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.
Strolling 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.
“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.
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.
According 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.