Visiting the Place Where the Gwangju Uprising Started

Published on August 9, 2016 at Kim Chi Bytes

Outside the gates of Chonnam University in Gwangju city, in a patch of overgrown grass, next to a silhouette of a person walking, is a photo of a mass of students holding signs at the gate and facing down paratroopers. The photo was taken on May 18, 1980. It was the start of the Gwangju Uprising.

The Gwangju Uprising was a seminal moment in the Korean democracy movement. After years of autocratic military rule, the public stood its ground and ultimately took up weapons and held the city for a week. Although at least 165 civilians, including protesters and militia troops, were killed, the embers of the uprising, itself part of a larger democracy movement, helped inspire others to carry on the fight until democracy came in 1987.

Scattered around South Korea are shrines to the martyrs of the democracy movement, but no city takes its identity in this history more seriously than Gwangju does. The May 18 Memorial Foundation, in conjunction with the Gwangju city government, has mapped sights around the city with a connection to the uprising and created routes one can walk in a day to learn about it.

There are 16 walkable courses on the May 18 Road, ranging from 2.3 kilometers (1.4 mi) to 26.7 km (16.6 mi). Trails are divided into four categories: Human Rights, People, Inclination and Art. There are also two intercity trails that extend to Mokpo and Haenam to show how the protests spread to neighboring cities. While visiting Gwangju to work on researching and writing exclusive Korea travel articles, I began with the first course, the Torch Course, “the road where embers of strife spread into downtown.”

Chonnam University

Chonnam National University is credited with being where the events of the Gwangju Uprising actually started, and it’s where the first May 15 Road trail starts. When the students arrived on the morning of May 18, the day after martial law was declared over the entire country, they were met with paratroopers and told the university was closed. Students across the country, along with about two dozen opposition lawmakers, including Gwangju local and future democratically-elected president Kim Dae-Jung. According to the May 18 Memorial Foundation, the paratroopers “unconditionally beat the students who were being observed in study in a library.”

As the news spread, more began coming to the university to resist martial law. By mid-morning, about 300-500 students had gathered by the gate in contrast to 30 paratroopers. Yoon Sang-won, then a student at Chonnam, writes that the students chanted, “Soldiers controlled by political commanders, return to your army post.” Other chants by the fifty students who sat down included, “End martial law!” and “Withdraw the order to close the universities!” according to Gwangju News

The paratroopers warned, according to the account by Na Kahn-chae in South Korean Democracy: Legacy of the Gwangju Uprising, “If you do not return home immediately, you will be dispersed by force.” Students began throwing stones, and the paratroopers attacked. But the students were eventually able to move their protests throughout the city by the afternoon and march to the train station.

The spirit of student protest seems to be alive and well at Chonnam today. Banners hanging from trees voice opposition to THAAD, a missile defense system the government bought from the U.S., and support for students’ academic freedom.

A sculpture outside the Central Library shows impressionist figures of people forged together, marching forward and hanging onto one another. The “March For the Beloved” sculpture, made by Kim Dae-Gil in 2004, is “a proud reminder of the greatness that was–and is–the spirit of this campus and a further reminder of the great outcry and the revered sacrifice of those who paid the ultimate price when the nation and its history asked them.”

Also on campus in the first building straight down the street from the main gate is the May 18 Research Center of Chonnam National University. Inside there is an exhibit on the uprising with documents, photos and videos. A timeline in the entryway ties the events of Gwangju to the long struggle for democracy since the Rhee regime.

In the museum, you can see documents and manifestos; photos of bodies in caskets, of the public taking over the streets and placing buses to block the advance of the military, of “civil militia” members riding in a truck with weapons, of dead and injured bodies lying on the street, and of the military leading detainees in a line after they conquered the city.

While the headings of each topic have English translations (and are pretty descriptive), the main text does not. It is possible for non-Korean readers to get a general idea of what happened, but it is a massive help to have read up on the Gwangju Uprising before visiting.

From the gates the students eventually marched and led others down towards the plaza at Gwangju Station. The recommended route of the May 18 Road roughly follows the students’ path. That afternoon they were met by units of the Republic of Korea Special Warfare Command. At least one man died that day after being beaten by batons. Soldiers used bayonets, too. On May 20, a confrontation ensued, and the military shot into the crowd from the station, killing two.

The route continues down streets lined with Korean medicine shops, video gaming parlors, and bookstores bursting with piles to the doors, nearby where the first shots were fired. It goes through a gritty industrial area with scrap yards, mechanics and metalworkers. Economic concerns were among the many grievances of the people of Jeolla province, as their city had not been one of the main focuses of economic development, due partially to its lack of useful ports.

It continues by the old plots of broadcasting studios the protesters burnt down on the night of May 20, in anger that they weren’t broadcasting news of the events; past the YWCA where speeches and meetings took place; a bookstore where pamphlets were printed and distributed; Democracy Plaza; and a total of 12 sights on the tour and some sculptures.

Using a series of walking tours to spread certain information about history is an interesting and interactive idea. Maps of those tours are available at the Tourist Information office at Gwangju Station, and a large list of May 18th-related sights is located at Gwangju’s official tourism portal