The May 18 Gwangju Uprising


Topic: The May 18 Gwangju Uprising  (Read 1754 times)

It’s May 18, today. That doesn’t mean much, to most of you, but it’s an important date. Today marks 41 years since the Gwangju Uprising began against the militarist dictatorship ruling South Korea. The rebellion and its bloody suppression served as a rallying point for years for Korean democratic activists, who eventually succeeded in toppling the regime and creating one of the more successful democracies in the world today.

I’ve been living in Gwangju, the site of the rebellion, and the memorials of it are all around me, but the entire event – bloodier than Tiananmen Square, and more successful – has been mostly forgotten in the West. So, starting today, and for the next few days (weeks?) I want to make some effort posts to bring that story more to light. It’s a lot of reading, so stick around if you want, get a cup of tea, and join me in the comments. Thanks for reading.

Part One: The Quiet Cemetery

It’s quiet at the May 18 National Cemetery.

Oh, there’s the sound of running water, from the fountains that line the massive pavilion at the center. You can hear the sound of early spring birds on this bright clear day in April. The wind whispers gently through the trees on the hills looking down on the graves. But otherwise…tranquility.

This is a rare thing, in Korea.

In the United States, I think we take quiet for granted. There are places you can go without the sounds of people filling the streets, with no military jets flying overhead, without the constant buzz of moped delivery drivers racing down the streets and sidewalks. Sometimes, late at night, you don’t hear the engine noise, of the noraebangs and clubs blasting their music into the alleyways. The alarms of garage gates and traffic crossings, the deep rumble of bus engines, and the unending chatter and laughter of thousands of people out and about at all times – well, in the USA you can be free of that.

Not so here. I don’t know about the Korean countryside, but in Gwangju, in Cheomdan, my neighborhood, the city does not sleep. Every hour of every day is filled with the noisy business of human life, as people hurry about their work, about their play, about their lives. You get used to it after a while, but you also forget what quiet sounds like.

Unless you come out here, to the cemetery.

It sits outside the city, this place of martyrs. A few miles from the heart of downtown, in the midst of the encircling mountains about Gwangju, a placid garden of serenity has been carved out of the landscape. It sits in a bowl, with most of the tombstones on the hillside (as is the Korean fashion). A few outbuildings and museums surround a massive central plaza, ringed in fountains that sparkle in the springtime sun. There are gardens, and trees, and flowers – not in bloom yet, but soon they will open up and this place will explode into color.

 At the center of the plaza stands a large sculpted tower, twin spires gently compassing a bronze torch one hundred and thirty feet above the ground. To either side of the tower are carved reliefs of human figures – people holding signs, building barricades, gathered around a lone speaker standing atop a massive fountain – and some clutching rifles. Nearby is a statue of a jeep, of all things. Around and on the jeep stand more figures in bronze, young people in ordinary clothing, their fists upraised in defiance, flags and rifles held in their hands. Behind, carved messages in Korean English line a stone wall, proclaiming the story of these martyrs.

Beyond that lies the graves.

There are hundreds of them, small barrows standing in neat lines along the hillside. Row upon row they wind back up the hill. They are covered in neatly trimmed grass, most with fresh flowers lying before them. Every barrow – dolmen, they’re called –  has a small gravestone in front of it. Printed neatly and humbly in Korean characters is a person’s name, and their place, and time of death. The dates are all similar – mid to late May, 1980. Many have crosses carved into them. Some have bowls of incense in front of them, and some of those are even lit. All are lovingly cared for. But the most powerful part, at least for me, are the photos.

In front of nearly every dolmen there is a photo. Black and white, for the most part. Faces of every age and description smile out from them. Here a young college boy, his goofy grin framed by the long, tousled locks that were the style of the day. There a dignified professor sits in his carefully maintained serenity, in his best suit and his too-large glasses. A middle aged woman with a gentle smile and the calm, sensible hairstyle of her time. Every photo a snapshot of a place and time – Korea, in 1980. Every single one there to remind you that behind this tombstone is a person. A person with their own story, their likes and dislikes. Maybe a boy who had scarcely thought about what he would wear for his school photo that day. Here a young woman caught in the act of laughing with her friends – no official photo. Maybe this is the only one of her that survives? The only record of her left in this world, here, in this quiet little cemetery on this quiet little hill outside the big noisy city.

Some of the graves, of course, have no photos at all. Just a name, perhaps a cross and a date.

They are just as well-cared for as the others.

In total, there are 482 people who rest here. This was not their original location – the military dictatorship that murdered them would never allow such a place of honor for those who died battling their regime. No, this place was established in 1993, following the democratization of Korea. As the new government sought to atone for the sins of the past, the bodies of the honored dead were exhumed and brought out here, to be re-entombed and remembered forever. The entire May 18th National Cemetery stands as a memorial and a museum for those who gave their lives in the Gwangju Uprising of 1980. In Gwangju, it is a famous place.

But not outside Korea, curiously enough. This cemetery, which preserves the mortal remains of more people than were killed in the Tiananmen Square massacre, is virtually unknown in the wider world. The West as a whole knows virtually nothing about the Gwangju Uprising – at least, I did not, and if you will permit me a small moment of egotism, I know a fair bit more about world history than the average Westerner.

I’m not sure why that should be so. Korea itself hails the Uprising as the start on the country’s long road to democracy. At the time, reporters from all over the world gathered here to carry the news from the city to the wider world. But it has since been overshadowed by other revolutions – again, the best parallel I can think of is Tiananmen Square, where pro-democracy protestors were crushed by the Chinese regime. The same happened here, but the protestors were more successful – for a while. And more of them ultimately died.

We forget, I think, because it is inconvenient, sometimes, to remember. It’s inconvenient that a US ally murdered hundreds of its own citizens in order to prop up a tinpot regime that seized power in the midst of a military coup. It’s inconvenient that the troops doing the murdering were there with the tacit approval and active complicity of the United States. At the time, it was easier to accept the regime’s narrative of “riots” and Communist agitators than to court a crisis with a key Cold War bastion, at a time when Russians were invading Afghanistan, when Iran had seized our embassy, and the entire country was undergoing a crisis of confidence. So, in the United States, and by proxy the rest of the West, there is almost no popular memory of a week in Gwangju 40 years ago, a sunny, warm May much like this one, when an entire city threw out a modern, well-trained army and kept them out for days.

I had heard of the story when I came, and memories of the uprising are everywhere around the city, but I didn’t know the details. So, one day, to sate my curiosity, I made my way out here. I would learn, and hey, maybe it would make a good blog post one day. It wound up being much more than that.

The first thing I noticed, of course, was the quiet. That was rare, and it instantly impressed upon me a sense of peace that I hadn’t felt in months. Then, of course, you notice the pillars, and the sculpture. This is not the sort of monument you build to a mere riot.

What struck me most, like I said, was the photos. It is easy, I think, to forget that the names in history books – if they make into history books at all, which most do not – are people. Row upon row, their faces gazed out at me across 40 years. Still young, still with those eyes full of hope, the infectious grins that I’ve seen on young people all over the world – I am young, and my whole life is in front of me, and this is a good time to be alive. College students, mostly, mixed in with their professors and other civilians. Going to school, working towards degrees, towards one day jobs, families of their own. The future. Most of them will always be young, now. Growing old – this is not their fate.

And that was what got me. Because most of these people knew the risks they were taking. They knew that to protest the regime meant death, for many. Not even police dogs and firehoses, not tear gas, but actual bullets and grenades. It would be easy to keep your head down, to not join in, to preserve that entire bright shining future and just get on with your life. But the 482 people here, along with many others – the total numbers of the dead are not known, even today. The total numbers who participated in the uprising can never be known – made the choice to place those futures on the line, to stand up, take their chances, for the simple right to govern themselves.

The same basic impulse that drove colonists in Boston and Virginia 250 years ago, the same that would sweep across the communist nations of Europe 10 years after the uprising – just the simple assertion that I will govern my own life, and no others. It’s a cause worth fighting for, to be sure, and these people did, and backed up their principles with their lives.

And we have forgotten them.

In a few days, it will be the 40th anniversary of the May 18th Gwangju Uprising. The city here is being steadily engulfed in the preparations to mark the occasion. Many Koreans are working hard on art projects, on posters and films, on documentaries and essays and poems, to memorialize the dawn of their democratic movement. But I don’t know much of that will exist in English. There’s actually surprisingly little material in English to work with – a few poorly translated books, vague encyclopedia articles, and outdated (and misinformed) news reports from the time.

Well, let this, then, be my small contribution to the history of Gwangju. I stood in front of the rows upon rows of dolmen, and I promised them that I, at least, would learn their story. And do my best to share it with others. For a brief while, perhaps, these happy young college kids and the ordinary people of 41 years ago can live again. And the sacrifice that they made so that others might live freely can – even if only in a small corner of the Internet – be remembered.

« Last Edit: May 24, 2021, 01: 49: 46 pm by Cassander »


Not so here. I don’t know about the Korean countryside, but in Gwangju, in Cheomdan, my neighborhood, the city does not sleep. Every hour of every day is filled with the noisy business of human life, as people hurry about their work, about their play, about their lives. You get used to it after a while, but you also forget what quiet sounds like.

I thought you were also guaranteed a day of peace and quiet for the Suneung[img].  But thank you for this.  I was aware of South Korea’s dictatorship, and the protests that lead to its fall, but not the cost.  And my own trips were limited to Seoul, where there wasn’t so much in the way of memorials to that period.  Plenty of protesting, though, fortunately of the less bloody variety.  I’m glad there’s a proper memorial somewhere, even if not in Seoul.

South Korea’s version of the SAT, which they take seriously enough to e.g. reroute air traffic so there’s no noise to disturb the students.


Test Day is actually probably the closest I’ll ever get to experiencing The Quiet Place, since I was at a private high school. Silent in my office, tiptoeing through the hallways – it was stressful! It did not, regrettably, stop the traffic in the streets although there was less of it than usual (and Gwangju’s airspace was not so busy that I noticed the interruption in air traffic). The seriousness with which Koreans take education was how I knew the pandemic was a Big Deal, when the government closed schools back in February of 2020.


Thanks for this post. Its beautiful.


Well done, @Chevalier Mal Fet . Best prose style of any effort post I’ve seen yet, especially in your technique of revisiting the same subtopic multiple times in greater levels of detail, or from a diff. perspective (e.g. first discussing the subjects of the photos, then returning to them to launch the larger point about regular citizens resisting an armed force for the sake of self-governance.)

I would now like to know more about the Korean dictatorship period and the democratization process, so consider this a request for more posts 🙂


I am protecting my hands by limiting my typing and using dictation. Please excuse typos, abbreviations, sentence fragments, and crazy run-ons (from dictation.)

Part Two!

To lay the foundation for what led to the uprising in Gwangju, I need to establish the pattern of Korean political history prior to 1980, particularly how the dictatorship came to be in such a precarious position. So, consider this a deep background post, and we’ll steadily work ourselves closer to May 18, 1980.

The Wrong Man For the Job

The hardest part of any story is beginning it. This is especially true of history. Did the French Revolution begin with Louis losing his head, or with the storming of the Bastille, or with the oath in the tennis court? Did the Cold War start with the Berlin blockade, with the surrender of Japan, or even earlier with the first Trinity Test? And the Gwangju uprising – do I begin with the students confronting the paratroopers in front of Chonnam University? With the military proclaiming martial law on May 17? With the December coup?

I suppose, if you want to be technical about it, we should start with Mireuk, without whom no one would have separated the earth from the sky by setting the sky on 4 copper pillars at the corners of the earth, and without whom no one would have created mankind (men from 5 golden insects, women from 5 silver), and where would we be then?

Mireuk, creator deity of Korea.

But I will begin, I think, where almost all modern Korean history begins: with the fall of Japan.

Korea in August 1945 was an afterthought to, well, damn near everybody.

In the west, President Harry Truman was winging his way home from Potsdam, his mind full of the problems with the war against Japan, sorting out the defeated Germany, and, more than anything else, the looming threat of the Soviet Union and the implications of the new weapon he had tested out in the New Mexico desert the previous month.

In Europe, the continent was first starting to piece itself back together in the aftermath of the great war just ended. Refugees and displaced people flooded over every nation, everyone seeking loved ones, too few succeeding. Most of the continent lay in ruins, especially Germany, now divided, occupied, and dazedly trying to guess what a post-Nazi future for the country might look like – or maybe people were just trying to survive from one day to the next, like they had every day for most of the previous harrowing decade.

In Burma, Indonesia, and the Philippines, collapsing Japanese army units fought desperate, last-ditch stands against victorious Allied armies. Some men would vanish into the jungle to continue their fight there. Some would not re-emerge for thirty years.

In Manchuria, the Red Army stormed forward in Operation August Storm, brushing aside the Japanese defenders like an NFL linemen rushing a toddler. The IJA was undersupplied, demoralized, and outnumbered – the Red Army was seasoned, well-trained, well-equipped, fresh from victory over the Wehrmacht and at the height of its power and glory. The communists smashed aside the paltry Japanese defenders and stormed south for the Yalu River.

And in the Central Pacific, the 509th Composite Group, operating from the modest North Field on the sunny island of Tinian, sent a small squadron of three B-29 Superfortresses on a strike mission to southern Japan. Their names were The Great Artiste, Necessary Evil, and Enola Gay.

No one was thinking about Korea.


After the destruction of Hiroshima and the surrender of Japan, the State Department in Foggy Bottom suddenly found themselves with a problem. Well, actually, they had many problems – maybe more problems than any State Department before or since has ever had to deal with. What do with defeated Germany? How to rebuild Western Europe? How many US troops shall we keep in uniform? What is our relationship with the Soviet Union? What about with every single “liberated” state in Eastern Europe? What of Greece, Turkey? What of the European empires in Africa and in Asia? What of the Nationalists and Communists in China? What of the former Japanese empire?

It was a rat’s nest of issues, old grudges, new opportunities, rivalries, hatreds, long-standing alliances now outdated, maps made obsolete…the old world had been shattered, and now it was up to Harry S. Truman, of Independence, Missouri, and the Department of State, to try and forge it anew. Letters and contacts poured in from all over the world. Greece, begging for aid in its civil war against Communist rebels. Poland, pleading not to be forgotten. The Soviet Union, wondering about the future of their wartime partnership. Some leftist nutter named Ho Chi Minh, asking for help booting the French out of their Indochinese possessions. Oh, yes, and what the hell do we do with the Empire of Japan and all its possessions?

Amidst this chaos, apparently no one had given forethought to the precise details of the disposition of the Japanese possessions outside the home islands. Korea had been discussed, but only in passing. On August 9, after Hiroshima, after August Storm, suddenly the surrender of Japan – something not previously thought to happen until late 1946, at the earliest – loomed as an imminent possibility. On the night of August 10, Allied military planners hurredly met to convene surrender procedures, to keep Soviets and Americans from accidentally (or not) murdering each other in the confusion.

As the official Army history puts it:

“Under pressure to produce a paper as quickly as possible, members of the Policy Section began work late at night on 10 August. They discussed possible surrender zones, the allocation of American, British, Chinese, and Russian occupation troops to accept the surrender in the zone most convenient to them, the means of actually taking the surrender of the widely scattered Japanese military forces, and the position of Russia in the Far East…

The Chief of the Policy Section, Col. Charles H. Bonesteel, had thirty minutes in which to dictate Paragraph 1 to a secretary, for the Joint Staff Planners and the State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee were impatiently awaiting the result of his work. Colonel Bonesteel thus somewhat hastily decided who would accept the Japanese surrender.

…At first Bonesteel had thought of surrender zones conforming to the provincial boundary lines. But the only map he had in his office was hardly adequate for this sort of distinction. The 38th Parallel, he noted, cut Korea approximately through the middle. If this line was agreeable to President Truman and to Generalissimo Stalin, it would place Seoul and a nearby prisoner of war camp in American hands. It would also leave enough land to be apportioned to the Chinese and British if some sort of quadripartite administration became necessary. Thus he decided to use the 38th Parallel as a hypothetical line dividing the zones within which Japanese forces in Korea would surrender to appointed American and Russian authorities.”

Policy and Direction: The First Year

The 38th parallel, decided upon by Charles Bonesteel, who was up too late on the night of August 10th, with inadequate coffee, a smarmy State Department aide joggling his elbow for him to finish, a rotten map, and only thirty minutes to work, has stood as the boundary between North and South Korea for 75 years.

A second major problem – besides the fact that pretty much no one in the United States had ever heard of “Korea” – was that they had basically no plan in place for how to administer “their” sudden new occupation zone. The Soviets, perhaps cowed and cautious by the threat of the Bomb, placidly accepted the 38th parallel and set about converting their half of the peninsula into a glorious people’s republic. They plucked a suitable anti-Japanese guerrilla from obscurity, gave him a suitably heroic backstory, more or less made up out of whole cloth, and set him up as the Dear Leader of their new pet. Thus did Kim Il-Sung become the founding member of the present ruling house of North Korea.

The United States had no such plan. They had no shadow government in place to assume the reins, they had no Korea desk at the State Department, hell, they didn’t even know how long they’d be in the country, let alone what they wanted to “do” with it. The Navy rapidly ferried a handful of confused soldiers up from the Philippines and flung them into Seoul, where they aimlessly milled around for a few months while the higher-ups tried to figure out what the hell they were doing.

In the end, as is often the case with the United States, they settled on the first convenient man they ran across. And here is where the troubles began.


Korea, after quietly whiling away a sleepy couple of centuries under the Joseon dynasty, had fallen victim to early 20th century power politics. Initially a bone in the struggle between Qing China and Meiji Japan, Korea had first become a puppet, then an outright colony, of the island nation since 1910. But the Koreans had not taken the Japanese occupation lying down. Almost from the first, there was resistance, including in the peaceful southwestern city of Gwangju.

Across the country, there were uprisings, protests, strikes, and riots. In the barren and frigid northern hills near the Yalu, bands of rebels roamed around bushwhacking isolated Japanese garrisons. In the cities, Koreans frequently engaged in strikes or other forms of passive resistance to their colonial occupiers. The college students did what college students do best and wrote various Statements and Declarations of Intent, and engaged in protest marches. The Japanese responded with all the grace and nuance Showa-Era Japan is famous for.

While the myriad arrests, beatings, exiles, and outright murders failed to fully pacify the peninsula (to say nothing of apolitical monstrosities like the practice of comfort women, or Unit 731’s horrors), they did serve to more or less keep a lid on things for Japan through 1945. Many groups found it too hot to stay in the peninsula itself, and exiled themselves to surrounding nations, mostly to China, which was merrily engaged in one of its regular periods of outright anarchy and civil war*. One of these groups somewhat self-importantly called itself the Korean Provisional Government in Exile, and their Representative to the United States was one Syngman Rhee.

Rhee was born in 1875 and taught English by Methodist missionaries active in the country. He came of age just as the Japanese involvement in Korea was ramping up, and became strongly anti-Japan. He spent most of his post-graduate career bouncing between the United States, anti-Japanese agitating in Korea, prison, and exile in China. After a few turns of the wheel, in March of 1919, he joined with myriad others to instigate a gathering of students in Seoul, who proclaimed Korea’s independence. The Japanese were less amused by this than the students were, and to escape arrest, torture, and probable death, many fled to Shanghai, Rhee among them. There, his political acumen and intelligence quickly propelled him up the ranks.

Rhee’s English ability got him named Representative to the United States, and he lived there through most of the Thirties. Styling himself the Chairman of the Korean Commission to the United States, Rhee spent his days agitating against the Japanese and lobbying the American State Department for recognition and material support for Korean independence. Consumed with more important matters like the Second World War, the State Department spent most of its time, in turn, ignoring the little man from the backwater peninsula no one had ever heard of.

Until fate intervened, and suddenly the United States found itself in possession of half of that backwater peninsula and not a clue in the world what to do with it.

“The British diplomat Roger Makins later recalled, “the American propensity to go for a man rather than a movement — Giraud among the French in 1942, Chiang Kai-shek in China. Americans have always liked the idea of dealing with a foreign leader who can be identified as ‘their man’. They are much less comfortable with movements.” Makins further added the same was the case with Rhee, as very few Americans were fluent in Korean in the 1940s or knew much about Korea, and it was simply far easier for the American occupation government to deal with Rhee than to try to understand Korea. Rhee was “acerbic, prickly, unpromising” and was regarded by the U.S. State Department, which long had dealings with him as “a dangerous mischief-maker”, but the American General John R. Hodge decided that Rhee was the best man for the Americans to back because of his fluent English and his ability to talk with authority to American officers about American subjects.”

– Max Hastings, The Korean War

In other words, Rhee was an asshole, but he was an asshole who spoke English and, more importantly, he was available. So Syngman Rhee found himself shipped off from Washington and back to his home in Seoul for the first time in 25 years, where he became the primary liaison between the United States occupying authorities and the people of Korea. In essence, Rhee became the Korean government.

