Gwangju Uprising: The Rebellion for Democracy in South Korea ~ By Sok-yong Hwang, Jae-eui Lee and Yong-ho Jeon
(Verso Publications, London 2022, ISBN #978-1-7887-3714-2)
Review by Bill Drucker (Winter 2023)
The violent and tragic events of May 1980 in Gwangju, South Korea are now a generation old. Forty-three years have passed since the South Korean military put down a largely peaceful uprising for democracy, gunning down citizens in the streets, while the government afterwards attempted to suppress and obfuscate the facts of the event.
The young men and women who participated in and witnessed the events in Gwangju are now mothers, fathers and grandparents. In many ways, this book is a legacy and a reference for their descendants.
The account reviewed here is a revision of the original, authored by Jae-eui Lee (and others who were unnamed at that time) entitled Gwangju Diary: Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age (1985), which was based on the diary of eyewitness Jai-eui Lee and on testimonies of other witnesses he documented at the time. The book has sold more than a million copies and is considered the most important account of that historical event.
The revised edition, Gwangju Uprising: The Rebellion for Democracy in South Korea (Korean edition 2017), compiles and describes evidence and the course of events that adds to the original. Lee is one of the Gwangju Uprising editors. The English translation reviewed here was published in 2022.
The story relates how the events of May 1980, when citizens in the city of Gwangju demonstrated for democracy and were violently killed in the streets, were not just a historical moment, but a transition for South Korea from an autocratic to a democratic government, and a transformation during which it began to recognize the power of citizen voices.
The authors accuse the South Korean government of systemic information suppression of the Gwangju events. Much information has emerged since 1980, including survivors’ testimonies, film, photos, and physical evidence. The authors relate that the government downplayed and flat-out denied its actions, suppressed facts, and made unsubstantiated accusations of conspiracies to cover up the many unjust activities of that day and the days leading up to and following it. They also contend that the Gwangju citizen leaders were slandered as rebels against the state.
State denials of these contentions have boomeranged and have given strength to the Gwangju Uprising Revision Committee. The result has been increased international support and sympathy for uncovering the truth of that dark era.
A surge of renewed interest by many Korean people to uncover the truth prompted the government to dig itself in deeper – there were new efforts to dismiss the Gwangju writers and to suppress or destroy evidence.
In 2014, the Gwangju Uprising Revision Committee initiated an update to the original 1985 account. There was a plan to publish the revision by 2015, the 35th anniversary of the Gwangju Uprising, and to fund the work with private donations.
The project was slowed down by the mountains of new evidence needing review. This included oral records, court records from the trials of former Presidents Doo-hwan Chun and Tae-woo Roh, records of military deployment, declassified U.S. documents, and new testimonies of many witnesses, both Koreans and foreign journalists. Verifying the authenticity of the evidence and compiling it into a single volume publication would require a later publication date than originally planned.
During the post-uprising era, after May 1980, dictator General Chun squelched the people’s democratic movement, and held his grip of power until 1988. The government had attempted to prevent the original publication of Beyond Death. Consecutive conservative right-wing presidents, including past-president Geun-hye Park (daughter of military dictator past-president Chung Hee Park) have verbally attacked the Gwangju leaders and the book authors.
The recent Gwangju Uprising (2017, with English translation 2022), in three sections and 15 chapters, describes how citizen unrest and several events between October 1979 to May 1980 changed the South Korean political landscape forever. After Chung-hee Park was assassinated (October 26, 1979), there was an opportunity for a civilian government to emerge, but the conservative elite scrambled and managed to maintain autocratic control.
In the power vacuum, Defense Security Commander Doo-hwan Chun emerged as a leader, first as director of the South Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), then as the new military dictator president. He positioned military all over the country, on campuses, and at suspected hot spots of political activity. Gwangju was largely an agrarian region with a central city on which there were college campuses. It was also a center for anti-dictatorship activity. Suddenly, military bases, ammunition depots, and troops arrived and were stationed in and around the town.
There were sporadic and passive resistance activities in opposition to the military crack-down, then on Sunday, May 18, the Gwangju Uprising officially began when armed and unarmed protesters outnumbered local troops by tens of thousands; the troops backed down. Gwangju citizens declared victory on Wednesday, May 21.
In the subsequent escalation, well-armed elite South Korean troops and paratroopers were sent in. An effort to negotiate ended in an impasse. The South Korean government treated the Gwangju uprising as a national crisis. Troops blockaded the city to cut inhabitants off from food, energy, and services, and from reporting the events to the world.
Citizens responded by further arming themselves, some by raiding armories for weapons. Public buildings became makeshift hospitals and refuges. The situation further escalated as soldiers shot at armed civilians.
Military attempts at blockades failed and civilians broke through. The killing escalated. When there was finally a ceasefire, the military leaders feared that news of the slaughter would result in national condemnation. The government attempted to cut off the South Jeolla provincial region from the rest of South Korea, mainly to buy time for the state to come up with a way to justify the troop violence in Gwangju to the populace.
On Thursday, May 22, the fifth day of the uprising, the people of Gwangju declared liberation. The troops retreated. A citizen-led ad-hoc government moved into Province Hall. A Settlement Committee was established, and for a few days, the citizen-led government dealt with the emergencies in the post-battle city. The leadership team also formed a Democratization Committee.
There were still firefights and skirmishes to be controlled. Dead bodies had to be identified and buried, and wounded people need care. The Red Cross was allowed to enter Gwangju to help. Communications and negotiations were re-established with the troops and with the national government in Seoul.
On Monday, May 26, Republic of Korea (ROK) troops and paratroopers positioned themselves outside the city, then swept through Gwangju and neighboring towns, killing unarmed citizens.
On Tuesday, May 27, there was a final battle with paratroopers. The rest of the story remains incomplete. The actual casualty count is unknown, but estimated at being between 200 and over a 1,000 civilians being killed – it changes depending on what party is producing the numbers. The number of missing people is also unknown. Unmarked graves were eventually located and many bodies were recovered, marked, and recorded by the martial law authorities.
In 1981, the Korean Supreme Court commuted the sentences of 83 defendants who were convicted of insurrection. The few charged with death sentences were given life in prison, and others charged with life sentences had their sentences reduced to 20 years. Later, most were given special pardons.
In 2001, a Gwangju Uprising Missing Persons Truth Commission was formed. Details in the appendices of this book describe how the commission had bodies exhumed from 47 sites, and checked for any evidence of cause of death. Some of the dead were identified with newer forensic technology, such as DNA matching. More than 300 people are still considered missing.
Nearly 20 years of citizen advocacy for justice was rewarded with a trial before the South Korean Supreme Court. As a result, leaders Doo-hwan Chun and Tae-woo Roh went to prison. Ironically, democratically-elected President Dae jung Kim (1998-2003) who was a target of oppression by both Chun and Roh, would pardon the two convicted past-presidents. Gwangju Uprising groups railed against President Kim for this action.
The Gwangju documents were submitted to UNESCO for preservation in May 2011. Gwangju Uprising was the recipient of an English PEN literary award for translations of important foreign language works into English.
This book celebrates the courage and tenacity of the people, particularly the brave writers who persevered during an era of an oppressive dictatorship, and recorded the struggle for human rights, freedom, and against a succession of corrupt leaders, and the witnesses who boldly came forward during that era to tell their stories in an environment of oppression and fear.