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On May 18, 1980, the people of Gwangju, South Korea came together for reunification and an end to an era of martial law imposed by U.S.-backed military dictators. Over the course of ten days, they staged mass protests, battled riot police and soldiers, and were met with brutal repression. Together, they successfully drove the military out Gwangju and governed the city together. Their actions changed the course of Korean history.
On Part 1 of this episode of Making Contact, we hear from survivors of the Gwangju Uprising about how they took on the tasks of history and the lessons they carry.
READ Transcript below
Special thanks to Jung Dong Suk of Gwangju SPARK, Io Sunwoo, Esther Kang, and Hella Organized Bay Area Koreans.
Image Credit: Hong Sung-Dam
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- +rain – Jio Im
- ??? ??? ?? (Our Wish is Reunification) for Piano based on B.W. Ahn – Young Jo Lee
- What Were We Holding Onto – Jio Im
- March of the Beloved for News Tapa – Yojo and Ruben
- July – Jio Im
- 1983 Song for News Tapa – Sulpa
MUSIC +rain JioIm
HOST: Hey there, this is Marie Choi. Youre listening to Making Contact.
I went to Korea in May, expecting to find a story about the candlelight movement that ousted President Park GeunHye, and the political shifts that are taking place on the peninsula. Instead, I found a country grappling with its ghosts.
HOST: The political situation in Korea today is inextricably tied to the division between North and South. In early part of the 20th century, Japan colonized Korea and tried to turn Korean people into subjects of the Japanese empire. Koreans birthed a movement for independence, and liberation from Japanese rule.
By August 1945, World War II was coming to a close.
ARCHIVAL Announcer: Allied sea forces moving up to the Japanese home islands shells the mainland almost without opposition. But there is to come, the unimaginably destructive atomic bomb, perfected by allied scientists
HOST: The US had just dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing 120,000 people. Within days, Japan would surrender and Korea became a target for occupation by other countries.
HOST: In anticipation of this, Russian troops began moving in from the North, and U.S. troops from the South.
U.S. General, George Lincoln, ordered two young soldiers, Dean Rusk, and Charles Bonesteel, to map out a zone for U.S. occupation.
LINCOLN: Here. <magazine dropping on table> Just dont make it too big.
BONESTEEL&RUSK: Yes, sir.
HOST: They had a copy of National Geographic magazine. And tore out a map of Korea.
BONESTEEL: Got it. Heres the map. Where do you think we should draw the line?
RUSK: You see any rivers, Tic? Mountain ranges? Any kind of natural split?
BONESTEEL: <sucking on a cigarette. exhale> Hard to tell. Theres this river here. But it only goes halfway across. What about those mountains?
RUSK: Too far North. We gotta get the Soviets to agree.
BONESTEEL: F- it. Just draw the line right there – 38th Parallel. Itll put Seoul in our zone.
RUSK: Works for me. Send it up the chain.
HOST: The U.S. generals agreed. And so did the Soviet Union. Just like that, Korea was divided into North and South.
In the South, the US fostered a national identity based on anti-communism, and backed a series of brutal military dictators beginning with Syngman Rhee.
The chasm between North and South grew through the Korean War
AMBI Korean War
HOST: US bombs rained down on the peninsula, and napalm burned through entire villages, reducing people to ash. After three years, an armistice a temporary ceasefire stopped military action, but solidified the division between North and South.
In the decades following the war, US-backed military dictators used the threat of North Korea to justify brutal repression. They created a climate of fear and paranoia about the North.
MUSIC ??? ??? ?? (Our Wish is Reunification) for Piano based on B.W. Ahn Young Jo Lee
HOST: And through all of this, a peoples movement to end military rule and reunify the country, grew.
At the heart of that resistance, was Gwangju – a city in the Southwest corner of Korea.
AMBI 518 march March of the Beloved
HOST: Its the eve of May 18, the 37th anniversary of the Gwangju uprising.
AMBI 518 students
HOST: And thousands of people fill the streets downtown.
AMBI knife dance
HOST: In the middle of the street, a woman dressed in flowing red robes swirls around, swinging a sword, as if shes fighting a ghost. A crowd gathers to watch as she cuts away the han of the deceased.
AMBI May Womens Association
HOST: On the side of the road, a group of older women sit under a tent, embroidering brightly colored butterflies onto a canvas with the lyrics to March of the Beloved. They take turns talking with people who stop in, and share their experiences of the uprising and massacre.
There, I meet Yoon Jung Lee, the President of the May Womens Association. That day shes dressed in a slim black pantsuit with a grey butterfly broach pinned over her heart. Her hair is cropped short, and she has a silk scarf with red and pink flowers tied neatly around her neck.
