South Korea: The legacy of the 1980 Kwangju uprising

South Korean troops march on Kwangju, May 1980.

On the weekend of May 15-18, 2009, the city of Kwangju, South Korea, held the Kwangju International Peace Forum to celebrate the struggle for democracy in South Korea and to support similar struggles elsewhere in Asia. Christopher Kerr of South Korea-based solidarity group Venceremos caught up with George Katsiaficas to discuss the legacy of the 1980 Kwangju uprising. Katsiaficas is visiting professor of sociology at Chonnam National University and author/editor of numerous books on international social movements including South Korean Democracy -- Legacy of the Gwangju Uprising and Unknown Uprisings: South Korean Social Movements Since World War 2).

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Chris Kerr: What happened in May 1980 in Kwangju and how was it significant to the democracy movement at that time?

George Katsiaficas: Even though South Korea is a democracy today, in 1980 a new military dictatorship had seized power. Students all over the country were protesting against it, trying to stimulate the government and citizens to move in a more democratic fashion. The government then told people that if they didn’t stop protesting that they would crack down on them. Only in Kwangju did they continue to mobilise in defence of democracy.

So in Kwangju people were viciously attacked by the military. Thousands of paratroopers were pulled from the demilitarised zone [the no man’s land between South Korea and North Korea], and the soldiers were told that Kwangju had become a North Korean uprising against the government. The paratroopers who came ruthlessly attacked people on the streets, including cab drivers and bus drivers, bayonetting people—even killing taxi drivers who tried to bring injured students to the hospital.

What’s amazing though is that the entire city then rose up and defeated the military, drove them out of the city and held it for five days. In those five days, there were daily rallies at the Provincial Hall, involving tens of thousands of people. So there was a form of direct democracy  in Kwangju and part of that process was the self-organisation of a citizens’ army formed by the struggle to drive the military out of the city.

Medical teams formed that picked up the wounded, high school girls washed the corpses and laid them out in a judo studio for families to come and identify them. Voluntarily, people began cooking meals publicly, other people produced a daily newspaper that emerged when different daily leaflets were merged together to form a daily newspaper. The whole city pulled together in an amazing fashion.

At these rallies (and sometimes there were two rallies in one day, as one would start at 11am and another would start at 5pm), plans for actions were devised for the whole city. So at one point, 30,000 people marched to the cordons where the military was being held off to express their unity and desire to hold the city. At other times, when people expressed the need for something to happen, a smaller group would form and then carry out the general assembly’s directives.

For instance, people wanted to get the prisoners released. Thousands of people were arrested, and there were three occasions in which people agreed at the general assembly to exchange some of the arms the people had captured from the police and the military for prisoners. They also exchanged some of those arms for coffins, but when the ``surrender factions’’ of the city tried to argue for surrendering all the arms and said let’s simply have a peaceful solution to the problem, the majority of the people at the general assembly refused to do so, citing the experience of the Sabuk miners, who had given up their weapons and then had been viciously attacked by the military. People said: “No, we are not going to give up all of our weapons without all of our demands being met.”

The strength of Kwangju was that it was mainly regular people because the activists were either arrested or had fled the city before it was blockaded and were thus unable to return. What this meant was that inside the city, there was a greater space for a democratic movement and for people to step into a leadership position. They didn't have anyone already established as a leader policing them and telling them: ``This is what we are going to do now.’’ The people rose to the occasion.

The military, which had surrounded the city and had used helicopters to massacre people, also blocked other people who tried to come into the city to support the insurgency.

The military had the support of the United States government, which sent an aircraft carrier, the USS Coral Sea, to Busan and supported the South Korean military to retake Kwangju. So, on the morning of May 27, 1980, which is coincidently the same date as the fall of the Paris Commune, the military attacked, hundreds of people resisted throughout the city, but the resistance was concentrated mostly at the Provincial Hall.

