At the National Cemetery in Gwangju, an official ceremony was held to commemorate the 36th anniversary of the May 18 democratic uprising, which played an important role in the democratization of the Republic of Korea (RK). In order to express their condolences to the families of the victims, RK Prime Minister, Hwang Kyo-ahn, and representatives of the ruling and opposition parties arrived in Gwangju. In his speech, the Prime Minister said that the establishment of the democratic society of the Republic of Korea is continuing on the basis of the principles laid down 36 years ago. The leader of the ruling party Saenuri, Chung Jin-suk said that the spirit of the democratic movement should promote national unity.
Is that the case or not? Let us recall the events of that time.
After the assassination of General Park Chung-hee on October 26, 1979 the new government tried to carry out democratization measures, but only 6 days later, there was a coup d’état organized by the head of military intelligence, General Chun Doo-hwan.
The new attempt to usurp power met the resistance of the opposition and the youth, but Chun actively sought the approval of the United States of his securing the Presidential post, all the while trying to play the North Korean card. As part of this strategy, on May 13, he said that North Korea was behind the student and the radical left movement. In response, on May 15 more than 100 thousand people gathered in front of Seoul Station, but on 17-18 of May 1980, Chun Doo-hwan held large-scale arrests of opposition members, disbanded the National Assembly and declared complete martial law instead of the partial one, which had already been in place.
The reaction to these developments was the uprising in Gwangju, where it all began with a dispersal of the demonstration against the closure of the Chonnam University that had been a bulwark of democratic sentiment. To suppress the protests of 18-20 of May 1980, 3 thousand air force soldiers and officers with no prior experience of this kind were engaged alongside 18 thousand police officers. Moreover, the soldiers were told that the city was in the throes of a communist rebellion, and, according to some unconfirmed reports, many of them were under the influence of drugs.
In principle, this was not the first time special forces were employed against demonstrators, but it was the first time that such brutal beatings had ever been administered against such a big crowd of people. In Gwangju, it ended up with bayonets and flamethrowers being used against unarmed civilians; the soldiers not only dispersed the demonstration, but also broke into cafes and buses and targeted all the young people of around college age in brutal attacks; they even killed taxi drivers who tried to take the injured to the hospitals.
Such unprecedented and brutal suppression of a purely peaceful demonstration prompted the students to fight back; the students were joined by the city’s inhabitants and the unrest escalated into a large-scale uprising. On May 21, 1980 the number of protesters reached 300 thousand people. The rebels stormed 16 police stations and other government offices, seized stocks of weapons and 350 vehicles including armored personnel carriers.
Fearing massive bloodshed, the government withdrew the special division from the city. The rebels seized the Office of the Provincial Administration, set up their authorities to maintain order and conduct negotiations with the central government, and organized the delivery of food to the city.
Among those who had seized power in the city, it was young radicals who were in the majority; their plan was to hold out for as long as possible and either die as heroes, thus demonstrating the barbarity of the military regime, or seek out the intervention of the US that was supposed to stand up for democracy.
Many authors, not only those from the left, draw attention to the fact that the governing system that spontaneously arose in the city was reminiscent of the Paris commune or the authorities of the first democratic governments. There was no looting in the city, the banks and offices of large companies were left unharmed, there were virtually no communist slogans. On the contrary, the authorities tried to control the private stock of weapons and actively relied on the assistance of religious authorities, while squadrons created to maintain order had the American acronym SWAT written on their cars.
Early in the morning of May 27, the city was stormed by tanks, and within ninety minutes the main government offices were occupied by government troops. The seizure of the city was very quick and well-organized and was perceived as a successful military operation.
Thus, Korean history was “enriched” by a new landmark event, which became an age-long symbol of suppression of opposition. No one believed the rumor that it was Communist provocation, moreover, there was no direct evidence found even in the aftermath of the events proving the North Korean influence on the events in Gwangju. Japanese TV filmed the uprising close enough to capture a large number of frames showing the war crimes of the regime, including images of people crushed by tanks, on film.
Data on the total number of victims vary – according to official data, 191 people were killed in Gwangju, but dissidents and members of the opposition speak about ten thousand victims. However, if we analyze the overall statistics of deaths in the city in May 1980, it totaled 4,900 people in comparison to the usual figure of about 2,000 people.
That is why events in Gwangju are regularly compared to another “tank suppression”: that of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and it is argued that the Korean case was bloodier, since in China, according to some data, the number of dead came to around 700 people.
However, it can be observed that while the story about the “tank-crushed democracy” in China is well-known and is constantly in the public arena, the Korean history is hardly known to anyone but specialists.
The uprising in Gwangju is associated with a very important question about the US responsibility for the massacre that took place. The fact is that at that time the Korean army was subordinate to US commanders, and thus the use of military force against the civilian population had had to be approved by Washington.
American authors are trying to cover up the participation of the United States, portraying the case in such a light that the Korean government not only ignored and failed to publish a statement of the United States government calling for a peaceful settlement, but, on the contrary, trumpeted that the United States gave the “green light” for the suppression of the uprising. However, although the United States provided no direct support to Chun Doo-hwan, they did nothing to keep the regime from bloodshed.
Although representatives of the City Council set up by the rebels immediately contacted the US embassy with a plea to intervene in the situation, America was afraid of creating a dangerous precedent by supporting citizens in their struggle against the regime. Curiously, the decisive role in elaborating the decision that was adopted, was played by Richard Holbrooke, who then stated that “the issue is attracting too much attention, whereas it should be considered more broadly in terms of national security interests. We have to give the nod to Chun to suppress the uprising, and he then will be much more dependent on Washington than his predecessor”. And so it happened, and, with the exception of Lee Myung-bak, Chun was considered the most pro-American leader of the country.
The prosecution for the massacre only followed in the 90s and under very particular circumstances. As part of the political struggle to force out the military from political life, “the first civilian president” Kim Young-sam initiated a legal process against Chun Doo-hwan, accusing him of corruption. But the evidence was insufficient, and to force his opponents out, on December 20, 1995 the “Special Law on the events in Gwangju” was adopted, which was endowed with retroactive effect and served as the basis for the accusation of Chun Doo-hwan of crimes against the constitutional order and treason. The particular choice of the chief investigator, the propaganda campaign in the press and mass rallies organized by the authorities reminded the author of the political process in the times of Chun Doo-hwan himself. In December 1996, Chun Doo-hwan was sentenced to life in prison, but sometime later he was pardoned, while most of the direct participants in the events were never prosecuted, which still causes resentment in the opposition.
Thus, the statements of the current RK leaders that they are continuing the traditions of those who died for democracy 36 years ago have at least a dash of hypocrisy.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D., Senior fellow at the Center for Korean studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.