While were talking, other women in the group stop to ask what she thinks of the embroidery so far. More butterflies she says.
At the time of the Uprising, she is was in her mid-20s. Now in her 60s, she has a gravity about her.
YOON JUNG LEE:Its not that we thought we could win. We felt that we hadto win for the truth of history. And we experienced a lot of oppression under the Park Chung Hee dictatorship. And after that, after Park Chung Hee died, we thought a new world would come. It was anything but a new world. Again on Dec. 12, 1979, a new military authority was set up to take power. That was the 12/12 coup detat. Our hope was crushed again. But no matter what, the truth of history must win. We had that belief.
HOST: That spring, factory workers went on strike. Mass protests erupted in Seoul and were spreading to other cities. Students in Gwangju, Seoul, and Busan were planning a North-South peoples conference, and a national day of protest had been called for May 22.
YOON JUNG LEE:On October 26, 1979 after Park Chung Hee died [was assassinated], in 1980, the Seoul Spring came. Do you know about the Seoul Spring? The Seoul Spring was after Park Chung Hees death. People across the country were thirsty for democracy. In those days it felt as if the buildings were bursting. There were so many groups organizing and many women in those groups.
At the time, on May 17, 1980, at 12 oclock. Right after midnight, martial law went into effect across the entire country. As martial law went into effect, people who had been organizing against Park Chung Hees Yushin systemwere arrested pre-emptively.
Out of the organized groups, only the women were left. And the family members of those who were part of the peoples movement were also pre-emptively rounded up and dragged away. Of the family members, only the wives were left.
We looked around and we were the only ones left in this struggle. It was an urgent situation. The entire country was under martial law, and the military was occupying Gwangju – units 7 and 11 had already come in. These units were occupying Joseon University and Chunnam University. What are we going to do in this situation? As women, as mothers, we felt that we had to protect Gwangju. We had to protect our children. So this feeling was our priority.
At the time, I was at the YWCA, supervising the societal issues department, and organizing in the labor movement. So the 18th was a Sunday. Gwangju women workers, mid-management workers were in a study group. The study group was happening at the YWCA – over on this side, behind the Junwe building, thats where the YWCA was. 70 of us were studying. In the middle of the night, our older male colleagues were arrested. We were so nervous. In any case, our study program had already been scheduled so we had come out to the YWCA to study.
Outside, there was a lot of unrest. It was really noisy. So that was the situation and we continued our study group.
But across the street from the YWCA, there was the Moodunghakwon. The Moodunghakwon is a place where people go to study for government jobs.
They were studying at the hakwon when 3 trucks pulled up outside. Military trucks.All at once, soldiers wearing military boots and carrying billy clubs, they da-da-da-da-da-da ran up to the second and third floors. They completely stomped out several dozen students. And they dragged them away. So they would just kick you like this and grab you here and drag you out. It all happened within minutes. They dumped all of them into a truck and drove away.
So we were looking out from the third floor screaming,dont do that, dont do that – why would you drag away these students. So somehow those soldiers came to us, and they beat us up. Dont get together for study group anymore. Get out. They beat us as they chased us out.
So we got chased out onto the street and thats how we joined the demonstrations. Its not because I wanted to protest, it was a situation where I couldnt not protest. This violent situation was continuing, so naturally I had to participate. Before I could make a decision about whether or not to participate, I instinctively knew this was so wrong. Naturally, so naturally, I joined the fight. From the 18th to the 27th we setup our base camp outside of the YWCA building. And there we formed a coalition for the struggle.
MUSICWhat Were We Holding Onto JioIm
HOST: In response to the protests, riot police and soldiers indiscriminately beat people in the streets. They smashed peoples skulls and spines, hitting them with batons until they lost consciousness. In many cases, they beat people to death. Outraged, even more Gwangju residents joined the demonstrations. They dragged phone booths and flowerpots into the street to construct barricades and used stones and steel rods from nearby construction sites to fight the soldiers.
As the conflict escalated, soldiers began gunning people down in the streets and a civilian militia formed to fight back. After four days, the people of Gwangju forced the military out of the city.
YOON JUNG LEE: After May 18, the 19, 20, 21 until the 27th it progressed. And an organization formed. Now the massacre, especially May 18, 19, and 20th mass killings – there were many casualties. And there was a shortage of blood. As the military government was dragged out and we were isolated, women formed a community.
