Friday, May 6, 2011

Gwangju: Vive la Revolution!

With the Middle East in the midst of nation-changing revolutions, it was poignant for me to visit Gwangju here in Korea. Starting on May 18, 1980 and lasting through May 27, the people of Gwangju came together against Korea's ruling military regime in what they call the "Democratic Uprising."

The military regime squashed the uprising. The official statistics say that there were 154 people killed, 76 missing, and 4,176 wounded and/or arrested, but the total numbers may actually be much higher. The city was blockaded from the rest of the peninsula, and the military opened fire on the people. Chun Doo Hwan, whose coup d'etat in 1979 was one of the sparks for the uprising, remained in power until 1988. The military regime continued to rule. For a while it appeared as if the uprising had failed.

But, Koreans never forgot Gwangju, and the memory of the uprising "proved a touchstone that fed continued demands for democracy throughout the 1980s." Eventually, democracy did come to Korea. One of the heroes of the uprising was elected president in 1998. Today, the uprising is seen as a pivotal moment in the march towards democracy, and its participants are viewed as national heroes.

The wall of the victims

One thing that was striking to me was the similarities between the Gwangju Uprising and the democracy struggles that are taking place currently across the Middle East and Northern Africa. Just as Egypt had its Tahrir Square as a central place and gathering point, Gwangju had its Geumnam Street that was the scene of some of the most intense action. Today it is remembered as "The Street of Uprising, the Street of People, the Street of Democracy."

News has been censored in the Middle East, journalists detained, and social media targeted; similarly, all news of Gwangju was censored in 1980. This so incensed the citizens that they destroyed some of the buildings of media outlets that were seen to be distorting the real happenings during the uprising.

In both Gwangju and the Middle East, the role of the youth cannot be overstated. In Gwangju, the uprising was originally led by students, who were initially concerned with student government, before moving on to larger issues of national democracy. In response, the military government shut down all universities across the country. Gates were guarded by armed troops. Eventually, the general populace joined the students in Gwangju, and all ages, from elementary school students to elderly people, joined together in protest.

Statue in Memorial Park

Finally, there is the role of the US. In the Middle East, the US had/has to decide whose side to take and the extent of intervention. In Gwangju, the US government was compliant, turning over full control of forces to the Korean military so they could "maintain order" and also helping to "produce an atmosphere of fear among the people" that "helped justify the blockading of Gwangju as well as the armed suppression that followed."

Other patterns emerge between Gwangju in 1980 and the Middle East today.

Today, Korea is a democratic country. Today, people have a voice in their government, and the population expects certain rights and freedoms to be maintained. My hope is that one day we can say the same of Tunisia, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Yemen. If there is one thing that I have learned from Gwangju, it is that people have power. They might not see change within months, years or decades. But, eventually, change will come. The people will be heard. Vive la Revolution!


  1. On May 17, 2011, the dance team from Seomna Center participated in a performance commemorating the 5.18.1980 massacre. The event, held in Daejeon, was a reminder that the whole country still remembers the sacrifices and commitment of Gwangju. I was proud to be there.

    Then, on the weekend after May 18, I went back to Gwangju to run in a race for the uprising's anniversary. More on this race in a later post, but it was pretty clever in that everything revolved around 5.18--the race was even 5.18km long.

  2. Very informative! Who knew the U.S. took the wrong side in Korea's democratization.