August 15, 1948 – Korea’s first “free” elections

The years between 1945 and 1950 were the era of Translator Government in Korea. The Americans, fumbling around hopelessly in the dark, frequently leaned on former Japanese officials, who were after all fluent in the government and language of the peninsula. Understandably, this did not endear them to the people of “south” Korea, as the American half of the peninsula was coming to be known. People who could translate between English and Korean found themselves in positions of inordinate infuence, and Rhee, with his political acumen, quickly consolidated power behind himself, if not with American approval, at least with American indifference. America wanted nothing more than to be done with the funny little peninsula and get their boys back home. Its attention was always elsewhere – mostly on Berlin and Germany and the steadily growing showdown with the Ruskies. They gave half-hearted training to a South Korean “army,” which was mostly a police force meant to keep order in the peninsula and help Rhee hunt down his “Communist” opponents scattered around the South. Of course, Rhee was very generous with the term “communist” and arrests, torture, and imprisonment were par for the course for his government. Rhee also made frequent requests for heavy weapons like tanks, aircraft, and artillery, but the Americans, fearful that this “mischief-maker” would do something crazy like go haring off on an invasion of the Soviet zone to the north, refused. By 1949, all American troops were withdrawn from the peninsula, and the State Department was giving speeches suggesting that the American involvement in the little backwater of Korea was officially at end.

Unfortunately, the North had not been idle during this time. While Rhee had been playing on his position as the middleman between the USA and the people of South Korea, Kim Il-Sung had been happily setting up his own private little kingdom in the North, with the full backing of the Soviet Union. He had built a fully modern and well-trained army, equipped with Soviet weapons, driving Soviet tanks, supported by Soviet planes. When the USA indicated that it was done with South Korea, and with Rhee corrupt, unpopular, and seemingly on shaky ground at home, Kim decideded the time was right, and on June 25, 1950, launched his shiny new army on an invasion of the south.


The Korean War is, of course, far too detailed to get into here. Suffice it to say that the United States hadn’t actually meant it was totally done with Korea, and intervened to save its newfound ally. The fighting raged down the peninsula to Busan, and up all the way to the Yalu River, and back again. Seoul changed hands 6 times. The United States carried out the longest retreat in its history, “attacked in a different direction” out of the Chosin Reservoir, and helped mold the South Korean army into a modern, effective fighting force. By the time the dust settled three years later, the battle lines were more or less right at Bonesteel’s 38th parallel and pretty much the entire peninsula lay in ruins. Oh, and Syngman Rhee now had an ironclad grip on power.

Rhee unabashedly engaged in strong-arm and outright illegal political tactics. While he wasn’t as bad as Kim Il-Sung to the north, “not as bad as a literal Stalinist dictatorship” is a very low bar to clear. Opposition parties were harassed, their leaders frequently arrested, and at times politicians who became too prominent in opposition to Rhee were outright assassinated, such as Kim Gu. Under the pretext of resisting subversion from the northRhee severely curtailed political rights and elections, limiting the ability of opposition parties to dissent from his regime. At times, his security forces engaged in outright massacres, including an astonishing reported 14,000 deaths during the Jeju Uprising. (Tirman, John (2011). The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars. Oxford University Press. pp. 93–95. ISBN 978-0-19-538121-4. I have not investigated this claim myself).

Through the 1950s, Rhee amended the Constitution as he willed and more or less ignored South Korea’s National Assembly, getting himself elected President 4 times. The United States grumbled over his strongarm tactics, but any instability in Korea risked opening a way for the North to invade. The threat of the North acts as a constant pressure in Korean politics, forcing unity and enabling strongmen to maintain a tight grip on power. Time and again it will be used to justify all manner of authoritarian actions, including, as we will see, in response to the May 18 Uprising. In so doing, Rhee set the model for a Korean dictator that would persevere for 40 years. South Korea was by no means a free state. It was better than the North, yes, but again – low bar. Opposing parties were allowed to exist, but certainly not to win elections. Writing an opposing newspaper might work for a while, but it would eventually get you arrested (but probably not executed). And as long as you kept your head down and ignored politics, you could live a more or less free life.

Rhee’s ride on the tiger finally came to an end in 1960, in what would become another familiar model in Korean politics. In the spring of that year, Rhee staged yet another fraudulent election, and once again, surprise surprise, he was unexpectedly re-elected because he was so beloved by the Korean people as the father of his nation (in fact, Rhee won 100% of the vote after his main opponent died a few weeks before the election. As far as I can tell, the death was actually legitimate and not a shady assassination, surprisingly enough. Go figure). Yet again, people – mostly college and high school students, took to the streets to protest yet another sham election.

A friendly difference of political opinion, Masan, March 1960

During the protests, in the southern city of Masan, the corpse of a high school student, Kim Ju-yul, was discovered. The regime announced that the boy had drowned, but autopsies revealed that his skull had been fractured by a tear gas grenade fired at point blank range. While the regime had been authoritarian and oppressive, it had never before stooped to the open murder of citizens in the streets. The Korean press widely publicized the incident, and the protests caught fire and spread through the entire country. Rhee proclaimed that it was all the work of communist agents, but the tired excuse worked no longer. Within a month, there were marches of hundreds of thousands in the streets of downtown Seoul, demanding Rhee’s resignation. Violent clashes were common, and it is estimated that more than 180 protestors died in confrontations with the police.

But the heart of the police forces weren’t really in it, and soon they began refusing orders to fire on the protestors, who no longer numbered just college students and dotty old professors but respectable Korean professionals and businessmen, too. Rhee proclaimed martial law, but the soldiers, too (no doubt noticing how badly they were outnumbered by the protestors) also refused to fire on the crowds. Left with no choice, Syngman Rhee resigned on April 26, 1960, and went into exile in sunny Hawaii. Thus ended the reign of the United States’ handpicked ruler of South Korea.

The road to the May 18 Uprising begins here, I think. Rhee came to power as a result of the inattention and lack of preparation by the United States for the role it found itself thrust into in Korea. He was emphatically the wrong man for the job. Even as Japan and Germany evolved into modern, multiparty parliamentary democracies, the Republic of Korea was a sham, ruled by an authoritarian strongman who had nothing but contempt for elections and the will of the “common people.” Rhee legitimately tried to rule wisely and well for Korea, and was constantly fearful of the threat from the north and from communists within, but his lack of respect for democratic norms and his cheerful disregard for human rights set a pattern for Korea that would persist for 30 years following his fall. It was in protest to a similar dictator that would lead to the bloody confrontation in Gwangju, 20 years after the fall of Syngman Rhee.

*”The Empire, long divided, must unite. Long united, must divide.” – The opening line of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, published centuries ago and describing affairs in the 3rd century, is still true today – this contains everything you need to know about Chinese history.

To be fair, for a number of years during and after the war, there were literal Communist guerrillas scattered around the mountains to the South. The threat of invasion from within wasn’t entirely made up by Rhee. He did exaggerate it and exploit it for his own purposes, though.

It is important to note that while South Korea is not a free nation at this time, it is not comparable to the North – imagine these protests in Pyongyang! There are degrees of freedom, and while I’m being hard on Korea here, I am emphatically not saying that North Korea and South Korea were basically interchangeable. One, while flawed, is definitely better than the other.


Thanks for doing this.  I’m really looking forward to the later parts.


What everyone else said.  This may already be my favorite effortpost evar.  More plz.


Great stuff Chev, I’m really enjoying this post.


Effort Posts I’m willing to wager:

A book review and summary of Mammies and Matriarchs: Tracing Images of the Black Female in Popular Culture 1950s to Present

An Effortpost on Preparing your home for Natural Disasters

An Effortpost on the history and culture of Capoeira

So, we’ve laid the deep background for Korean politics that lays behind May 18. Now, I need to lay the groundwork for the actual revolution – and the spark that lit the fuse was the sudden end of the ‘presidency’ of Park Chung-hee, probably the most important Korean statesman this side of the Japanese occupation.

So, let me introduce…

Part Three: The Korean Napoleon

Happy countries are all alike, but each unhappy country is unhappy in its own way. On the northern half of the Korean peninsula, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Il-Sung’s Stalinist dictatorship, was a cult of personality of mythic proportions. Freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of thought was not just unheard of but unthinkable for most. After all, the leader represented the will of the people – he essentially was the people, and how could the people criticize themselves? (I have actually heard North Koreans say this)

To the south, the Republic of Korea was also unhappy. The essential alliance with the United States required that the leaders of Korea pay lip service to the ideals of freedom and democracy (and most especially anti-communism), but the reality was of course, different. Free elections were nonexistent, and political repression, while not as total as in the North, was a constant fact of life.

The April Revolution, 1960

Still, for a few months in the spring of 1960, that summer of hope when in the United States John Kennedy ushered in a new generation of political leadership, and the civil rights movement promised yet another birth of American freedom, it seemed like the ROK might become a republic in fact, and not just in name. The Second Republic was weak, and unsteady, yes, but it allowed political opposition, failed to murder or even beat protestors in the street – why, it even allowed opposing newspapers to print!

But the most dangerous time for any new government is its first few months of existence, when it is vulnerable to all manner of opportunistic ambush predators. The Second Republic was vigilant and survived all efforts by the North to topple it. It was not so lucky against predation from within. Park Chung-hee saw to that, and in so doing inaugurated a series of military regimes that would remain power until 1993, maintaining themselves in command through increasingly bloody reprisals against the people. The bloodiest of all came in Gwangju, in May, 1980.

Park was born in 1917, in the Japanese-occupied countryside of Korea. I didn’t emphasize last time how thorough and oppressive the Japanese regime was, but it should not be overlooked, either: Korean culture and language was suppressed, while Japanese culture was propped up and Japanese history was glorified. The twisted Bushido warrior code, bearing only the faintest resemblance to the samurai codes that would have been familiar to Miyamoto Musashi, condemned the Koreans for being so weak as to allow themselves to be conquered. A truly worthy people would have resisted to the death. Thus, the fact of the Koreans’ oppression became self-justifying. The Koreans were a despised second-class race of citizens within their own country.

Park grew up in this environment. He was given a Japanese name, as most Korean boys his age were, and was brought up to revere Japan and the Japanese military. Repeatedly, he expressed admiration for Emperor Meiji and the dramatic fashion in which he had modernized Japan. The first emperor to rule with any authority in over a thousand years, Meiji had overthrown the Shogun (the military ruler of Japan for centuries), broken the power of the samurai, and remade the one-backwards island nation into the mirror of Western imperial powers the world over. Japan had become the sole Asian nation to defeat a European nation in open warfare (Russia, in 1905), and had eventually acquired an empire large to challenge the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union simultaneously.As Park grew up, Japan was undoubtedly the wealthiest, most modern country in Asia, and a model for good governance in his mind.

http://Le Petit Corporal, center, leads his men over the bridge at Arcole

The other model for Park, tellingly, was Napoleon. Napoleon had masterfully unified the military and civil governance of France, bringing a final end to the chaos of the Revolution and rising from obscurity to Emperor within 10 years through his political and military genius. His Napoleonic Code of laws still serves as the basis of law in countries all over Europe, and his soldiers exported the French Revolution to every major state on the Continent, and caused thrones to tremble from Madrid to Moscow. He was, without a doubt, the titan of his age.

Of course, he had also been unable to contain his ambition, and his overreach had eventually culminated in his overthrow by a coalition of every major power in Europe. He had been a despot and an authoritarian at home who betrayed the democratic ideals of the Revolution, one who cruelly used and abused his own loved ones in pursuit of his own ambition for glory. But details like that were irrelevant, in Park’s mind, compared to Napoleon’s masterful command of his time. Park’s only regret was that as a poor boy growing up in rural Korea, a backwater of a backwater, was that there was no outlet for his own genius and ambition.

When Japan’s militarist clique pushed the nation into war with China, Park Chung-hee had his chance. He took his Japanese name, Takagi Masao, and enrolled at Changchun Military Academy. Talented and intelligent, his Japanese masters recommended him for staff training at the Imperial Japanese Army Academy. He graduated as a lieutenant in 1944 and served with the army in Manchuria.

Escaping August Storm, Park returned to Korea, where he again commissioned as an officer in the embyronic ROK Army. A political difference of opinion with Rhee led to him getting the boot in 1948, but the war demanded every single able-bodied Korean and Park at last had a chance to show his quality. He returned to the ranks and quickly began to rise. A major in July 1950, he was a lieutenant colonel by September and a full colonel by April. War tends to sort out the wheat from the chaff, and the rapidly expanding Korean army needed any command talent it could get. By the time the war ended in 1953, Park was a brigadier general commanding artillery corps (his hero, Napoleon, had also got his start in the artillery).

His wartime service had marked him as a man of talent, and he was sent to the United States for further training. He returned, headed up the Artillery School, commanded several divisions, then was made Chief of Staff of First Army, responsible for the defense of Seoul itself. It was up, up, up for General Park. By 1960, he had been made Chief of Staff of Operations for the whole Korean army. It was the perfect place for a man of ambition as Korea’s First Republic drew to an end in the April Revolution, Rhee was ousted, and the Second Republic began.

Park as a general, 1957

If this was to be the dawning of a new age of democracy and freedom for the Republic of Korea, it was, well, a bit disappointing. The liberal Democratic party, in the grand tradition of liberal partiesthroughout history, couldn’t find its ass with both hands. The new president and prime minister, mostly non-entities whose names are unimportant, were caught between the conflicting demands of the student protestors who had largely been responsible for driving Rhee out of power, and the economy, which was basically in shambles after a decade of Rhee’s mismanagement and corruption. No liberal politician could truly command a majority of the House, the prime minister was elected by a razor-thin margin of 3 votes, he created his cabinet, then recreated it, then desperately recreated it a THIRD time in the space of a year as he scrambled to piece together some kind of powerbase, and the conservative military was skeptical of them all.

While the government mostly tried to hold itself together, outside in the streets students regularly flooded out, demanding a wide range of social and economic reforms. The tight political controls of the Rhee government had been relaxed, and leftist and reformist groups took full advantage. No one trusted the police after the April Revolution, and public security deteriorated. Popular support for the Second Republic waned.

At the same time, the government’s footing was too shaky to eject the clique of what were called “liberation aristocrats” – Koreans who had ingratiated themselves with the United States military government and made their careers in the early years after independence, of whom Rhee was only the most significant example. They still infested most of the highest reaches of government and were viewed highly skeptically by most of the military. The military, most of whom, like Park, had been trained by the Japanese originally, remembered with fondness Korea’s economic development under Japan, and looked with envy at the “Japanese miracle” developing on the far side of Tsushima Strait. The conservative “liberation aristocrats”, by contrast, had kept the ROK’s economy agrarian and underdeveloped, with roughly the same per capita GDP as the Stalinist North.

With no real legitimacy of its own, no popular support, facing harsh criticism from the conservative ruling elite and no real love from the military, the Second Republic was weak, tottering, and ready to topple at the slightest provocation. Park did not miss his chance.

Park Chung-hee, just outside the topmost echelon of the military, was ideally positioned. The military brass were tainted by their association with Rhee’s long term, and a new cohort of reform-minded junior officers were rising. Park was at the top of this new wave. He shared with them ambiguous politics and a strong admiration for the Japanese model of authoritarian development, inculcated during his time in the Japanese military. While the Second Republic flailed ineffectually at its problems through 1960, Park quietly built a network of like-minded officers, many old friends from Manchuria, and laid the groundwork for his own Thermidor. He named his organization the Military Revolutionary Committee.

After several abortive attempts, on May 16, 1961, the plans were leaked to the central government, and the military moved to arrest the plotters. Park now seized the moment. In an eloquent speech to the 6th District Army headquarters, he persuaded the majority of the capital garrison to defect to his cause, arguing, “We have been waiting for the civilian government to bring back order to the country. The Prime Minister and Ministers, however, are mired in corruption, leading the country to the verge of collapse. We shall rise up against the government to save the country. We can accomplish our goals without bloodshed. Let us join in this Revolutionary Army to save the country.” Such was the force of his rhetoric that even the men sent to arrest the mutineers were swept up in the moment and defected. No doubt a voice from a far distant time and place, another failed arrest of a would-be coup, echoed quietly in the back of Park’s mind as he rode out towards the palace, “Soldiers, if you would shoot your emperor, here I am!”

General Park on May 16, 1961

The army quickly flooded out to occupy Seoul. The non-entity Prime Minister fled the city, while the President quietly accepted the coup and continued to serve as a figurehead. The Korean army initially prepared to respond and put down the uprising, but the threat of a North Korean invasion compelled them to remain in their positions at the DMZ. With the civilian government imploding and the military doing nothing to respond, soon more and more officials and soldiers began to switch sides. Within a week Park had fully twenty divisions backing him. Three days later, the Prime Minister and the entire cabinet emerged from hiding and resigned, ceding power to the Military Revolutionary Committee.

Park moved to consolidate power quickly. He quickly isolated and removed any rivals, establishing himself at the head of the MRC, now renamed the Supreme Council for National Reconstruction. The thirty highest ranking Korean military officers were on the council, which held supreme civil and military power in the country – and Park sat at their head. Recognition from John Kennedy and the United States came within days of the coup. Finally, he formed the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, whose primary purpose would be to prevent any future coups.

Within 2 months of seizing Seoul, Park had firmly established himself as the military dictator of the Republic of Korea. Sygnman Rhee had ruled for 12 years. The Second Republic had lasted less than 12 months. Park Chung-hee, who had risen from a poor boy to general of artillery to master of his nation, like his idol, Napoleon, would rule for 18 years. It was his murder that directly set in motion the chain of events leading to the Gwangju Uprising.

*this was, of course, insane and Japan was in no way powerful enough to do this, as its crushing defeat in the Second World War should have shown.

Meant here in the classical sense.


@Chevalier Mal Fet, have you thought about repurposing all this into an ebook? You seem to have generated a lot of interest.


“We must do what we must do, for if we do not do what we must, what we must do will not get done”

@Chevalier Mal Fet, have you thought about repurposing all this into an ebook? You seem to have generated a lot of interest.

I’ve thought about it, but I need to finish, first! I’d love to publish a short book someday – the main history, Gwangju Diary, is out of print and very difficult to obtain. I’ve had to rely on what excerpts and quotes I can find online, since my research budget didn’t include a purchase.

Okay, so yesterday, I introduced Park Chung-hee. The military regime barely clinging to power during the Uprising came about directly because of his administration. Basically, Park made the nation of South Korea as we know it. Today, then, we’re going to work through his years of power and bring ourselves right up to his assassination, which is the domino that starts the May 18 uprising.

Part Four: The Winter Republic

The Korean peninsula at night is one of the most powerful images most people have seen.

In the north, from the Yalu all the way to the DMZ there is only blackness. Nearly 50,000 square miles of blackness, in a nation of 25 million people. Pyongyang alone is visible, a tiny point of light hunched defensively in the middle of the sea of dark, a stark illustration of the haves and the have-nots in the DPRK.

But south of the DMZ…to the south, the Republic of Korea blazes forth. The warm glow of lights representing human enterprise and endeavor spread all over every inch of ground from the Imjin all the way to Busan. Even the most distant mountains are illuminated. And Seoul…Seoul is a shining beacon, almost blinding in its brilliance, representing light and life and energy, a chaotic burst of joy in defiance of the hulking monster to its north. There is no image that so profoundly illustrates the different courses the two Koreas have followed; no clearer example of the stark difference that human freedom can make for a people.

One thing that gets forgotten, though, is that it was not always this way. I don’t even mean that the two Koreas used to be similar (although they were). No, what is forgotten is that in the early years, North Korea was the richer of the two brothers.

That’s right.*

In the years following Japan’s occupation, North Korea had the best industry (at Wonsan), a massive, modern hydroelectric infrastructure around its chilly northern reservoirs, some of the best ports in Korea (as at Hamhung), and a higher per capita income. The South was more rural and agrarian, outside of Seoul. Sure, it had a decent port at Busan, but that was about it. This was a result of deliberate Japanese policy – a centrally directed process of industrialization had concentrated heavy industry in the north and agriculture in the south, all serving the glory of the Japanese empire, of course. Following the war, and through Rhee’s years of corruption and mismanagement, the North, not the South, seemed to provide a vision of a future.

It was the presidency of Park Chung-Hee that changed that. Koreans called it the Winter Republic.

President Park in 1963

In many ways, Park’s ‘presidency’ was the most transformative in the history of the nation. He would rule for 18 years and firmly establish his imprint on every facet of Korean life. He would restructure the Korean economy, morals, the government, the military – all of it. When he seized power in 1961, Korea was poor, backwards, and constantly under threat from the north. By the time of his murder in 1979, the nation was wealthy, with a rapidly developing technological industry, and even more rapidly outgrowing any real threat from beyond the 38th parallel.

To analyze Park, you have to always keep in mind his two heroes: the emperors Napoleon and Meiji, of France and Japan, respectively. These two provided the model that Park based his own reign on.

Napoleon, you will recall, was born a poor boy on Elba. He joined the military, and rose through the ranks in the chaos of revolution, making his name as a general of artillery in battles like the siege of Toulon and the attempted royalist coup of 1795 (the “whiff of grapeshot”). Given command of the poorly armed, poorly trained, and poorly supplied Army of Italy in 1796, Napoleon had risen like lightning, rapidly winning battle after battle, then war after war, until he was the master of nearly all Europe, and Emperor of France.

But apart from his military genius, Napoleon was a reformer. It was he who at last broke down the tangled mess of France’s laws, a convoluted rat’s nest of regulations and decrees and ordinances from sources as diverse as the medieval French kings, the personal rule of Louis XIV, the Ancien Regime, and the myriad Revolutionary governments from over 400 years of history. Napoleon swept those aside and created the Napoleonic Code. He rationalized France’s provinces and administration, modernized the French army, and created a new glittering court in Paris to rival the days of the Bourbons. For the ten years of his rule he was the state of France.

