Gwangju,the largest city in southwestern Korea, was once the provincial capital of South Jeolla province, but has since broken into its own separate metropolis (similar to Seoul, Busan, Daegu, and Daejeon).
The Jeolla provinces have the most abundant flat land on the Korean peninsula (which is largely mountainous) and South Jeolla has the mildest weather, so historically the majority of Korea’s rice has been harvested in these provinces. This led to hardships for peasants in Jeolla, who were often exploited for the resources, both under Joseon and the Japanese occupation. South Jeolla also was not treated well under Park Chung-hee’s administration in the 60’s and 70’s, due to his favoring of the Gyeongsang provinces (Park was a native of North Gyeongsang) over the Jeollas. Therefore, Jeolla was no stranger to rebellions before May 1980, the date of the Gwangju Uprising.
From 1961, Park Chung-hee ruled South Korea under a military dictatorship until his assassination by his Chief of Security in 1979. This eventually led to a coup by another military general, Chun Doo-hwan, who imposed martial law on the country after Park’s death. Student and university protests against the military regime, which had been suppressed under Park, came back in full force, particularly in Gwangju, then the provincial capital of South Jeolla.
On May 18, 1980, protesters at Chonnam University in Gwangju were violently suppressed by paratroopers. The conflict spread and escalated, more paratroopers moved in and clubbed both the protesters and even bystanders. In the days after, the violence grew worse when soldiers opened fire. In response, civilians broke into police stations and government facilities and took guns to arm themselves. They drove away the army for a brief period, but the army returned on May 27th and thoroughly defeated the protesters.
At least a few hundred civilians died, but some believe the death toll may have been in the thousands. The Wikipedia article on the uprising provides more detail. Although the protesters in Gwangju lost the battle at the time, the war for democracy in Korea was eventually won in 1987. The Gwangju protest sparked similar protests for democracy in Korea and after Chun Doo-hwan’s term ended, South Korea experienced a free and honest election.
Gwangju has a lot of sites dedicated to this event and they are rightly proud of their history as fighters for democracy. Even in the subway stations, there is information about the event and the victims of the violence.
While visiting the city, I went to the May 18th National Cemetery, the final resting place for the victims of the massacre. The cemetery was established in 1997 to pay respects to the victims, who had been moved from their previous cemetery, Mangwol-dong Cemetery.
It’s free to enter and very well maintained. When I went in, a guide asked if I wanted to watch a video about the Gwangju Uprising. the video is a bit long, at 30 minutes, but describes the event in detail with plenty of footage. Next to the video room is an exhibition hall, showing some of the weapons used by the soldiers and protesters, and a bloodied Korean flag used during the uprising.
Behind the large memorial tower are the graves, which have a photo (if available) of the victim and flowers next to the grave. On the right side, there is a Memorial Hall with large photographs of all the deceased. I was moved by the amount of respect and honor paid to these people.
I would definitely recommend a visit here while in Gwangju. But the cemetery is located on the outskirts of the city and it takes and hour to get there. From what I’ve read, a taxi takes only 20 minutes, so if going with a group that would be the best option. However, I didn’t see many taxis in this area so to get back to Gwangju city center, it might be best to ask the information desk to call a taxi or take the bus. If taking the bus there, board bus 518 (easy to remember) from Gwangcheon/U-square terminal or Gwangju Station to the cemetery.
There are return bus times posted on the information desk, but the lady at the desk told me these times can be give or take 10 minutes, so I couldn’t really precisely plan which bus to take. One bus time was listed as 4:47 pm, but the bus actually came at 5 pm.