On this side, although theyve moved since then, the YWCA building was the center of the organized young womens groups – the Songbaekhae organizing, Dulhoolyak organizing, Paekjaeyak organizing, Workers organizations in the area, Nurses, and mothers. And the wives of those who opposed the dictatorship and were imprisoned during the Park Chung Hee era. All of these people gathered and formed a community in struggle. Similar to how were all gathered here today.
HOST: Civilian militias took over the provincial government building and in the street outside, Gwangju residents governed the city together. Food vendors from Yangdong market closed their shops and shared what they had with the people downtown. Residents stood in long lines, waiting to give blood to the wounded. Groups wrote statements and made handwritten posters.
Meanwhile, outside, the military blockaded the city, cutting off supply routes and communication lines in and out of Gwangju. The only news that made it out of Gwangju was the military governments line. They denied the brutality of the massacre and saida small group of North Korean sympathizers had incited riots. Outraged by the false media reports, Gwangju residents had burned down the local branch of the TV station.
YOON JUNG LEE: The commitment we made on the final day, on 5/26, 1980 in the afternoon, the peoples militia members met and decided that until the end, for truth and justice, in the face of the force and horrors of the military government, we will not kneel. We will fight to the end. I never for a moment forgot about this commitment. That is the candlelight of my life and its become my compass.
HOST: When the army re-entered the city on May 27, they arrested and killed those who remained in the streets and in the provincial government building.
By the end of the Uprising and Massacre, over 2,500 people were arrested, jailed, and in many cases, tortured. The death counts range from the military governments report of 144 people to over 1,000.
YOON JUNG LEE: As I lived my life, there have been big disappointments, and times where I was tempted to live comfortably. Or thought, maybe I need to make compromises because of reality. Because the new era that we wanted to bring about, as we moved from industrialization to democratization, an era of newfound freedom came. And as this happened, hasnt capital taken over and become the basis of power? Society has changed so quickly, and holding onto our sense of responsibility, to the task of history, within all this, its a big demand. So survivors, the people who lived – we have comrades who died – as a survivor, we have to protect that trust. We are the ones who have to expose the truth of 518, and these other tasks of history that Korea is holding onto – we need to resolve these things.
HOST: For the generation of Gwangju residents that experienced the uprising and massacre, theres an intense focus on remembering what took place, and exposing the truth. Through the 80s, people couldnt even talk about what had taken place in Gwangju without risking imprisonment and torture. The news media called the people of Gwangju liars and North Korean sympathizers – not to be trusted. And the brutality of the massacre was so extreme that many who did not witness it, couldnt believe it.
YOON JUNG LEE: Always, to my comrades – as a survivor, I will take responsibility. You all were unable to carry out our meaning. The Korean democracy movements truth was that all of us, together, could live well and live as equals. Thats what we wanted to achieve. But they left without being able to see it through. So us survivors, until the day we die, we reaffirm that we will continue to try.
If our country, Korea, had not been divided – like the US, or Japan – there may not be these kinds of societal issues. But for us, divided, in this horrible situation – if you step forward a little bit, youre accused of being a leftist, a communist. We cant even talk about tongil (reunification) easily.
Korea didnt clean up the issues that were left after Japanese occupation. A new government was established. Because there were these mistakes, there are many deeply rooted evils. We need to clear up these deeply rooted evils and so we can create a new and hopeful, just world.
Thats the message that I want to send to my comrades who died – that we will create that kind of world.
MUSICMarch of the Beloved for News Tapa Yojo and Ruben
HOST: On the morning of 518, theres a huge official ceremony at the memorial site. Beforehand, Gwangju activists and family members gather at a small cemetery several blocks away. This is where the bodies are buried, they tell us. During the massacre, the army drove through the city, piling bodies onto the back of garbage trucks. They dumped the dead bodies at the outskirts of the city. Later, people would go back and pull one body off at a time, so that they could identify people and find their family members.
II asked why some of the graves didnt have names on them. They explained that some of the bodies were too badly mangled to be identified, and some of the families were too scared to come forward and claim their children.
As we leave, one of the organizers points to a cracked piece of stone set in the ground. Chun Doo Hwan, it reads. After the massacre, he visited a nearby city, and had a giant stone with his name erected there to commemorate the occasion. Later, people smashed the stone and brought the piece with his name on it to the Gwangju graveyard. They put it in the ground so that visitors would step on it. The Butcher of Gwangju, they called him.
AMBI After Church
HOST: Church is out and people pour into the assembly room. They gather around small round tables and catch up over coffee and tea. There, I meet AhnSeung Rye. At the time of the uprising, she was a nurse supervisor at GwangjusGidok hospital. Now, in her 80s, she looks like my own grandmother. Short hair neatly permed. Eyebrows perfectly filled in. That day, shes dressed up in a yellow and red hanbok. As soon as we meet, she links arms with me and leads me to a table in the corner.