Meiji. Note that he appears in adopted European military-style uniform, not traditional Japanese court attire.

Meiji was similar. His reign became known to history as the Meiji Restoration. When Japan, medieval and backwards after years of self-imposed isolation by the Edo shogunate, was threatened by European expansionism, Meiji had become the first emperor in centuries to assert his personal authority, overthrowing the shogun, moving the imperial court and capital from Kyoto to Edo (known forever after as Tokyo), and initiating the most successful program of Westernization in the known world. Meiji’s son and grandson had allowed Japan to be dominated by its military, but the military continued the hard charge of modernization and authoritarian economic development – and it was this same military that had plucked Park from obscurity in the Korean countryside and molded him into a talented and ambitious officer.

It was said of Park:

“In the Imperial Japanese Army, there was the belief that Bushido would give Japanese soldiers enough “spirit” as to make them invincible in battle, as the Japanese regarded war as simply a matter of willpower with the side with the stronger will always prevailing. Reflecting his background as a man trained by Japanese officers, one of Park’s favorite sayings was “we can do anything if we try” as Park argued that all problems could be overcome by sheer willpower.”

Eckert, Carter. Park Chung Hee and Modern Korea: The Roots of Militarism, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016

You cannot understand Park without appreciating the impact his training as a Japanese officer had on him. He, and all his clique, had come up through the Japanese war academy in Manchuria. They had imbibed the bushido spirit the Japanese militarists instilled in all their soldiers: problems were all to be overcome with will. The surest path to national success was through the firm and decisive leadership of the military – the people needed to be led to the right way of belief.

The years the Japanese army had ruled Korea were brutal and hard for the Korean people, but they had also been a time of rapid development as the Japanese built railroads, telegraph wires, hydroelectric plants, and factories to fuel their further conquests on the Asian mainland. It had seen more Korean economic growth than any other period in the nation’s history, and Park, a fervent Japanophile (a rarity in Korea), remembered those days with fondness. The militarist system of centrally directed economic development would be the model for the Winter Republic.

Park maintained the veneer of democracy over his regime. Under pressure from the Kennedy administration, he had restored “free elections” in 1962 – only to promptly resign from his post as head of the Supreme Council for National Reconstruction and win election as President in 1963, then re-election in 1967, then an amendment to the Constitution to allow him to run for a third term in 1971, followed by a brand new Constitution in 1972.

Park argued that the Korean people were not ready for democracy. “Democracy cannot be realized without an economic revolution,” he said. With a shaky economy and a dangerous ideological enemy bent on their destruction, a strong hand at the tiller was needed to steer the ship of state. The North Korean threat wasn’t entirely imaginary, either – through the late 1960’s, border raids and skirmishes were common along the DMZ, with the most dramatic incident being a DPRK raid on Seoul itself, with a squad of commandos coming within a few blocks of the Blue Housebefore being repulsed. Park was a staunch anti-communist and gravely feared the threat of Communist agitation from within.

To be fair, it seems likely that Park believed his own justifications for his dictatorship. Korea had been obviously mismanaged under Rhee and the Second Republic. His heroes, Napoleon and Meiji, had created strong, vibrant states that dominated their places and times.Park intended to do the same – and throughout his presidency, he worked hard to create the vision of Korea.

In the later years of the 20th century, it became fashionable to talk about the Four Asian Tigers: Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Korea. These were four previously poor states that experienced some of the most dramatic economic growth of any nation in the world in those days. The Republic of Korea, in particular, exploded past its northern rival for the first time and never looked back.

Park immediately began his presidency in 1962 with the first of many Five Year Plans. Investment from the United States and Japan was ploughed into the economy, as he initiated large-scale infrastructure projects across the country for the first time since the Japanese occupation. Roads, railways, and airports spread across the nation from Seoul. Seoul itself became a boomtown, growing from a provincial, undistinguished city to one of the great metropolises of the world (the Seoul Olympics, in 1988, came less than 10 years after the Park regime). Corporations such as LG, Samsung, and Hyundai were founded in these days, and many began to refer to the “Miracle on the Han River.”

As Korea grew rich on light industry, Park turned his attention to heavy industry, and as the ‘60s rolled into the ‘70s the next series of Five Year Plans attacked that problem. Relations were normalized with Japan, and a massive $800 million settlement from the country was poured into the effort to build Korea’s own industrial capacity. It was necessary to be able to supply their own army to defend from the North, Park argued, and obviously no labor strikes or protests from workers could be tolerated. Such strikes as did happen were ruthlessly broken up, and the Miracle on the Han continued.

Korean per capita GNI more than tripled during Park’s presidency from 1962-1979

The boom was not confined just to the cities. As a boy, Park had despised the thatched roof of his Korean village. To him, the simple peasant homes symbolized his nation’s backwardness and poverty, especially compared with Japanese modernity. Now, he had the power to do something about it. The New Village Movement brought paved roads and running water to every village in the republic. Most especially, it brought electricity. The power lines spread from Seoul to a thousand tiny hamlets scattered around the rice paddies and mountain vailleys, and with the power lines came the lanterns. No longer would night enfold the peninsula, but the city streets would glow as brightly as daytime at all hours. Under President Park Chung-hee, South Korea became the glittering nation of light so starkly visible in those Internet photos.

But this roaring economic growth came at a cost. Park emphasized Korean industry, science, and technology, yes, but he also believed that the Korean family model should extend to all areas of society. Park instituted strict morality laws, and censorship became the order of the day. Korean novels, poetry, TV, and movies were all held to high standards of “public decency.” Attire was tightly controlled, with a selection of approved haircuts available for men and women. Music, naturally, could not be left unregulated – who knows what the kids these days would listen to if left to their own devices? – creating a fussy, conservative operatic style of Korean music that is still popular with the ajummas and ajosshis today.

Korean culture and art stagnated under President Park. Creative expression was discouraged, and what efforts still existed were held to tightly constrained channels. The result was what Korean historians would later call “the Winter Republic” – a nation barren of culture, of life and light and music.

As the years of Park’s presidency dragged on, and the increasingly formal presidential elections rolled by, one after the other, opposition to the Korean Napoleon began to grow. Initially, Park had enjoyed the support of the people for his firm leadership after the corruption of Rhee and the incompetence of the Second Republic. But his heavy-handed tactics, his drive for economic efficiency at the expense of human rights, his constant excuse-making that the people just weren’t ready for democracy yet, were wearing thin. His Korean Central Intelligence Agency, the anti-coup KCIA he had created following his own seizure of power, was given a free hand to arrest anyone suspected of speaking against the government, with the usual beatings and torture to follow. Nevertheless, periodic protests, especially by college students, often unruly, occasionally violent, continued.

Political opposition, never quite outlawed since Korea was a “democracy,” gained in power. After a comfortable Presidential win in 1967, Parks’ 1971 opponent, Kim Dae-jung, had the gall to actually run a semi-competitive race. Troubled by such an unexpected display of spine, Park declared a state of emergency that fall, then, citing the threat from the North, tossed out his own Constitution and created the Yushin constitution instead.

The new Constitution, after Park essentially launched a coup against his own government in October of 1972, centralized even more power in President Park’s hands. It abolished all term limits and extended presidential terms to six years. Further, the public – obviously not to be trusted any longer – no longer voted for the president, but instead for an electoral college, which was granted a slate of candidates to vote for. The maximum number of candidates allowed on the slate was, naturally, one. The old national assembly was dissolved and a new one elected in its place – with the president having the power to appoint ⅓ of the members. The constitution was termed the Yushin Constitution, or “Restoration Constitution” – an obvious allusion to the Meiji Restoration of Japan.

The Yushin system swept away all trappings of democratic government in the Republic of Korea. Freedom of speech, of assembly, of the press, of association, of scholarship, of thought, of conscience, were nonexistent. Arrests and beatings were commonplace to maintain the authority of the regime.

Park, center, and his wife in 1971

The Yushin years, though, were marked by growing instability as Park increasingly teetered on his throne. The economic growth slowed, the arrests and beatings picked up pace, and still he insisted that the Korean people could not handle democracy. Park himself was frequently the target of assassination attempts, most of which he blamed on the North Koreans. The worst moment, perhaps, of his Presidency, before the end, came on August 15, 1974 – the 29th anniversary of the Japanese surrender. Park was in the National Theater in Seoul to give a speech commemorating the occasion. Hundreds of people flooded in, most of the capital’s best and brightest. A dazzling array of dignitaries filled the stage, including, significantly, Yuk Young-soo, the First Lady and the love of Park’s life.

As the President began his speech, a man near the rear abruptly fired a pistol. The would-be assassin realized his cover was blown and charged down the aisle, firing wildly in the President’s direction. One of Park’s bodyguards responded quickly, returning fire. As the bullets flew back and forth, one – fired by the bodyguard – glanced off the wall and struck Jang Bong-hwa, a high school student. He did not survive.

Park ducked, but the assassin’s zeal exceeded his marksmanship and he was unhurt. But as he picked himself up off the floor and looked around, he saw the aftermath: a stray bullet had struck Young-soo. As his injured wife was taken off stage and rushed to a hospital, a shaken Park finished his speech hurriedly, then, grabbing his wife’s shoes and handbag, dashed off after her.

She died early the next morning.

Yuk Young-soo, 1925-1974

A year later, Park wrote in his diary,

I felt as though I had lost everything in the world. All things became a burden and I lost my courage and will. A year has passed since then. And during that year I have cried alone in secret too many times to count.

Don Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas, 1997, p. 56

The assassination attempt was caught on video.Content warning: Yuk Yeong-soo is seated at center and her mortal wounding is in the video.

At the same time, the usual petty rivalries, jealosies, and jockeying for power had increased among the men of Park’s court, and as the Korean Napoleon aged, the second-rankers of his administration began to increasingly think about the issues of succession.

Soap box time. Feel free to skip: It’s difficult to evaluate the legacy of Park Chung-hee. There is, I think, a too-great demand for simple verdicts from the public on historical figures. The French Revolution – good thing or bad thing? Was the New Deal a good idea, or a bad idea? George W. Bush: Good president or bad president? I think the desire to slap a single label “good” or “bad”, to weigh the entire legacy of a person or event and reduce it to a single judgment, is misplaced, especially when it comes to judging human beings. Human beings are not simply good or simply bad. They are a complex knot of emotions, motivations, actions, triumphs, mistakes, moments of heroism and moments of cowardice. A man can be a devoted husband and loving father, and can casually order murder at work. A woman could be a brilliant CEO, guiding her corporation into a wonderful era of prosperity and stability, but have her own home life be a terrific mess.

World leaders do all manner of good things and bad things – they can start wars in the Middle East, but also deliver aid and comfort to millions in Africa. Do you weigh these in the scale, determine which side slightly (or overwhelmingly) outweighs the other, and pronounce “Good President!” or “Bad President!”? Well, maybe, but I never feel comfortable making such judgments.

Park Chung-hee was an authoritarian despot. He seized power illegally and maintained it through steadily increasing brutality and oppression for nearly two decades. He tramped the rights of political opponents, of workers, of students, and of artists, and cared little for the human costs of his policies. But he also created modern Korea. He took an agrarian, impoverished country and set it on the road to being one of the wealthiest nations in the world by the turn of the millennium. Koreans have enough to eat, have roofs over the heads, and have the best utilities, Internet, and technological toys in the world due in no small part to President Park.

Even today, he is a controversial figure. Many Koreans remember his time with fondness – “Ah, those were the days!” His daughter, Park Guen-hye, whose mother was murdered that day in August 1974, rose to become President herself one day – and also fell from power in the largest political scandal in modern Korean history.

Was Park a loving family man, a strong leader doing what was best for his country, a petty tyrant clinging to his own power, or a brutal thug willing to do anything in pursuit of his own ends? All of these at once? Feel free to make your own judgment, but for my part, I will simply let my words here, uh, speak for themselves, if I can be permitted to mix a metaphor.

– Chevalier’s thoughts on historical judgment

As the ‘70s entered their final year. Park was slouching towards retirement, perhaps – since the murder of his wife 5 years before he no longer had the same fire, the same drive that had animated him through the early years of his dictatorship. He still continued to issue “emergency decrees,” still had his opposition leaders arrested and tortured regularly, but his heart no longer seemed to be in it.

Still, his regime was increasingly unstable. In the parliamentary elections, despite all that bribery and threats could achieve, his own party won 31% of the vote. All well and good- except Those Bastards in the opposition New Democratic Party won 32%.  In September of that year, as part of the ongoing political spat, he had his old opponent, Kim Dae-jung, chairman of the NDP, who had nearly beaten him in the last sort-of free election of 1971, thrown out of Kim’s own political party. All 66 NDP members of parliament resigned in protest…and soon the protests became nationwide. Park didn’t know it, but he had inadvertently set in motion the chain of events that would lead to his own downfall, and, 9 months later, the bloody showdown in Gwangju. After 18 years, the end of the Winter Republic was at hand.

Next time: the President’s Last Bang!

*It’s another example of a strange phenomenon I’ve noticed the world over: Generally, the northern half of a country is more industrious and prosperous than the southern half. Compare northern Italy with southern Italy. One is the thriving industrial cities of the Po valley, the other is Naples and Sicily and the slow life of the countryside (and the Mafia. Lots and lots of Mafia). Northern Germany: Berlin, Hamburg, the hustle and bustle of modern commerce. Southern Germany: Bavaria, beer gardens, and the Alps. Northern Spain: Busy, thriving Catalonia and Barcelona. Southern Spain: Slower paced, calmer Andalucia. The pattern is true the world over: Northern Europe vs. Southern Europe. The Northern United States vs. the South. Northern China vs. Southern China. And, for a while, North Korea vs. South Korea. I don’t know why this pattern exists – if it’s related to the climate, the work of a strange wizard, or what. But it does seem real.

The official residence of the President of Korea

admittedly both states also wound up in disastrous expansionist wars against coalitions of all their neighbors that ultimately resulted in their own ruin and occupation. It is unknown what Park thought of those particular details.

Kim had bounced in and out of exile, house arrest, and outright imprisonment in the intervening decade, but he stubbornly insisted on continuing his opposition to Park’s regime. Park apparently felt that the murder of such a prominent public figure would cost him too heavily in the public eye, so he contented himself with this (relatively) low-level harassment of Kim. He did take a shot at him once, in 1973, when he had the KCIA kidnap Kim, but the USA (and, according to Kim, a devout Christian, the Good Lord Himself) intervened and Kim fled to Japan for a few years instead.



“this time it’s different” said everyone at all times

I wonder if it’s something as simple as transportation hubs? Eh, as I think about it, probably not, but loosely I was thinking –

Northern Italy had the Po valley, while Southern Italy didn’t really have any comparable highway facilitating commerce. In fact it had the Appenines dividing the country. Southern England has the Thames, northern England nothing really like that. But the American South has lots of broad, slow rivers like the Mississippi, the Alabama, the Tennessee, the York & James – but it stayed agrarian. In Korea, the south has the Han river and the Naktong, the north nothing really like that. So it doesn’t really hold.

I also need to admit that my knowledge of China gets very fuzzy post 1948. I’m pretty good on my classical and medieval China, decent on the Ming and Qing, and know very little about Communist China outside what you read in the newspapers.


since my research budget didn’t include a purchase.

How much we talking here?  Perhaps we could help?


since my research budget didn’t include a purchase.

How much we talking here?  Perhaps we could help?

It’s not on Amazon, but the first DuckDuckGo link gave me a PDF.


“this time it’s different” said everyone at all times

That’s super irritating! Last summer when I was doing most of this research (while living in Gwangju), I combed Google for an online copy or an affordable print version, and came up totally dry except for $200 out of print editions.

I never searched on DuckDuckGo and now I found an pdf on of all places.

There’s so much info that I want to toss out so much and begin rewriting…

well. There will be a second edition, I suppose, suffice to say.


I’m willing to pledge up to $50 towards purchasing this book for Chev.  Anyone else interested?


I’d like to reiterate that this is a truly astounding effortpost, covering a historical topic that I’m very interested in.


Interestingly enough England comes to mind as a notable exception.

Maybe now, but during the industrial revolution, that wasn’t really the case.  The great industrial cities were all in the midlands and north.



I’ve set up all the dominos, now – you have the basic outline of South Korean politics, and you know how central President Park has been to the development of the country. Now it’s time to remove him and start the dominoes falling to May 18th.

So, I present:

Part Five: The President’s Last Bang!

The limousine rolled up to the gates of the Presidential palace as the sun sank down towards the Yellow Sea on October 26, 1979. Long evening shadows stretched over the humming streets and alleyways of Seoul, over the grassy parkland surrounding the palace, and splashed across the walls of a small safehouse. Sim Soo-bong nervously rolled down her window so the guards could inspect her and her friend, Shin Jae-soon. After a cursory glance at the two young women, they waved her through. The young singer was expected, and had been a guest of the president before.

Sim was an up-and-coming singer in the world of Korean entertainment. Of course, in the Winter Republic one couldn’t be too radical an artist, but she had made her name as a trot singer, a rollicking, upbeat Korean music genre just then at the height of its popularity. The daughter and niece of musicians, but unable to gain admission to university as a singer, she had been majoring in Business Administration at Myongji University. The year before, though, at the age of 23, she had won the MBC College Song contest with a song of her own composition, catapulting her to the limelight. She had whirled around the Seoul music industry, and Park himself had become a fan. Since then, she had twice been invited to banquet with the President.

Sim Soo-bong in 1978, making her big break.

The women were ushered through the gates, and the limo rolled to the safehouse. Inside, the dinner party assembled: the two young women, who were to be the evening’s entertainment, Chief Party Secretary Kim Gye-won, KCIA Director Kim Jae-gyu, the President’s bodyguard Cha Ji-Chul, and, of course, Park Chung-hee himself.

The man who had ruled the Republic of Korea for most of two decades was a shrunken shadow of his former self. Gone was the handsome, energetic young officer who had once converted the men sent to arrest him to his cause by the simple force of his charisma. Gone, too, was the powerful, forceful President who had transformed Korea into a modern nation. The years of clinging to power, fending off protests and internal challenges, navigating Korea through the dangerous waters of East Asia in the Cold War, the murder of his wife, had left Park a sad, lonely old man. He filled his days with political struggles against the NDP and cracking down on protestors, and his nights with lush banquets attended by pretty young women he brought in to distract him for a time.

The atmosphere that evening, though, was anything but festive. Sim wasn’t party to internal palace politics, but she could feel the tension in the air. It crackled between KCIA Director Kim and Bodyguard Cha, the two men glaring daggers at each other. Party Secretary Kim nervously tried to keep the peace between the two men, making poor attempts at small talk, but he failed. The President was no help at all – the discussion between the three men kept coming back to politics.

Cha took the lead, angrily berating Director Kim for his appalling failure to crush the ongoing protests in Busan. He pounded the table, saying that tanks and planes were too good for these traitors, these Communists, undermining the regime.

Director Kim flushed, angrily defending his KCIA. He had helped keep Park on his throne for 18 years, working his way through the ranks until he had at last become director 3 years before, and now this joker dared to criticise him? Cha had only come around after Youngsoo’s murder in 1974, but had quickly become the favorite of the President. At every turn he took his opportunities to undermine Kim, including now. It was KCIA’s responsibility to crush the protestors.

“We must be cautious, Mr. President,” Kim said. “Moderation is needed – let my agents handle this. We can soothe the protestors, make them go away, and no blood need be shed.”

“I’ve had enough of your ‘moderation,’” Park snapped. “We’ve been moderate for weeks now, and where has it gotten us? I pay you to deal with these traitors, not coddle them.”

Cha nodded vigorously. “It’s obvious the KCIA is failing us, Mr. President,” he said. “If I had my way, these protestors would all be mowed down with tanks!”

Park nodded. “Listen to Mr. Cha, Kim. Sometimes I think he should be in charge of more than just my security. At least one person here talks sense to me!”

Kim, his jaw clenching, stood up and excused himself. Sim, nervously watching with her friend, was relieved to see him go – maybe the evening would calm down from there. She was, of course, wrong. The argument that she witnessed and later reported was perhaps the most consequential in Korean history.

The tension between Director Kim and Chief Bodyguard Cha, which boiled over tonight, had been building for a long time. In his last days, from a Seoul prison cell, Kim would claim that he had always been a supporter of human rights and democracy. Cha, by contrast, was a brutish lout of a man who would cheerfully run over a college student with a tank if only Park would let him.

Kim was an old friend of Park’s. The two men had come up in the same class at the military academy, and he had ridden his friends’ coattails as Park rose to the very heights of power in the Republic. When Kim was detained by revolutionaries in 1961 because of suspected support for the liberal regime, Park had personally intervened for his release. Kim had then commanded the 6th Division (Park’s old command), then Defense Security Command in 1968, an agency within the military that spied on, well, the rest of the military on behalf of the dictator.

Kim would say that it was the Yushin Constitution that turned him against Park, and that he repeatedly plotted his old friend’s assassination in the 8 years since, but had never been able to bring himself to do it. He privately opposed a rising clique within the military, the Hanaho, a group of officers led by one Chun Doo-hwan which swore fanatic loyalty to the Korean Napoleon. He kept his growing resentment of Park quiet, though, and by 1976 he was in command of the KCIA, the main security body for Park’s regime.

