machine-gun fire from Province Hall and helicopters overhead. Several people launched vehicle attacks on the barricade, many of whom were shot and killed. David witnessed the horrific violence first hand.
David Dolinger: Some of the initial things that we saw were in the Christian hospital where we actually saw bodies of people that had been shot from the helicopters. To me, that was just unthinkable that you could see a bullet enter a person’s left shoulder and exit down by their right hip. I actually had doctors show me the x-rays. They weren’t using regular bullets. They were using what we always referred to as ‘dum-dum’ bullets or tumblers. They would just create this path of destruction through the body. Everything on the outside was two holes but on the inside, their entire body was torn apart. To follow that up, there were bodies that their loved ones couldn’t even recognise. I saw people whose facial features weren’t correct. The jaw is not supposed to be over on the left side of the face. You couldn’t even tell that it was a human face. You just knew that parents and loved ones could have never recognised this person. We saw women that had had their stomachs slit open and in that one case, one of the people that was telling me about it said, ‘She was pregnant. We don’t know where the foetus ended up. We saw women that had their breasts cut off. That’s the kind of violence and the brutality that occurred there. All you can say is that it was inhumane what was being done.
Residents in Gwangju were completely horrified and enraged by what they were seeing. Many people flocked to overcrowded hospitals to donate blood.
Kap Su Seol: Gwangju is like a traffic hub of the area, and like many other traffic hubs it has a very oversized red light district. Sex workers were the first non-student people who joined the protest. They also donated blood in droves, all the doctors made efforts to turn them away because they worried about STDs. Some of them claimed bodies of the victims. People being seen by family. Why they joined the uprising, or how they organized is entirely unknown. They just vanished because—after the uprising, because of bias associated with their sex work in Korea. And it seems that the military retaliated against them. I saw some years ago there were unconfirmed records that the paramilitary raided the red light district nearbythe train terminal. I don’t know what they mean by “raid” or “seupgyeok [습격],” it does not mean “mass round up” because there’s no record of a mass detention of sex workers during or after the uprising. I don’t want to speculate but it’s scary what “seupgyeok” or “raid” could mean in that context.
Eventually the doctors agreed and began taking blood donations from sex workers to help keep the wounded alive.
Back in the streets, rebel started distributing rifles they had seized from military reserve armouries. In South Korea, military service is compulsory for all men, and there are military reserve forces around the country. They gave out 30 carbines with a single clip of ammunition each to a group who became the first citizens militia of the uprising. They promptly set up in buildings around Province Hall and began firing on it through the windows.
Coalminers provided dynamite and detonators for the rebels, and women textile workers seized hundreds of rifles and handguns after raiding three police stations. Elsewhere people seized TNT, hand grenades, ammunition, rifles and a small number of machine guns.
Some armed demonstrators began attacking Province Hall right away, while others, many in their reserve army uniforms, assembled in Gwangju Park and formed combat units. Some of them were construction workers, waiters, shoe shiners, and some wanted revenge for murdered family members.
Jeon Yong Ho: Those who were able to help and fight were asked to stay. Dozens of men showed up at a time to lend a hand and join the civilian army. Women also showed up to assist.
The hastily-formed militia headed to Province Hall and at 5 PM set up machine guns roof of a hospital. Half an hour later, the paratroopers fled in armoured vehicles and trucks, shooting their way out, killing several unarmed civilians and local residents in their homes.
Some militia gathered all of the equipment that had been abandoned – including thousands more rifles and handguns – while others pursued the retreating paratroopers into the mountains. More soldiers were called in from outside, who accidentally attacked the fleeing paratroopers, killing at least 30.
By 8 PM, the paratroopers had been driven from the city – Gwangju had been liberated by its residents.
Kap Su Seol: I think military response to initial protests, there’s nothing special about that. It was brutal, it was violent, as they did in many cases many incidents before Gwangju. They simply beat people into silence and terrorized them, and everything going back to business as usual. That usually happens in South Korean demonstration scene up until Gwangju. But they continued to escalate their violence, they first beat then stabbed, then shot people to death. But usually, in the face of that kind of—that level of violence, people just go home! They remain quiet. But Gwangju was different. People fought back with their bare hands, then stones and anything they could put their hands on such as wooden staves, steel pipes, firebombs, and eventually they raided the armoury and captured firearms to fight back. But I don’t think it’s people’s violence that defeated the military. It was the sheer number. At some point about 400,000 people out in the street fought against paratroopers. That’s more than half of the entire civil population in Gwangju. So it was the sheer number of the people that flushed the military out of the city.
There was celebration in the streets, but also the militia set about preparing to defend the city. The military then set about ensuring that the city was surrounded and sealed off from the outside world.
Jeon Yong Ho: No it wasn’t a victory, it did not feel like a victory. For it to be a victory, we would have had to see all of Seoul – all of Korea – rise up. The army closed off the 잔순zone– this was the pathway to Seoul. We were afraid to head to Seoul because of the blockades there.
The next morning, 22 May, Gwangju residents set about cleaning up the city, much of which had effectively been a war zone. David Dollinger was there with a couple of other Peace Corps volunteers, one of them was a guy called Tim. They had all refused to leave the city, as directed by the US embassy.
David Dolinger: Once the citizens, in essence, retook control of the city, groups were organised to start cleaning up. Immediately on Thursday morning, people started to clean all the debris that had been there the previous day from the protests that had occurred and the demonstrations that had occurred right in front of the Provincial Office Buildings. The citizens wanted to, in a lot of ways, take everything back and make it normal again. We walked around the city considerably and saw no real evidence of any vandalism that had occurred. We did see one of the big metal sliding doors that protects the fronts of stores that looked like it had been hit by a car but that was it. Otherwise, people were going about sweeping up the streets, collecting the debris and they were towing away the buses and trucks that had been destroyed the previous days. The citizens really wanted to take back their city and as a foreigner, the love that came out of them when they saw us was amazing because they all wanted to talk to us. They all wanted to tell us what had gone on and why this had happened. They wanted to make sure that we could help get that information out. One of the things that Tim, I and the others did during the rest of our time there was actually translate for foreign reporters who were able to get into the city. Most of them had either come with no Koreans to help translate or they didn’t trust the Koreans that they were with. A number of them told us flat out, ‘We know our Korean translators work for the KCIA, so we can’t trust anything that they’re telling us. Could you please either confirm what they translate for us or do the actual translation for us?’
Yeah, they always tried to paint things in a better light than the way I would have translated. I can’t say that I would ever claim to be a translator but to me, they were taking liberties with the translations that they were doing.
With no police, no army, and pretty much everything shut down, workers and residents of Gwangju started to organise themselves to reopen the city. Some people refer to this period as the Gwangju commune, drawing parallels between it and the Paris commune, where the workers of Paris and mutinous national guardsmen took over the city and set about reorganising it in the interests of the working class. Although at least one key difference would be that while the Paris commune was a specifically working class and socialistic uprising, calling into question property rights and capitalism itself, that in Gwangju was more narrowly focused on achieving democratic and workers’ rights. As an example of a city being self managed, to me it’s also reminiscent of the Seattle general strike of 1919.
Kim Yong Ho: At that time, the soldiers withdrew for a moment. Until the 27th when they came back, citizens gathered in Gwangju and lived in a community-like way.
The day after I was shot, they say that’s when soldiers withdrew from the provincial office. Since then, citizens took control of Gwangju, the provincial government as a command center, citizens controlled everything by themselves, and I was in that very scene.
Kap Su Seol: Market merchants and vendors began to organize communal kitchens to feed people and to feed protestors. College students and labour unions controlled traffic and organized funerals. But what’s very interesting is that all these already existing organizations took on new roles during the uprising. Even some city workers cooperated with them to dole out rice and keep the city buses operating throughout the five years.
