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May 18, 1980: An eyewitness account of the Gwangju Massacre

A paratrooper clubs a man arrested during anti-government demonstrations in Gwangju on 20 May 1980.
Kristen Alice
Written by Kristen Alice
It was May of 1980, and Na Byung-un didn’t realize that he was about to become a part of history. Working at a Billiards hall in Gwangju, and attending nighttime classes to prepare for a university entrance exam, he’d become acutely aware of the creeping increase in government control over the past several years.

At that time, “the dictatorship was the worst,” he remembers with a forlorn look in his eyes. Na was a survivor of one of the most brutal incidents in modern South Korean history: The Gwangju Democratic Uprising, also known as the Gwangju Massacre.

C0A8CA3C000001226ED7EC30000B448_P2Strolling along the glittering streets of almost any major city center, it is easy to forget that in a not-so-distant past, South Korea was a desperately poor country under a dictatorial military regime.

Before the gleaming rows of cafes serving up 6,000 won ($5.5) fancy lattes, fields of rice stretched as far as the eye could see; before flashy K-Pop concerts, there were military juntas and martial law.

In those days, South Korea’s GDP per capita was just under $4,000 per person, or less than one-sixth than that of the United States, according to World Bank data. As a country with few natural resources recovered from Japanese colonization, it struggled to find its footing politically, economically, and socially.

This was especially true in Gwangju, a city nestled in the one of the poorest regions of South Korea, agricultural South Jeolla Province.

Na Byung-un

Na Byung-un

“People were very, very poor, and they led miserable lives.” Na recalls. “They didn’t even have one dollar.”

In addition to poverty, a thick fog of fear had descended upon the peninsula. In a country where speaking out against the government could land you in prison, few people dared disturb the peace.

According to Na, there was a rumor that those who criticized the government would be kidnapped and murdered in secret. For many, freedom was the only thing they had left, a precious commodity not to be risked without very good reason.

In October of 1979, dictator Park Chung-hee was assassinated, and the Korean people harbored a faint glimmer of hope that it would signify a new era of democracy. However, that hope was short-lived, as a military coup, led by Chun Doo-hwan, seized control.

One of the priorities of this new regime was to stamp out any emerging signs of dissidence, and keep Korea clenched tightly in the military’s iron grip.

Na recounts, “People had been uprising and protesting against dictatorship continuously under Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan. They put innocent people into prison and oppressed the masses by force of arms. So people all rose up. It was the uprising of the public.”

On May 18, 1980, martial law was expanded throughout South Korea. Universities were shut down and political speech banned. Protests began breaking out around the country.

Approximately 50 students, who were blocked from entering the Chonnam National University campus, began protesting. In response, paratroopers were dispatched, and began violently beating the student protesters.

Some protesters responded by wielding sticks and throwing rocks to defend themselves from the excessive force. The military shot back by assaulting men, women, and children, regardless of age, whether they were protesting or not.

Over the next few days, the protests grew exponentially. Taxi drivers formed a brigade and drove to the Provincial Office, where they blocked the military from assaulting citizens, and transported injured people to hospitals.

Some drivers were pulled from their cars and beaten or killed.

“All Gwangju citizens were involved in the protests, because all of us were together as one. Everyone thought we had to stand against injustice,” says Na. “Even the police were on our side. They changed into normal clothes at night and joined us.”

The government’s response grew even more violent and oppressive. Transportation and communication in and out of Gwangju were cut off, effectively isolating the city from the rest of the country.

The government labeled Gwangju residents as Communists and North Korea sympathizers, and referred to the pro-democracy marches as riots. Citizens were trapped inside the city, and military blockades prevented civilians from getting in or out.

Residents of other regions of South Korea had no idea what was going on in Gwangju. On May 21, protesters took over the Provincial Office, and the military opened fire on civilians.

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Na himself was attacked by airborne troops while he was working on the second floor of the billiards hall. He was bashed repeatedly with a baton, and dragged to the ground floor, where soldiers tried to load him into a military truck.

However, while the troops were trying to force him inside, some students began angrily throwing stones at them. Distracted, they began chasing the students. At that moment, Na recalls, “Some people appeared and helped to pass me over a wall, where the troops couldn’t see me. Some women protected me. That is why I am now alive.”