In contrast to Director Kim’s moderate, some would even say soft, ways, Chief Bodyguard Cha was an ass. Appointed in the days following First Lady Yuk’s assassination, Cha had exploited his position near the lonely old man to steadily grow his own turf. He commanded the equivalent of a division in tanks and helicopters to assure the security of his Chief. He manipulated the Presidents’ schedule to cut out rivals – Kim’s KCIA briefings, once the first thing in the morning, were pushed to the late afternoon. And he wasn’t afraid to get his own hands dirty – he once assaulted a provincial governor who had surprised the president while lighting his cigarette.

Kim, left (glasses), Park (seated, center) and Cha (standing, right), the inner circle of Korean power in the second half of the ’70s

Over the next 3 years, the rivalry between the two men sharpened and grew. Kim, once Park’s oldest friend, found himself more and more shut out of power by the growing influence of Cha. In the autumn of 1979, the turf war reached its climax.

Kim’s KCIA had been busily interfering in the internal elections of the opposition NDP, seeking to prevent the rise of a hardliner, Kim Young-sam, to power*. This was all old hat for the KCIA, which had been at this nearly 2 decades, and thus far had managed to keep the opposition mostly toothless and confined to pro forma arguments in the assembly and useless protests by college students. This time, though, Cha decided the KCIA’s efforts weren’t good enough and attempted to interfere in the election on his own. The two security services’ dirty tricks departments collided, and farcically, cancelled each other out. Kim Young-sam was elected and immediately pledged not to cooperate with Park until the Yushin constitution was repealed. Cha blamed the whole debacle on the KCIA.

Director Kim urged moderation, wanting to wait for things to blow over. He had tried to soothe Assemblyman Kim as the crisis escalated, even as Park – at Cha’s urging – arranged Kim’s expulsion from the assembly and invalidated his election. Assemblyman Kim refused, the entire NDP resigned, and the US even withdrew its ambassador. Kim’s home region of Masan and Busan erupted into protest.

Worried, Director Kim travelled to the tumultuous cities – this was the region that had brought down President Rhee 20 years before, after all. He expected to see the usual college idiots in the streets, but instead was confronted with adults – it was a popular uprising. Kim hurried back to Seoul, where Cha continued to whisper in Park’s ear that the whole crisis was a result of KCIA’s weakness and incompetence. Park pledged to shoot protestors in the street if necessary, while Kim privately warned him that the protests might spread to Korea’s other large cities if things were allowed to deteriorate.

By now, the two men, Kim and Cha, despised each other utterly, and could hardly stand to be in the same room (which I imagine made for amusing meetings of Park’s inner circle). The morning of October 26, President Park had attended a ribbon cutting ceremony for a dam and a new TV station (run by the KCIA). The men walked out onto the helicopter pad near the Blue House, where the presidential vehicle sat, rotors humming. Park climbed on board, but as Kim made to enter behind him, Cha, smirking, placed his arm across the door. He had decided that Kim no longer merited riding in the same helicopter as the President. Kim, enraged, muttered a few excuses and abandoned the trip entirely.

Just before they entered the dining room that night, Director Kim had told Secretary Kim that he would get rid of Chief Bodyguard Cha. Secretary Kim had cocked an eyebrow in confusion, but Director Kim said no more.

Inside, the girls joined them, the dinner arrived, and, despite Secretary Kim’s best efforts, the conversation turned again and again to the ongoing protests, and Cha continued to needle Kim again and again, with the old President Park nodding blithely along…and Kim stood up, and stormed out.

It isn’t known, to this day, whether or not Kim planned all the events that followed. Perhaps it was spur of the moment. Perhaps it was the product of a meticulous plot. Perhaps he had intended it, and was waiting for only the right moment. The truth can probably never be known, since all the men involved are now dead. What is known is this:

Director Kim left the dining room, and met with two of his close subordinates, who were in the safehouse the dinner was being held in. They were Park Heung-ju, Kim’s secretary, and his chief agent, Park Seon-ho.“Chief Staff and Deputy Director are here as well,” he told the two men. “Today is the day.” Kim then seized a pistol and marched back into the room, with a look of terrible wrath upon his face.

As the guests cried out in panic, Kim opened fire. Chief Bodyguard Cha was shot in the arm, and he abandoned his charge, fleeing to a nearby bathroom, where he cowered. Park took a bullet to the chest, but he still lived. Kim pursued Cha, but the old pistol jammed. Kim worked furiously at the jam for a few moments, then, glaring at Park, he left the room. He fetched Seon-ho’s service pistol, marched back into the dining room, and threw open the door to the bathroom. Kim took special satisfaction in dispatching his rival with a shot to the abdomen before turning back to Park.

No one knows exactly what he said to the old president, but after an exchange of words, Kim leveled his pistol and executed him with a single bullet to the head. Park Chung-hee, the Korean Napoleon, the man who had ruled Korea for 18 years and transformed the entire country in his image, was no more.

Kim later re-enacted part of the assassination during his trial.

As the firing broke out, Kim’s subordinates raced through the house. Seon-ho took two bodyguards at gunpoint, including a friend of his. He hoped to hold them prisoner, but one of the men made a dive for his gun. Seon-ho cut them both down. Meanwhile, Heung-ju stormed the kitchen with 2 other KCIA agents and killed the remaining bodyguard. Somewhere in all thsi crossfire, the presidential chauffeur outside was also killed, bringing the night’s bodycount to six.

Kim, presumably slightly dazed by what he had just done, ran out of the room (leaving the terrified Sim and Shin cowering by the table). He ordered Chief Secretary Kim to secure the safe house (Kim obeyed more out of habit than anything else) and then raced to the nearby KCIA building. He found the Army Chief of Staff, Jeong Seung-hwa, there. Jeong, one of the highest ranking officers in the military, could be a powerful ally. Kim could place him on the throne as president, and rule from behind the scenes himself. It wasn’t like the KCIA director was spoiled for choice – having just shot dead the President, his bodyguard, and 4 other human beings in a fit of rage he would now either conquer or die. The President’s chair or the hangman’s noose were his only two options remaining.

Jeong Seung-hwa, ROKA Chief of Staff in 1979

 General Jeong had no idea what was happening. He had heard the gunshots, though, and as Kim, breathless, ran in through the door he demanded to know what was going on. Perhaps thinking it tactless to say “Well, I just murdered the man who has ruled our country for 18 years, plus, like, a lot of other people, including that bastard Cha,” Kim instead in a fit of understatement announced that an emergency situation had arisen. He urged Jeong to come with him to impose martial law and get a grip on things (before the ever-dastardly North Koreans invaded, of course).

Jeong, confused and hustled along by Kim, climbed into a car with him and the two sped off for KCIA headquarters. Kim’s base of power was there, and from that location, he could set in motion a quick coup to stabilize his control of Seoul and thereby the rest of the ROK. On the way, though, Kim told Jeong that Park had died, although he failed to mention exactly how that situation came to be (again, imagine how awkward that conversation would have been. Much best to wait, yes).

And then the conspirators (for a conspirator Jeong was now, although he didn’t realize it yet) had to make a decision as their car sped through the nighttime streets of Seoul. Ahead and to the left lay Namsan district (today famous for Namsan tower, which dominates the Seoul skyline) and the KCIA headquarters where Kim usually laired. Further ahead and to the right was Yongsan, where the Korean armed forces were headquartered, Jeong’s usual base of operations. Jeong resisted going to KCIA headquarters – if martial law was declared (and it would have to be, with Park Chung-hee’s body presently cooling in a bloody dining room somewhere), he’d need to be in contact with his army units. The car should go to army headquarters.

Kim resisted, understandably. At KCIA, he’d be surrounded by his minions. Jeong would know exactly what Kim wanted him to know, and he’d have Jeong entirely in his power if the Chief of Staff needed persuading to see things the Director’s way. The opposite would be true at army headquarters – Jeong would be secure in his own power base, with access to his own sources of information, unable to be hustled the way Kim wanted him hustled. But Jeong was the only high-ranking member of the military Kim had access to that night, and if he coudln’t get the military to support or at least stay neutral, then his coup would fail (and he would hang). Kim begged, he pleaded, he even wheedled (a bit), but Jeong was firm. No army, no martial law. No martial law, no coup. So the car turned right and went to army headquarters and thereby Kim Jae-gyu’s fate was sealed.

Prime Minister Choi Kyu-hah, a previous non-entity whose surprising show of spine will one day play a decisive role in the history of his country. Not yet, though.

Chief Party Secretary Kim, meanwhile, had been left back at the safehouse with all the dead people (and two terrified college students) lying around. Secretary Kim, who had either done this sort of thing before or else possessed an admirable ability to keep his head in a crisis, organized a cleanup, quickly took the two surviving witnesses (besides himself) into custody, and sped the Presidents’ body to a nearby army hospital and ordered the doctors to save him at all costs. My sources note that he specifically did not reveal the man’s identity to the doctors, but it seems that would hardly be necessary. Then he raced to the Prime Minister’s office, Choi Kyu-ha, to tell him everything that he had seen.

At Army Headquarters, Director Kim was busy spinning a thrilling tale of North Korean commandos, who had burst into the KCIA safehouse (no doubt casting serious doubt on the competency of the KCIA in the process) and gunned down President Park and Chief Bodyguard Chabefore, er, vanishing into the night. Anyway, no time for questions, it was essential that Jeong declare martial law and control the city before the assassins escaped and the North took advantage of the confusion. Jeong would not be stampeded into anything, though, and he insisted on contacting the Prime Minister first, as the only real “civilian” authority left in the wake of the President’s death.

Here things began to unravel for Director Kim. He may have trusted to Secretary Kim’s loyalty, or hoped to reach Kim later to tell him the “official” story, but his need to go after Jeong first, and then allowing Jeong to take him to army headquarters, had made that impossible. And by not murdering Secretary Kim along with everyone else, he had inadvertently allowed a narrative to escape that would challenge his own: namely, that Director Kim himself had murdered the President and Cha (and, it should not be forgotten, a bunch of other people!) in a fit of rage. But why would Director Kim have murdered Secretary Kim? His resentment and frustration were directed at Cha, and the way Cha had turned his old friend Park against him. He had no quarrel with the party. And thus the mercy of Kim proved his undoing.

The Chief of Staff left Kim at army headquarters and hurried to the side of Prime Minister Choi. There, an emergency meeting of the cabinet was convened. Jeong heard the entire story from the Prime Minister, and his face grew stiff, and cold, and he knew what he must do.

Kim had a strong base of power in the KCIA, which was the most feared organization in the ROK at that time as the primary enforcers of Park’s regime. But Kim was cut off from most of the KCIA, and vulnerable. Jeong asked Kim to meet with him at a secluded area, outside army headquarters. Kim still knew he needed Jeong’s support, and he, fatally, consented. When he arrived at the meeting spot, Kim found not the Army Chief of Staff waiting for him, but armed military police to take him into custody.

Jeong acted quickly to neutralize the power of the KCIA. He turned to the only other internal security apparatus the ROK had, the Security Command under Chun Doo-hwan, and ordered him to investigate the incident.

This is the spark that eventually explodes in Gwangju, 9 months later.

Remember, Chun Doo-hwan was head of a clique of young officers fanatically loyal to Park. He was enraged at hsi mentor’s death, and he was ruthless in dismantling the KCIA. The Security Command, which you will also recall was the agency charged with keeping tabs on the military itself, was perfectly positioned to move efficiently through the upper reaches of power. Kim and his handful of minions were all swiftly arrested, tortured, and, ultimately, for most, executed. In so doing Chun Doo-hwan demolished the grip KCIA had over internal Korean politics, and at the same time established his own, new power base. While Chief of Staff Jeong moved tentatively toward civilian rule, Chun and his coterie found themselves with a sterling opportunity to preserve Park’s legacy and continue the rule of the military.

As for Director Kim, he was imprisoned and tortured, naturally. Most of the information contained in this narrative emerged from the sensational trial of Kim Jae-gyu over the next six months.

Kim argued that he acted out of a hither-to unsuspected love of democracy in his trial. He claimed that many times he had attempted to or thought about arresting or murdering Park, but each time had backed down. He also revealed long-held contacts with opposition leaders (like his attempt to smooth things over iwth Kim Young-sam just before this crisis). He also claimed the American CIA had backed him, which is not as implausible as I would like.

Chun Doo-hwan, meanwhile, somehow kept a straight face as he declared that the assassination was clearly the product of a long-running conspiracy by Kim to murder the President and subvert democracy. He cheerfully ignored such objections as the fact that Kim clearly had no plan at all for after the assassination, the fact that he’d had to borrow a gun to carry it out, the fact that he vented his rage and resentment towards Cha aloud while shooting him, and the fact that he hadn’t even given his own agents like Park Seon-ho more than about 5 minutes’ warning.

But it’s good to be the dictator, and dictator Chun Doo-hwan was. Kim and his fellow conspirators were quickly sentenced, one after another. Colonel Park heung-ju, Kim’s secretary, was easiest to deal with. As a member of the military he could be summarily convicted and executed by firing squad, which he was on March 6, 1980. The remaining conspirators – Director Kim, his agent Park Seon-ho, the driver Yoo Seong-ok, head of safehouse security Lee Ki-ju (convicted presumbly on the grounds that he was fucking terrible at his job), and Kim Tae-won, a security agent who tried to help the whole affair look like a Nork attack, were all hanged on May 24, 1980, neatly closing the affair.

Except that on May 24, 1980, the Chun administration had much, much larger problems on their minds – namely, the revolt against their rule that had broken out the week earlier in Gwangju, on May 18, 1980. We’ll get there.

As for the college students, Sim and Shin, both women were imprisoned for around a month while the authorities sorted out what the hell had happened (and what the hell they would tell the public, notably not the same thing). They were released more or less unharmed apart from the psychological trauma, but Sim was banned from television until 1984 (who knew what she might say if given a platform?). Her career nevertheless survived and she went on to modest fame and success. Forever and always, though, she is most well known as one of the most intimate witnesses of the end of the Winter Republic.

As for Chief of Staff Jeong and Security Command chief Chun, the two men found themselves unexpectedly at the apex of Korean politics, a situation neither had dreamed of even a week before. Now they had to sort out the pecking order between them, and the fallout from their confrontation is the final, irrevocable step on the road to the Gwangju Uprising.

Next time: The War of the Stars! 

*There are only a few surnames in Korea. By far the most common are Kim, Park, and Lee. I apologize for any confusion which results.

No relation to each other or to the President. See previous note.

The fact that those just happened to be two people that Kim really fucking hated was purely a coincidence, of course.

The events of October 26, 1979, were satirized in the Korean black comedy film The President’s Last Bang! from which I have of course drawn my title. It’s a good movie and fairly accurate to events – accurate enough that the maker won a defamation suit brought against him by the children of President Park (one of those children was President of Korea, no less). Here’s the trailer. I recommend the whole film if you can find it:


Interestingly enough England comes to mind as a notable exception.

Maybe now, but during the industrial revolution, that wasn’t really the case.  The great industrial cities were all in the midlands and north.

My only-half-joking explanation is that James Watt invented the steam engine, Adam Smith invented capitalism, and ever since the nations of the world have prospered to the extent that their climate resembled Scotland’s because that’s what encouraged Scotsmen to actually come live in your country and show you how it’s done (and probably eventually give your country back to you).


Only real history can be that convoluted.  It’s too complicated to have any simple moral or single opinion.  I want to feel sorry for Park, and I want to celebrate his demise, and I want to celebrate his accomplishments.  The same for just about everyone in that room.


Part 6: The War of the Stars

The six weeks between the assassination of Park Chung-hee and the coup of December 12 were the most uncertain Korea had faced since Syngman Rhee had fled to Hawaii, 20 years before. Then, the faltering and uncertain Second Republic had been overthrown by General Park. Now, the upper reaches of power were split between two men: Jeong Seung-hwa, Army Chief of Staff, and Chun Doo-hwan, head of the Security Command of internal military police. That November saw a short but sharp power struggle between the two generals, “the war of the stars,”referencing the generals’ stars each wore on their shoulder, to determine the future of Korea.

You know you can just *buyvintage portraits of former ROKA Chiefs of Staff on Amazon? Get ’em while they’re hot!

Jeong Seung-hwa had been offered the presidency by Kim Jae-gyu, the Director of KCIA and assassin of President Park, but instead Jeong had gone to the prime minister, Choi Kyu-hah. Now, under the Yushin Constitution, all power had been invested with the president and the prime minister was mostly useful for keeping seats warm, and accordingly the office was held by a series of non-entities. Prime Minister Choi was another grey and forgettable bureaucrat, or he should have been, but he actually had the temerity to show a spine now that Park was safely six feet under the earth and no longer capable of objecting. Jeung and Choi had collaborated, seen Director Kim arrested, and made noises about possibly, maybe, eventually but not too soon, having real and open democratic elections in the country.

In the other camp was Chun Doo-hwan. This joker had graduated from the academy a few years after Park, and in the wake of Park’s coup, no doubt sniffing which way the wind was blowing, he had led a series of demonstrations in support of the new dictator. Chun’s toadyism was rewarded with a series of military commands, and he even saw shots fired in anger in Vietnam.Chun led a faction of officers, nicknamed the Hanahoe, “Group of One,” fanatically devoted to Park’s vision of authoritarian rule. Most of the members of this secret club were Chun’s own drinking buddies and cronies from his rise up through the ranks. By 1979, despite the best efforts of KCIA Director Kim (who trusted Chun about as much as he trusted North Korean promises of peace and reconciliation if the South would just see the light on Communism), Chun was in command of the Security Command , one of the quietly most powerful positions in the army due to its role of policing the army and preventing coups. In theory, Security Command was checked by the KCIA, which was also in charge of preventing coups, but in the wake of the assassination Chun had arrested Kim and seized power over that agency, too. It was an extremely dangerous situation for the Republic, one that Choi and Jeong were not blind to.

Like I said, Joeng had made noises about “the Yushin system must end,” and had moved to exclude “politically minded” officers from positions of power. He steadily worked his way through the ranks, re-assigning or demoting officers he considered insufficiently reliable, while Choi attempted to actually move towards becoming something like a leader for the country. Choi won provisional elections on December 6, 1979, to finish out Park’s term, and Jeong felt secure enough to move against Chun himself. Two days later, on December 8, he quietly spoke with the Minister of Defense about getting Chun reassigned to the Eastern Coast Guard command, a safely backwater assignment if there ever was one.

Rumors reached Chun of his upcoming free trip to the chilly Taebaek mountains, and surprisingly he did not react well to the prospect of being exiled from the wealth and power of Seoul to the frozen, rugged shoreline to the east. With his strong power base in the city, he moved quickly. He immediately spoke with a key division head and made a completely plausible-and-definitely-not-made-up-on-the-spot case why Jeong was clearly mad with power and needed to be arrested:

1)He had been friendly with Kim Jae-gyu, the presidential assassin (highly suspicious if you ask me)

2)He had been “present” at Park’s assassination (in that yes, he was in the general neighborhood)

3)He had received money from Kim at one point (imagine the KCIA clandestinely spending money)

4)He had recommended that some of Kim’s murder charges be reduced (covering for his buddy, eh?)

5)he had asked that the murder trial be quickly concluded, if possible (trying to subvert the wheels of justice, eh? Well, they may grind fine, but they grind slowly, buddy, and you’ll sit there and like it, by Buddha)

6)Also some of the officers just plain didn’t like him (no I am not kidding this was seriously proposed as a reason for the arrest of the Chief of Staff of the entire Korean army).

With these facts laid out in front of him, presumably accompanied by lots of suggestive eyebrow waggling, the 9th Division commander agreed that it only made sense to arrest Jeong. The date was set for December 12. In the meantime, Chun went to his buddies in the Hanahoe and quickly recruited their support for his scheme. Through his friendship with park, most of the upper ranks of the military were seeded with his supporters, and he could pull upon several combat divisions, paratroop brigades, and capital guards for his plot.

The Hanahoe pauses for a rare group photo

On the appointed day, Chun and a couple flunkies entered army headquarters using the pre-arranged password “A birthday party in the house,” and got the festivities started. Two officers hurried to Jeong’s residence, arriving just before 7, where they unaccountably faffed about for 25 minutes before getting around to telling Jeong that they had a presidential order to arrest him to record his “statement concerning Kim Jae-gyu.”  Jeong inexplicably grew upset at this and demanded to speak to the president personally about this arrest order, which as you can imagine would have been super awkward since of course President Choi had made no such order (and in fact hadn’t yet even been informed of the arrest in progress). When the officers refused, Jeong called his aide into the room with some of his guards. A short but sharp firefight broke out between the arresting squad and Jeong’s reinforcements, and Jeong’s aide was killed. The conspirators were victorious when one of their squad, no doubt incredibly excited to act out a scenario he’d rehearsed many times in his head during the long hours of boring guard duty, blasted his M16 through a window before crashing through himself to get the drop on General Jeong. Jeong was taken into custody.

Meanwhile, Chun and some other bigwigs headed to President Choi’s official residence and got around to asking permission to arrest Jeong. And here their troubles began: Choi refused to grant that permission. That made matters a tad delicate, since of course the conspirators had already gone ahead and done the thing. Choi argued that such a move needed the consent of the defense minister. Chun pleaded and persisted, but the Official Chair-warmer had grown into his role as President and held out, demanding to see the minister. He also ordered Chun to return to his post. Chun shrugged and casually ordered his men to disarm the presidential guard and blockade the President in his home until he saw reason.