David Dolinger: Most shops weren’t open but the markets were. They had open-air markets where they sold a lot of the vegetables and staples. Those were open. At least until Sunday, there really weren’t any limits to food at all. What was really beautiful about some of what occurred is because the people knew that this group of mainly students or young working people were, in essence, protecting the city, they would make rice balls in massive numbers to be able to feed them, so that they didn’t have to worry about food. I was constantly being handed these rice balls because everyone wanted to make sure that you were maintaining your strength. One of the things that I ended up doing personally was spending a lot of time in the actual Provincial Office Building. That was the headquarters for where the citizens, who were running the city at that point in time and negotiating with the military, had set up their headquarters. I was lucky enough to be able to get a pass that allowed me to freely go in and out and I was actually the only foreigner that had that pass.
Kim Yong Ho: Gwangju of the time was also one of the cities where robbery, theft, and this kind of crime happened on a daily basis. Surprisingly, there were a lot of weapons in Gwangju during that time. Even though there were a variety of weapons that anyone could easily acquire, on the other hand, there were no robberies, no thefts, not a single crime. I have seen many examples of the world struggles or protests, but I think this seems to be one of the characteristics of the Gwangju Uprising. For example, my house was located near a farm in Jisan-dong, about two kilometers away from the provincial office building. People cooked rice and drew water, and when the civilian army and their trucks were passing by the road we were living around, the residents would put rice and water onto the truck, that’s the one I remember.
David Dolinger: During the day, there were a lot of people running around. They were trying to organise and they had different groups that were involved with all different things; whether it was cleaning up the city; maintaining the barricades and making sure that there were people on the barricades.
Kim Yong Ho: I usually stayed at the provincial office, it was the commercial department. When corpses were loaded in there, they laid the bodies in state temporarily. Yes, I remember that what happened there, I mean, they were ordinary citizens who were not trained at all, but there was an amazing sequence of every process. There is not the memory of chaos, as ordinary people might imagine an agonizing scene, but the situation of the provincial office I was in, it was not, at all. Considering those, I think the emotions of the people of Gwangju, and what I went through, the resistance to killing all the people of Gwangju, the sympathy that we must unite and fight against, I think that was the power that made us govern ourselves.
The so-called forces of order who had brought chaos and bloodshed to Gwangju had been driven from the city. And the workers and residents established actual order: the city was cleaned up, essential services were up and running. Women in particular helped ensure that everyone was fed, and that hospital blood supplies were maintained. The militia set up patrols to maintain order and defend the city, and the provincial office was established as the headquarters of the rebellion, to coordinate events and begin negotiations with the government.
As we will see, divisions among the rebels would soon start to emerge, and a few days later government forces would re-enter the city and take their revenge. Our patreon supporters can listen to this now, and for everyone else part 3 will be out next week.
Our patreon supporters can listen to all parts of this miniseries, plus an exclusive bonus episode now. Supporters can also get other great exclusive benefits. 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 have made extensive use of the book Kap translated, Gwangju Diary, as a source for this episode. Links to buy it or read it online 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 are unable to support us financially right now, please do tell your friends and colleagues about our podcast, and share a link to it on your social media pages.
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.
Welcome back to part 3 of our podcast miniseries on the Gwangju uprising in South Korea in 1980. If you haven’t heard them already, I’d go back and listen to parts 1 and 2 first.
Before we get started, just a quick reminder that this podcast is only possible because of support from you, our listeners, on patreon. If you can, please consider supporting us today. In return you get access to exclusive benefits, including access to an exclusive bonus episode about the uprising, where we include some additional information from our interviewees which we couldn’t fit into these main episodes. Learn more and sign up at https://patreon.com/workingclasshistory, link in the show notes.
As a content note, there is a brief mention of sexual violence towards the end of the episode.
By the end of of part 2, 22 May, the workers and residents of Gwangju had risen up and liberated the city from the murderous paratroopers of US-backed dictator Chun Doo Hwun. The uprising also spread to several nearby towns including Naju, Mokpo, Hwasun, HamPyeong, Yunggwang, Muan, Haenam and Gangjin. Gwangju was free, but there was a big shadow hanging over it, as Jeon Yong Ho explains.
Jeon Yong Ho: Well, technically there was a kind of freedom, but it was like a type of freedom you feel before death –a nervous sense of peace before the impending doom. Like the calm before the storm. It was more of a nervousness.
Kim Yong Ho meanwhile had been taken into a house by local residents who helped him recover from getting shot by the soldiers.
Kim Yong Ho: I got treated for gunshot wounds, and with my mind full of anger, I went back to provincial office.
After a visit to the hospital, Kim then decided to try to join the citizen’s militia which had been established to fight the paratroopers, and was headquartered in the provincial office.
Some man who was in the hospital shouting, “If anyone can walk, let’s go out and fight!” I must have followed his message that all our citizens are dying, our families are dying, everyone who can stand up and walk, we must go to the provincial office. Haha
Thinking about why I followed him, as I mentioned earlier, I did not know why it happened, I just had no clue. I just happened to be watching a demonstration and found it fun, and it all just happened to me. That is why I accepted it as a war. I have four siblings, and my father was living in the island called Wando, I thought I should protect my mother and siblings. I thought I had to fight with a gun to protect them, so I went to the provincial office and asked for a gun, but the civilian army never gave me a gun. The reason why they never gave me a gun was that they never gave it to anyone who didn’t have any military training. Yes, they only gave guns to the people who got military training so instead the work that I was given was to disinfect the bodies when they come in. Cleaning the deceased. I put cotton in alcohol, wiped the blood, or put alcohol cotton into the bullet hole.
Kap Su Seol, researcher and translator of the book, Gwangju Diary, explains that within the uprising, two main factions emerged, based on their strategy for how to proceed.
Kap Su Seol: Like many other uprisings, during the course of uprisings there are three major groups that emerge. One is like ordinary people, they have little idea of what to do about uprising. But they want to know, and they want to follow if there is some direction. One direction given by a major political figure in Gwangju was just negotiating with the military, just negotiating to be honest, just negotiating the terms of surrender. The other group was a small group led by Yoon Sang-Won who was a former student leader. He had a nice group called Triple Wildfire. That group tried to organize people into strong resistance against the military, and then wait until other cities rising up. So there’s big tension between these softliners and hardliners for the future of Gwangju.
The moderate faction who wanted to surrender swiftly set up a body called the Citizen Settlement Committee, based out of the provincial office. They put together some demands, like amnesty for all protesters, and began trying to negotiate with the government. David Dolinger, a Peace Corps volunteer, had access to the provincial office and was an eyewitness to some of the discussions taking place.
David Dolinger: When the troops had first left the city, the group that was really initially controlling and negotiating with the military was a lot older. It was a lot of the established clergy, elderly businessmen and the respected elders. Part of the problem you had was for the younger generation, like the students and the young blue-collar workers, because that elder group just wanted to acquiesce to the military and just try to get back to normal as quickly as possible. The young did not see that as a path forward because they knew that a lot of them would be arrested and they would have no amnesty for anything that they did. So there was fighting internally, in some ways, or debate. Let’s put it that way. At one point, the entire citizens’ committee changed really into, as I called it, the student committee and the young workers’ committee. That even changed because within those, there were groups that were more opposed to just giving in to the military and those that still wanted to meet all the military’s demands, have this come to an end and everything just go back to normal.
Despite the fact that the hardliners and others wanted to continue the uprising, the more “respectable” businesspeople and moderates of the Citizen Settlement Committee started negotiating with the government, and also began acting on their own to undermine the rebels by collecting weapons and handing them over to the military.
David Dolinger: They were collecting arms. They weren’t just saying, ‘Everybody keep whatever you’ve confiscated.’ They were bringing back all the arms that citizens had taken during the previous days because this was one of the demands the military had. As a whole setup, it changed quite fluidly.
The Settlement Committee managed to gather up thousands of weapons and hand them back to the military. They managed to disarm a number of students, but had less luck confiscating the weapons of workers and the cities underclass.
