The Kwangju Uprising
Chun's hard-line policy led to a confrontation in Kwangju, a
city of 600,000 people located 170 miles south of Seoul, in South
Cholla Province, the scene of an uprising and bloodbath between
May 18 and 27. As noted in a report issued by the Martial Law
Command, the students and "hot-blooded young soldiers" confronted
each other, angry citizens joined in, driven by alleged rumors
that the "soldiers of Kyongsang Province origin came to
exterminate the seeds of the Cholla people."
The Kwangju massacre was to became an important landmark in
the struggle for South Korean democracy. It heightened provincial
hostility and marked the beginning of the rise of anti-American
sentiment in South Korea.
According to the report, the sequence of events was triggered
by student demonstrations on the morning of May 18 in defiance of
the new edict. Some 200 Chonnam University students began
demonstrating in the morning and by 2:00 P.M. they had been
joined by more than 800 additional demonstrators. City police
were unable to control the crowd. At about 4:00 P.M., the Martial
Law Command dispatched a Special Forces detachment consisting of
paratroopers trained for assault missions. The report did not
mention it, but the paratroopers killed a large number of people.
On May 20, some 10,000 people demonstrated in Kwangju. On May
21, the Special Forces were withdrawn and the city was left to
the rioters. A memorial service was held on May 24, with
approximately 15,000 citizens in attendance.
On May 25, approximately 50,000 people gathered for a rally
and adopted a resolution calling for the abolition of martial law
and the release of Kim Dae Jung. A committee of leading citizens
was organized on May 23 to try to settle the impasse, but "impure
elements" and "maneuverers behind the scene" allegedly obstructed
an effective solution. On May 27, at 3:30 A.M., an army division
that had been circling the city for three days launched an
attack. After light skirmishes, the army quashed the revolt in
less than two hours. The army arrested 1,740 rioters, of whom 730
were detained for investigation.
A number of conclusions can be drawn from the Martial Law
Command's account. The uprising started with student
demonstrations. The Martial Law Command dispatched assault troops
whose random killings angered citizens who had not participated
in the initial student demonstrations. According to later reports
by the command, nearly 200 persons were killed, including 22
soldiers and 4 policemen; of the 144 civilians killed, only 17
died on the final day of assault. And, regardless of who spread
the "wanton rumors," they evidently were credible enough to
prompt the gathering of 50,000 Kwangju citizens.
Chun, touring the city after the revolt had ended, told the
people of Kwangju not to make an issue of what had happened, but
to learn from it. The specter of Kwangju, however, was to haunt
him for years to come.
There were several aftereffects resulting from the Kwangju
incident. It deepened the chasm that had existed between the
Kyongsang provinces (from which Park and Chun originated) and the
Cholla provinces, of which Kwangju is a capital and from which
the opposition leader Kim Dae Jung came
(see Population Settlement Patterns
, ch. 2). The United States' role also was
controversial. General John A. Wickham, Jr., had released South
Korean troops from the South Korea-United States Combined Forces
Command to end the rebellion; President Reagan had strongly
endorsed Chun's actions
(see Relations with the United States
, ch. 4).
Data as of June 1990