The Blue House, official residence of the President of Korea

He rounded up some reinforcements – impressive looking military commanders, a handful of privates with big guns to look intimidating, and then stormed back into the President’s office to try and strongarm him into legitimizing hte arrest, claiming that all the senior military officers (look, I went to a lot of time and effort to round up all these generals and colonels and you will respect that!) were behind him. Unaccountably, Choi’s backbone held, even with the guns being waved around in his office, and he still refused. Chun Doo-hwan was now in a very awkward position of his own making. He couldn’t exactly un-arrest Jeong, but to persist would make him guilty of mutiny. His attempt to neutralize General Jeong would have to escalate to a full-blown coup.

Around the capital, other members of the military were catching wind of the situation. Jeong’s deputy, Vice-Chief of Staff Yun Seong-min ordered Chun and his cohorts to return to their posts, and while they were at it to release his boss. Chun ignored him. Officers around Seoul started to hurry to their posts.

By 10: 30, more than 3 hours of bluster had failed to sway Choi. In desperation, the coup leaders knuckled under to his demands and phoned the Defense Minister, asking him to come over, hoping – I guess? – that he would legitimize their move. The Defense Minister hadn’t been born yesterday, despite Chun’s assumptions, and refused to come, instead saying that Jeong had to be released. At that point, Chun concluded approximately, “Fuck it,” and ordered in the paratroopers.

The conspirators’ armed muscle flooded into the streets as the clock turned to December 13, and quickly seized most of the key military headquarters and took everyone who wasn’t on board with the program into custody. By dawn the citizens of Seoul woke up to tanks in the streets and Chun Doo-hwan firmly in control of the levers of government. He and his buddies, showing the imagination military officers are famous for, began styling themselves the New Military Power. The entire coup had taken only about 10 hours from start to finish.

Or had it?

In later years, historians would call this the slowest coup in recorded history. It took more than 8 months for Chun to secure power, because there was an unexpected snag in hsi plan: Fucking Choi had a backbone.

Choi had just been elected president, and actually commanded some level of popular support, more or less. Furthermore, the illusion of the Republic of Korea as a democracy was critical to maintaining the vital alliance with the United States. So while Jeong was neatly squirreled away in a prison for his role in the assassination of President Park, Chun couldn’t just arrest or shoot Choi out of hand.

It wasn’t that Choi actually mattered. The entire country was under martial law, and Chun was effectively running things. But without Choi, Chun lacked any sort of legitimacy, and he needed that legitimacy to stabilize his rule. As long as Choi held out, Chun’s regime teetered atop a volcano of public protest and outrage. So, Chun worked quietly to undermine and sideline Choi, until he could be neatly placed aside.

The New Military Power worked all through that winter and spring to consolidate the new regime, the 5th Republic.The army’s information warfare section was expanded and initiated “K-Operations,” a policy aimed at suppressing the public’s desire for democratization and increasing their desire for safety, playing up the North Korean threat and the threat from internal subversion. Another, more significant measure was “True Heart” training.

Chun had seen what a friggin’ mess of things college students could make, if given the opportunity, and he was sick to death of the kid glove tactics the police employed that let things get out of hand. He hated images of long lines of police standing around with their thumbs in their belts while idiot college kids burned down the city. If he’d been in charge there would have been no Bu-Ma protests, no sir! Hell, there wouldn’t have been an April Revolution, like the one that brought down President Rhee. Chun would avoid their mistakes.

He took his most reliable troops, the paratrooper brigades that had won him the capital, and started training them in new counter-protest tactics. These new skullbreakers were taught to charge in and aggressively break up demonstrations. They’d punch the protestors right in the mouth and then kick their asses again as they ran off home. The True Heart units would harass and continually break up new groups of protestors, take ringleaders into custody, and prevent any mass movement from organizing. They were given swanky new batons, ash, about 70 centimeters long, and fully capable of bashing in the head of some Physics major from Seoul University with a minimum of fuss. Any demonstrators they caught would be stripped, tossed in a truck, and shipped off to a prison to be roughed up for a few more days before they were turned loose, having learned a very valuable lesson about Respect For Authority.

There was a certain sense of urgency around the True Heart program, since Chun had a lot of angry Physics majors in the streets in those days.

Students had long been a source of headaches for which ever authoritarian regime was the latest to slouch into Seoul. Rhee had been toppled by protests over the death of a student, and the little brats had been such a headache for Park that in 1975 he banned student organizations altogether and imposed his own program, the Student Defense Corps. That had gone by the wayside with his death, though, and the next generation began to once again slink back out onto the streets.

Tentatively, starting around April in Seoul and then spreading to other universities nationwide, the students started such radical measures as having Student Council elections and suggesting that perhaps all male college students shouldn’t be required to give several years of their lives to the military. The New Military Regime denounced this behavior as obviously unpatriotic and said that the students “lacked security consciousness,” since clearly the thin blue line of drafted gawky teenagers was the only thing holding back the ravening hordes of Communist supermen to the North. Confrontations and clashes between the kids and the military became increasingly common.

The students tried to avoid criticisms that they were “destablizing” the country and opening a window for an invasion by limiting their protests mostly to campus. But at the same time, their demands grew from the modest request that they be allowed to elect their own student governments to full blown demands for the democratization of the country. Choi still refused to give his assent to the New Military Regime, and that refusal fueled the students. The protests spread and became general in universities across the country as April turned to May.

It was a time of hope for the students. Choi still talked about democracy. For many of them, it was the first time in their lives they had known any regime except that of Park Chung-hee. Anything seemed possible – even a democratic future for Korea. They started calling it the “Seoul Spring,” in memory of another hopeful springtime twelve years before, in Prague, 1968.

Of course, that spring had ended bloodily.

The protesters demanded an end to martial law and that power be rested from the hands of Director Chun (who had, in the meantime, resigned from the army so that he could be appointed director of the KCIA, now reformed in his image). And all the while various units completed True Heart training and were quietly spread around the country.

The first two weeks of May saw things rapidly approaching a climax. 27 student groups from universities across Seoul met quietly, and then returned to their campuses with a unified plan of action. 70,000 students poured into the streets (I know, I can hardly believe it, either – students who pay attention to their student council!), marching and chanting slogans calling for the downfall of Chun and the ‘remnants of the Yushin system.’ The next day, May 15, 100,000 students joined – and the protests were going nationwide. Every city with a major university saw students surging into the streets.

Hundreds of thousands gather in front of Seoul Station, May 15, 1980

However, the general population was reluctant to join in. With no popular support, the students for once in their lives did the prudent thing and toned things down. May 16 and 17 were quiet, mostly, as the students quietly withdraw and plotted their next move in their ongoing confrontation with Chun.

And it was here that Chun completely screwed the pooch. After more than 6 months of wrangling, he had had it with Choi’s continued refusal to get with the program. The growing flame of the student movement finally ran out his patience. At an emergency meeting on May 17, he and his cronies in the New Military Power sat down with ‘president’ Choi. Demonstrating the growing unrest in the streets, Chun browbeat Choi into accepting an extension of martial law: Now campuses, too, after their brief flirtation of freedom following the Park assassination, would be firmly placed under the control of the military. True Heart units were even then en route to every university in Seoul, as well as detachments sent to major universities in the provinces. The universities would be closed until all that could be sorted out, the ringleaders of the little jerks in the streets would be arrested, oh, as would most of the ringleaders of the political opposition in the National Assembly, who had been gleefully making hay of the whole situation. Oh, and Chun was fed up with Choi’s antics: He would resign as soon as things calmed down and Chun would become president.

Satisfied, Chun left the meeting, which had been effectively a legal coup. The longest coup in the history of the world, stretching from December 12, 1979 to May 18, 1980, was over. He went to bed that night satisfied that he cut the head off the student movement, that his True Heart units would mop up any lingering dead-enders, and his political opposition was effectively neutered.

When he woke up, he learned that some jokers down in Gwangju apparently hadn’t gotten the memo:

*Not to be confused with “the Star War,” which I believe is a popular science-fiction franchise created by George Lucas.

After the United States, Korea had the second-largest commitment of troups to the defense of South Vietnam, more than 300,000 men. They accomplished little beyond padding the pockets of a gaggle of corrupt REMFs and depopulating several backwater provinces, but in fairness that’s about all the Americans managed anyway so we can’t be too harsh on them.

Somehow Chun delivered this briefing with a straight face, despite the fact that Kim Jae-gyu had literally offered Jeong the Presidency already and Jeong had turned it down, and that it had been Jeong himself who ordered Chun to investigate and arrest (not necessarily in that order) Director Kim.

He would at last be released 17 years later and cleared of all charges. Jeong passed away in 2002.

Syngman Rhee had led the First Republic. The Second had been the brief-lived liberal regime before Park’s coup. Park had led the Third Republic, then after proclaiming the Yushin Constitution the Fourth.


Part Seven: City of Light

More than 200 miles south of Seoul, the Taebaek mountains, the great spinal mountain range that runs down the entire eastern coast of the peninsula, throw out a massive spur. A line of monoliths leaves the company of the larger chain and meanders off into a dead end in southwestern Korea. This baby range, the Soebaek mountains, divides the southwest into a land of broad valleys separated from each other by the high mountains. The hills are high and forested, dotted with old temples and monasteries as Buddhists sought to distance themselves from the world. The valleys are broad and terraced, covered in rice paddies and small farms. It is the sleepiest, most rural province in the Republic of Korea. This is Jeolla province.

Gwangju & Mudeungsan, 2020

Gwangju is beautiful in May. The city sits in a bowl, surrounded on nearly all sides by mountains, except the southwest, where the Yeongsan runs (more like meanders gently) off to the Yellow Sea. The trees bloom with cherry blossoms, the city’s many parks and campuses are covered in flowers, and the air is pleasant and warm (when it’s not weighed down with humidity rolling in from the sea, that it is). To the southeast looms the large mountain of Mudeungsan, one of Korea’s tallest, which dominates the city’s skyline. By that May of 1980 Gwangju had grown into the provincial capital and was home to a thriving countercultural scene. The local art was vibrant and not strictly in line with the tastes of the Winter Republic – but as the city on the peninsula most distant from the capital Gwangju was left largely in a state of benign neglect, as long as they didn’t abuse the privilege too flagrantly. In keeping with Koreans’ love of strong education, there were many universities dotting the streets of Gwangju. Of those, the two most prominent were Chonnam University, just north of the provincial capital offices in the city center, and Chosun University, which sat further to the southeast, in the shadow of Mudeungsan.

The students had been enthusiastic participants in the Seoul Spring of 1980. The fall of President Park and the brief promise of democratic freedom were perfectly in keeping with the unruly spirit of the city. The students began to organize after the December 12 coup. Initially their radical activism was confined to such rebellious activities as organizing their own student government, and demanding the resignation of certain professors implicated in the Yushin system.Chonnam elected a young law student to lead the student body, Park Gwan Hyeon. I do believe that most political troubles in the world ultimately stems from the actions of young law students.

As the Chun regime battled to maintain its legitimacy that spring, rumors reached the students early in May that the New Military Power was plotting to fully overthrow Acting President Choi and seize power for themselves. The students decided that this demanded a response from them, military dictatorship or no, and the Council decided on fixing the next week – May 8 to May 14th – as a solid week of rallies in favor of democracy, in solidarity with the hundreds of thousands protesting in Seoul. For 7 days, they would confine their actions to campus – which in their naievete the students imagined would defuse potential government charges that they were “destabilizing” the country and opening the door to the Norks – and then on the 8th day, May 15, they would peacefully march down the road a mile or two to the provincial office.

The week of the rallies arrived, and Chonnam and Chosun students banded together, issuing a joint declaration demanding the end of martial law and pleading to resist any school closures. There was one short confrontation with the Gwangju police, but the officers decided discretion was the better part of valor and backed down. Energized, thousands more students poured out to join the protests.

May 14, a Wednesday, arrived.The enthusiastic students, impatient and not wanting to wait a full day for the off-campus march, successfully lobbied the Council, and at 2: 00 that day 7,000 college kids (a drop in the bucket compared to the 100,000 that would march in Seoul the next day) flooded out the gates, through the cordon of riot police. An hour later they were in front of the Provincial Hall.

The former provincial hall, with fountain and Guemnamno. The traffic circle mentioned below is long gone today.

The provincial hall, center of the administrative officers for Jeolla in those days, sat in front of a large traffic circle. The main street in Gwangju, Gueumnamno, is a long, straight boulevard lined with trees and tall buildings that runs straight to the office. As it approaches, Guemnamno swerves to the left and flows around the hall. Right where the street curves there was a large traffic circle, and in the center of the circle was a fountain. The student demonstrators seized the fountain as a handy speaking platform and spent a while exhorting each other with slogans and rousing speeches in favor of democracy. The citizens of Gwangju, though, were unswayed by the enthusiasm of the young people, and kept away. Eventually, the last speaker’s voice grew tired, and he hopped off the fountain so the group to could wander home. They vowed, though, that if the government tried to close the university they would meet in front of their gates and again march on the provincial hall.

The next day, Thursday, May 15, they did the proper march which they had planned all along. More than 20,000 students and professors from the two universities again trooped off campus and marched to the traffic circle plaza. Everyone agreed it was such a rousing success that they ought to repeat it, and so on the 16th the stunt was repeated – this time fully 50,000 students and professors joined in. That’s half as many as marched in Seoul, in a city a tenth the size of the capital.

As night fell on the 16th, the massive crowd trooped off in a torchlit procession (my sources do not tell me exactly where they processed, but a likely candidate is a return march to Chonnam’s main gates). The police, badly outnumbered, had not interfered, but rather had supported the marchers, kept the streets clear, ensured there were no violent incidents, and in turn had been treated to water and refreshments by the marching students. Concluding that the whole affair had been a splendid victory, the Council decided to sit quietly through the 17th and the 18th to await the New Military Power’s response.

It was not long in coming.

Saturday, May 17th – as previously described, the streets of Seoul were quiet as the student leaders there were worried about the confrontational turn things were taking with the police. Meanwhile, Chun Doo-hwan and his cronies met and privately resolved that the time was ripe to put down the student movement once and for all. While the students in Gwangju rested on their laurels, orders flashed out from Seoul, and quietly army units began to mobilize around the city. In Seoul, the universities were raided, ringleaders rounded up, and opposition leaders – including Gwangju favorite son Kim Dae-jung – were arrested. It was essentially a second coup. Chun would seize power in a single, stunning blow before the opposition could organize, smash the brats in the streets, and then work out a new Constitution with himself as President For Life.

That night, special army units – including the True Heart paratroopers, specially trained in new anti-protest tactics – left their barracks. They waited for the cover of darkness, presumably intending to confront the students with a fait accompli. By 2: 00 am, Chonnam, Chosun, and most of Gwangju’s other universities were occupied. Prominent members of the Student Council who could be identified and located were rounded up, while others caught wind somehow or another and fled into hiding. Like Seoul, the student movement in Gwangju was now leaderless and totally unable to respond to Chun’s coup.

Or…well, that was the plan. But as anyone who’s ever tried to plan anything knows, no plan survives contact with the enemy. It turned out the Gwangju student movement didn’t need leaders.

Sunday, May 18, a bright, sunny, beautiful spring day in the city, dawned. That morning a small group of students had entered Chonnam campus and tried to access the library. Soldiers turned them away and coldly informed them that campus was closed. Confused and frightened, the students withdrew a short distance to the main gate. Soon, a small knot of students gathered there and began talking among themselves, trying to work out what was going on. It was around this time that the commander in charge of the troops – the 33rd Battalion of the 7th Paratrooper Brigade – decided to put a stop to things before they went too far. He ordered the students to disperse.

It was about 9: 30. The students, facing this paratrooper telling them that campus was closed, to go home, remembered the glorious days at the fountain the week before. The plan had been – if campus was closed, gather at the main gate at ten. They glanced at the clock, and refused.

The commander grew increasingly angry and more florid in his gestures. He warned of dire consequences if the students refused to disperse. But the kids were unmoved, and they were being reinforced. Others remembered the 10: 00 am meetup, and more and more students were flowing in. By now, there were between 100-500 there (my sources differ on the actual numbers at the initial confrontation).

Confrontation at Chonnam University, May 18

In 1980, just behind the entrance of Chonnam University lay a small lake or pool, crossed by a wide bridge. The students used this as a useful place to gather and stand in defiance of the several hundred armed paratroopers confronting them. As their numbers swelled past 10 am, they began to sing and chant slogans. They had successfully stood up to the police all the week before. Things had been peaceable and friendly. Why should now be different?

These were not friendly provincial cops, though. These were not men drawn from the peaceful city, who knew the students, who knew the professors, who lived and worked alongside them in Gwangju every day. These were paratroopers, hard men selected for their loyalty to the regime and their ruthless aggression. More, they had spent the last 6 months in True Heart training: to meet protests with sudden, sharp violence, to break up and drive off the malcontents, and squash any opposition flat before it could organize. The student gathering was all the incentive the 33rd Battalion needed to put its new training into practice for the first time.

When the students started singing, the soldiers drew their batons and charged.

*The Korean historical war epic The Admiral: Roaring Currents covers this time and place in Jeolla history.

Park Chung-hee’s system of political oppression in the ROK.

No, I don’t know why the students decided their week of resistance would run from Thursday to Wednesday either.

If only he knew



This has become un-stickied; pinging @Johan Larson and @Cassander to request re-stickying.

Effort posts only stay sticky for five days.


I think the idea here is that since this is actually a series of effortposts, the five day clock shouldn’t start running until the last post in the series is made…


it doesn’t much matter – I just thought it’d be better to keep everything contained to one thread, instead of posting each new chapter separately every day.


I think since this is a series, there’s a good case to be made to just sticky it with them and leave it until complete.  I get that if there’s an automatic system that needs to be overridden that this may not be worth it, but if it’s a manual process I think an exception would be appropriate.


I suppose if it’s not finished yet, we can just keep bumping it up manually.


Well, I’ll keep rolling here. The Uprising is in full swing, we should finish in another week or so.

Part Eight: The Student Uprising

It takes a special sort of man to become a paratrooper. You need to be strong, to carry the amount of gear necessary to survive jumping into an environment with lots of bad guys who are very unhappy with your presence and more than willing to solve that particular problem with lots and lots of bullets. You need to be independent minded, since there’s a fair chance your commanding officer will land three counties over and now whose job is it to decide what to do about the squad of Nazis hiding on the other side of the hedgerow, eh? You need to be slightly crazy, since you are, after all, jumping out of an airplane armed only with what you can carry and essentially surrounding yourself with armed and very unhappy enemies and basically just hoping that the ground guys will get to you before you’re all shot or captured (which will take a week, tops).

The paratrooper was developed in the days leading up to the Second World War, as strategists racked their brains to come up with ways to avoid the bloody stalemate of the Western Front. Some egghead had the bright idea of flinging guys out of airplanes to raise hell generally behind enemy lines. Possibly to his great surprise, men actually volunteered for the duty. Initially, paratroopers were initially used mainly as distraction forces in support of larger offensives, the theory being that a lunatic dropping out of the sky and doing his best to murder you was generally pretty distracting.The Nazis used paratroopers to launch surprise attacks on defended islands like the Netherlands behind its flood barriers in 1940 and in Crete in 1941. After this, their use of paratroops generally fell off, for the significant reason that most of Germany’s paratroopers were now dead. Oops. The Allies made somewhat more cautious use of their paratroops, using them to pave the way for attacks in Sicily, in Normandy, and in the Netherlands.

Paratroopers in Holland, 1944

Following the war, the advent of the helicopter made the continued use of paratroops more or less obsolete,and most countries abandoned their use. Not the Republic of Korea, though. Initially, they hadn’t had the helicopters, and Park Chung-hee had seized power partially through the use of paratroopers. He had a fondness for the units, then, and made the ROKA paratroop brigades a sort of Praetorian Guard. Chun Doo-hwan employed them in the same fashion.

Thus, in Gwangju that May, the troops charged with occupying the universities were the men of the 33rd and 35th Battalions, 7th Parachute Brigade. The Brigade fielded 885 men in 2 battalions, to pacify a march that the previous day boasted 50,000 participants. Now, the troopers were good, but I’m not certain they were 50 to 1 good. Standard Korean doctrine said one policeman could handle about 4 protestors. But the Brigade was confident. They were large, tough, well-trained, aggressive, and just slightly crazy. They had been trained for months to go after protestors like rabid dogs, and now they were given the go-ahead to break faces. Putting them opposite unarmed but stupidly brave college students was a recipe for bloodshed.

This was the students’ first encounter with True Heart anti-riot tactics and they were shocked that their peaceful march was so swiftly met with aggressive violence. The soldiers of the 7th charged in, striking out with batons, rifle butts, even bayonets. The exact numbers of student protestors I do not know – some of my sources have said ~200, others have said as many as 500.However, the 366 men of the 33rd battalion had more than enough numbers to do the job. There was brief but bloody fighting and the students were driven off, with 10 injured.

The first confrontation at Chonnam. I have to say, it looks more like 500 or even more than the reported 1000 in some sources. This might also be from the confrontations in the week prior, and those would be riot police instead of soldiers.