Meanwhile, police, army and intelligence agencies attempted to infiltrate the provincial office, to sabotage the movement from within. The rebels quickly set up their own intelligence service to try to combat this, issuing passes to authorised individuals for their headquarters. But despite some successes in expelling saboteurs, government agents were able to cause significant problems. For example, they managed to gain access to the rebels’ stockpile of dynamite and detonators, and deactivate them without the rebels’ knowledge.
At the same time, still on 22 May, South Korean and US officials met, and the US approved a plan to give up control of some South Korean troops to allow them to be used to suppress the uprising in Gwangju.
On 23 May, some battles were still taking place, as militia tried to dislodge the paratroopers from some areas outside the city, like the Gwangju penitentiary. And paratroopers would launch minor incursions to test the city’s defences, during which they continued to murder and mutilate unarmed civilians. The general plan by the government at this stage was to wait.
Kap Su Seol: The military kind of waited for the uprising, to peter out itself, for a while. They think that Gwangju gonna mire into some sort of confusion or chaos, because there’s no order. There’s no police. So Gwangju people governed the city very successfully for themselves, there was no major crime over the five days of uprising. There was no looting. There was no hoarding. Then, that prompted the military to strike back very fast. …
Throughout the period of the Gwangju commune, workers and residents would continue to meet en masse around the fountain outside the provincial hall to hear reports from various committees, and occasionally government representatives, and collectively make decisions.
A major task undertaken by the rebels was cataloguing details of all of those killed and injured, organising funerals and collecting money to aid the families of the victims.
On 24 May, the government announced that it would give amnesty to anyone who surrendered their weapons, trying to weaken the resolve of the militia.
The Settlement Committee reported back on its negotiations to a mass assembly, and it was pretty clear to most people that they weren’t getting any concessions from the government at all, which swung more public support behind the hardliners, who wanted to fight to the end. And in a meeting of the committee and the student committee later that evening things came to a head.
David Dolinger: I was actually lucky enough to be in one of the internal meetings. I was actually brought in by the one person that befriended me and I sat there through the entire meeting as they sort of argued with one another. The meeting I was in was the initial beginnings of the argument among the young ones between the passive versus those that were saying, ‘Look, if we give up all of our weapons, we’ve have no leverage. We have nothing because they will just come in and that will be the end. We will have fought back against the brutality for nothing.’
While it was clear that most of the Settlement Committee just wanted to surrender, the hardliners pushed back. Some committee members just resigned, and the student committee, acknowledging the uprising had gone well beyond a student movement, added a number of worker representatives. The workers were adamant they didn’t want to give up their weapons. Because if they did this without achieving any concessions, then all of those who had fallen in battle would have done so in vain. By the end of that Saturday night, the hardliners had the upper hand.
Kap Su Seol: Some of the people who have organized uprising, ordinary people, begin to support Yoon Sang-Won’s group and they are the like, 200, 300 people who form the last defence on the last day of the uprising. After thirty years, or forty years, it’s hard to tell who was right and who was wrong. Maybe you need to surrender to prevent further bloodshed. Maybe you shouldn’t fight until the last, until other regions rise up. That’s a tough call. But Gwangju’s people decided to side with Yoon Sang-Won and others, and fight to the last.
David Dolinger: At that point in time, we were starting to almost get hourly reports that the troops were attacking. They were encircling Gwangju even tighter and making the noose tighter. Actually, I stayed that night and manned the military radio because they thought perhaps the troops would be using English to send commands around. So I was actually asked by the leaders to stay and man the radio which I did. Starting really on Saturday night and Sunday, they knew it was going to come to an end because I was talking with a lot of people there and there were some that were saying that they were frightened. There were others that said, ‘If I give up my life, but this makes a difference, I’m willing to sacrifice myself.’ What was interesting really, from that standpoint, was that some of the central leadership actually tried to get as many people out of the Provincial Office Building on Monday night because I think they knew deep down that the Monday night and Tuesday morning was going to be crucial. They really wanted to minimise the number of people that died but there was a strong group that was willing to sacrifice themselves because they thought that they really had to go with a fight. They thought that was the only way the point would be made. People were willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good of Korea and for democracy. They were able to make that stand so that maybe the world would start to put pressure on Korea. One of the things that I haven’t even touched upon here is that because, at that time, of Carter being President and basing his administration on human rights, the people of Gwangju thought that the US would intercede and would negotiate a peaceful outcome but by Sunday, they knew that that was no longer going to happen. The groups that were running Gwangju were constantly asking myself, the Peace Corps volunteers, as well as the reporters, ‘Make sure the US Embassy knows what’s going on. We want them to come here and help intercede and negotiat. By Sunday, they knew that wasn’t going to happen. That was really, I think, the turning point, when I was talking to people, it was that Sunday when they finally came to that realisation that there was not going to be a settlement to this uprising or whatever terminology you want to give it. The only reason it’s called an uprising is because, in Korean, [sounds like: Sape], the original term in Gwangju was Gwangju [sounds like Sape]. It means ‘uprising’ but it means a lot more than that. There’s an offshoot there.
David came to realise that US government talk of human rights was just that, talk.
David Dolinger: Human rights only matters when there’s no capitalism involved.
Jeon Yong Ho had also heard of the US fleet movements, but didn’t hold the same illusions as many in Gwangju.
Jeon Yong Ho: The Americans had an army of submarines and an air force – they moved it. We learned that the US had made some movements with their fleet, but they only did that because of fear of potential raiding from North Korea. We knew about the Americans’ movements, but the average civilians didn’t know any better. They thought that the Americans were there to help, but we knew that it wasn’t the case. They were only concerned about North Korea. It was more of a performative move to bring some false idea of protection or care from the US.
Michael asked Jeon if the US government did anything to assist residents of Gwangju.
Jeon Yong Ho: You think the US would ever do such a thing – come to help us? They just pretended like nothing was happening, they just figured we’d take care of ourselves.
By the next day, Sunday 25 May, much of Gwangju was back up and running almost normally, albeit with the hospitals still overloaded with the wounded and dying. With the militia determined to fight on, the Settlement Committee also gave up on trying to gather more weapons to surrender. The Student Settlement Committee decided to surrender and vacate the provincial office and by the end of the day, the hardliners took it over. The official leadership of the rebellion now had a much more working class and activist basis than before.
Kap Su Seol: There were many students who left the city. I had a good conversation with this wife of this person many years ago, she told me he helped many students escape from the city with his car. But those who held the ground at the last moment in the province, they were mostly workers. What we call “precarious workers.” Maybe “gig worker” today, who holds the ground and fights to the last. It was a big shock to a middle class kid, because as a kid I would have to share the hatred for the average working class. I was told not to respect them! Right? [chuckles] But the only respect of people during the uprising was ordinary workers. Probably Yoon Sang-Won, because without him there would be no last fight. But what made Yoon Sang-Won stand out among other activists was his orientation towards the working class. He gave up a job in Seoul, at a bank, and returned to his hometown Gwangju, to organize workers! Not organize people, but organize workers. He ran a nice group for workers, Wildfire, that’s a very unusual orientation for his generation.
The balance of forces remained pretty much the same through the next day, Monday 26 May, with two clear sides lined up against one another: the residents of Gwangju, who were determined not to surrender, and the military, who were determined to crush them. Government efforts to destabilise and undermine the uprising from within had failed to have much impact. So they decided to launch an all-out invasion.
It eventually came in the early hours of Tuesday 27 May.
Kap Su Seol: They mobilized two army divisions and three paratrooper cores, to raid the province or kill many people who formed last defences. One of them was Yoon Sang-Won.
Jeon Yong Ho: The 24th Special Forces Group came, early at dawn. You see, in order to move the airforce, there need not be any official approval. But to move civilians, there must be some approval. But the 24th Special Forces Group – 1979 10/20 – when President JungHee Park 박정희died, there were potential threats from North Korea – so they received approval. They used that as an excuse to approve the dispatch of the special forces group to move us civilians.