The protests continued daily in Gwangju, and spread to surrounding cities, including Mokpo, Naju, Hwasun, and Haenam until May 27. In the early morning on that date, the military violently stormed the city, using tanks and helicopters to reclaim the Provincial Office.

170836237According to the May 18 Memorial Foundation, during those ten days 154 people were killed, 74 went missing, and 4,141, including Na, were injured. Other sources, however, place the numbers even higher, and according to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, 102 more people died later from their injuries.

Life never went back to normal for Na. He returned to his hometown of Naju, where he lived with his family and focused on his recovery. He quit school, instead deciding that he would make money to support his family. However, he knows that his involvement in this movement was not in vain.

“Because of Gwangju’s May 18 democratization movement, Korea became more democratic. It served as a momentum to bring justice to all in the world,” he noted.

Na believes that the government’s response to these protests was intended to spark feelings of regionalism, since a divided populace would be easier to control. He shares some final advice with us. “Regionalism,” he says, “is the center of corruption.”

He explained that regionalism must never happen in any country, because it makes life hard for everyone.

“The nation should watch the government, and the government should care for the nation. When the government does something wrong, people should criticize them,” Na points out.

Special thanks to Na Deok-myeong and Kim Nam-yi for their translations.

About the author

Kristen Alice

Kristen Alice

Originally from Los Angeles, Kristen Alice now calls Gwangju home. You can catch her radio segment, “Human Rights First,” every Tuesday at 7:05pm on the Gwangju Foreign Network at 98.7 fm in Gwangju, 93.7 in Yeosu, or at gfn.or.kr.

  • Jason

    This is my first comment on TKO because that was a fantastic read. WOW~! I was there~! Thank you for such an awesome article~!

    • Kristen

      Thank you. Mr. Na is a great storyteller!

  • David Dolinger

    Please check your facts. Park was assassinated
    in October of 1999, December 12th was the day of Chun’s coup d’état.
    May 16th we had a peaceful protest march from Gwangju station. Sunday
    May 18th we woke to martial law, with a number of student leaders
    already arrested on Saturday night/Sunday morning. On Sunday students were not
    allowed to enter Chonam University grounds and protests arose around that and
    then were initiated near the Provincial Office building. On Wednesday May 21st
    all transportation in and out of Kwangju was cutoff.

    • stocker

      Dictator Park was assassinated in 23,october, 1979

    • Kristen

      Hi David,
      Thank you for pointing these out. I will make the appropriate changes.

    • Tae-hoon Lee

      Thanks so much David, I checked the details you provided. Except for Park assassination, which was Oct. 1978, all the information you provided is accurate.

    • Tae-hoon Lee

      But I think it is also accurate “On May 18th, 1980, students and citizens staged a peaceful demonstration at Gwangju’s Chonnam National University. In response, paratroopers were dispatched, and began indiscriminately and violently beating citizens..”

  • Kahi

    “On March 21st, protesters took over the Provincial Office, and the
    military opened fire on civilians, killing hundreds of people.”
    I believe this was a typo. Should be May 21st

    • Kristen

      Thanks for catching this. I will fix it.

    • Tae-hoon Lee

      Thanks a lot Kahi for the great feedback.

  • Ludia kim

    You probably want to re-study about Gwangju riots in other aspects. And Park Chung-hee was not a dictator, but the one who actually made a foundation for what we have now.

    • JohnK

      Regardless, he is internationally remembered as a dictator. A military strongman who violated innumerable human rights abuses against his own people.

    • Pique Ewe

      Ludia Kim, you make me so very sad. Please check into REASONING as well as brush up on the most basic events of Contemporary Korean History, sweetheart.

      Generalissimo Park Jung-Hee was indeed very much a dictator, and of a typical mold. My entire life in South Korea was lived under him until my family moved out to breathe freer air a few months before he was put out of his misery. One of my earliest memories is of pepper gas. I remember SO MANY NAUSEATING STUFF FROM HIM AND HIS COTERIE like it was yesterday. I was haunted by my memories of his regime, and it prompted me to take up political science a few years after my removal to USA. He was SOOOOOOOOOO a dictator, and a half.