The word “injured” can gloss over a lot there. This isn’t a black eye or a bruise on the knee. The paratroopers’ method was to grab their victim, beat students over the head with a heavy ash baton about 18 inches in length, and then give them a solid kicking for good measure once they were on the ground. The May 18 Archive says that blood literally “pooled in the streets” in the wake of the martial law forces.

If the students had stayed scattered, things might have ended there. Chun’s coup of May 18 would go down as just another dimly remembered episode in a long history dimly remembered authoritarian episodes in the history of the ROK. The soldiers had occupied universities in every city in Korea. In none of them did they face any resistance at all. Except in Gwangju. The new tactics there had scattered the protests inside an hour, though.

Except the students didn’t stay scattered.

As they fled, news spread by word of mouth to regroup at Gwangju Station, the city’s main train terminal a few blocks north and west of the campus. Several hundred students were already gathering at the plaza there. Around noon, May 18, the victims of the initial confrontation at Chonnam arrived, bringing word of the bloody confrontation. The students were shocked at the aggressive tactics of the military, and decided to carry out another protest march to the Provincial Office on Guemnamno. They set out and marched south, then turned east along the boulevard to head towards the Provincial Office a few blocks away.

In the meantime, a few blocks west of the demonstrators, bus after bus full of army troops was pulling into the Gwangju Bus Terminal. The terminal sits squarely between City Hall in western downtown Gwangju and the Provincial office, in the eastern portion. Early that afternoon, Linda Sue Lewis, an American law student, arrived at the station.

She looked around in bewilderment at the masses and masses of soldiers filling the station as she arrived. Lewis had been living in Gwangju for several months, studying the actions of Korean civil court judges as part of a study abroad program. She lived with a family in a small home in the city and she had never seen so many troops – not even in Seoul, where she was newly arrived from. She had gone there to give a lecture on Friday and had seen the massive student demonstrations, and was sad to leave the center of political action in Korea to return to her peaceful southwestern city. But all these soldiers made her uneasy. She heard rumors of unrest a few blocks away, near the Provincial Office, and she nervously hurried home.

Also at the bus station that afternoon was a young man, Kim Gyeong-chul. In his photos, Kim appears as a serious, dignified young man of 28. He wears a suit and a dress shirt, and his hair is neatly cut – perhaps longer than the fashion today, but not the wild manes many of the students sported. In his day job, he was a shoe salesman. His free time he spent volunteering as administrative officer for the Gwangju Committee of the Deaf & Mute. Kim himself was deaf and mute, since childhood – the result of a bad reaction to some medicine he had been given.

A portrait of Kim Gyeong-chul

Kim was at the bus station that day to see off his brother in law, who had been visiting from Seoul. It’s possible he also looked around, and saw the numbers of soldiers pouring in. But Kim didn’t head straight home. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, and he paused for lunch with some friends first. He then headed down Guemnamno to rejoin his young wife, mute herself, at home.

As Kim headed down the road, hundreds of miles away, worried military men were meeting at Army Headquarters in Seoul. Major General Kim Jae Myeong, head of Operations, had listened to worried telephone reports from his field commanders in Gwangju that morning. The 7th was the only unit in the entire country that had met resistance. Remembering the massive demonstrations reported from Gwangju in the previous days, General Kim was anxious that the paratroopers might not have the manpower to fully suppress things if they – well, if things got out of hand.

Shortly after lunch, he telephoned General Jeong Ho Yong, head of the Special Combat Unit, that “they had decided to dispatch the 3rd Special Combat Brigade as reinforcements because there were indications that the situation in Gwangju would take a turn for the worse.” Jeong protested – such work was not for his special combat troops. Why not send the 11th Paratroopers instead? Since the two 7th Brigade battalions were paratroopers themselves, it would help maintain cohesion if they were reinforced by paratoopers. Kim agreed, and the 11th was mobilized shortly after 3 pm. By the next morning they would be deployed throughout Gwangju.

Back in the city, early in the afternoon the 7th had pulled out of Chonnam and regrouped at an elementary school a few blocks away. They were briefly confronted by students chanting slogans (university students, not 4th graders!), but the soldiers quickly and aggressively drove them off again. Then word reached them of the students marching down Guennamno for the Provincial Office, and the unit moved south to intercept them short of their goal.

The confrontation came around the Catholic Center, a few blocks west of the Provincial Office. The soldiers, now en masse, came upon the group of students, and immediately set upon them. They charged in, beating, kicking, dragging people out to be tossed into the back of waiting military trucks. Most people detained were given a thorough working over before being stripped to their underwear and arrested.

A beating on Guemnamno

Arrested students being hustled off.

The thing is, Guemnamno is a very, very busy road. It’s the main thoroughfare in the heart of Gwangju, in fact. It is lined with shops, restaurants, an underground shopping mall was then under construction, and most importantly, it was filled with ordinary citizens. Hundreds of passersby were going about their day in this public place – but the soldiers did not discriminate. Anyone their glance fell on was liable to attack and arrest, especially anyone of university age. Soon, dozens of bystanders were sucked into the melee whether they were protesting or not.

Into this swirling mass of escalating violence came Kim Gyeong Chul, now walking home from his lunch. He was deaf, and unable to hear the commands of the soldiers or the warnings of the passersby. He was mute, and so he was unable to explain himself. Worst of all, he was young – he looked young enough to be a student himself.

A group of soldiers roughly seized Kim and dragged him into the street. Confused, Kim attempted to plead his innocence – but of course as a mute he could hardly do that. The soldiers grew increasingly agitated as they peppered Kim with questions he was unable to answer, then, when their rage reached a peak, began to beat him. He fell, and they began to kick him, then stomp him. The claims that he was deaf and mute were obviously a lie so he could ignore their orders, so he could disguise his participation in this sedition of the regime.

When Kim did not return home that night, his wife and his mother, Im Gun-Tan, went out the next day to look for him. Im canvassed the military prisons, now bulging with hundreds of detainees, while his young wife (whose name I do not have, I am sorry) searched the hospitals. It was late before they found him – not in a hospital, but in a morgue. Im later recalled,

“He had been beaten like a dog and his eyes has been gouged out. He was naked and covered in just a white sheet when I first saw him at the military hospital mortuary. When I returned with some clothes, I caught sight of a guard hosing down the corpses while another recorded their names.”

Im Gun Tan, “Gwangju Biennale honours sacrifice that brought democracy to South Korea”

Kim was the first recorded death in the Uprising. Today, his grave stands first in line of the hundreds at the memorial cemetery. His neat, dignified portrait, surrounded by flowers, still smiles out at the plaza there.

Kim Gyeong Chul, 1952-1980

The military’s indiscriminate response, though, was perhaps the greatest strategic blunder anyone had made in the entire crisis. Rather than intimidating the people of Gwangju into silence, the brutal suppression instead had the opposite effect. After years – decades – of subjugation, the people of Gwangju had had enough. Suppression of democracy, they could accept. Neglect by the government in Seoul? What else was new, the bastards never changed. But now, to be murdered walking their own streets? It turns out you can only push a people so far before they snap, and start to fight back.

The melee in front of the Catholic center was only the start of a running street battle that lasted the rest of the afternoon and into the evening. First at the Catholic Center, then by 5: 30 at the Labor Bureau next to the Provincial Hall, then by 7 at Gwangju High School, and at 8 again at the Catholic Center. The demonstrators never numbered more than a thousand, usually closer to around 500, but more and more of them were no longer students but instead ordinary men and women, people whose silent consent had been one of the key supports of the Rhee, Park, and now Chun regimes.

The troopers were indiscriminate. They pursued “agitators” wherever they could be found. One couple was dragged out of a taxi. The man was beaten, and his young wife had her dress torn off her. Another man was bayoneted, then tossed into a police van, still bleeding. An American, Tim Warnberg, was in the city. He had volunteered with the Peace Corps. He describes his experience:

“We ran with the panicked crowd and I ended up in a small store along with about fifteen other people, including one other PCV. A soldier came into the store and proceeded to club everyone over the head with his truncheon until he came to the other volunteer and me. He stopped startled, hesitated a moment, then ran out. We went out into the side street and found that the troops had retreated to the main street, leaving behind wounded people everywhere. . . . Two volunteers and I picked up a delivery boy for a Chinese restaurant who had been knocked off his bike with a blow to his head. We brought him to a clinic and managed to convince the reluctant doctor to open his door. He said he feared retaliation from the military. Other wounded people ­filled the streets and tried to push their way in, but he only let about ten people in before he locked the door again. People banged on the door cursing and screaming.”

-Tim Warnberg, Recovering the Memory of 1980

At a nearby hospital, Ahn Sung-Rye, a young nurse, was beginning her afternoon shift when suddenly bodies started pouring in the doors. Mostly young men, all bloody, many of them limp and unresponsive. As the casualties mounted, the hospital descended into chaos.

“There were bodies strewn across the corridors and mothers screaming as they searched for their children, but it was so chaotic, there was nothing I could do to help them,” she said. “We didn’t even have time to sterilise the medical instruments before taking patients into surgery.”

Ahn Sung-Rye, Gwangju Biennale

In other places, soldiers kicked down doors. Eun-cheol Jung was a secretary in a nearby office when soldiers burst in and beat him and two companions (including an unlucky delivery boy). When Jung fell limp and unresponsive, the soldiers hurled him down the stairs. Lee Jae-eui, whose Gwangju Diary would become one of the best testaments to the massacre, escaped only by seizing a hammer and hiding amongst a group of workers at the underground mall construction site. Other witnesses at the bus terminal saw a group of students being held for arrest. Suddenly, one young man leapt up, screaming, “Feet, don’t fail me now!” and he fled into a nearby market, cheered on by passersby. The soldiers, frustrated at the loss of one of their prizes, fell on the rest, beating and kicking – and were in turn set upon by the bystanders. By the day’s end, the protestors were fighting back across the city, hurling rocks at the paratroopers.

Street fighting on Guemnamno

Things were getting out of hand (obviously). The city-wide curfew was extended from midnight to 4 am to 9 pm to 6 am. More reinforcements were hurried on the way. Gwangju passed an uneasy night.

Monday, May 19 dawned with an air of stillness and anticipation over the city. People were shocked by the violence of the day just passed, but were uncertain what would come next. Cautiously, in ones and twos and threes, they poked their heads out of their apartments and began to venture into the streets to feel out the situation. Lewis, the law student, wrote in her diary:

“They’re killing people down here today—again. Lots died yesterday, too, al though I didn’t ­find out about it until today. After all the gas and ruckus in Seoul on Thursday, then nothing on Friday and Saturday, then the an nouncement of more martial law on Sunday morning—Seoul was quiet. But Kwangju….today I knew something would happen—the streets looked tense. Started at 11 a.m. for the ACC [American Cultural Center], got as far as the street where they are building the underwalk, and it was blocked by soldiers—not riot police, special forces soldiers. People were going through and crowds were gathering, but I decided not to venture forth.”

Linda Sue Lewis, Laying Claim to the Memory of May

Again, people began gathering on Guemnamno. By ten in the morning, nearly 3,000 people had gathered – far more than had been present at any one time on May 18. Word of the brutal suppression of the previous day’s protest had spread, though, and the crowd was in a restive, angry mood. Most worrisome for the regime – there were a minority of students. The protests had spread to the common people and were in danger of becoming a widespread democratic uprising, if not suppressed.

Commanders of praetorian guard units like the 7th Parachute Brigade are not chosen for their imagination. Imagination might mean imagining yourself sitting in the Blue House after a successful coup, after all. No, they were chosen for their loyalty and their adherence to orders. The man in charge of the 7th – again, I regret that I do not have his name – was evidently a man of no imagination. His heavyhanded tactics of the day before had so far only succeeded in murdering harmless young people and enraging the whole city against him, more or less the opposite of what his superiors had asked him to do in Gwangju. Today, he decided the best way to handle matters was, well, with more suppression. Near 11, the soldiers started unleashing tear gas and batons to disperse the “rioters.”

But the rioters would not be so easily dealt with. They were angry, and not going to lie down for the dictator anymore. The crowd fought back, with taunts and with stones, and the confrontation swayed back and forth over Guemnamno for hours. The stalemate was broken when the 11th Brigade, ordered in from Seoul the previous afternoon, arrived. More than a thousand paratroopers reinforced the outnumbered 7th, and again the soldiers began an indiscriminate assault on the citizens they had sworn an oath to defend. Again, the soldiers poured into private homes to ransack the places. Any young man they found was beaten, stripped, bound, and tossed into a truck to be hauled off to military prison. The wounded poured into the hospitals.

In Seoul, the nervous authorities were – sort of – aware of the situation. They ordered a news blackout – only scattered references to “riots” in Gwangju were made. The 7th and the 11th were two of three brigades in the 31st Division (nominally, although they answered directly to the New Military Power). The last brigade, the 3rd, was alerted early in the morning on the 19th to move to Gwangju. The commander of the 31st, concerned by reports of brutality by “his” paratroopers, issued an order advising the division to avoid bloodshed. However, neitehr the 7th nor the 11th were actually bothering to report to him, so you can imagine how effective that order was. At the same time, the New Miltiary Power instructed the brigades that “a resolute blow must be delivered.” They must prevent the escape of the demonstrators, divide them, and arrest them at an early stage. The fact that they deluded themselves into thinking that these orders were in any way possible shows how out-of-touch the national command authority was growing with the situation in Gwangju.

In fact, most of the country knew nothing about it. The NMP had acted quickly to isolate the region. Phone lines were cut, media reports were censored, and travel to and from the province was restricted. Americans telephoned the consulate in Seoul to let them know they were safe, while the bewildered ambassador hadn’t known there was any violence at all. Some people were able to call their relatives, but most had no idea of what was happening. People in Jeolla were stunned and heartsick at the news.

In Gwangju, the people were shifting from defending themselves against the paratroopers to taking the offensive against the occupiers of their city. Barricades (which have a long history in urban insurrection that I will get into another time) started to go up around the city. Small police stations were isolated, overwhelmed, and burned. The local TV station, which had been busily broadcasting regime propaganda of seditious traitors and North Korean infiltrators, was forced off the air by expedient of being burned to the ground.

Dozens of buildings associated with the regime burned in Gwangju in those days.

Across the city, the students who had instigated the revolt were by now largely forced into hiding. Three high school students, unable to safely return home, took shelter with the law student Lewis’s host family. In typical Korean fashion, one girl lamented that she’d be unable to study for her exams and would fall behind her classmates in other parts of the country. Other student leaders similarly would law low for most of the next 10 days. The uprising had passed now from a student movement to a democratic movement embracing the entire populace.

In years to come, the military would recognize that it had blundered horribly in these two days in Gwangju. They would issue an analysis detailing their mistakes, which had taken a serious but manageable movement of students and inflamed it into full-scale urban insurrection. The army concluded that the citizens in Gwangju had fought the army so defiantly because:

“The Martial Law Forces attacked people from all sides rather than simply breaking them up, violent clashes took place in front of bystanders, they entered private residences, destroyed private property, and intimidated family members while chasing demonstrators. These actions all served to incite the crowd into a primitive passion. …the army was [also] slow to deal with both the casualties and the arrestees incurred during the suppression of the riots and left the dead in the road for a long time. These scenes further incited the crowd.”

An Analysis of the Gwangju Disturbance: A Collection of Lessons

Good thing the United States would never make such egregious mistakes. Oops, was that too political? Sorry.

Next time: the protests became city-wide.

*The theory was correct.

By dropping men from a helicopter instead of a plane, you can deploy them in coherent units trained to work and fight together, instead of scattered all to hell and back. Plus, you can pick them up again before they’re all murdered by Nazis, a capability the 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem would have found highly useful indeed.

A note here. My sources are very vague and difficult to make sense of at this point. Lewis wrote that police only had handled the earlier protests, and that military units were not dispatched to the city until later in the afternoon. The May 18 Archive’s book also claims that the 7th did not arrive in Gwangju until the afternoon. However, the Archives also clearly write that the students at Chonnam in the morning were confronted with soldiers (although the exact number is reported differently – some say only 30 soldiers, about 1 platoon, were there, others claim the entire battalion was present). The Archives’ book also erroneously reports the 7th brigade being dispatched to Gwangju over the evening of the 18th when they clearly are referring to the 11th. How to make sense of this? My own belief is that initially the soldiers were only at the universities, and perhaps in lower numbers – in keeping with Chun’s order to close the universities. They did not, however, enter the streets to deal with those protests, leaving them initially to the police. Only when things continued to grow out of hand did the 7th, now at full strength, enter the streets and begin to take a direct hand. This is my best reconstruction of events – remember I can’t read Korean so 95% of the May 18 material is unavailable to me! Any errors are mine alone.

Humiliation is a frequent tactic of control used by authoritarian regimes the world over. Cf. similar incidents recently in the United States. Female students were included in this treatment, and there are reports of sexual assaults and rapes by the soldiers. Some accounts say that people attempting to come to the aid of women being abused by the soldiers were themselves beaten bloody and detained.


Interestingly enough England comes to mind as a notable exception.

Maybe now, but during the industrial revolution, that wasn’t really the case.  The great industrial cities were all in the midlands and north.

Speaking of:


“this time it’s different” said everyone at all times

Absolutely fascinating posts. Well done; and keep up the good work!

That Kim Gyeong Chul was deaf and mute suggests that his blinding, if done ante mortem, had an obvious motivation. Was there an investigation of the circumstances of his injury and death afterwards?


Part Nine: Drivers of Democracy

Tuesday, May 20th, dawned with an uneasy tension looming over embattled Gwangju.

The morning was calm. It was overcast and raining lightly. Overnight, the Chun regime had transferred still more paratroopers to the city, bringing the troop numbers up to more than 3,000. They were badly outnumbered by the actively protesting citizens – more joined every hour, angered by the violence of the soldiers – but with the support of the city police Chun was confident that the movement could be stamped out before things got out of hand. At the same time, the chain of command seemed to realize that it had badly miscalculated with the True Heart tactics and was actively taking steps to de-escalate and defuse tensions. In the previous days, the citizens had muttered that the soldiers – most of whom came from outside Jeolla province – spoke with foreign accents and reeked of alcohol on their breath. Today, they noticed, the soldiers were sober, spoke politely, and conspicuously lacked the bayonets they had carried the previous two days.

But it was far too late now for mere courtesy to stop things. Events had taken on a momentum all their own, and Gwangju was barrelling towards a bloody confrontation. Away from the main streets, it was quiet. Shops were open, soldiers were absent – the busses were even still running. You could almost forget there was a revolution on. Downtown, though, things were different. Throughout the morning, crowds again gathered on Guemnamno, and by noon there were fully 100,000 citizens filling the boulevard. The rain slackened and was gone by lunch and soon an increasingly nervous line of police and soldiers was eyeing an enormous mass of people. Trigger fingers got itchy. At first everyone contented themselves with shouting and slogans, but as the afternoon wore on again the police resorted to tear gas in an effort to disperse the demonstrators.

The result was a running street battle that in the end lasted more than a day. A pattern developed to the fighting: The police and soldiers would fire gas, then wade in with their batons, driving the crowd back. The crowd would stumble backwards a few blocks. As they did, the crowd would sweep up curious souls who had come out to look at the ruckus, or people who were searching for missing friends and family members. Reinforced, the protestors would sweep back and as the gas dispersed drive the government forces back in turn. Up and down Guemnamno, as the afternoon wore into evening, this continued.

For many in Gwangju, there was a sense of frustration. The domestic media, tightly controlled by Chun and his cronies, made little mention of the violence in the city, beyond mention of riots promoted by North Korean agitators. Regional resentment ran high – once again, no one much cared what happened in Jeolla, it seemed. No one would have tolerated such violence against the citizens of Seoul or Busan. But those hicks in Gwangju? Probably had it coming. Everyone know that only a baton could get through their thick skulls anyway.

In addition, there was confusion and dismay about the role of the United States. For many protestors, the endgame depended on US intervention. The Americans supported democracy, loudly, and had constantly reigned in the excesses of Seoul before. When they saw what Chun was doing to the people of Gwangju, they would order him to put a stop to it, and Chun would have no choice but to comply. And yet…three days in, and the US had still done nothing. No soldiers had come to protect the citizens.

They concluded, naively, that the US most likely simply didn’t know enough about what was happening in the city. This impression was largely correct. There was only one American official in the city – David Miller, who worked at the American Cultural Center. The Embassy in Seoul had ordered him to remain indoors for his own safety. Shut away in his office, he knew little about what was happening in the streets outside, and only fragmentary reports of violence and bayonetings of students by paratroopers reached the embassy. Official Korean sources downplayed the violence, as mentioned. The atmosphere in Seoul was sullen and tense, but non-violent, and so through these days the embassy missed the significance of the developing events in the southwest.*

The citizens could, at least, take matters into their own hands regarding domestic news. Some began to print and distribute leaflets of their own around th city, countering the regime propaganda. Yun Sang Won had previously been a teacher of night classes. Now he put his writing skills to good use, writing and distributing these “Fighters’ Circulars”, which served to unite and inform most of the protestors. Yun would be among those killed during the fighting.

Tear gas on Guemnamno

The climax on May 20 came at 7 pm.  By early evening, the city police had been deserting to the side of the protestors in droves and the paratroopers had been driven back into a tight cordon around the Provincial Office itself. They held their perimeter there, for awhile, terribly outnumbered but much better armed than the protestors, who had no real way to break through their lines, no heavy equipment of their own. Then, in the distance, both sides heard a horrible din, loud of enough to drown out even the noise of the crowd. It was honking – the sound of hundreds and hundreds of bus, truck, and car horns repeatedly leaning on the horn, over and over again. It was loud, and growing louder, and soon, behind the crowd, headlights became visible – hundreds of headlights, all moving steadily towards the Provincial Hall. The drivers of Gwangju had chosen a side.