So the 24th Special Forces Group, they continued to fight. There were over 10,000 of them, the soldiers. But the civilian soldiers – there were just two or three hundred young people, some with guns, just young kids, you know. Probably about half – a third – of them were middle school students. They don’t know how to shoot guns. And against them, were 10,000 trained, armed soldiers. What kind of fight would that be? But they came to fight. It was merciless.
David Dolinger: Tim’s house, where we were staying, was near the train station and so we were actually woken up at about 3.30. We started to hear some gunfire. We also heard on a PA system pleading by a woman for the citizens of Gwangju to get up and to come to the Provincial Office Buildings because the troops were coming. I’ve got to say that was one of the most painful things I’ve ever heard. In essence, we were hearing her just pleading with people to come so that this wouldn’t have been in vain; to the point where actually, I had initially made the decision that I was going to go and was stopped by Tim. It was in a good way. It wasn’t in a bad way. My plan was actually to go down to the Provincial Office Buildings and sit in the big plaza that’s in front. I thought, ‘They’re not going to kill me, I hope. Maybe I can keep the bloodshed from happening.’ By that point in time, when I’d already started to make that decision, you could hear the gunfire occur around us and what was sad about it is you could hear this rapid-fire which were the M16s. Sometimes, it actually sounded like machine guns that would then be sort of answered by a pop, pop, pop which was the people in the Provincial Office Buildings firing back with their antiquated M1s which was a rifle from World War Two. That’s really what… and then you heard the rumbling of the tanks as they came down the streets. That morning, I was out of the house at about 8.30 and I was able to go to the Provincial Office Buildings and I was able to get inside where I saw the devastation. On the front of the building, just looking in, you could see that, at some point, machine guns had utilised because some of the stucco on the outside of the building was just destroyed. Windows had just been totally blown out. As I was walking around, you could see the points where it looked like hand grenades had been thrown. There had been fires. When I was there, I wasn’t able to go through the entire building and I counted at least ten bodies just in the Provincial Office Buildings. As I then walked the streets around the Provincial Office Buildings, there was about another ten. What was sad was they were people I knew that had died.
Kim Yong Ho had been at the provincial office the previous night, but was sent on an errand which ended up saving his life.
Kim Yong Ho: In the evening of May 26th, one doctor asked me to run an errand because my house was nearby, he said, “Go home and get some salt”. Salt was a very precious thing at that time. Because everything was blocked, banned, so, the citizens all together, made rice balls, and ate them only with salt.
In a way, the only side dish we had was salt, and it was very very important, so I just went home to get it, but my mother caught me and I couldn’t get out of my house ever since. As a grown-up, now I am aware that the civilian army knew that the martial law army was coming at dawn on 27th to take over the provincial office. Then, Yoon Sang-won, a representative temporary spokesman, sent teenagers and young people back to their homes. The reason why, he said, “We need someone to testify about this historical event, so you all should go back and testify about this history, and we will stay here and write a history, alive till the very end.” Maybe the doctor who sent me on an errand, I think he didn’t actually ask me to do a salt errand. Because I wouldn’t have gone home if he sent me, yeah I wouldn’t have gone home, that’s why he sent me on an errand to save me. And as he wished, I was caught by my mother and locked up in a church tower called Dongmyeong Church, and spent the night of the 27th there. That’s the 518 I remember, I experienced. This young child, as a very ordinary teenager, I took 518 as a war, and my idea was that I must fight against to protect my brothers and sisters, and my mother, yes, this is how I remember those moments.
Before dawn on 27 May, the military launched final assaults on the last rebel holdouts.
Jeon Yong Ho was at the Young Woman’s Christian Association (YWCA), which was also used as a key organising location by activists during the uprising.
Jeon Yong Ho: YWCA in front of the provincial office was our headquarters for us, the public relations or marketing teams. It was the Wildfire Evening school and other orgs and teams using the space. And we weren’t soldiers. We were just sharing news and information. There was an emergency alert at three in the morning in our building. So, you know, we had to pick up our guns and fight. We pushed the female students to escape out the back door, and there were about 30 of us men. We only had 10 guns. A few of us went to get more arms.
And then when people were …. (직쟁이?? unintelligible). I didn’t know at the time, but the soldiers were just about to break through. The fires were getting bigger and bigger. So we could’nt move til 7-8 in the morning. I felt like I had narrowly escaped my death.
Some of Jeon’s friends weren’t so fortunate.
Jeon Yong Ho: Yes, there was a lot of hurt and pain for us at the Wildfire Night School Team. There was a female colleague (name unclear) and Park Yong joon also. For us it almost felt like an inevitability. ..(Unclear) in that encounter..they were shot to death. So in total we had two members murdered on the Wildfire Night School Team.
At the provincial office, Yoon Sang-Won held hands with his comrades, Kim Yong-ch’ol, and Yi Yang-hyŏn and said to each other: “We will meet again in the next world”. The military attacked just after 4 AM. Massively outnumbered and outgunned, the rebels fought as long as they could. Most of them were killed, but a handful on each floor ran out of ammunition and surrendered so they could try to tell the tale of what happened one day to the world. Some of the survivors were murdered. All of them were viciously beaten, then arrested.
By a little after 5 AM, the military takeover was complete and the uprising was over. Then, government forces began to take their revenge, trying to round up and arrest anyone who had anything to do with the rebellion.
That last night, and the decision the remaining rebels had to make, is something Kap Su Seol thinks about a lot.
Kap Su Seol: When I have a tough decision I try to put myself in that last moment in the province, if I was in the province on the last day of the uprising what should I do? Then… Nothing is that tough. Because there is one solution to very typical situations. That’s how I usually use the expression I got from the Uprising in my life.
With the South Korean dictatorship now firmly back in control, many surviving participants went into hiding, including Jeon Yong Ho.
Jeon Yong Ho: We snuck to my older sister’s house, which was about 5 minutes away. We hid there for three days, and after that we escaped to Seoul. And now we were wanted. My father was a civil servant, you see. So they threatened him there. That if his son didn’t turn himself in…my father, he’d have to resign.
So I turned myself in.
Thousands of people were arrested in the aftermath of the uprising. They were all brutally tortured.
Jeon Yong Ho: I turned myself in and was arrested immediately. They interrogated me, and they investigated me. I was sent to trial, and they threw me in prison. I was in prison for about… 20 days.
Other members of the Wildfire Night School were arrested too.
Jeon Yong Ho: We also had two members arrested… Kim Hyungchul, he was arrested. The next day, he was trying to commit suicide and beat his own head. We took him to the hospital, but the medical care he got was sub-par.. they just put basic bandages on. So when he got out, there was an infection. The infection grew, and his brain and mental health was quite affected. He was in and out of mental health facilities and hospitals, and in ’98 he passed away.
And Miss Park was also put on the wanted list. At the time, there were about 10 of us on the Wildfire Night School Team who were on the wanted list. So she was arrested and imprisoned. She went on a hunger strike, and passed away in prison.
By the end of the uprising, the official death toll recognised by the South Korean government was 193, but later they agreed to pay compensation to 288 people. The true number may be considerably higher, as martial law forces were seen trying to hide bodies in various places, like burying them in forests. In late 2019, a mass grave was discovered by Gwangju penitentiary which might contain up to 250 bodies. DNA tests are currently being run to try to identify the remains. In general estimates of those killed range from 200 up to 2000.
In May 2018, a woman came forward and stated that she had been raped by soldiers in the repression of the uprising. A subsequent government investigation confirmed at least 17 cases of sexual assault, including against teenage girls and at least one pregnant woman. Given the stigma associated with sexual assault and the difficulties for survivors and coming forwards, the true numbers here are also likely much higher.
On top of this, you’ve also got to consider the hundreds or thousands of people injured, as well as those arrested, tortured and imprisoned.