We will never know how many people were killed in the uprising but what we do know is that despite the hundreds of people killed there and the many more who were wounded or sentenced to long terms in prison, they never stopped struggling. At their trials, they sang the national anthem and movement songs, they threw chairs at the judges, they refused to be quiet, even at the moment when the military was berating them, they refused to just sit down and take it, and they struggled for another 16 years and were finally were able to get the military dictator Chun DooHwan and his chief military subordinate Roe TaeWoo and about a dozen other military men sent to prison for their role in the massacre.

Now these guys were all pardoned by President Kim YoungSam, who had actually not wanted to prosecute them and had argued that the statute of limitations prevented proesecutions, but after more than a million signatures were collected, coordinated here in Kwangju, people got the parliament to enact a special law and Chun DooHwan and Roe TaeWoo were tried under the auspices of that special law.

So the Kwangju uprising continued in the form of people demanding an official apology and compensation for injured family members, for people who lost loved ones, for people who had been arrested, who had been beaten, who had been injured. The net effect of this was to restore the honour and dignity of the people in Kwangju.

What happened here became a model for people in Jeju Island, who had been terribly attacked while under a US military occupation government in 1948. At least 30,000 of the island’s 150,000 population were massacred and some estimates are much higher than that. We will never know how many tens of thousands were actually killed in Jeju.

But the fact is, after Kwangju’s special law was enacted, the population of Jeju was also able to lobby for a special law and they have been able to get compensation as well. They were able to get a collective compensation rather than an individually based package. More importantly, President Roh MooHyun twice apologised to the people of Jeju and designated it as a peace island.

How did the Kwangju uprising affect the democracy movement as a whole in South Korea and what role did it play to bring down the military dictatorship?

Kwangju became the underground driving force of a democracy movement. The guilt people felt for the hundreds, perhaps thousands of people who died there, was expressed in rage and anger, primarily directed at the United States government and the South Korean military.

It’s my understanding that uprisings accomplish many things, even in defeat. So, we can think that while Kwangju was tactically defeated on May 27, 1980, strategically it won a victory later.

The tactical defeat of Kwangju produced the next phase of struggle. In the next phase, Molotov cocktails were used as a defensive tactic against riot police, which was a very small change, but an important one and the Minjung movement began to emerge.

Minjung basically means a movement of all the people -- except for the military dictators and the very rich. As a concept, it profoundly affected all South Korea in the sense that there was Minjung theology, Minjung art, Minjung activists and Minjung feminism — so there were all kinds of applications of Minjung.

It became the subject of revolution in South Korea, and in 1987 the possibility of a Minjung-led revolution loomed, which is why the US supported democratisation in South Korea because it was afraid of very radical revolutionary movements conquering power on their own terms and needed to get into the forefront of these democratic movements in terms of liberalising the economy and the political systems. So Kwangju’s influence in building the June uprising of 1987 is central.

During the June 1987 uprising, one of the great slogans was ``Remember Kwangju’’ and the shame and anger they felt for the massacres that had happened were motivating factors. My interviews with activists consistently showed that it was central to their motivation and willingness to sacrifice and struggle.

Seven years after the Kwangju uprising, the June uprising exploded, a 19-day uprising across the country in which a broad coalition of democratic forces decided to contest the constitution that Chun DooHwan refused to revise. They demanded direct presidential elections and expanded civil liberties and at the end of 19 days, hundreds of thousands of people were going into the streets illegally and staying in the streets. They defeated the police in the streets. Chun DooHwan wanted to again call in the military and he in fact ordered the mobilisation of the military, but even top commanders were opposed to what they called the spectre of “another Kwangju”.

So the fact that Kwangju had resisted so fiercely frightened the military and in particular frightened the United States, which advised Chun DooHwan many times in no uncertain terms that he could not use the military as it may radicalise the trajectory of the uprising. It should be remembered that the victory of the June uprising led directly to the workers’ movement, which has been the main driving force in the radical development of social movements in South Korea since then.  So without Kwangju’s resistance, South Koreans may still well be under the boot of the military dictatorship.

Did the US reaction to the Kwangju uprising change the perception that South Koreans had of the US government?

After Kwangju, another important change was in the mass consciousness of South Koreans as the true nature of the role of the United States government had been unmasked. Prior to that, in South Korea, generally speaking, the US had been very popular and had been seen to stand for democracy.  