Taxi drivers had been instrumental throughout the early days of the uprising. Their little cars were indispensable, shuttling protestors back and forth, delivering supplies, and, most importantly, carrying the wounded (and dead) to hospitals for treatment. The job was not without risk, as some of the soldiers didn’t take kindly to the wounded being treated. Their policy had generally been to leave them lying in the street while they pushed on in search of more heads to break, more arrests to make. So, some drivers had been assaulted and injured as they attempted to carry off the injured for aid.

This did not sit well with a small group of cab drivers (again, I share names when I have them. English sources are so spotty and unreliable). They sent word flashing out along the driver network, calling for an assembly of all the cab and bus drivers of Gwangju at Mudeung Stadium, one of the largest outdoor venues downtown, a short drive from the battle on Guemnamno. As the sun sank towards the horizon on May 20, hundreds assembled – the parking lot was filled with dozens of busses and hundreds of cabs. The cab drivers spoke persuasively, arguing that the drivers of the city could no longer remain neutral. The soldiers wouldn’t let them. They had to pick a side and fight for their rights, just as much as the students did.

A few minutes later, a massive convoy departed from the stadium. They drove south, down what is today Gwangju’s Baseball street, a quiet avenue lined with plaques and portraits celebrating heroes of the Kia Tigers. A few blocks later, the convoy, city and express busses in the lead, taxis coming behind, turned left and advanced towards the still-surging crowds and violence around Provincial Hall. In the early twilight, they switched on their headlights, and leaned on the horns. The din could be heard for miles around, it is said.

As the convoy eased through the crowd of protestors, the citizens celebrated, waving flags, leaping among the cars – one brave young man even mounted the lead bus as they drove straight at the paratroopers. A photographer caught him, standing there, preserved for all time as one of the most iconic images of the Uprising.

It was not without risk. The soldiers fired more tear gas at the drivers. Some vehicles lost control and drove through the cordon of troops. The paratroopers smashed at the headlights with their batons, dragged drivers out and beat them. When the drivers kept coming, one or another of the jumpy troops finally lost his nerve. He leveled his rifle, and opened fire. The first shots of the uprising had been fired.

Smashed and ruined vehicles after the vehicle demonstration

Among the drivers that day was Kim Pong-man. A quiet, middle-aged man, Kim worked for the Hyundai Transportation Company. He had been transporting the injured to hospitals for days now. At the moment, he lived alone – his mother in law had just died, so his wife was out of town with their two children, a 3-year old and a 1-month old. He kept in touch with his landlady to let her know when he was going out into the chaos, in case anything happened to him.

Kim had attended the rally at Mudeung Stadium, and he was afire with determination for the cause. It wasn’t right, what the soldiers were doing. He’d tried to live quietly, to keep his head down and out of politics – but people were dying now, and Kim could sit out no longer. He had never been a great man. He never would be a great man – the councils of the wise and mighty would never be troubled about the life of one bus driver in one small city. But he didn’t have to be great to do this. When the convoy left, Kim’s bus was in the lead.

That night, Kim never called in to report to his land lady.

His wife rushed home when she heard. It took her more than 3 days to slip through the complex network of roadblocks around Gwangju and enter the city, which by that time was under a full state of siege. How she navigated that journey with a toddler and an infant in tow must have been an epic in itself – but the details, sadly, are known only to her. What is known is that when she returned on the 24th, she found Kim’s body already placed in a coffin, in a gymnasium with the other dead across from the Provincial Hall. He had been shot. Kim’s memorial record states,

“After confirming he was dead, she wailed, venting her resentment. Nothing could completely rid her of her sorrow short of her desire to follow after her dead husband. But her two children were too young for her to do that…Whenever she is reminded of the uncertainty of life, Mrs. Kang Song Sun, who has lost her husband, goes with her two children to the [5.18 Memorial] cemetery.”

– 5.18 Memorial Foundation

 Kang Song Sun was not the only one wailing that day. Around the city, sporadic gunfire had broken out as isolated pockets of troops were overwhelmed by protestors. There were shootings at Chosun University, and at the Tax Office. At the train station, the soldiers killed two more protestors and left their bodies to rot in the building.

Mourning the dead.

The protestors themselves were rapidly becoming more organized and fighting back. Young men in Korea are universally conscripted, and so most of the young male protestors had army experience. These veterans became rallying points, organizing small groups of people and leading them to strategic points, fighting back with whatever weapons came to hand – bricks, stones, vehicles. That night, the fighting in the city was general. Key supports of the regime – the television stations broadcasting propaganda, the tax offices, government administration buildings – were targeted and burned. The paratroopers were safe only moving in large groups, and gradually overnight they were increasingly driven solely into the blocks around the Provincial Office downtown. Fires blazed all around town, and the sound of gunfire was general. Gwangju was in a state of full insurrection, and outside the city the army was already putting into place roadblocks to cut the unruly city off from the rest of the country.

Regime troopers confront a barricade of busses across Guemnamno

The intervention of the drivers was a decisive moment in Gwangju – for many, it was the moment that it went from the May 18 protests to the May 18 Uprising. An entire profession and social class had abruptly thrown their weight to the side of the revolution – in so doing, they made the uprising general. No longer was it just a matter of students and ordinary citizens caught up in the whirlwind. Now the common populace increasingly joined, so that the evening of May 20 saw most of the population in arms against the soldiers. Today, May 20 is remembered as Drivers of Democracy day in Gwangju. They paid for their intervention – the drivers made up 14% of all the dead during the Uprising, most from this single demonstration.

The situation for the regime was extremely precarious. There were no more reserves immediately available to reinforce the paratroopers already in Gwangju. Any further troops would require drawdowns elsewhere – which would in turn create the danger of uprisings in the cities with weakened garrisons, or would require US approval to move troops guarding the DMZ. Publicly, the military command remained defiant, and would make every effort to hold the city the next day. Quietly, though, they began to draw up plans for a full-scale abandonment of Gwangju.

*The US also had a lot on its plate at the time. Around the same time that the paratroopers started bayonetting college students, Mt. St. Helens, in northwest Washington, dramatically erupted, killing some 50 odd Americans in the most deadly volcanic eruption in American history. Most American news networks were occupied with the domestic news and had no time for protests in an obscure Asian city halfway around the world.


The protestors themselves were rapidly becoming more organized and fighting back. Young men in Korea are universally conscripted, and so most of the young male protestors had army experience. These veterans became rallying points, organizing small groups of people and leading them to strategic points, fighting back with whatever weapons came to hand – bricks, stones, vehicles.

This is an interesting consideration.  Universal conscription is often thought of as a way for the regime to strengthen its power through the indoctrination of young men.  But it also would seem to ensure that if it doesn’t take – if they do eventually turn against you, the populace in general is much more well qualified to fight back.


The protestors themselves were rapidly becoming more organized and fighting back. Young men in Korea are universally conscripted, and so most of the young male protestors had army experience. These veterans became rallying points, organizing small groups of people and leading them to strategic points, fighting back with whatever weapons came to hand – bricks, stones, vehicles.

This is an interesting consideration.  Universal conscription is often thought of as a way for the regime to strengthen its power through the indoctrination of young men.  But it also would seem to ensure that if it doesn’t take – if they do eventually turn against you, the populace in general is much more well qualified to fight back.

Oh yes. I’ve often heard that is why Switzerland is mostly immune to an army coup. Of course I think the Swiss take their rifles home with them. It sounds like the Koreans in this situation only had their training available, no actual firearms.


First, thank you for putting these posts together.  These are amazing.

Second, I find it interesting that you rarely see cars used as weapons by the populace.  In practice, ‘fighting back with whatever weapons came to hand’ seems to involve bricks and stones all the time, but vehicles, rarely.  I’ve remarked in the past that in modern societies, the populace really does have deadly weapons in the form of cars and trucks.  So, even a populace without guns really does have a seriously nonzero ability to fight back.  To be sure, cars don’t beat artillery or planes used by people willing to level a city.  But they do have the capacity to make a city very very hard to rule.  But the use of cars as weapons doesn’t seem to be thinkable to most people.  Here, you seem to be saying there were repeated exceptions (note that I am very much not talking about the organization of the drivers, or their willingness to use their vehicles in an orderly protest parade).

Is that the case, and do you have an idea as to why?



So, I think your posts are fascinating. I am loving these history effortposts, and I’m happy to learn more about the history.

Buuut I think your summary of Meiji Japan is not that accurate. I’ve been reading about Meiji Japan really enthusiastically (it’s the first country to westernize!), there’s at least one effortpost’s worth of material in it, and I think that Meiji was not the central figure during the restoration. He was 14 during the civil war that ended the Shogunate, and he was restored to power by the armies of Choshu and Satsuma, two powerful domains that were traditional rivals of the Tokugawa clans. I think that ‘imperial restoration’ was a rallying cry more than a historical description, and that afterwards power ended up in the hands of an oligarchy of modernizers, with Meiji as somewhere between ‘figurehead’ and ‘constitutional monarch’; like Victoria, ‘his ministers’ would not dream of overthrowing him, but like Victoria, ‘his ministers’ made the actual decisions.

Definitely enjoying this historypost! Happy to learn more about Korea.

(Also, story from the period of Japanese occupation of Korea, IIRC from “Japan Under Taisho Tenno: 1912-1926.” All this is ‘if memory serves’. A Japanese soldier in Korea turned up dead; his comrades marched to the nearest village, where everyone was taking shelter from them in a (Christian) church, and burned it down. Since there was a Western missionary among the dead, the West heard about it, and the Taisho government politely explained that they were very sorry about this, their troops needed to be better educated, but they’d thought they were in a foreign country, not part of the Empire of Japan.)


First, thank you for putting these posts together.  These are amazing.

Second, I find it interesting that you rarely see cars used as weapons by the populace.  In practice, ‘fighting back with whatever weapons came to hand’ seems to involve bricks and stones all the time, but vehicles, rarely.  I’ve remarked in the past that in modern societies, the populace really does have deadly weapons in the form of cars and trucks.  So, even a populace without guns really does have a seriously nonzero ability to fight back.  To be sure, cars don’t beat artillery or planes used by people willing to level a city.  But they do have the capacity to make a city very very hard to rule.  But the use of cars as weapons doesn’t seem to be thinkable to most people.  Here, you seem to be saying there were repeated exceptions (note that I am very much not talking about the organization of the drivers, or their willingness to use their vehicles in an orderly protest parade).

Is that the case, and do you have an idea as to why?

Well, I don’t mean as deadly weapons, not really – I don’t know of any soldiers that were run down with cars. But they DID use the busses and taxis as essentially poor man’s armor, using them to wall off the soldiers and push the government out of the central areas of the city.

And as for Meiji, well, all I know as you can see are the very basic outlines. 🙂


Part Ten: The Citizen’s Army

It’s been a while, so let’s recap quickly:

By May 21st, the city of Gwangju had been spiralling into ever-more chaotic civil revolt for 4 days, sparked initially by college student protests against martial law. Korea had never been a democracy, and had been under the rule of various strongmen for more than 30 years in 1980. The current regime had come to power via coup in the wake of the assassination of the previous strongman, Park Chung-hee, and the rulers of the country felt that they were on shaky ground. In an effort to maintain their power, they had gone after the growing student movement and attempted to clamp down on political opposition.

In Gwangju, the students protested this seizure of power on May 18, but were met with increasingly violent resistance by specially trained regime paratroopers. The violence of the troopers increasingly drew in more and more citizens, until by the morning of May 21 virtually the whole city was in revolt.

That brings us to Wednesday, the 21st, the bloodiest day of the uprising.

It was Buddha’s birthday, a national holiday, and the day was warm and clear. Such fine weather drew tens of thousands into the streets to participate in the ongoing insurrection, which had never really paused overnight. Sporadic gunfire and raids on symbols of regime authority like the Tax Office had continued all through the night of May 20th. The heavily outnumbered regime forces, battered by stones and pressured by crowds, steadily abandoned their outlying positions one by one and concentrated most of their remaining troops at the Provincial Hall. Meanwhile, rowdy protestors broke into the Asia Truck Factory and seized vehicles. Soon tiny jeeps overloaded with young men were whizzing through the streets.

Linda Lewis, the American law student living in Gwangju, recorded the mood of the city in her diary that day:

“Things are so tense, I don’t want to type. A gorgeous, clear day—warm, even hot. Things began early—as soon as the fog cleared and there was good visibility, the helicopters started overflights and the citizens took to the streets. . . .

All phone lines to Seoul—or anywhere—are out. So, apparently, is all access to the city. . . . A festive atmosphere prevails. People on rooftops, sitting on the hilltops, on balconies of apartments. I wish I had a vantage point. Almost everything—especially on the main street—is closed and shuttered. Knots of people sit and talk. The brave make it down to the yakkuk [pharmacy], past women wrapping kim [dried seaweed] around rice and packing it in boxes to give to students. A notice [from student activists] is tacked up down by the yakkuk, on a public phone, [Sansu intersection] to the Toch’ŏng [Provincial Office Building]—everyone else [ordinary citizens] to the Toch’ŏng. It is a promenade down to the rotary [the Kyerim 5 street intersection]—people out with their kids. Much tension. . . .

Every so often a truck whizzes by, horn honking, flags waving, full of cheering students geared for battle. People cheer. . . . No soldiers anywhere. But I don’t trust them. They will appear, suddenly, and maybe with guns. . . . The only thing the radio [The U.S. Armed Forces Korea Network (AFKN), in English, which so far had not mentioned Kwangju] is saying is, “U.S. citizens, don’t go to Kwangju. More news when the situation is clarified.” That means no one knows what is going on here, exactly.”

As before, the epicenter of the protests was Guemnamno, the long, broad boulevard through the heart of Gwangju that terminates before the plaza of the Provincial Hall. While tens or even hundreds of thousands of citizens gathered in the street outside, a trio of representatives was admitted through the skirmish line to meet with the governor. They demanded the withdrawal of the paratroopers, release of the hundreds of detainees taken since Sunday, information on hospitalized victims, and a public apology from the governor for the mayhem. The little bureaucrat agreed, despite the fact that he had absolutely no power to enforce any part of this agreement. At this point, events had left the governor of Jeolla Province far, far behind. This was a showdown between the people of Gwangju and Chun Doo-hwan himself.

Through the morning, though, the governor failed even to appear to issue his apology. The crowd around Guemnamno grew, and grew more restless, as the sun reached its zenith.

As with all such incidents, what happened next would be hotly debated for decades to come, without the truth ever really becoming clearer. Recriminations and blame would fly back and forth, investigations would roll slowly through the halls of justice in the army, in the government, and by private citizens. Dozens of officers would show the moral courage of their class by totally denying any responsibility or foreknowledge whatsoever.

What is known is this: The day was hot, and the troopers were stressed. They had been increasingly under siege for four days now, and despite all the stabbin’ they could do the citizens of Gwangju were still in the streets – and in numbers vastly greater than the paratroopers. They were now outnumbered possibly 100 to 1 on Guemnamno, they had been forced to abandon most of the rest of the city, and there were rumors that the crowd was armed. The soldiers had all been issued ammunition, apparently by request of their battalion commanders. Choi Woong, the commander of the 11th, swore that he issued the bullets but naturally with strict orders that they were under no circumstances to actually be used. At the same time, Jeong Hoyong, commander of the Special Combat Unit in Seoul – basically the next link up in the chain of command – reported that his commanders had urgently requested to him that they be allowed to open fire, and he of course said under no circumstances whatsoever. In fact, no one it seems above the rank of battalion commandergave any verifiable permission to open fire (although they all agreed it was a good idea to give the nervous paratroopers with the twitchy trigger fingers lots and lots of bullets anyway, just in case).

We further know the following: At one pm, the national anthem was broadcast over loudspeakers near the Provincial Hall. It was loud, and obvious – no one there at the time missed it. And shortly afterwards, the troops lining Guemnamno, facing that crowd of 100,000 people, lining the street shoulder to shoulder, opened fire. From the neighboring rooftops and even the hovering attack helicopters, other soldiers joined in. The May 18 protests were evolving into the Gwangju Massacre.

The military would argue in years to come that the demonstrators had fired first, and cited reports that citizens had stormed police armories around 2 and 3 pm that afternoon, arming themselves. It blithely ignored any timeline issues that this chain of events requires. In the meantime, during the remaining years in power, the military would busily destroy any and all incriminating evidence to the contrary. The truth, then, of what exactly provoked the massacre on Guemnamno on the 21st will never be known. Whoever did order the troops to open fire, or whatever nervous young idiot got too handsy with his rifle, screwed up massively – their actions would lead to the total loss of Gwangju to the regime within hours.

On the streets, though, the immediate result was chaos. Lee Jae-eui wrote in his Gwangju Diary:

“At about 1 p.m. we talked back and forth about what countermeasures we could take, when suddenly we heard a thunk and a rat-a-tat sound. We went out. In the vicinity of the labor office tens of citizens had fallen in an instant. The soldiers had begun to ¤re indiscriminately in front of them, at the gathered citizens. If they were hit by gunfire, three or four people dragged those who had fallen, and everyone’s faces were white with shock. Citizens kept falling. And among them were even students who looked like they were in high school.”

(cited in KMHRI 1990: 330).”

Martha Huntley, an American missionary, wrote later that when the soldiers started firing on citizens,

“My husband and I were at the Kwangju Christian Hospital the afternoon of May 22 at 3 p.m. when this first happened. In two hours our hospital alone received 99 wounded and 14 dead. Among the wounded were a 9-year-old boy who was shot in the legs. Our first dead was a middle school girl; the second was a commercial high school girl who had donated blood at the hospital 15 minutes earlier and was shot by the troops as she was being returned home in a student vehicle. We received five patients with spinal cord injuries, many of whom will never walk again. One was 13 years old. We had other patients who lost eyes, limbs, and their minds.”

In the crowd that day was Kim Yong-dae. A young worker at the local tire factory, he had been keeping his head down and his nose out of trouble. His wife was pregnant with their second child and he had no intention of risking himself in any fool revolution. But it so happened that the factory was closed, and the bus that day was late, and a confrontation started before Kim’s eyes at the terminal. He was torn – he wanted to return to his family to protect them, but to walk away right now would be to show himself as a coward to all his neighbors. He stayed, and was swept with the crowd to the Provincial Office.

When the soldiers opened fire, Kim fled with the other panicked thousands for any sort of cover. He ran towards the YWCA, when he felt a hammer blow in his back. Paralyzed from the waist down, Kim was hurried to the Christian Hospital, past Mrs. Huntley, and into surgery. A few rooms away, his wife was also in surgery – she was having a C-section.

There were hundreds of stories like Kim’s from the 21st. An official count later reported over 54 dead, with hundreds wounded, but victims insist the real count is far higher. An unknown young man spread wide a banner, painted with a slogan falling for the end of martial law, and began walking towards the soldiers. Those around him warned him to get down, saying that he would surely be killed – but the young man replied that he didn’t care. He continued to walk towards the troops with his banner until he was indeed cut down in a hail of gunfire.

Park Yong-sun, riding in a cab as part of the vehicle demonstration, was hit in the shoulder. His companion was killed. Kim Myongchul, a 65-year old man, had not been part of the demonstrations, but he was anxious about his son and so was standing outside his door when the paratroopers came. His son found his father’s body in one of the hundreds of coffins at the Provincial Office later that week. Choi Mi-ae was a 24-year old housewife. She was 8 months pregnant, standing outside her own home, waiting for her husband to return when she crumpled, struck in the head by a bullet. Kim Chae-pyong was a 29-year old man from Seoul, a bureaucrat. His wife was from Gwangju and he had come with her to join her family, as she was about to give birth. He cowered with his in-laws in the living room of their home when bullets ripped through the wall – Kim was struck in the jaw and killed.

Initially surprised and scattered by the sudden fusillade (which continued for several hours through the afternoon), the people of Gwangju started to arm themselves and fight back. Korea is a mostly disarmed nation, so there were few guns available to fight the government forces. The protestors – now rebels, I suppose – resorted to breaking into police stations and armories in Gwangju and in the countryside around the city, where they found mostly light arms – old carbines and rifles, a bit of ammunition. They were so desperate for weapons that a contingent of miners from nearby Hwasun showed up with their dynamite in tow and were greeted as heroes. Paltry stuff, to stage a revolution with, but the other guys started shooting first.

A mile or two from the Provincial Office, near City Hall, there is a large park, at the time called Gwangju Park. The citizens rallied there and began to organize the Citizen’s Army. Mostly teachers, professionals, young men, and high school boys (and not a few girls), the Citizen’s Army was pretty well organized. Universal conscription meant that most young men in Korea had military training, knew how to follow orders, and how to shoot a rifle. Those with military training provided quick and dirty survival courses to the others, and then led small squads of ten or so. These squads piled into stolen trucks and started racing through the city to various strategic points, to be seized and defended by the citizens. Kim Jae-eui records the exhortations of hte leaders as they prepared for battle with the paratroopers:

““People who are afraid to fight to the death should leave right now. Tonight we will fight the paratroopers to the last breath, until we win. We are people who will fight and not run away.”