These were just people fighting for basic civil liberties, democratic rights and workers’ rights. Things which Western countries like the US and UK supposedly support. So now it’s worth discussing something we mentioned right at the beginning of this miniseries. How little-known this uprising is. In South Korea itself, under the dictatorship mention of the uprising itself was forbidden, the book telling the story of the uprising, Gwangju Diary, co-translated by Kap Su Seol, was banned, as was the song about it, used as the theme tune for these episodes.
Outside Korea, the Gwangju uprising is very little-known – I know when I have mentioned it to people in the UK or US, the only people who have heard of it before have been Korean.
Now of course in the UK and US there is not the same kind of state censorship as in a military dictatorship. But as British socialist author George Orwell wrote of the UK, “Unpopular ideas can be silenced… without the need for any official ban… It is not exactly forbidden so this, that, or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it”.
So while talking about the Gwangju uprising was never banned, it is simply “not done” to talk about it.
So for example a search of the BBC website gives three results for terms related to the Gwangju uprising. Whereas if you search for articles about the Tiananmen Square protests in China in 1989, there are nearly 300 results. In reality, these protests in China weren’t just in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, but took place in cities across the country, but we’re going to use this commonly understood term to refer to them. And on CNN.com, similar searches give one result for an article which briefly mentions the Gwangju uprising – an article replete with significant factual errors, as it happens. Whereas again, searching for articles about the Tiananmen Square protests gives nearly 200 results.
So here we have two comparable events. Both were large protest movements calling, in varying degrees, for improved workers’ and democratic rights. Both involved fierce fighting with government forces, and both involved similar death tolls. The South Korean government acknowledging around 200 dead, with activists claiming up to 2000. And with Tiananmen, the Chinese government acknowledged around 300 dead, with activists claiming around 3-4000.
So why the difference in media coverage between the two events? Well, of course, could just be coincidence. But given that this same pattern pretty much occurs with any other comparable events, we believe that geopolitics is the answer. While China is a political rival of the West in many respects, South Korea is a close ally, and their dictatorship was fully propped up by the United States and their supposedly friendly, human rights driven foreign-policy. Although US involvement in the actual massacres in Gwangju isn’t as clear as some believe.
Kap Su Seol: As a student in South Korea, a college student, I believed that the US involvement was more direct or straightforward. I basically believed that the US ordered Chun Doo-Hwan to kill Gwangju people. But things did not work out that way. It was more complex. However, at least the US intelligence community—I hate that word, “intelligence community” but—Us Intelligence Agency began to support Chun Doo-Hwan very early. When Chun Doo-Hwan seized control of the military in December, two days later at CIA’s urging, US ambassador Gleysteen met with Chun Doo-Hwan at his residence. Just think about that. US ambassador, who represents the US government in South Korea, met with a general who just killed a bunch of senior—his superiors. That’s a clear sign of US approval then. And Chun Doo-Hwan, as I told you, he was trained in psychological warfare. When he met with Gleysteen he was accompanied by two truckloads of security guards and right across the US ambassador residence, there’s the Korea Times. That’s Yonhap News Agency. He wanted to show that he had US support to the news agencies so that rumours would have to spread about that meeting. After that meeting, James Young, military attaché to South Korea, he got many phone calls from South Korean generals, South Korean journalists, and politicians, about the meeting with Gleysteen and Chun Doo-Hwan. They asked if US decided to support Chun Doo-Hwan at any cost whatsoever. So Chun Doo-Hwan made people believe he had a blank cheque from the US, and it was a blank cheque. And, Gleysteen was—obviously he was racist. He was very condescending about Korea. The way he talked to opposition leader, it’s like he talked to his own children or his grandson. He already preached about democracy, preached about stability, political stability and so on. But that sums up the US position to Chun Doo-Hwan. US believed that South Korea was not ready to take on democracy. They believed that South Korea needed a strong general like Chun Doo-Hwan in order to keep things in order. And then Chun Doo-Hwan was kind of—he believed that he was in a kind of beauty contest [laughs], that he had to show—to hold power in South Korea, he had to show his solution, his strength, his power, to US officials. Which he did!
So if you genuinely think that the role of media organisations is to report news fairly and accurately, then this discrepancy between the coverage of Gwangju and Tiananmen Square is hard to explain. But we would think that most listeners to the show would realise that the role of media organisations in capitalist societies is primarily to advance the interests of the capitalist governments or corporations who own them.
So if this is the case, then it makes perfect sense to hush up stories where their own corporations, ideologies or governments are implicated, and make a big splash about ones where rival corporations, governments or ideologies are implicated. It also makes sense to cover the events differently. So even though a primary factor motivating working class involvement in the Tiananmen Square protests was pro-market reforms implemented by the government which hurt working class living standards but benefited the corporations, this is almost never mentioned. Instead the protests are painted as protests against “communism” or “socialism”, because the government calls itself “communist”. Conversely, events like the Gwangju uprising are normally not even spoken about, but when they are they are never referred to as protests against capitalism, even though the South Korean government, and its backer, the US, as capitalist as can be.
That’s it for part 3 of this miniseries. Next time, we speak with our interviewees about the aftermath of the uprising, its legacy, its contested history, and what it means to them today.
Our patreon supporters can listen to this, as well as an exclusive bonus episode, right now. If you don’t support us yet, you can do so from as little as $2 a month at https://patreon.com/workingclasshistory, link in the show notes. If you can’t spare the cash, no worries at all, but please do tell your friends about our podcast, and give us a five-star review on your favourite podcast app.
We would like to so thanks again to 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 as well as Rachel Min Park who helped connectors with people. Massive thanks as always to our patreon supporters who make this podcast possible.
Special thanks to Conor Canatsey, Shae, James and Ariel Gioia.
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 last but not least thanks to you for listening. Catch you next time.
Hi and welcome back to part 4 of our podcast miniseries on the 1980 Gwangju uprising. If you haven’t listened to parts 1-3 yet, I would go back and listen to those first.
Hello and thanks for listening to the Working Class History podcast. As we bring this miniseries to a close, we just wanted to give a final reminder that it has only been possible because of support from you, our listeners on patreon. So if you’d like to support us, and access exclusive content, like a bonus episode with more information and stories from the Gwangju uprising from our interviewees, sign up to join us on patreon at https://patreon.com/workingclasshistory, link in the show notes.
As a content note, there is a brief mention of sexual violence later on in this episode.
After the uprising was crushed, the working class and pro-democracy movements all over the country were met with a wave of repression. Kap Su Seol, researcher and co-translator of Gwangju Diary, explains more.
Kap Su Seol:I think when we talk about the legacy of Gwangju, and in the aftermath of Gwangju, we should talk about South Korea entirely. After Gwangju, everywhere became Gwangju in a sense. There was always mass arrests. Police seized book stores. Police was everywhere. Police was on college campus. I mean, “search and frisk” was a big issue in South Korea for many years. But “search and frisk” was daily life in South Korea for a while. If you were twenty, walking down the downtown of Seoul, you had to be stopped by the police at least twice. They searched your bag, your pockets, pretty much everything. It was a very dangerous time for young men to live in South Korea, in the 1980s. But, as Han Kang says, “Because I could not hold a funeral for you, my entire life is a funeral.” That sums up how we feel about Chun Doo-Hwan and the others. Many students say, when they had a drink and got drunk, they would say “we cannot live under the same sky as Chun Doo-Hwan.” So either Chun Doo-Hwan go or we go, that was the general mood of students back then and the same was true of many workers.
Han Kang is a Korean author who wrote an amazing book about the Gwangju uprising called Human Acts. It is pretty harrowing in parts, but we would recommend everyone read it at some point.
The repression continued through the 1980s, and while Kim Yong Ho managed to avoid arrest in the aftermath of the rebellion, he was picked up some years later.