So, for example, when the people of Kwangju heard that the USS Coral Sea had entered Korean waters, many thought the US was coming to save them, when it had in fact come to give logistical support to the South Korean army. The US had specifically demanded that any military action taken against the people of Kwangju be postponed until the Coral Sea had arrived.

Another illustration of this is that there was a very popular US television show at that time called SWAT. In the Kwangju uprising, one of the great teams that formed took a 12-person passenger van and welded metal plates onto the sides of the van... They then armed themselves with every conceivable weapon, from grenades, automatic weapons, to whatever else they could find. Whenever they heard of outbursts of fighting, they drove over to help repel the military. They painted ``SWAT’’ on the sides of their van, which they took from the TV show. You can see these young men who loved America, wore American clothes and watched American TV shows going out to fight for freedom in the “American way”. Well then, the Americans were actually against them, against democracy in their country and were helping to fight against them.

Therefore after Kwangju, people realised that the United States didn't give a damn about the human rights of the people of South Korea but would rather put its own economic and political interests first.

Why did the United States pursue its own interests as opposed to democracy in South Korea at that time?

The suppression of the Kwangju uprising by the South Korean and United States governments was also simultaneously the imposition of a new neoliberal accumulation regime. This is significant because the same thing had happened in Chile with the overthrow of the government of Presiden Salvadore Allende by the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet some years earlier. In the same year, 1980,  in Turkey a military coup imposed a neoliberal accumulation regime there.

So, as the US moved to its next phase at attempts at global hegemony and the imposition of neoliberalism around the world, the CIA’s overt forms of military overthrow of governments had given way to a much more subtle manipulation of the world’s economies by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and World Trade Organisation for the benefit of US corporations and consumers, which afterall, is what imperialism is all about. That is, benefiting the few for the sacrifices of the many.

So, the point was to use the suppression of the Kwangju uprising to change South Korea from a national development state, that Park ChungHee had carefully regulated to build up South Korean chaebol (national family-owned monopolies), to a situation where US banks and insurance companies were able to come to preeminent status in South Korea.

The working class was disciplined after the imposition of this neoliberal regime’s initial phase by severe repression and forced labour camps, and later through the market mechanism of the IMF crisis of 1997, which basically saw the opportunities for US banks to buy South Korean banks at bargain basement prices and then sell them a few years later for hundreds of billions of dollars more.

If you look at the transfer of wealth that occurred in this period, it is indeed enormous, and it was led by, would you believe, George Bush senior and his small group of people whose membership ranks are very concentrated in the Carlyle group. It’s very obvious to see what has happened, and if one looks at it, then one is able to see that this small group has been able to benefit from all the major uprisings in Asia.

So,  when one looks at the Philippines, its very obvious Marcos had taken billions of dollars of wealth for his cronies, friends and family. That’s why the IMFideologically critiques crony capitalism, because it’s not the Carlyle group, it is locals who are benefiting from it. Chun DooHwan and Roe TaeWoo each took hundreds of millions of dollars from the South Korean treasury and businesses. Roe TaeWoo actually had returned most of the 600 million dollars he had taken illegally as part of his plea bargain...

In your book on the Gwangju uprising, you wrote on the parallels between the Kwangju uprising and the Paris Commune. Would you be able to elaborate?

In the book I did mention the coincidental fact that they both fell on the same date, May 27. There are other, more important similarities. In the liberated cities, crime and other social problems nearly vanished and the spirit of unity within the cities was so great that foreigners were very welcome. An American Baptist missionary named Arnold Peterson was in Kwangju at that time and talked about how he wanted to get out of the city, but when he drove around, he put US flags on the car and everywhere he went people applauded him.

In both cities the banks weren’t robbed. Despite holding military power they made the decision not to rob the banks. In my opinion, this was actually an error, I think the citizens’ army in Kwangju and the National Guard of Paris should have robbed or taken control of the banks -- which the working people had created over generations -- instead of leaving that power in the hands of the bankers.

