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Historic Implications of May 18th Democratic Uprising

The May 18th Democratic Uprising is the beacon of democracy!

The May 18 Democratic Movement was a righteous uprising of citizens asking for democracy and standing against an illegal power grab by the New Military Group. Without any functioning police force during the uprising, the citizens themselves maintained order and there was not a single case of robbery reported by any financial institution. Citizens of Gwangju lined up to donate blood for the wounded, and created a beautiful community of mutual dependence and assistance even when they were cut off from the outside world by martial law forces. The May 18 Democratic Movement was an historic event during which universal values of mankind - democracy, human rights and peace - were realized.

After the uprising, Korean people kept calling for the truth of the May 18 Movement, and the "New Military Group" elements who were responsible for the violence were punished by law. Now, May 18th is a national commemoration day and the victims' graveyards have become a National Cemetery. Also, victims and participants of the Movement are receiving honorable treatment as contributors to democracy.

What is more, the "May Movements" (democratic movements by citizens and students calling for the truth of the May 18 Movement and resignation of the New Military Group) occurring after 1980 paved the way for the June 10 Democratic Uprising which overthrew the CHUN Doo-hwan regime that inherited the Yushin system. The May 18 Movement was a decisive driving force that brought a major change in Korean politics. Furthermore, the Movement is considered to be a People's Revolutionary Movement upholding the spirit of self-rule, democracy, human rights and peace in East Asia, shedding light on the dark memories of colonialism and dictatorship in the region.

Origins and process of the May 18 Democratic Uprising

Gwangju, the cross of the nation! Our eternal city of youth!

The military government of PARK Chung-hee, which seized power on May 16, 1961 through military coup, used violence to suppress the democratic wishes of students, workers, and citizens. The dictatorship was put into turmoil when President Park was shot and killed by his KCIA director KIM Jae-kyu. However, several generals including CHUN Doo-hwan and ROH Tae-woo formed the "New Military Group" and staged another coup on Dec. 12, 1979 in a plot to extend military dictatorship. This was when politicians, students and citizens began to call for democracy, withdrawal of martial law, and resignation of the remnants of the Yushin system. In particular, students started movements to revive student associations in universities and created the mood for the "Spring of Democracy" in 1980, replacing the "Winter Republic" of the Yushin system. But on May 17, 1980, the New Military Group unlawfully extended martial law to mobilize military forces and suppressed the citizens’ call for democracy.

In the morning of May 18, at the main gate of Chonnam National University, a student protest against martial law forces occupying their campus was brutally suppressed. Demonstrating students dispersed to escape the violence and moved to various locations in the city center to mount street rallies. In doing so they began to attract citizen interest and support. It was from this time that martial law forces started to relentlessly assault and arrest not only the demonstrating students but also ordinary citizens. Outraged by this brutality, citizens of Gwangju rushed to the streets and joined protest rallies. High school students also joined the demonstrations, and about 200 vehicles led by taxi drivers moved toward the Provincial Office building to face martial law forces. Because the distorted press defined these demonstrations as "disturbance by impure elements" and reported nothing about martial law forces' violence, some citizens rushed to broadcasting companies in protest and burned their offices.

On May 21, martial law forces opened fire indiscriminately at the citizens calling for their apology in front of the Provincial Office building. The street of Geumnam-ro instantly became a scene of carnage. Hospitals were so overwhelmed by incoming casualties that their blood supply began to run out. Furious citizens seized guns from civil defense corps armory to fight back, and Gwangju became an isolated city when martial law forces withdrew to the outskirts of the city. Citizens printed and disseminated leaflets to tell the truth, expanded the uprising to neighboring cities and counties, and formed the “May 18 Settlement Measure Committee" to start negotiations with martial law authorities. Also, citizens voluntarily maintained order and lined up to donate blood for the wounded.

Despite negotiations with citizens, the new military group decided to forcibly suppress Gwangju and according to the "Operation Sangmu Chungjung" plan, they entered the city in the early morning of the 27th and brutally suppressed citizens holding the Provincial Office and the YWCA. Uprising leaders like YOON Sang-won, anticipating military operation, sent women and high school students back home and made their final stand against martial law forces.

On May 21, martial law forces fired indiscriminately at citizens who were demanding an apology in front of the provincial government building. Geumnam-ro street, located in front of the provincial government building, quickly became a mess, and hospitals were flooded with deaths and injuries, resulting in a blood shortage. Angered by the martial law forces’ actions, citizens including the reserve forces actively fought back by taking guns out of the armory, while martial law forces retreated out of town, isolating Gwangju from other regions. The cut-off citizens distributed their own printed materials to spread the word and inform people of the truth, while additionally organizing the ‘Relief Task Force of May 18’, incorporating people from all walks of life, to negotiate with the martial law authorities. Moreover, the citizens themselves maintained order, and people of all ages lined up to volunteer to donate blood for the wounded. However, the new military decided to conduct ‘Operation Sangmu Chungjung’ and suppress Gwangju by force. In the early morning of May 27, the tank-led martial law forces entered various parts of Gwangju, including the Jeonnam provincial government building, YWCA, etc., and brutally crushed the citizens by force. Before the suppression, women and children were persuaded to leave by the protest leaders, including YOON Sang-won, civilian army, and citizens, who were then killed by the martial law forces for their defiance.

The 10-day uprising killed 23 soldiers and four policemen, with 166 civilians presumed dead, in addition to 108 soldiers and 852 civilians injured. A total of 5,807 people are recognized as May 18 victims, including 155 deaths, 57 missing, 112 deaths following injury, 3,643 injured, 1,813 taken into detention, and others (based on 2018 criteria).

In 2011, the UNESCO Memory of the World committee accepted into its archives all related May 18 documents, including photography, materials printed by citizens, diaries, a Ministry of National Defense documentary, national administration documents, and U.S. documents, etc.

From May 18 Archives Website

  • Division in Charge : Human Rights & Peace Cooperation
  • Contact : +82-62-613-1322