Kim Yong Ho: If I were to tell you a little bit more, I joined the army in 1984. When I joined, without any particular reason, the battalion commander told me to run an errand riding this jeep car in the barracks. And I got on the jeep, there I saw a senior of the company next to mine was wearing an eye patch. So I was taken by the jeep car and later, it turned out that I was taken to the place called the 505 Security Unit. Without any reasons, I was not even an activist, I was just a kid who was swept away in the situation of 518, you know what, they didn’t even ask me any questions for a week, they were just keeping on torturing and assaulting me. I think it lasted about a week. I was tortured in every way except the electrical one. I was beaten all over my body with sticks, even got beaten my nails of hands and feet with sticks, then water torture, they cover my face with a towel and pour water, yes, I got tortured in every way. Later they demanded me to state that I was educated by North Korea, fired guns at our soldiers and started a riot. No, see, I was only a high school student, I was a kid who had no idea what was going on, and now I’m told to make a statement that I was educated by North Korea and participated in the uprising, surely I can’t. So I refused to state that. But the violence and torture were never stopped, I was finally convinced to stated everything as they required. I became a spy educated by the North Korean military. But how do I know what it takes to be a spy? What do I know to make a statement? They stacked up North Korean books in front of the desk and demanded me to say I read them. But how can I describe it when I have no idea what the contents are? So the soldiers drew a line from the prologue part. And I was to take the dictation of those lines. Well, that seemed to be the only way to survive, I only hoped that they stop torturing and assaulting me. When I wrote them all down, fortunately, on the 15th day of my capture, the local community found out that I was caught there and investigated. The community went on a sit-in in front of Unit 505, and I was finally cleared of those charges, in 15 days.
David Dolinger, a young Peace Corps volunteer stationed outside of Gwangju, was largely shielded from legal repercussions, but he was kicked out the Peace Corps.
David Dolinger: On 28th, a van was sent by the Peace Corps that came down to Gwangju, picked all the Peace Corps volunteers up and drove us back to Seoul. We were taken to the Peace Corps offices in Seoul which were right next to gwan wan moon. We met the director and the director put us in one room altogether and said, ‘I want to talk to you all individually.’ I was the first one he decided he was going to talk to. He asked me flat out, when we went into his office, ‘Did you spend the night in the Provincial Office Buildings?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ because I wasn’t going to lie to him. He said, ‘Because of that, we deem that you have been politically active and you are no longer a Peace Corps volunteer. You can either write the letter of resignation or I will write the letter of resignation. You can either sign it or I will sign it but you are no longer a Peace Corps volunteer.’ I actually told him to write the letter of resignation because I would not write it. With that, I was thrown out of the Peace Corps with the also stern warning that the US Embassy and the Peace Corps could no longer protect me and that, from they knew, the Korean government was quite upset with what I had been doing and there was the potential that I might come to harm. Their advice for me was to leave the country immediately which I didn’t listen to. Hey, you start with Gwangju, why not keep going? [Laughter].
The Gwangju uprising had lit a fire in South Korean society. The government tried to snuff it out with brute repression. But it failed to extinguish it completely, as Jeon Yong Ho explains.
Jeon Yong Ho: Even after 5.18, there was continuous activism amongst students.
As the resistance from the general population continued, it exploded…
Despite being blacklisted, David actually managed to get a visa to remain in South Korea. We speak more about this with him in the bonus episode for our patreon supporters. So he was able to get in contact with other pro-democracy activists.
David Dolinger: Luckily, after that, some of the ‘radical Presbyterian missionaries’ (which is what some people referred to them as) contacted me because they knew that I had stayed in Gwangju. They were actually quite worried about my mental health and the mental health of the other Peace Corps volunteers. They had actually contacted the US Embassy and the US Peace Corps. One of the missionaries was a trained psychiatrist who said, ‘I’m more than willing to see them as much as they need to help them get through this.’ Both the US Peace Corps and the US Embassy refused to tell her how to contact any of us and to talk to us and that they didn’t need her help. I was actually able to meet her and her name was Sue Rice. She was actually quite active with the Korean dissidents and so I became very involved with the Korean dissidents smuggling in information. I actually took a job on a military post teaching remedial Maths and English to US military personnel and used my APO privileges to get information in and out of Korea without it going through the censors. I also was lucky enough to go to Galilee Church. If you do a little history on that, there was a meeting of the mothers and wives of the dissidents and I was one of the few males that ever went to Galilee Church. There, I was actually able to meet the mothers and the wives of a lot of the key dissidents in Korea at that time. They were very meaningful meetings that they had. It was amazing the kind of power you could feel from these women. It truly made me believe that the real strength in Korea, especially as they went towards democracy, was actually going to be these women because they really held everything together. They held their families together. They kept communications going within the dissidents’ groups. They made sure their husbands were alright when they were locked up in prison. They were just a true power that I think they were underappreciated by the Korean citizens but luckily, not appreciated at all by the dictatorial government of Korea and so they were overlooked.
Eventually, in mid 1986 and early 1987 in Seoul there were a couple of events surrounding two individuals sparks which reignited the fire which would soon destroy the dictatorship. First, young woman labour organiser called Kwon In-sook sued the government after being sexually assaulted during an arrest by police. This was a landmark event which shocked everyone. Partly because of the stigma associated with sexual assault, survivors were expected to stay quiet. And partly because Kwon actually forced the police to admit what they did – although they themselves claimed it didn’t legally constitute sexual assault, which it of course did.
Then, in January 1987 a young student activist called Park Jong Chul died in police custody, and it soon emerged that he was tortured to death by the police.
Protests for workers’ and democratic rights escalated hugely through 1986 and 1987, and on 9 June 1987, another 21-year-old student, Lee Han Yol, was hit in the head by a teargas canister fired by police and later died. Then, huge protests erupted everywhere, which government couldn’t repress or contain, and Chun Doo-Hwan’s regime was forced to agree to reintroduce democracy at the end of the month.
Kap Su Seol: There was a big push for democracy in 1987, in June 1987, and after that protest South Korea finally could elect a president in a free election. After that, the CIA put out very interesting documents called “Gwangju generation.” And they called student activists and opposition leaders who eventually defeated Chun Doo-Hwan, “Gwangju generation.” When I read that document like four years ago, no… This is it! I mean even, we pushed hard to—pushed hard things enough for US, to demonstrate—We are here, we are existing here, to push back, beat back, Chun Doo-Hwan and eventually beat the US influence back. So I’m proud of being part of the Gwangju generation, and many of my contemporaries would be proud of being part of the Gwangju generation too
Kap Su Seol took part in these protests as well.
Kap Su Seol: Yeah, I was arrested and detained in a police station for three days [laughs]. Yeah, actually what’s interesting about this is political change can take place very fast, without letting know what truly happened. Even two days before June 8, I was not sure actually that many students would join the protest two days later because we had a hard time with the student activists… Hard time with people, students, to vote to shut down the school. Many students were unhappy that they had to close the school for protests, but June 10, in my school there was 8000 students but 5000 came out to protest [laughs]. Gwangju generation! That’s why the CIA called us the Gwangju generation! It was a total surprise.
And seven years can be a long period, but seven years is very short. It was just seven years apart, 1980 and 1987. I mean, I’m early fifties now obviously I cannot deceive about my age anymore [laughs] after this, but you know, seven years is nothing! People still had a vivid memory of it. But at the same time it’s an incredible story to rise up again after that brutal oppression. That’s another incredible story.
Right after the June protests, in August in unprecedented wave of wildcat strikes began through industry involving over a million workers at its peak, which won significant improvements in pay and conditions. But 1987 in South Korea is really another story, and one we plan to tell in a future podcast episode.
In the 1990s Chun Doo Hwan was eventually criminally charged for his role both in the military coup in 1979 and for the repression of the Gwangju uprising in 1980, as well as other offences like bribery. He was sentenced to death in 1996, but in 1997 he was pardoned by the then-president, former pro-democracy activist Kim Young Sam. The pardon was also agreed by the incoming president who had just been elected, the other former democracy activist Kim Dae Jung, whom Chun had tried to have killed. This was a move for reconciliation, but it upset a lot of victims of the regime and their families.