One important difference also emerges between the Paris Commune and the Kwangju uprising. In Paris, the Prussians had defeated the French army in battle and the French government had surrendered to the Prussians. However, the people of Paris refused to submit. The way in which they refused to submit was through the drum roll of the National Guard units, that is uniformed soldiers who declared that Paris not to be a party to the surrender to the Prussians. They then held different elections in the city which was a form of representative democracy.

In Kwangju, there was no pre-existing military structure in the city. They had to defeat tens of thousands of crack troopers armed with the most modernised weapons. They were using helicopters and flamethrowers against unarmed citizens, but people defeated the military by taking control of arms depots in police stations, taking them off the military and even by shooting down one, possibly two, helicopters, which forced the military to withdraw from the city.

So a citizens’ army was able to defeat the military and create a form of direct democracy. Kwangju shows us that the phenomenal form of masses of the people, the Minjung, are far more developed at the end of the 20th century than they were at the end of the 19th, that people are capable of self-organisation at a much higher level these days. We also saw that people are capable of defeating militaries through people’s war. Kwangju showed that people’s war can, at least temporarily, defeat militaries without central leadership. Could Kwangju spread to the entire nation as people there had hoped? It did seven years later through the June uprising, when the people’s movement overthrew the military dictatorship.

Was the legacy of Kwangju felt in the candlelight-vigil mass movement of 2008 in South Korea?

Well, its difficult to link events directly which are so far apart. The candlelight vigils occurred 28 years after the Kwangju uprising and had taken a very different form to what the Kwangju movement had taken. And yet, the idea that ordinary people can change the policies of the government is one that the example of Kwangju has inculcated into the younger generations of South Korea. The candlelight vigils were not started by a leftist group, they were started by teenage girls using a music fan site on the web for the initial mobilisations against the government decisions to relax restrictions on the importation of American beef.

The protests quickly caught on and spread across the whole country. So while one can’t make a direct connection, it could certainly be argued that the example of Kwangju and the idea that ordinary people can change government policy helped in the emergence of this movement. And in fact, from interviews I was able to ascertain that at least one of the teachers who supported these young girls was a native of Kwangju.

What has been the relationship of the Lee MyungBak government to South Korean civil society in general to date?

Its been an adversarial relationship for the most part. Lee MyungBak models himself on Park ChungHee and is still friends with ParkChooHwan, two past military dictators. So he has in essence been trying to roll back all of the reforms that civil society has been able to win in the 1980s and 1990s.

He has clamped down on the media and brought it as much as he can under his own control. For instance he has arrested producers of the show that aired the first expose of American beef. He has changed the president of Arirang station, which is a channel with many listeners, one which is often a channel broadcasted in the English language. YTN, the all-news cable television station, has had a new president imposed on it, which its union has fought.

KBS, the second-largest station in South Korea, has also had imposed upon it a new president, even though the former president refused to resign because under the rules of the station he could not be fired except for gross mismanagement. He refused to go quietly. The Lee MyungBak government sent the police in to arrest the guy, escort him out of the building and then detained him in prison for questioning, trying to find some evidence of criminal misconduct on his part, but could find none. Nonetheless, although the case is still in court, Lee MyungBak has been able to impose a new president during the interim.

He has also clamped down on freedom of speech on the internet. Even though the government itself has organised boycotts of newspapers in the past which had printed articles which it did not like, the Lee MyungBak government has confiscated travel documents and brought charges against the main organisers of the internet boycott against the three main newspapers in South Korea, which print atrociously wrong articles with an overtly ideological conservative agenda. The Chosun Iblo and JungAhn Ilbo are the principal two. So even organising an online boycott of advertising of these newspapers got people into trouble with the authorities.

The School Teachers Union has come under fire. Lee MyungBak has publicised the names of members of the union in a way that is meant to intimidate people from joining the union. He has brought charges, both civil and criminal, against people who organised the  peaceful candlelight vigils last year. He has recently outlawed protests of any kind, demonstrations are simply not allowed in South Korea. They have to fall within certain boundaries of festivals, religious events etc.

So it’s a sad roll back of democratic liberties in South Korea under the current regime, one that,  hopefully, the example of Kwangju can inspire people to resist.