1980 – Gwangju Democratic Uprising

South Korea’s 1980 Gwangju Democratic Uprising followed the assassination of the country’s autocratic President Park Jeong Hui, and the ensuing declaration of martial law by Chun Doo-hwan. Thousands were killed, wounded and arrested in the uprising. While it failed to depose Chun Doo Hwan, the solidarity embodied in the uprising led it to be compared to the 1871 Paris Commune and inspired the country’s democratic transition in 1993.

Doo-hwan’s coup d’etat led to demonstrations in most of the country’s largest cities, including Gwangju. With weapons seized from local armories, a citizens’ army pushed the martial law forces out of town. As the Korean army threw a tight cordon around Gwangju, almost the entire city joined in creating a self-governing community that many Koreans now compare to the Paris Commune of 1871.

Women shared food and water with the fighters. Taxi and bus drivers shuttled rebels around the town and, on several occasions, used their vehicles as weapons against marauding soldiers. Nurses and doctors tended to the wounded. But it was the occupation of Gwangju Provincial Hall by pro-democracy demonstrators that helped make the city the target of Special Forces, dispatched to Gwangju by Chun Doo-hwan to enforce martial law.

Over a two-day period, troops used their M-16s and bayonets to kill and injure hundreds of people demanding an end to military rule and seeking the restoration of democracy. Non-government estimates of the number killed, wounded or arrested during the Gwangju Demogratic Uprising put the total at around 7,500.

For years after it looked as if the Gwanju Democratic Uprising had failed, but it was an event that never lost the power to inspire ongoing demands for democracy throughout the 1980s. Kim Young Sam, South Korea’s first democratically elected civilian president, referred to the bloodshed in 1980 as ‘the cornerstone of the country’s democracy’. The uprising helped make Koreans more aware of their power and this newfound consciousness helped encourage what would soon become a national democratic movement.


Gwangju citizens in the city square. Photo courtesy of the May 18 Memorial Foundation.

Mangwol-dong cemetery in Gwangju where victims' bodies were buried. Photo source: Wikipedia