In assessing the Gwangju uprising, it’s a good example of one of those struggles which, if you look at it in isolation, looks like a failure. None of the demands put forward by the rebels and agreed at assemblies around the fountain outside the provincial office were implemented at the time. And lots of people were killed and jailed. But when you consider what came after it, it really wasn’t a failure after all.
Kap Su Seol: I think what Yoon Sang-Won said at the last meeting with the militia sums it up, he said “We die today to live forever.” That sums it up, I mean, obviously the Uprising ended in tragedy and ended in another bloodbath, but they live forever. There many definitions you can have about the Uprising, especially as a “failed” one. But Gwangju was very special because it completely changed the way people look at your government, people look at your international ally the US, especially for me it changed how people look at the working class. So Gwangju in that sense was not ended in defeat, but it was more like a compass. When you have difficulties politically, when you face some issues in politics, you have to look back at Gwangju, at what they do in situation like this. At what Yoon Sang-Won would do in a situation like this. So Gwangju, physically and militarily it was a defeat, but politically and traditionally it was not a defeat at all.
Yoon Sang-Won, remember, was one of the leaders of the hardline faction of the rebels, killed during their last stand on 27 May.
For Kim Yong Ho, at the time of the uprising he didn’t even think about whether or not it could be successful. As far as he was concerned he was just fighting for his life, as well as that of his neighbours, friends and family.
Kim Yong Ho: Yes, I don’t think I had time to think about how to win it, and I don’t know, now that I see, I was only thinking about that I needed to survive, and I needed to fight against in order to live, I couldn’t really think of anything more than that.
We started work on these episodes in early 2020, in the run-up to the 40th anniversary of the uprising. Despite the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, South Korea initially kept the outbreak under control by taking sensible outbreak control measures, unlike many of our governments. So the planned 40th anniversary commemoration events of the uprising were able to take place in May 2020. Our friend Michael Choi went there, and kindly undertook interviews for us with Kim Yong Ho and Jeon Yong Ho.
Kim Yong Ho: It’s been forty years, when I talk to teenagers now, I describe as ‘once upon a time when tigers used to smoke’…
“Once upon a time when tigers used to smoke” is a Korean idiom uses the beginning of a lot of folktales. It denotes a time in the past, but also in a world which is very different from today.
Kim Yong Ho: I often say, ‘I’m going to tell you a story once upon a time when tigers were smoking cigarettes’, and it’s been 40 years, but I think May of 1980 is still on-going. One of the biggest reasons is, about that slaughter, those people who fought against the possibility of my family being killed, now they distort it as a riot brought down by trained North Korean soldiers, still act like it’s the truth, it’s been 40 years now, but I still see so many people who believe it as a truth. The day before yesterday, a group of right-wingers came to Gwangju to insult the city, to hold a rally in Geumnam-ro, in the symmetry, to say that it was a riot caused by the North Korean army and that the people of Gwangju were involved in the riot.
The events around the Gwangju uprising are now pretty well-known in South Korea. Especially in recent years, there have been a bunch of films and TV shows made about the events, some of which will mention at the end of this episode. And there is even a reference to it in a song by K-pop group BTS, in their song, “Ma City”. J Hope, who is from Gwangju, mentions the numbers 062 518. 062 being the Gwangju area code and 518 referring to the May 18 uprising.
But the history of these events are still hotly contested. Right now there is a centre-left government led by former pro-democracy activists, which does acknowledge the facts. But the hard conservative right still try to paint the uprising in Gwangju as being something stirred up by the North Korean government. Something which is clearly and completely fabricated.
Kim Yong Ho: The reason why I brought this story out, because, still, to keep their positions, some needed logic for this crime, the crime occurred by using the military, to justify their criminal act, they needed to turn this into North Korean military riot. And to make that logic true, they threatened, assaulted, and tortured normal students like me. I’ve heard a lot of people have been treated in the same way.
A lot of the responsibility for lack of knowledge of the uprising lies with the South Korean media, as Kap Su Seol explains.
Kap Su Seol: South Korean media, I think it’s kind of an exaggeration to say that they have to keep silence about what happened in Gwangju. But some media, big media such as Choson Ilbo, Chunghwa Ilbo, Donghwa Ilbo, and Korea Broadcasting, were active players in glossing over facts about Gwangju throughout the 1980s. Maybe because they feel they had to? That doesn’t matter at this point, they are active collaborator with military rule in South Korea. That’s a dark side of Korean journalism. And actually many media, many young journalists could not speak out about what happened in Gwangju even if they know what happened in Gwangju. After the end of the uprising, Mudeung Ilbo, that’s one of the major newspapers in Gwangju, had a banner headline that said “Mount Mudeung Would Know.” They cannot run any article on it, but they say Mount Mudeung—that’s the highest mountain surrounding Gwangju—would know. That’s banner headline, no article, just banner headline that says “Mountain would know.” That’s some general conditions mass media, or press, were faced with back then.
Kim Yong Ho: Here the reason why I am telling you this story, it’s been 40 years now, but I strongly feel that there are still too many people who false-believe in the logic of the regime. I’d like to tell them. 518 was not North Korean military-related, but a process that normal people fought for their survival in the ruthless violence and slaughter occurred by our soldiers. Now I grew up and see, this was actually democratic resistance, and as a result it was right of course, but for me, that scene was a resistance to violence and slaughter. I want to tell you that it was the process of the people who survived the struggle being united together and forming a community.
David Dolinger goes back to South Korea regularly, and has attended lots of Gwangju uprising commemorations.
David Dolinger: I try to get back as often as possible. I’ve been to the 5/18 anniversary ceremonies multiple times. I was lucky enough to see them force President Park to leave which was one of the proudest days seeing them sing and force her to just leave because she was not supposed to leave when she did. Her security team hustled her out as the mothers walked up the aisle singing.
If you don’t follow South Korean politics, you might be a bit taken aback hearing the name President Park again in a different century. David is talking about President Park Geun-hye. She is the daughter of the dictator Park Chung-hee, a right-winger who was elected in 2013.
David Dolinger: At that point in time, they weren’t allowed to sing ‘March for the Beloved’ and the mothers, of course, were not going to stand for that. They had gotten together at the back of where all the seating was and at the appropriate time, they got up, started singing it and walking down the aisle towards where President Park was sitting. With that, a lot of us stood up and started to sing. As soon as her security team saw pretty much the entire audience, who were people from Chollanam-do, were not going to obey the law by not singing the song, they immediately grabbed her and hustled her out.
‘March for the Beloved’, the theme tune for this miniseries, was once used in a North Korean film made about Gwangju, so the song was banned in South Korea, who claimed it was communist, even though the song was written well before the film was made.
Kim Yong Ho: There is a song called “March for the Beloved” that symbolizes democracy. The background of the song is that it is the soul wedding song of martyr Yoon Sang-won and Park Ki-soon, two of the seven martyrs of “Wild Fire Night School.”
Anyway, President Park Jr ended up being brought down by a corruption scandal. She had befriended a woman, the daughter of a medium who claimed to be in contact with Park’s their parents. Park used her power to force corporations to give her friend tens of millions of dollars. This got out, and after a mass protest movement she was impeached, removed from office, then tried and imprisoned. In the new elections, Park’s conservative Saenuri party was comfortably beaten by the centre-left Democratic United party.
Going back to the Gwangju uprising itself, the events had a completely transformative effect on David’s outlook and his life in general.
