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The Peninsula

Controversial Gwangju: Why May 18 Stands Out among Korea’s Democratization Movement Anniversaries

Published May 5, 2022
Category: South Korea

Spring recently became the season of presidential elections in South Korea after Park Geun-hye’s impeachment in 2017 forced elections to be moved up from December. But throughout the country’s twentieth-century political history, spring was a time for another political ritual: democracy protests.

In particular, two dates stand above the rest in significance: April 19 and May 18. April 19 commemorates the April Revolution of 1960 when a popular movement led by students overthrew the authoritarian regime under President Rhee Syngman. After holding office since 1948, Rhee blatantly rigged the 1960 election and the Korean people poured into the streets to protest, particularly following the death of a high school student activist in Masan.

The legacy of April 19 is one of people power in South Korea. Although Korea would go on to struggle through three more decades of military rule, the April Revolution affirmed the Korean people’s desire for democratization. As such, commemorations of April 19 in contemporary Korea are occasions for unity. This year on April 19, President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol remarked that “in moments when democracy faces crisis, the people of Korea will not forget the spirit of April 19 and the road forward it showed us.” Similarly, President Moon Jae-in stated on the same day that “the April 19 Revolution showed us that the master of our country is the people.”

On the other hand, the Gwangju Democracy Movement, which is commemorated annually on May 18, has remained fiercely controversial for over forty years. The event was the culmination of a struggle between democratization and authoritarianism that followed President Park Chung Hee’s assassination in October 1979. General Chun Doo-hwan initiated a rolling coup by first taking control of the Korean military on December 12, 1979. Meanwhile, pro-democracy forces pushed the government to adopt a new democratic constitution to replace the authoritarian Yushin Constitution promulgated by Park Chung Hee in October 1972. The brief period of liberalization between Park’s assassination and May 1980 came to be known as the Seoul Spring during which popular protests calling for democracy were held throughout the country. However, Chun’s decision to declare martial law on May 17, 1980 to cement his control of the Korean government put an end to hopes for democratization at this time.

While many student groups leading protests during the Seoul Spring were silenced by the martial law declaration, students in the southwestern city of Gwangju continued to protest Chun’s power grab. Troops deployed to Gwangju to enforce martial law attacked protesters first with clubs on May 18, and then fired into a crowd of protesters on May 21. In an act of self-defense, protesters seized arms from a local armory and drove the South Korean military from the city. For several days Gwangju was liberated from military control. Although dialogue between protesters and the government ensued, the military re-entered the city in the pre-dawn hours of May 27 and violently reasserted control. [1]

Compared to the dry political statements given by Yoon and Moon this past April 19, the Gwangju Democracy Movement continues to create political rancor. This year, the conservative People Power Party refused to nominate Kim Jin-tae as a candidate in the Gangwon Province gubernatorial race because he had provided a platform for a speaker who propagates conspiracy theories on North Korea’s involvement in the 1980 protests. On the other side of the aisle, Lee Jae-myung, the former presidential candidate for the Democratic Party, proposed a law that would criminalize historical distortions with the Gwangju Democracy Movement being at the center of the discussion.

Why then is the legacy of May 18 at the center of political debate in Korea while the April Revolution is not? The answer lies in the development of political cleavages surrounding the Gwangju Democracy Movement and not around the April Revolution. When Park Chung Hee carried out his military coup in May 1961, he justified his actions in the spirit of the April Revolution. Park in his book The Country, the Revolution and I acknowledged the Rhee regime’s electoral fraud and identified his military coup (which he dubbed a “revolution”) with the spirit of the April Revolution. With Park co-opting the Revolution, and progressives identifying it with the broader democracy movement tradition, no one has politicized it.

The Gwangju Democracy Movement, conversely, has a much more complicated and partisan legacy. In May 1980, then General Chun Doo Hwan justified his crackdown by insisting that the “riots” in Gwangju were instigated by North Korea and accused Kim Dae Jung, a popular opposition figure and native of the Honam region surrounding Gwangju, of conspiring with North Korea to this end. Although claims that North Korea was behind the events of May 1980 are widely recognized as false, the negotiated nature of South Korea’s democratization ensured that the political cleavage of authoritarian supporters vs. opposition survived and gave both sides a stake in perpetuating their views of the Gwangju Democracy Movement. As a result, despite the widespread understanding that the repression of protesters in May 1980 was authoritarian excess, conservatives have had a difficult time moving on from their defense of Chun Doo Hwan as exemplified by Yoon Suk-yeol’s remarks praising Chun during his campaign.

The politicization of the Gwangju Democracy Movement hints at the second difference between April 19 and May 18. The April Revolution was a nationwide affair. Protests were held in all major cities and regions. While the same can be said of the Seoul Spring in early 1980, the violent repression of protesters in Gwangju was a strictly local incident. While regionalism in Korean party politics dates back to at least the 1972 presidential election between Park Chung Hee (from the southeast Yeongnam region) and Kim Dae Jung (from the southwest Honam region)—the state repression of the Gwangju Democracy Movement solidified it. Regionalism has been hardened into the identities of people from Honam, and progressive candidates have routinely won 80 percent or more of the vote in Honam since democratization in 1987. [2]

In sum, the Gwangju Democracy Movement is a part of the contemporary political lives of South Koreans in a way that the April Revolution or other incidents during the democratization movement are not. It is constantly being rehashed, relitigated, and reimagined, including in recent movies such as “A Taxi Driver” (Taeksiunjeonsa) or “26 Years” (26nyeon). And as the Gwangju Democracy Movement remains vivid in the minds of the Korean public, its impact on Korean politics also maintains its potent force. Regionalism in Korean party politics inhibits competition based on policies or ideology and remains a hindrance to the future of Korean democracy. Indeed, recent research has shown that despite the passage of several decades, voters in Honam continue to support the progressive party regardless of age or ideology. If Korean politics is to evolve beyond regional antagonism which the debates about May 18 facilitate, the conservative party in particular, as former party leader Kim Jong-in has argued, will have to cease defending past authoritarians.


[1] There are numerous accounts on the Gwangju Democracy Movement available. For one example see Memories of May 1980: A Documentary History of the Kwangju Uprising in Korea by Chung Sangyong et al. (Korea Democracy Foundation, 2003).

[2] Moon Jae-in only won 60 percent of the vote in Honam as he split votes with Ahn Cheol-soo who at the time was the head of a party that included many National Assembly members from Honam.

Benjamin A. Engel is a Research Professor at the Institute of International Affairs, Seoul National University. He received his Ph.D. and Master’s in International Studies from the Graduate School of International Studies, Seoul National University. His dissertation, entitled “A Search for a Tacit Agreement: U.S.-ROK Relations and Human Rights, 1972-1980,” focuses on the development of U.S. human rights diplomacy and the subsequent ROK government response during the so-called Yusin Era.

The views expressed here are his own.  Photo from the wikimedia account of Mar del Este

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