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(en) France, Union Communiste Libertaire AL #306 - History, 1980: South Korean dictatorship challenged in Gwangju (fr, it, pt)[machine translation]

Date Sun, 2 Aug 2020 12:47:08 +0300

In French, we would say: "o - il - pal". Three figures which form the date of May 18, 1980, when the uprising began in the city of Gwangju, now the sixth city of South Korea, in the province of Jeolla, in the southwest of the peninsula. In that year, to protest against the establishment of martial law and the systematic political repression falling on opponents of dictator Chun Doo-hwan, the entire population of the city stood up to the military in power. All while achieving in passing five days of total self-management in a city under siege. ---- Located at the forefront of the Cold War, forced to deal with an uninterrupted American military presence since 1950, the South Korea of the 1980s was far from being a democratic model. The civilian government, which took control after the assassination of General Park Chung-hee in October 1979, proved incapable of containing the military's inclinations to regain power. On December 12, General Chun Doo-hwan signed a coup d'état and very quickly reinstated the martial law that his predecessor had used regularly since 1972, under the pretext of fighting the North Korean threat.

In reality, it is a question of leading to a forced march what liberal economists still falsely call "the Korean miracle" today: maintenance of an underpaid workforce, criminalization of trade union movements, concentration of power in the hands of conglomerates (the chaebols) like Samsung, LG or Hyundai, not to mention the absorption of exports by the American ally. In times of cold war, it was imperative for the United States that the South Korean economy is a success and that, whatever the cost [1].

Conflict explosion
It was in this context of the crushing of civil liberties that a new academic year began in March 1980. Having seen their hopes for political liberalization dashed by the coup d'état of December 1979, student unions and professors took the lead. a movement calling for a real democratization of the country: end of military law, establishment of a minimum income and end of the extremely narrow censorship that muzzles the press.

On May 15, 1980 in Seoul, a giant demonstration brought together more than 100,000 demonstrators. The Korean government's reaction is not by halves: universities are closed, political activity banned, and military personnel are sent across the country to ensure that no one deviates from this extension of martial law. The leaders of the democratic opposition are also arrested. Originally from Jeolla province, Kim Dae-jung, former Democratic candidate in the 1971 presidential elections, repeatedly hunted down under the military regime of Park Chung-hee, was sentenced to death for sedition and conspiracy.

Jeolla's resistance
The agrarian province of Jeolla in the south was long left behind in the industrialization of the country. Abandoned by the process of economic modernization, the province has on the contrary distinguished itself as the bastion of the fight against military dictatorships. In the 1971 elections, Kim Dae-jung, the native of the country, obtained 95% of the votes in Jeolla... Suffice to say that the news of his arrest by the military helped to ignite the powder.

On the morning of May 18, 1980, in Gwangju, 200 students gathered in front of Chonnam National University to protest against its closure. They find in front of them about thirty particularly hostile parachute soldiers who charge very quickly. The students respond by throwing stones.

Very quickly, the scuffle moved into the city center where the demonstrators were joined by other residents around the buildings of the provincial authority. This is essentially where for three days, the clashes will take place without interruption. On the afternoon of May 18, a 29-year-old man was beaten to death by soldiers. It is the first victim of a repression which will make many others, the soldiers not hesitating to use their bayonets to wound the demonstrators during the street clashes.

On May 20, while the number of protesters rose to more than 100,000 people, the police and the army opened fire on the demonstrators. The latter reacted by robbing the police stations and the armories of the city. Armed with rifles and rifles, the insurgents managed to push back the army, forced to leave the city center on the evening of May 21.

At the same time, to remedy the false information relayed by the official media, a newspaper, Le Bulletin des militants , was distributed for the first time on May 20. The same evening, the demonstrators set fire to the premises of the Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) television channel, which has obediently concealed the killings of the army and the police since the start of the conflict. A few hours later, it is the Taxation Hall that goes up in smoke, carried away by the rage of the demonstrators.

This man with a determined look is an anonymous person. Leader of a popular combat unit during the uprising, nicknamed "Kim Gun" by surviving witnesses, he will be assassinated by the Korean army when it retakes the city. This photograph is the starting point of the documentary bearing his name released in 2019 in South Korea.

Five days of self-management

The Gwangju uprising very quickly went beyond the dimension of a simple student protest. On the night of May 20, for example, the city's bus and taxi drivers organize a gigantic parade in support of the demonstrators. Since the start of the clashes, the latter were already picking up the demonstrators to take them to the hospital, or bringing them provisions from neighboring towns.