During the uprising, her job was to separate the dead from the wounded, give blood infusions to the wounded and send the dead to the morgue. There were so many bodies that she couldnt leave the hospital for three days.
Her husband was an English professor and part of the group that occupied the provincial capitol. The military government jailed and tortured him for two years. When he was released, the couple devoted their lives to uncovering the truth of the massacre and creating some kind of healing.
AHN SEUNG RYE:When I think of 518, I remember Why shoot us? Why stick us with knives? How are the people who are supposed to protect the country doing this to innocent residents? You cant do that! Stop that! this is what the people were shouting.
Whatever happens in the future, whatever evil or severe forces try to invade us, our country is the light of Asia. We work for peace until the end.
Even today, what is Gwangjus mindset? Gwangjus consciousness is If we die, lets die together. If we live, lets live together.
In the face of this illegal and unjust nonsense, we can never submit. Even if after we cross over to death, and we need to die again, we must combine our strength and get rid of this. Thats how we kicked the martial law troops out. Thats how for 10 days, we as people made the most critical alliance. We drew our blood to give to patients. We shared food staples, made kimbap to share with the peoples militia, and those who were crying out in the streets.
The most important thing is truth and jung, and peace and life. These are things we need to teach from a young age. We need to have a culture where we move together and care for each other. The era where people fight each other and go to war so that they can have more than others – that era is over.
HOST: Part of that truth is acknowledging the role that the US played in the massacre, and re-evaluating Koreas relationship with the US.
AHN SEUNG RYE: The impact of 518 is that we took another look at the US. Because we thought the United States was helping us, that they were allies. But the U.S. Army allowed and helped to mobilize soldiers to commit the Gwangju Massacre. So from then on, we came to know this sadness about the United States. And also, at the time, we thought that the US would help get rid of this evil military regime.But that was wrong.
Our Korea – for them its about taking advantage of peoples love for the US to advance their position in Asia. They never thought for a second about the sacrifices that Korean people made.
We have to wake up now. We have to get ourselves together. We have to be without shame for the future generations. Now this is what its about.
HOST: As for the people killed in the massacre, Ahn Seung Rye says theyre not dead.
AHN SEUNG RYE: Those people are not dead. They are resurrected in history. They are resurrected in the hearts and righteousness of the people who live on. If you look at the 518 tower, their spirits are in there. There is no way that they are dead. Those people are part of all living things. They are here to teach Americas weapons manufacturers a huge lesson. That energy is Koreas peace, Asias peace.
MUSIC July JioIm
HOST:In Korean, the word han is used to describe a deep sadness and outrage born of the historic injustices experienced by Korean people. It is passed through the generations and it is believed that all Korean people carry han. That those who have experienced these injustices firsthand, they feel it more intensely. Han is something that needs to be untangled, released.
In the immediate aftermath of the Gwangju uprising, that meant spreading the truth of what had taken place. People secretly made copies of black and white photos, and passed them to others. They continued to organize and by June of 1987, successfully toppled the Chun Doo Hwan regime.
MUSIC +rain JioIm
HOST: Today, people are repairing history in unexpected ways.
In part 2 of this series we’ll head to Gyungsanbukdo the Southeastern part of Korea. The region is the conservative stronghold of Korea the hometowns of Koreas military dictators are there. And with the deployment of THAAD a U.S. missile system these quiet farming towns are becoming centers of resistance to U.S. militarism.
MUSIC1983 Song for News Tapa Sulpa
HOST: Thats it for this edition of Making Contact.
You can learn more about the Gwangju Uprising and the legacy of the 1980s peoples movement in Korea at our website, radioproject.org. You can also check out past shows, subscribe to our weekly podcast, and make a difference by supporting our work.
If todays show raised questions for you, share the show with a friend. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter where our handle is Making underscore Contact.
Todays show would not have been possible without the support and warmth of ?????? with the Gwangju??? chapter.
Special thanks to Io Sunwoo and Esther Kang who spent countless hours playing with my 3-year old while I taped interviews, and Hella Organized Bay Area Koreans for their support throughout this process.
The voiceovers you heard were done by Miriam Ching Louie and Deann BorshayLiem.
Todays show included original music by JioIm and Judy Jun. You can hear more of Jios music at soundcloud.com/jioim.
The Making Contact Team includes: Lisa Rudman, Marie Choi, RJ Lozada, Anita Johnson, Monica Lopez, Vera Tykulsker, and Sabine Blaizin.
Im Marie Choi. Thanks for listening to Making Contact!