Gwangju, May 1980: A Genuine Movement for Democracy

The spring of 1980 saw president Jimmy Carter foundering as he attempted to convince the citizens of the world that his human rights rhetoric did not conflict with his ever more aggressive foreign policy With the possible exception of Nicaragua, where the revolutionary forces had finally overthrown the decades-long Somoza dictatorship, Washington’s history of invasion and murder was keeping the White House and it’s imperial agencies barreling to an ever aggressive and repressive policy designed to keep the US in control. The infiltration and creation of democracy movements by Washington was a developing policy but most such movements were actual movements for democracy, not just a means for US interests to get their dirty paws into a country. The most dramatic of these movements was actually against a dictatorship supported by Washington. It took place in May 1980 in Gwangju, South Korea.

It is easy to recall how little was reported about this uprising while it was occurring. The South Korean military dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan clamped down on domestic media immediately. At first, the international media accepted the reports provided by the military. Eventually, certain reporters broke through the censors and were able to get into Gwangju and report the scenes they witnessed to the greater world. I was living in Berkeley, CA at the time; it was through some friends of mine who were members of a Korean leftist organization that I received my information. In the years that followed, the narrative regarding the Gwangju uprising was controlled by the right wing Seoul government. In spite of the repressive atmosphere and laws, a group of participants (Hwang Sok-Yong, Lee Jae-Eui, Jwon Yong-Ho) published a detailed description of the uprising, its repression and its meaning in 1985. This effort was titled Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age and followed at least one other effort titled Gwangju White Papers which was published and circulated underground beginning in 1981.

As far as the English-speaking world is concerned, perhaps the best account of the uprising appeared in scholar/activist George Katsiaficas’ 2012 release titled Asia’s Unknown Uprisings Volume 1: South Korean Social Movements in the 20th Century. Katsiaficas, who lived in Korea for a few years while writing his text, is known for his extrapolation and expansion of Herbert Marcuse’s works into what he call the eros effect to explain why worldwide revolutionary moments like those in the year 1968 occur. One can now add a new English translation of Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age to Katsiaficas’ work. Titled Gwangju Uprising: The Rebellion for Democracy in South Korea, this publication not only provides the reader with an incredible history of the ten days in May 1980 when the uprising occurred, it does so by keeping the spirit of the uprising intact.

The text provides a day-by-day, even hour-by-hour descriptions of the provocations of the military and the responses of the crowds. From its opening moments at a local university up to the final attack and surrender of the protesters, the narrative is fast-paced yet precise in its description. The book opens with a discussion of the South Korean history of autocratic rule propped up by Washington and its military ever since the nation’s creation. The end of the Park Chung Ree dictatorship is briefly discussed with the note that the democratic promise of the next president was quickly quashed when part of the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) military staged a coup and returned the population to its previous oppressed situation. Despite protests by students and workers across the country, it was the one in Gwangju which would spread to the entirety of the city’s population while producing murderous repression from the ROK military.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of John Reed’s classic journalism on Russia’s October Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World or even the slender text by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair reporting the 1999 uprising in Seattle against the World Trade Organization, 5 Days That Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond. Still, this book goes beyond these titles in its depth and breath discussing what was perhaps one of the greatest post-Sixties movements until the series of anti-capitalist globalization protests that shook up the world from 1999-2001. Besides its role as a journal, it also serves as a handbook—a manual, if you will—of how such events unfold and how they are run. The questions of arms versus non-violent means are discussed and presented as the discussions unfold in reaction to the repression and brutality of the police and soldiers. In addition, the authors utilize the testimonies of troops who were put on trial for their actions in Gwangju many years later, when a democratic and progressive government was in power in Seoul. Furthermore, the attempts by South Korea’s right wing and its supporters in the US to label the uprising a communist rebellion engineered by the government in Pyongyang are answered. Indeed, the return of a right wing regime to Seoul in the 2010s was a primary motivation in publishing the revised edition of Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age, from which the text being reviewed was translated. Just as it was then, these governments were fully supported by Washington. The last election saw a more democratic government get elected. One wonders if the will of the people will finally prevail over the ultra-right in South Korea and the US government in DC. If the spirit of those described in this text has its way, it will.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: