Looking for democracy in the 1980s.

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The 20th century in the Korean Peninsula was a turbulent historical period because great changes took place, it would be difficult to picture contemporary Korea looking at how the country was like a few decades ago. In the 1980s, there was a military regime in power and there was a common denominator for citizens , although many fought for democracy, it only materialized in the 1990s after great losses and moments of anxiety for Korean citizens.  Gwangju – known as the “city of light” and “city of democracy, human rights and peace” – was one of the cities that experienced one of these tragic events: a massacre in May 1980.

Let’s remember some important historical facts to understand the situation in the 1980s. Towards the end of the 1970s, citizens were dissatisfied with the government of Park Chun Hee and the measures implemented under the Yushin regime.  On October 26, 1979, President Park Chun Hee was assassinated by the director of the Korean Intelligence Agency (KCIA), Kim Jae Kyu, marking the end of the 18-year dictatorship. However, this did not alleviate the discontent of the citizens. After his assassination, martial law was declared in South Korea, except for Jeju Island. Without a leader, a military coup was staged just two months later, and the citizens who had been protesting for several months continued to take to the streets. 

In the Spring of 1980, exactly in the month of May, the country’s major cities were dealing with students’ manifestations on the streets, which were full of slogans and noise. Student leaders were asking for the lifting of Martial Law and the resignation of Chun Doo Hwan. For example, students held sit-ins and marches inside the campus and then took the streets. One of the largest protests took place in Seoul on May 15th, after a meeting of 40 representatives from 27 universities in the Seoul area, that day between 70,000 to 100,000 took to the streets.

Photo by Andrea Ramirez Buitrago. May 2020 Asian Culture Center - Provincial Office

Gwangju was not an exception; during those days, many students marched in demonstration against the measures implemented by the government. On the weekend of May 17, they had decided to wait awhile, but the government attacked the student leaders, capturing several of them and imprisoning them. In addition, armed troops were sent to the city of Gwangju in the early morning of May 18 of 1980. That day began the tragedy that continued for ten days, May 18 to May 27. The country mourned this tragedy even forty-two years later. The army perpetrated a massacre in the entire city, even in the surrounding areas; the number of people killed is unknown, but it is believed there were many. This fact was denied for years by the governments of the time – even mentioning North Korean spies – but the survivors are still struggling to establish the truth of what happened. This massacre and the democratic movement that emerged from the tragedy are milestones that are studied in conjunction with other events such as independence or other citizens movements. 

Photo by Andrea Ramirez Buitrago. May 2020 Gwangju. National Cemetery

The elections in the 1990s allowed civilians rather than military figures to have the power to rule over the country, however, true democracy was still a long way to go. In the 1980s, after what happened in Gwangju, several people decided to take their lives while asking for the truth about the events and real democracy in the country. For instance, according to the researcher Lee Nam Hee, at least thirty-seven people including students, peasants and workers committed acts such as self-immolation, while demanding the truth about what happened in Gwangju. This small panorama shows us how the 1980s was a period of struggle and turbulence for a better nation, which has now materialized. The dream became a reality. 

Written by: Andrea Ramirez

Reviewed by: Angie Salavarria

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