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  National
Gwangju - Birthplace of Korean Democracy
By Stephen Little
Travel Writer
Bodies of demonstrators killed in the massacre

Centre to some of the most tragic events to have occurred in Korea's recent history, Gwangju is a place seen as being the birthplace of democracy in South Korea.

What happened here is now viewed as being crucially important in bringing about political change, in a country that was ruled by a dictatorship following the Korean War (1950-53).

On May 17 1980, the Korean government led by Gen. Chun Doo-hwan, declared martial law across the whole country and dissolved the National Assembly. This was the response to demonstrations and the growing unrest within Korea, following the assassination of the dictator Park Chung-hee and the resulting coup that had brought Gen. Chun Doo-hwan into power.

Many of the protesters armed themselves with weapons taken from government troops

The next day in Gwangju, students protested outside the gates of Chonnam National University, which resulted in violent clashes with soldiers. Over the course of the next few days there were further protests which culminated in the events of May 21, when 300,000 people took to the streets, indignant with rage for the violence which had already occurred and the broken promise of martial law troops being withdrawn.

These protests by the students and citizens of Gwangju resulted in people being stripped naked and viciously beaten by the soldiers. Crowds were also indiscriminately fired upon as further clashes occurred.

This show of resistance led to the troops being forced out of the city and Gwangju remained in control of its citizens until May 27, when the military returned, finally crushing the resistance.

The final death toll is still unknown. An official report by the civilian government in the 1990s put the official figure at 207, although other unofficial estimates have put it between 500 and 2000. After the massacre in 1980, bodies were piled up in hand and dust carts and taken to Mangwol-dong, where they were buried.

Gwangju Memorial Park

Here they remained until 1997, whereupon they were exhumed and reburied at the May 18 National Cemetery.

The events that occurred sparked the flame for pro-democracy demonstrations in 1987, which led to major democratic reforms. In 1992, after more than 30 years of military rule, the first civilian government in South Korea came into being with the election of Kim
Young-sam.

A long time pro-democracy activist, he brought in further reforms and the successive governments of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun have since consolidated the democratisation process.

Chun Doo-hwan along with his successor, Roh Tae-woo, whom he helped into power, were both arrested in 1996 and later convicted for corruption, mutiny and treason.

Although not admitting to giving the orders for the massacre, they were both held accountable on the basis of being military and state leaders.

Coup leader Gen. Chun Doo-hwan (right) was jailed and then pardoned for his role in the massacre

Chun received the death penalty, whilst Roh was given a term of life imprisonment. These sentences were later reduced to 17 years for Roh and life imprisonment for Chun. The following year they were both pardoned by President Kim Dae-jung, shortly after his inauguration in 1998.

The Memorial Park was opened in 2002 to honour those that lost their lives in the massacre. I was very fortunate to have a Korean guide called Ji-young to show me around, who provided me with an excellent insight into Gwangju's history and people.

Upon entering, you first pass through the Democracy Gate, which is built in a traditional Korean style and provides the entrance to the park. Standing opposite this is the huge Memorial Tower which
symbolises the resurrection of life. Beneath it were school children and other visitors, each paying their respects to those that died.

On either side of the tower are two statues and on raised stonework behind these are murals, depicting the events that occurred.

Ji-young told me that under Chun's leadership, people were led to believe that the uprising was the work of Communist sympathisers and for many years, those that lost their lives were not recognised. It was only with the advent of democracy in South Korea that what happened became properly acknowledged.

"With democracy, we finally had the truth," she told me.

Coup leaders headed by Gen. Chun Doo-hwan, sent troops to crush the pro-democracy uprising in Gwangju

Behind the Memorial Tower are the graves of those that lost their lives in the massacre. Here there are 325 people buried and each grave has a photograph alongside it of the person who died.

Ji-young firstly took me to the grave of the youngest victim, a schoolgirl who was inadvertently caught up in the events. Sent out by her father for groceries, she never came back and her father unable to live with himself, later took his own life. She then showed me the graves of a married couple who both lost their lives and had been buried side by side.

As we walked around I could see that people of all ages were killed, from all walks of life. The lives of families and entire communities irreversibly altered forever.

Next to the graves were memorials for those known to have died in the massacre, but whose bodies are still missing. One day, if they are ever found, they will be laid to rest alongside the others. It is also possible for those who took part in the demonstrations to be buried here once they have passed on.

The Gwangju Massacre was a pivotal moment in South Korea's history

As we went further on, Ji-young told me how she remembered as a child, a man running through her home covered in red paint, an event that she thought was very strange and a little amusing at the time. Only when she was older did she learn that the reason he did this, was so that he could lie down and pretend to be dead if confronted by soldiers.

She then went on to tell me that it took many years for South Korea to come to terms with the events of the massacre and that she felt glad that the Memorial Park has finally been built, so that future generations wouldn't forget what had happened.

We then went into the museum, which provides information on the history of the massacre as well as pictures and a film. The images here show in dramatic detail the events as they unfurled. Much of it is in Korean, but words are not necessary. The graphic pictures of people being beaten and the mutilated bodies of those killed, fully
convey the atrocities that occurred, without the need for description of what happened.

I found the whole day to be an extremely moving experience, learning about those who had lost their lives, fighting for what they believed in. It really puts in perspective how much South Korea has changed in such a relatively short space of time.

Visiting the Memorial Park helps to bring home the true horrors of this turbulent period in South Korea's history and more than anything, the events stand as testament to the resilience of the Korean people and the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.



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Stephen Little now serves as travel writer for The Seoul Times. The British man has been travelling around Asia for many years, writing about his travel experiences. Born outside of London, he grew up in nearby Brighton. Stephen majored in geography at the University of Leicester.

 

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