      And yes, he was also “the one who actually made a foundation for what we have now” as you had said there, in a way … although your vague statement could have meant any number of things. It is still illegal for people to criticize their government in South Korea, under his daughter’s regime right now, I believe. Have you looked into the DRASTIC DIP in free speech under Ms. Park’s rule? Please do this, babe, and buy yourself a clue. She is obsessed with deification of her father and it is quite embarassing as well as sickening, and heartbreaking to see supposedly smart people being so LUDICROUSLY prone to brainwashing and idol-imposing. Yes, I do believe he laid the foundation for “respectable” citizens of South Korea to actively go along with various b*llsHit fed to them, and to simply dismiss oppositions as COMMIES because that is just so easy and people have no time to mull things over and be objective. Busy people! Industrial Warriors! Park gave you food! Thanks be to Park from whom all good things came! Baaaa … Baaaaa … Baaaaabble.

      I am no commie. And there were proper leadership FOR A HELL OF A LONG TIME before Park emerged out of his unenthused mother’s womb. Korea and its intelliectuals existed for many generations and centuries before Park came on the scene and corrupted history and warped minds. When I see footages and slogans out of North Korea these days, I feel like a deja-vu to the Park era of the 1970s. I was there, honey, and I tell you that is how it was. My school was just a hop and a skip to The Blue House. I was there! My home was a hop and a skip to the tomb of Mr. Kim Gu, at that time attached to an unknown little park. My elementary school was the headquarters for the Japanese to torture and kill resistance fighters like Mr. Kim Gu. My maternal clan founder was the son in law of Sejong the Great and was right there with him at the creation of Han-gle. My paternal clan founders (for there were two, a male and a female) invented and illustrated noblesse oblige. My maternal ancestor set the foundation for neo-Confucianism and instituted rule by scholarly merit. My paternal ancestors built the Buddhist temples and taught people to endure through all tribulations.

      The Japanese did not generously GIVE us a modern Korea.
      The Park brigade did not INVENT industry and industriousness.
      They have taken WAY too much credit for themselves, and it’s tacky.
      I wonder where Park learned his … subtle and noble ways … so Korean. He was a U.S. imposed “strongman” chosen from a pool of the many professional servants of the Japanese. He laid the foundation for so much of that is still so very wrong in South Korea today. (Hu)man does not live by bread alone. That many people got fed for the first time in their miserable lives during his DICTATORSHIP does not mean it is thanks to him. That’s like the North Koreans crying for gratitude for their little bit of porridge. MANY KOREANS SACRIFICED SO MUCH to make this happen. Park told some doozies of lies and sold MANY PEOPLE OUT to the benefit of his rule and The Haves of the world outside. Stop being so gullible. He omitted to do SO MUCH for so many sectors of Korean people inside and outside Korea. He was a selfish, cold-hearted, cold-blooded little man of BIG head and bigger sexual appetites who never hesitated to have others pay way too much for his little gains. He put people to death for voicing dissent. Lots of heart attacks and hit-and-runs and hiking accidents and outright assassinations. Have you seen any footages of the conditions under which many exploited people labored during his rule? People stuck for 15+ hours a day in a room that was less than 5 feet high. Children working 60+ hours a week. Draconian punishments for petty crimes. It was not a humanitarian era, let me tell you. It sucked out your soul. And I was one of the better off. And not even 12 years old when I left South Korea. I left it with a very heavy heart, and most of my intelligent friends were the same way.
      The Park idolaters even go as far as to impugn and PERSECUTE the Gwangju survivors even to this day. That is sick and very messed up. Just a lingering symptom of that CRUEL and opportunistic and selfish and horny megalomaniac Park did to the people of South Korea. He was unethical, immoral, cruel, anti-intellectual, anti-knowledge, and quite paranoid. YOU GOT TORTURED FOR BEING IN POSSESSION OF A PICASSO PAINTING OR REPRODUCTION. Any unlucky person could get framed as a communist or a subversive. Hey, perhaps you like that stuff. Perhaps that is your idea of cool and awesome. I come from a very different place. I come from a very different Korea and Korean tradition. That was so not cool with me.

      Get real.

  • 1SGRET

    Na failed to mention that the citizens had seized weapons and armored vehicles, had taken over the police station and in effect overthrown the city government. The Special Forces who went into quell the riot were indeed heavy handed, but perhaps they were in fear for their lives, but nothing can justify the killing of the innocent people. By the way Pak was murdered in Oct of 1979. I don’t know how you can call him anything but a dictator, review his history and I am sure you will agree. However bad he was, he did bring Korea into the 20th century.

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