– Kim Jae-eui, Gwangju Diary

By 3: 30, more than 2 hours after the regime forces had started shooting, small street battles were being waged all around the city as the last remnants of regime forces were driven into a ring around the Provincial Office. Rebel squads would fire quick volleys from the cover of buildings, then slip away. Snipers and machine guns fired from roofs. I don’t know that the dynamite was put to much use, but simply having it was probably a great psychological comfort to the defenders.

Yun Heung Jung, commander of the 31st Division and nominally in charge of the paratroopers who had been running amuck in Gwangju the last four days, had a dilemma on his hands now. Bayoneting unarmed college students was all in good fun, but now things were serious – those jerks out in the streets had gotten their hands on weapons somehow, and now his guys were getting shot at! Someone could get seriously hurt out there. His men were better trained and more heavily armed than the rebels, but also very, very badly outnumbered and isolated in a foreign city. Any attempt to venture beyond the troopers’ base at Provincial Hall plaza just got whatever unlucky squad tried it bushwacked. After mulling it over, by 4: 00 pm – within thirty minutes of the formation of the Citizens’ Army – Yun reached his decision. It was just too dangerous to remain in the city, so he ordered a withdrawal.

The paratroopers executed their “advance in a different direction” perfectly by the book. A few squads laid down a heavy barrage of machine gun fire from the front of the Office down Guemnamno to make those characters out in the streets keep their heads down. Meanwhile, the rest of the division started to quietly nip out the back. Unobserved mostly by the rebels, they quickly withdrew through the eastern part of the city and into the surrounding hills.

Back in Gwangju, the Citizen’s army took a few hours to get organized, cautiously working its way up to the Provincial Office, the young men doing their best to avoid getting shot and dying gloriously as a martyr to the cause if they didn’t have to. Finally, just after sunset, around 8, they screwed their courage to the sticking place and stormed the Office – to find that the governor, the military brass holed up inside, and all the soldiers had fled.

For the first time in 4 days, there were no hostile soldiers in Gwangju.

The closing hours of May 21 were a frantic race between the regime and the rebels to consolidate the sudden outbreak of outright rebellion in the province. Demonstrations in the surrounding cities like Mokpo, Yeosu, Hwasun, and Naju had been ongoing for several days – now they flared like tinder at Gwangju’s success and the soldiers pulled out of most of those cities, too. If left unchecked all of Jeolla province could be in revolt in a matter of days – and the regime had no more reserves left to stamp them out without pulling troops off the line in the DMZ. For a crucial few days, the fate of the ROK hung on the events unfolding in the southwest.

The army, for all that it had totally screwed the pooch in the last few days, responded well, finally. After getting their asses the hell out of the city, they quickly scattered to the major roads leading in and out of Gwangju. The city sits in a sort of bowl surrounded by mountains, and by closing 7 highways the city was more or less totally isolated. The smaller bands of rebels in the surrounding cities were unable to join with or coordinate iwth the Citizens’ Army now besieged in the metropolis, and no one could enter or leave the province. More importantly, all phone lines into and out of Jeolla were totally cut, and no honest news reporting was permitted. For most of Korea and the world, what they knew of Gwangju would be only and exactly what the regime told them. For the people of Gwangju, they would have essentially no news of the outside world beyond the city limits for as long as the siege lasted.

But for the moment, though, the city was free and independent – the first independent city on the peninsula since the fall of the Joseon dynasty to the Japanese nearly a century before. The killing, which reached a height on the 21st, would for the next few days be confined to the outskirts, where the military leaders dug their men in and then started scratching their heads as to what exactly the hell they were supposed to do now. And in Gwangju, the people started to set up the ideal community.

Next week: The only free city in Asia

*That is, no one in any position to actually be held accountable in any way, shape, or form.

Which it would need explicit US permission for, and telling President Jimmy “Human Rights” Carter that they really, really needed the troops in order to go and shoot all those citizens protesting for things like ‘democracy’ and ‘ending martial law’ was not a conversation Chun Doo-hwan wanted to have.

He would have it anyway, a few hours later, but Carter proved surprisingly amenable to putting down the ‘riots’ in Gwangju. He has refused all requests for comment on this matter in the decades since.



Part Eleven: The Liberated City

Asia in the year 1980 was a continent oppressed.

In the north, the great Soviet Union across the boreal forests and taiga of Siberia from the Urals to the Bering Strait – the ur-example of communist dictatorship. No free elections, no free speech, no free market, just squalid, gray, oppressive dictatorship under the latest of a line of dour, mostly forgettable bureaucrats stretching back to Nikita Kruschev.

In the center of the continent, the central Asian ‘republics’ like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and others were held in union with the Soviets. Soviet troops roamed the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan, exchanging gunfire with Taliban fighters in the hills and casually levelling entire villages in their efforts to bring glorious socialist order to that troubled land.

In the west, Israel clung tenaciously to a tiny strip of coast on the edge of the continent, making war and being made war upon by all its neighbors (at that time, Israel was busy battling Hezbollah in Lebanon). The Arab states were stifled under oil monarchies or Baathist dictators, like Saddam Hussein in Iraq, who was busily gearing up to invade his neighbor, Iran. The war unleashed there would slaughter millions of people, killed to prop up the ambitions of tinpot dictators and ayatollahs.

In the south, India was a tottering democracy, finding its feet. Politically it was the most free state in Asia, but its hundreds of millions lived mostly in poverty and were more concerned with the day to day necessities of survival than in political participation. It busied itself in border wars with Pakistan, with Bangladesh, and with China.

In the southeast, the monarchy of Thailand was adrift in a sea of dictatorships and communist states. Vietnam had been forcibly unified by its communists five years before and was in the midst of “re-educating” those foolish enough to resist Hanoi’s rule. Cambodia was emerging from the blood-soaked madness of the killing fields. Laos, too, had fallen to communism in the wake of Vietnam.

In the east, the colossus of the continent, China, was held in the grip of the Chinese Communist Party. The Cultural Revolution was just receding into the rearview mirror, and no one yet knew much of what to make of Deng Xiaoping. The northern half of the Korean peninsula was a psychotic Stalinist dictatorship, and the southern half a corrupt authoritarian military regime.

In summary, then, virtually the entire Asian mainland in 1980 was under the rule of some dictator, some king, some theocrat. The governments made war on each other and on their own people. Nowhere were people really free to govern themselves, to live their lives as they wanted to live.

Except, briefly, for Gwangju. For five days – for one brief moment in world history – Gwangju was the only free city on the Asian mainland.

On May 22, after 4 days of street fighting, the residents of Gwangju were understandably cautious about venturing out. There was no Internet in those days, no cell phones. The phone lines to the outside world had been cut the previous day, and protestors had burned the TV stations to the ground as little more than mouthpieces for regime propaganda. So, by ones and twos, and then in their threes and fours, citizens gathered cautiously on street corners and tried to piece together what was going on.

Linda Sue Lewis wrote in journal that day,

“4: 30 Lovely weather. If you just looked out, it would seem nothing was going on. I finally went out, but only as far as the corner. And talked to people. On the one hand, it is a great way to get to know your neighbors. Plenty of knots of women standing around. People are worried and tense—looking for information. On the other side—I’m tense enough myself not to want to deal with hostility. Also the atmosphere seems a little paranoid for idle chit chat. . . . People are frightened and concerned about the guns—but I don’t hear opposition to the government lessening. If anything, it is stiffening and the mood is growing more sullen. Food is harder to come by—no stores open to day. . . . The phones and electricity still work. I hear from Austin that the Huntleys report 15 dead and 100 wounded in the Presby hospital last night. Mostly from gunfire from the helicopter. That’s only 1 hospital. This is the 5th day of blood in the streets. No riot is supposed to last this long. Are there really 200,000 citizens in the streets? Not one person has asked if anyone in the US would be worried about me. But lots of people are anxious to be assured that people in the US know what is going on. I can’t figure the government’s intention. On the one hand, waiting them out makes some sense. But—the longer you leave Kwangju self-governing—what do you risk (field journal, May 22, 1980)?”

A few military helicopters circled the city, dropping leaflets, but on the ground the military had completely withdrawn. Instead, jeeps full of young men wearing bandanas and toting firearms went racing through the streets – the singmingun, or the Citizen’s Army, now the only force in the city responsible for law and order.

But, to their pride forever after, the people of Gwangju didn’t need the militia patrols to keep order. For the few days that they were a self-governing city, the people of Gwangju banded together and demonstrated a public spirit that the city would become famous for. Food was collected and distributed to everyone who needed it. Crime rates plummeted to almost nothing. Citizens printed broadsheets to keep each other informed of the situation and passed them around. When they heard that the local hospitals were desperately short of blood to treat the hundreds of injured, queues to donate stretched out the door and around the block. Even the city’s prostitutes begged to be allowed to donate, saying “We have clean blood, too!”

The streets were picked up, meals and money were donated to support the sinmingun, and the citizens began to organize themselves.

Military leadership was centered in Gwangju Park. No single individual emerged to lead the Citizen’s Army, but instead those with military experience volunteered and collaborated with each other. They trained and organized small squads, distributed weapons, and dispatched their 300-400 soldiers to various key points around the city to organize the defense against the inevitable regime counterattack. The citizens’ army had more than enough light weaponry – more than 2,000 carbines, 1,000 military-grade rifles, dozens of pistols, a handful of heavy machine guns, hand grenades, dozens of trucks and vehicles, including 5 armored personnel carriers captured from the paratroopers, radios and gas masks, even some dynamite helpfully supplied by miners from the nearby mountains. What they did not have was any heavy weaponry capable of standing up to armored forces.

Neither side wanted a bloody street battle in Gwangju. The military undoubtedly had enough force to crush the uprising, but the result would lead to heavy casualties on both sides and severe damage to the city center, to boot. Instead, the military adopted a wait and see attitude, betting that the rebellion would wither away if they could suffocate it in the city. For their part, the citizens hoped to use their leverage to negotiate a peaceful solution with the regime.

To facilitate that, early in the morning on the 22nd 15 leading citizens of Gwangju organized the Incident Settlement Committee and set up headquarters in the Provincial Hall. The seat of provincial government became busy, with personnel and operations offices in the lower floors, distributing fuel rations, organizing food, water, and electrical distribution, assigning needed tasks to citizen volunteers. Meanwhile, the Settlement Committee ventured to Martial Law Headquarters on the outskirts of town and tried to negotiate a peaceful end to the uprising. They had seven points:

  • Army troops not to re-enter the city

    Release of those detained over the 4 days of the uprising

    Acknowledgement of the soldiers’ use of excessive force

    No reprisals by the regime

    Amnesty for those who participated in the uprising

    Compensation for the dead

    If the above demands were met, the citizens would lay down their arms.

Most of the afternoon of the 22nd, the Committee negotiated with the military authorities outside the city. In the end, they were only able to win agreement on points 2 and 7 – if the citizens would begin to disarm as a gesture of good faith, the army would begin to release its prisoners. Nearly 900 would be released that evening.

While the negotiations were ongoing, thousands of citizens began to gather in the plaza at the end of Guemnamno Street, at the fountain where it meets the Provincial Office. Citizens used the fountain as a makeshift dais, giving speeches and rallying each other in support of democracy and self-determination. At 4: 00, when the Settlement Committee returned, they were greeted with cheers by the now tens of thousands of gathered people. The crowd cheered when they heard some of the results – “Let’s maintain order!” and “let’s prevent bloodshed!” But when they heard the demand to give up their guns, they grew angry. “Don’t trick us!” some shouted. They knew that the guns were the only thing that had stopped the soldiers’ massacre the day before. The conflict over firearms in Gwangju would cause a schism that would, in my opinion, ultimately doom the uprising.

As the sun sank towards the horizon and the rally was breaking up, a young Chonnam University student, Kim Chang-gil, one of the few who had somehow avoided imprisonment or death the last few days, stood up and pointed out that since it was students who had started the whole affair, it was up to students to end it, too. He gathered supportive professors and students and organized the Student Settlement Committee. While the Incident Settlement Committee negotiated with the authorities, the Student Committee organized funerals, traffic control, public information, and weapons collection. That first day, the students gathered more than 300 guns as the sinmingun began to voluntarily disarm itself.

The night was quiet for the first time since martial law was proclaimed on the 17th.

Lewis wrote on the 23rd,

“The Kwangju insurrection goes into its 6th day. Last night we all slept in the big room again, but it was probably unnecessary. No gunfire, and it is such a lovely day, again, it is hard to believe anything is going on out there. But the garbage piles up and the food goes down to rice and bean sprouts. Yesterday I contributed a can of carefully hoarded sardines. I’d like a bath. . . . M just came in with the news that soldiers had tried once again to enter the city, from the airport side . . . but were repulsed by a big fire fight with students. AFKN finally said something—that students and the army were negotiating, and some students were turning in guns (this is what Tong-nip heard yesterday). They said about 40 dead—and the government was admitting to 9. . . . You have to be proud to be from Kwangju—the only citizens with guts. Tong-nip says down here we have resistance in our blood. It may not rank up there with Tonghak [uprising of 1894], but. . . . The part I like best is how the helicopters can’t fly over because they are afraid of getting shot down. And another thing—you have to hand it to universal military training. I can’t imagine many US students would have the vaguest idea how to engage in urban guerilla war (who knows how to shoot a gun?). M reports the house behind has had several deaths.”

But that day the streets were quiet. There were skirmishes and the occasional bursts of gunfire from the besieging forces around the city (more on that next week), but in the heart of Gwangju the city was continuing to organize itself and put itself back together. The dead were gathered in a gymnasium across the plaza from the Provincial Office, a makeshift morgue, and desperate family members searched for missing loved ones among the rows of cloth-draped bodies.Remembering the day before, the democracy rally on the fountain started early that day, by 9 am, and continued throughout the day. Lee Jae-eui praised these rallies in his book, writing,

[These rallies] “in the midst of the Kwangju Uprising, during the days of the people’s liberation, consolidated the insurgents’ will to fight and gave birth to a new leadership that could give it shape. These mass rallies were the only means of reaching a broad consensus in favor of democratic protections and the right to life; they were a productive form of direct democratic process that served to clarify popular opinion. Young students had no particular problem with continuing the struggle. But ordinary citizens, and most of the masses, participated in armed resistance out of individual feelings, rather than systematically, in accordance with some unifying principle. Thus the risk grew that some of the prominent people [on the Incident Settlement Committee] could distort these people’s demands. It was essential to secure unity and solidarity in action through the mass rallies.” (Hwang Sŏk Yŏng 1985: 167).

In the Provincial Office a few meters away, the Student and Incident Settlement Committees met to discuss the days’ negotiating tactics and objectives.

That day the first rifts started to appear. Moderates urged conciliation, to continue collecting weapons in an effort to allay the military forces. Hardliners countered that the weapons were the only way they had to get revenge for the hundreds of murdered friends and family members, and how could the regime be trusted once the citizens were again disarmed? No firm decision could be reached – always a weakness of decentralized movements – and the citizens continued on more or less by inertia. They added 3 demands to their current list – that the regime stop misrepresenting the uprising as riots by “communists and gangsters,” that it give truthful reports, and that it end the siege of the city. Meanwhile, the amount of weapons collected reached 1,000, nearly a third of the sinmingun’s entire arsenal. The military, united in purpose and holding the whip hand, remained firm: no terms except immediate disarmament could be accepted. The day passed with no real resolution in the stalemate in Gwangju, but the rebellion was indeed starting to fracture from its own internal stresses, as the military calculated.

“Why aren’t we going out? says father. Well, it isn’t because we are afraid— we aren’t, anymore. In fact, the downtown is safe right now and stores are open. The problem is that the authorities (i.e., the guys in the planes [dropping leaflets on the city]) are saying to stay inside. So if we go out, people will see us, and when this is all over, we’ll be accused of having taken part. . . . 4: 30 Went to [a friend’s], talked, and came back safely; [things are] more “nor mal,” but not so many stores open as I had expected. Still, tension arms had to be given back. It was extended until 6. We’ll see what happens. . . . It is harder and harder to do things. I tie and retie knots. I read some. I talk to the family. I can’t write letters. I can’t study. I don’t even want to think about my project. . . . 7: 00 p.m. It’s raining. People worry that the students will get wet and chilled. The word is—the students say that they’ll be killed whether they give up their guns or not, so why give them up. Right on. I think popular sentiment is with them (field journal, May 24, 1980).” – Linda Sue Lewis, field diary.

The 24th saw the fissures widen. The popular unity of the uprising continued. Citizens of every walk of life – including government employees, bureaucrats and teachers, who would lose their jobs if they were publicly associated with the rebellion – thronged the Plaza as they did every day, where speeches in support of democracy, an end to Korea’s decades of military rule, in support of human rights, and an end to Chun Doo-hwan’s bloody suppression of Gwangju, were given every hour. The shops were open, there was food and water and power for all, and the city was as safe as it had ever been. These were the days of Free Gwangju.

But at the top, the split between the moderates, who counselled surrender, and the hardliners, who favored continued resistance, became irreconcilable. The weapons collection program had reached more than half of all the guns in Gwangju, and angry radicals charged the moderates with selling out the city. Surrender was unthinkable. It would mean a betrayal of the hundreds of innocent dead. It would mean that the people of Gwangju would be apologizing for the losses they had suffered from the military – as if they had brought this violence on themselves!

The moderates continued to hope for a peaceful resolution, finding promise in their meetings with the martial law authorities. Had they not obtained the release of most of the prisoners? Had they not successfully staved off a military counterattack, which had been expected for days now, yet failed to materialize? Surely the United States and the free people of the world, who so loudly proclaimed their support of democracy and human rights, would see the plight of Gwangju and intervene to protect the innocent citizens.

Rain fell heavily that night. The Settlement committees dissolved in a swirl of acrimony and dissension, and most of the moderates left, including Kim Chang-gil, never to return. In their place the hardliners formed the Citizen’s and Student’s Fighting Committees, and began to prepare for a last stand. In the night, cold, wet, and dispirited members of the sinmingun began to turn in their arms and drift away home.

“May 25 Day 8 of the Kwangju insurrection. Rainy all day long. The expected gun¤re in the night didn’t come. Kwangju has become a media event, and all the foreigners were out today. M and I went down early to the prov. office. The safest day yet—lots and lots of people. The funeral was supposed to be at 3. They had the bodies in the gym [Sangmugwan] and were letting family members in to see them. Normal people out today—men in suits, lots of women. M saw lots of her friends (“So-and-so’s daughter died.” —“Oh, no, the one who lives [at] such-and-such?” —“Yes. But wasn’t she young?” — “Yes, only about 3d year middle school.”) And so it went, M picking up bits and pieces all around, and I doing the same. I got interviewed for French TV—they were really nice. then we are led by law-abiding people, not gangs roaming the streets. We evidently are big news, and have been. M dragged me over to talk to a blasé CBS cameraman. . . . I had lots of questions for him, but I don’t think he knew shit. No, the rest of the country is not demonstrating. Yes, the US govt is firmly supporting Chun. People clamored to have me ask what the world thought of Kwangju. . . . I did pick up lots of news, all told. A group of clergy put the body count at 172, with over 800 injured. New rumors—Chun isn’t strong enough to come in. Chun is just waiting to come in. Nothing is going on in the rest of the country. Oh, the funeral itself. Well. It didn’t really happen. It turned into a rally. They had 52 bodies there—from one hospital? Supposedly only 1/3 dead were students. The whole square and more was filled. People all over. M said—surely one from every house. Military vehicles manned by students in makeshift, semi-uniform. We sang songs, heard speeches. Then it started to rain, so we came home, stopping first at the market, which is getting better, but still limited. [The] egg lady says [it is] still hard to get goods in. M got a chicken. . . . Got home to find F had stolen all my hot water for his own bath. Had a long political discussion with Tong-nip. I just don’t know at all what will happen. I can’t believe it has lasted this long. I don’t know how it could end. People have cleaned the place up, order seems to be holding. Students have up signs: the eyes of the world are on us, so behave yourselves and don’t mess it up. The missionaries say 95% of the weapons have been turned in to the students. 10 Will this deteriorate into a farce? Who knows. I think something has to happen.

Well, just took a break to go in and listen to the President on the 9 p.m. news. It is just like with Nixon—everyone sits around and snorts and boos and says—the bastard. They had pictures of Gwangju—but all misrep- resentative. Focusing on the trucks of students. Showing empty streets, and saying people were afraid they would be killed if they went out. . . . We are so used to saying what we want down here, it is hard to get paranoid again. On the streets, I kept forgetting to be careful about what I was saying. I am sure people were wandering around, checking up, trying to listen and remember. I should be careful. Field journal, May 25, 1980).”

By May 25, the Uprising was now a week old, and the city had been free of military forces for 4 days. But the rebels were fracturing under the strain – there was no way out of their situation. The uprising had failed to spread beyond Jeolla. No rising in Busan, in Daegu, or in Seoul. The military had gathered overwhelming forces outside the city. While the rallies continued even through the rain, the moderates had given up hope of a negotiated solution. The hardliners spent the day digging in and preparing for possibly a lengthy siege. The next day, the military would begin to re-enter the city and put a final end to the uprising.

Next time, I’ll detail just what the military was up to during these 4 days, both immediately outside Gwangju and in Seoul – and the role of the United States.

*The thing about domino theory is that it wasn’t actually wrong.

Gwangju had long since run out of coffins.


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