Gwangju, in the southwest of South Korea, is admittedly hard to sell as a place to live or even visit. The economically stagnant former capital of South Jeolla Province, it doesn’t have glistening shopping malls, stunning architecture or expansive green spaces. Mixing drab residential areas with industrial shops and standard motels, it’s a metropolitan city of 1.5 million without a metropolitan feel.
But Gwangju has May 18.
When you’re in the city, you can’t escape the phrase May 18, or “5.18,” as it’s often stylized here. There is the 5.18 Liberty Park, the 5.18 Archives, and the 5.18 Square in front of the old provincial capital buildings. There is the May 18 National Cemetery, reached by riding bus number 518 north along Democracy Road. In case you somehow forget the date, Gwangju’s city hall, built in 2004, will remind you: Its left half has five floors and its right half has 18.
So what is 5.18?
In the months leading up to May 1980, an army major general named Chun Doo-hwan seized control of the military and intelligence branches of the South Korean government. Protests around the country decried Jeon’s increasing power. The previous strongman of 18 years, Park Chung-hee, had unceremoniously been removed from the picture via assassination, and it was clear that another strongman, Chun, was looking to take his place.
Chun declared martial law across the entire country — which included ordering universities to close and banning all political activity — and dispatched soldiers to enforce it. For many in Gwangju, that was the last straw.
On May 18 students gathered at the gates of Chonnam National University in defiance, clashing with soldiers. Anger toward the police and army’s violence against protesters and onlookers alike brought more people out to the streets. In just a few days the demonstration turned from a few hundred students to tens of thousands of citizens, all centered around the provincial office complex in the heart of the city.
In response to the army’s decision to open fire on demonstrators, some citizens took up arms and formed a militia. On May 21 they succeeded in forcing the army to retreat from the downtown area, putting the militia in control of the core of the city.
Far from the riots and looting one might expect, the city came together to distribute meals to the militia and donate blood needed to treat the injured. Shops continued to open for business and taxi and bus drivers shuttled passengers around the city free of charge.
But it couldn’t last forever. The military blockaded the city while waiting for reinforcement, and on May 27 retook the city, engaging in a shootout with the militia in front of the provincial buildings. Many civilians were killed — 190 is a low estimate — and buried in mass graves in a public cemetery to the north of the city, just across the road from where the national cemetery now stands.
The Chun regime disseminated rumors that the event had been led by pro-North Korea activists and banned any mention of it in the press. For years, protests continued around the country, however, and the military regime caved under the pressure, compounded by international condemnation in the lead up to the 1988 Seoul Olympics. A democratic constitution was adopted and an open presidential election took place, both in 1987.
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Gwangju and its history are revered by South Korean progressives. Just two weeks ago, newly minted president Moon Jae-in gave his first major speech, at the May 18 National Cemetery in the city, naturally on May 18. To a crowd of 10,000, he spoke with gravitas and reverence for the “spirit of Gwangju,” offering his condolences and joining the crowd in singing a particular pro-democracy anthem. Tears were not in short supply.
The uprising is also recognized internationally through UNESCO’s ‘Memory of the World’ program, but the picture of the event within the country is far more complicated. Despite public records and a wealth of photographic evidence, rumors about involvement of North Korean sympathizers persist in some parts of the country, a reflection of the regionalism that is now a defining feature of modern politics in South Korea.
Gwangju, located in the southwest corner of the country, is the political left’s core. Young people from Gwangju who move north to the capital region for work or school tell stories about tense exchanges with others their age from the southeast region and in particular Daegu, which together form the political right’s base of support.
A pair of siblings I spoke to recounted just such experiences. To them, growing up in Gwangju, the political situation that precipitated the uprising and its role in the country’s fight for democracy was common knowledge. They were shocked then to learn that people from the southeast often have little interest in the history of May 18 or question the necessity of the uprising altogether.
Conservatives are loathe to admit the atrocity committed under dictatorship. The memorial ceremony has been an annual event since the cemetery’s construction in 1997. But under the two previous administrations, the ceremony was treated as a perfunctory, invitation-only event attended by a few thousand locals. For many of the past nine years, the pro-democracy anthem, titled ‘March for the Beloved,’ was shunned at the event. Ousted president Park Geun-hye attended the ceremony only once, in 2013, with the prime minister attending in her place in the following years.
And Chun, the dictator responsible for the the crackdown and deaths, still refuses to admit his complicity.
For visitors who want to learn the history, Gwangju has three separate museums dedicated solely to the uprising — the 5.18 Liberty Park, the national cemetery and the 5.18 Archives. For those who’d rather experience the past on site, the city is dotted with 29 stone monuments, each one marking a key event during the uprising, all connected by an ambitious 70 km walking tour.
There is also a mass of concerts, lectures, plays and other events dedicated to the memory of May 18. They aren’t merely sentimental tributes to the past: Each year, for instance, the city sponsors the Gwangju Asia Forum, a major event that attracts prominent human rights and pro-democracy activists from across Asia.
I attended this year’s Gwangju Asia Forum and spoke at length with many of the participants. In the months leading up to it I had begun to chafe at the intensity of everything 5.18 throughout the city, likening it in my mind to South Korea’s hackneyed attempts to promote K-pop and kimchi throughout the world.
The forum’s other foreign participants had a different take. For them, Gwangju’s struggles of yesterday are their struggles of today, and many of them relayed how they were inspired by the story of 5.18 and the city’s resilience. They were thankful that they had the opportunity to take Gwangju’s example back to their home countries.
Say what you will about the tired narrative of the “miracle on the Han River,” but the legacy of the democracy movement in South Korea is not one to be brushed aside. People of many Asian countries are still fighting for healthy democracy, and the city of Gwangju is sincere about helping them.
Fittingly, public demonstrations exemplify this commitment to freedom. In Seoul, these have long been marked by a police presence that is significant and imposing, if not outright threatening. In Gwangju, by contrast, the mayor joins in marches, and the police stay out of sight aside from blocking traffic from entering the demonstration area.
This feeling is part of what makes Gwangju a special place despite all its obvious shortcomings. A sense of community permeates the city, maintained by the shared memory of a traumatic experience that binds the citizens together. Gwangju isn’t Gwangju without May 18.