David Dolinger: As I point out to people, Gwangju was the day I was born. That’s my birth city for joining the human race. Before that, I don’t really believe that I was actually, in some ways, part of it. Yes, I was a person. I’m a human but I was not really part of the human race. I did want to help people but I had no idea really who I was and what I was doing but it really opened my eyes to the politics and the imperialistic attitudes of the United States. I was somebody that voted for Carter because he put human rights at the top of the list. Fantastic! I believe in that and then to see that it really meant nothing in South Korea, at that point in time and even when we had people asking for the help, they ignored it. To top that off, and I hate to say in some ways, I was even greatly disappointed by most of the journalists that were there. They just looked at it as a story. In fact, some of them sat there and told us, ‘These kids in the Provincial Office Buildings have no idea what they’re doing. This is going to come to a really bad end.’ I’m sitting there saying, ‘But if you’re a human being, maybe you’d want to report on that but don’t you think you should be part of the bigger picture? We’re all the same. They’re not Koreans. We’re human beings.’ I couldn’t take how they could be so detached and really what didn’t affect them to see some of the bodies that I was looking at and saying, ‘How could someone even do that to someone? What kind of person could do that?’
Another important aspect of the coverage of the uprising is about class. As with a lot of social movements, like the Tiananmen Square protests we discussed last time, as well as the May 68 protests in France, and countless others many mainstream narratives talk about student movements, but completely ignore often much more significant working class involvement.
Kap Su Seol: The reality of Gwangju Uprising was very shocking, I was a middle-class kid who had little idea as to what was happening in the real world. I was kind of insular and protected by my parents. But one thing that surprised me most about the Gwangju Uprising as a teenager, when I read that book, was more workers were killed than college students. It was very surprising because I thought college students were the bravest ones who dared to take on military dictatorship then, but when things got very ugly the college students were the first ones to run away. There was a mass escape by college students during the uprising. Those who were left behind were braver ones, or they had no idea what was going on during the coup. It was a big shock to me.
This definitely has echoes of movements we spoke about in one of our earliest podcast episodes, episode 4 where we talk about anti-fascist youth movements in Nazi occupied Europe during World War II. Where more middle class historical movements like the Swing Kids or White Rose group are much better known than the working class Edelweiss Pirates and Schlurfs.
Kim Yong Ho makes sure to tell his story to younger generations, to help bring Gwangju’s real history to life.
Kim Yong Ho: To deliver the truth, at work, I invite about 500 teenagers from all over the country, middle school and high school, every year for a two-day camp. 50 people at once, 10 times each, though I can’t do it now because of Covid 19 situation, usually I’m tell them about my experiences, but here’s something I’m always telling them. 518 is 40 years old now, and there is no violence like that at the moment. And there shouldn’t be. Korean society now has improved incredibly in procedural democracy, but still, this is the old story from 40 years ago, I mean if you read newspapers every morning, it is filled with stories of the various discrimination and violence that still exist in our society. It happens in schools, I emphasize them, when we deal with discrimination and violence, we must try to step in and resist a little more, that is what 518 is about, that is what the spirit of 518 that we try to step in and resist a lot of people say that it’s the spirit of 518. “You must resist! You’re not doing it alone, with your friends, all hands on deck!” in addition to this, I tell them politics is very important to institutionalize this. In the end, we should pay attention to politics because it is politics that decides all of Korean systems, this is the story of mine at the camp. Especially now that it’s been 40 years, I think that’s why the spirit of 518 is still important and needs to be talked about.
We asked Jeon Yong Ho how he felt about the uprising, 40 years later. He thinks that many of the benefits South Korean working class people today take for granted are the result of Gwangju and the struggles for democratisation.
Jeon Yong Ho: So seeing that now, the road to achieve this peace was only possible through the struggle, pain, sacrifice… you know, the sacrifice and deaths – those were not for nothing. There was meaning behind them. That’s what I believe.
Something which David Dolinger will never forget is the feeling of real human community which was forged on the streets in those 10 days of struggle.
David Dolinger: Yeah, there was. The citizens of Gwangju came together and unified about… They took care of one another. People were worried about whether you were eating. As I used to tell people, when I first lived in Korea, I had so many sisters that it was unbelievable and the same thing is happening now. People were always trying to make sure that I was taken care of but you could see they were also doing it for the other citizens that were out there on the frontline. They were trying to take care of them and make sure that they were alright. That, to me, is something that you have to see. It’s hard to even describe the unification that occurred with the rallies that occurred every day that were just gigantic. One of things that sticks most in my mind and you could say that maybe it’s dark but it was the look in people’s eyes…
Despite the restoration of democracy, today Jeon Yong Ho believes that things still aren’t perfect in South Korea.
Jeon Yong Ho: Nowadays, the work and activism to change and improve today’s society… well, that work always continues, until the need to change and improve your society someday disappears. If not, the work should always continue. The struggle doesn’t end.
And for Kap Su Seol, the spirit of Gwangju lives on around the world.
Kap Su Seol: I think Gwangju still continues, when people gather and press their demands. Gwangju is there in Myanmar now, and I saw Gwangju during the Occupy Wallstreet. And during Black Lives Matter. When people gather and press their demands, the government tries to smash it. We sometimes fight each other over where we should go, or over the direction of our movement. Or we fight against the government, fight against police. But the same structures, same organic structures Gwangju had, we still have in every movement. How to continue our fight? How to take care of each other? How to continue our tradition? How to defeat them? After we defeat them what kind of world do we want to build after that? So Gwangju was kind of a very typical experience any human being experiences. Any human being should have, over the course of their political life. Gwangju was in the past too, like you know, Gwangju was there in Spain, 1930s, 1936. During the Spanish Civil War. Gwangju was there in Paris 1958. Gwangju was there in Washington DC in 1968 during the anti-war movement. But in the mechanism, the debate, the nature of the mechanism, nature of the debate, nature of organization that emerged out of the movement, Gwangju is not typical at all. Gwangju is repeating itself. Whether we win or not depends on how many people understand Gwangju, how many people understand the organizational debates, nature of the fights. Then would people prepare and be ready for that debate and for that battle? People can win. But in the past two years, it was kind of a very depressed period for me, because the only thing I saw was defeat after defeat. I’m a little bit worried about what happened to the world, I mean, there was clearly a rise of the far-right throughout the world. So, that’s why you should study history, and you should study Gwangju.
Well, that pretty much brings us to the end of our podcast miniseries on the 1980 Gwangju uprising. We have an additional bonus episode with some more tape from our interviews which we were unable to fit into these main episodes. This is available for our patreon supporters now. Our podcast is only made possible because of support from you, our listeners on patreon. You can sign up and get access to exclusive benefits like this at https://patreon.com/workingclasshistory, link in the show notes. If you can’t support us right now, absolutely no worries. But please do give us a five-star review on your favourite podcast app, and share links to our episodes on social media.
If you want to learn more about the Gwangju uprising, we very much recommend getting hold of book which Kap Su Seol co-translated, Gwangju Diary. Link to buy it or read it online on the webpage for this episode, link in the show notes. We would also recommend the historical fiction, Human Acts by Han Kang. Finally, the 2017 film, A Taxi Driver, starring Song Kang-ho of Parasite fame is well worth a watch. It has some elements fictionalised for dramatic effect, but the bulk of the film is generally historically accurate, and the recreation of crowd scenes is really impressive, and something that a lot of movie directors get very wrong.
We’ve also got more information, photos, sources, transcripts and more on the webpage for this episode, link in the show notes.
We would like to say a final thank you to all of our interviewees for speaking with us. Thanks also to Michael Choi for undertaking interviews in Gwangju, and Angela Lee, Jiminy Lee and the Heung coalition, who helped with translation and dubbing. Big thanks thanks to our patreon supporters without whom we simply couldn’t make this podcast.
Special thanks to Conor Canatsey, Shae, James and Ariel Gioia.
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.
Big thanks to Jesse French, who has put in a huge amount of work over the last few months editing this entire miniseries.
And finally thanks to all of you for listening, it really means a lot to us to be able to help tell these stories, and to have an audience for that. Catch you next time.