Some even use their vehicles to block soldiers, or even to charge them. From May 22 to 26, this spontaneous mutual aid will take the form of a popular organization in a town isolated from the rest of the country by the military [2]. The latter in fact only retreated to wait for reinforcement, cutting off all routes and means of communication to the outside.

On May 23, 1980, the soldiers opened fire on a bus attempting to pass the roadblock in the Jiwon district and killed 17 people. During this time in the insurgent city, popular committees and combat groups are set up. Led by professors, priests and lawyers, they tried to negotiate with the military: the disarmament of popular militias in exchange for the release of prisoners, compensation for victims of repression and the guarantee of absence retaliation. At the same time and despite the quarantine of towns, rallies in support of the insurgents will take place elsewhere in the country: in Hwasun, Naju, Haenam, Mokpo, and Yeongam in particular.

American complicity
In the early morning of May 27, the Korean soldiers were ordered to retake the city by force. The fighting this time around will not last forever. In an hour and a half, the soldiers took over, killing between 500 and 2,000 people, and arresting nearly 1,400 people on the morning of May 27. For at least a decade, the Gwangju protesters will officially remain vandals in the pay of Communism and North Korea. Even today, this reading is defended by the most conservative fringes of society [3].

Demonstrators opposing martial law gathered on May 18, 1980 in front of the provincial government building in South Jeolla.
Despite its stifling, the Gwangju uprising will have had a lasting impact on the Korean democratic movement. She notably brought to light the key role of the Reagan administration in supporting the authoritarian regime of Chun Doo-hwan. In Gwangju in particular, American cultural centers were regularly set on fire by pro-democracy demonstrators in the 1980s. Some students went so far as to self-immolate themselves to denounce the anti-democratic bias of the United States.

A now essential symbol of the struggle for democracy, the Gwangju uprising has been the subject of an official commemoration since 2002 which has been held at the national cemetery where the bodies of the victims have been gathered since 1997, the date of their (late) rehabilitation. Indeed, it was not until the democratization process of the late 1980s that light was shed on the Gwangju massacre, and the mid-1990s so that those responsible for this massacre, including General Chun Doo-hwan and his successor , General Roh Tae-woo, be incriminated.

Even today, key players in the Gwangju insurgency, still alive, are present in the ranks of the two governing parties: some were then opposed to the dictatorship, others already in post in the administration of the time. Moreover, for several years, a more demanding commemoration gathering has taken place on the sidelines of the official gathering. Suffice to say that the memory of the struggle and the repression are still a sensitive subject and that the embers are still warm in the southern half of the peninsula.

Nicolas Dupretz (Lille critical history workshop)

From massacres to rehabilitation
October 26, 1979: Assassination of dictator Park Chung-Hee, former collaborator of the Japanese occupier, by the head of the South Korean secret service. Park had been in power since 1961. A period of political instability began.

December 6, 1979: Election of Choi Kyu-Ha, new President of the Republic, but without power in the face of the rise of the generals.

December 12, 1979: Coup d'état by a group of generals led by Chun Doo-Hwan. Choi Kyu-Ha remains nominally president.

May 17, 1980: Appointed head of the South Korean secret service, General Chun proclaims martial law throughout the country. Protests are taking place in Seoul and across the country.

May 18, 1980: Beginning of the uprising in Gwangju.

May 20, 1980: 100,000 demonstrators occupy the city. The army opens fire. The insurgents plunder the police stations and armories of the city.

May 21, 1980: The army, forced to fall back, leaves the city to the demonstrators

May 22 to 26, 1980: Self-management of the city by the inhabitants. Organization of popular committees for the various essential tasks and of combat groups to defend the city.

May 27, 1980: Recapture of the city by the military. Between 500 and 2,000 victims.

1996: Chun Doo-Hwan, accused of murdering protesters in Gwagju, corruption and high treason, is sentenced to death. Sentence commuted to life imprisonment in 1997.

1997: In an effort at national reconciliation, new president Kim Dae-Jung grants amnesty to Chun Doo-Whan. His early release provokes student riots in Seoul. Kim Dae-Jung is however a former opponent of Gwangju, a time sentenced to death for sedition under the dictatorship. Chun now lives in his personal residence in Seoul.


[1] For a detailed study on the subject, read the analysis of Eric Toussaint in World Bank, the permanent coup, reproduced on the website of the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt (CADTM): https: //www.cadtm.org/

[2] " The Kwangju Uprising in South Korea ", George Katsiaficas, 1980, available at http://blog.cnt-ait.info/ . The article particularly insists on the self-management aspect of the insurgency.

[3] This is also the starting point of the excellent documentary Kim Gun released on South Korean screens in 2019 and broadcast during the last edition of the Korean Film Festival in Paris (FFCP).

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