Snowcapped mountains surrounded the city. Winter was certainly in the air, with a front promising more precipitation to most of Korea for the weekend. A visit to the Gwangju 518 Memorial in Sangmu District placed my thoughts on a different time and situation in Korea. Known by so many different names, this struggle for human rights started South Korea on a path towards a more peaceful existence. My move to Gwangju was akin to re-enrolling in school, forcing a reformation of my thoughts on this part of Asia.
This Gwangju travel guide is part of our series on South Korea Travel and East Asia Travel. It was originally created on December 19, 2014. It has been maintained and updated (as of December 28, 2018) to reflect current viewpoints and travel trends.
Could we just sit by and do nothing while our neighbors and friends were being beaten and killed before our eyes? – Witness account, the May 18th Massacre. Taken from “The Kwangju Uprising – An Inside View,” Korean Studies 11 (1987), pp. 33-57.
I don’t remember the first time the Gwangju Uprising came up in conversation but the city’s fighting spirit became absolutely clear to me. Living a few bus stops away from Sangmu led to frequent revisits of a revolutionary tale. A trip downtown once led me to a rally against a free trade agreement that Korea was set to join with the United States. Some might look to Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square as a mouthpiece for change in Korea but when there’s discontent in the southwest, Gwangju is where the fire burns brightest.
Upon leaving the city, I’d long wanted to see the 518 again and walk around. December in Gwangju offers gorgeous views of the mountains surround the city. Kids found a nice spot near the Memorial Statue to use a starting point for their sleds, though the bottom led to a dangerous-looking wall of bamboo trees. Friends strolled through the trails surrounding the center. Seeing such an important place in person and witnessing this park on such a sunny day couldn’t help me forget a much darker time in Korea once existed; distinct from the destructive war and colonial period before.
The 1970s started Korea’s Han Miracle but also continued dictatorship and constant rewrites (0r abuses) to the already fragile constitution. In some places like Gwangju, the times meant martial law and lack of freedom. Students and workers alike grew restless, choosing to fight for something they’d yet to taste – Democracy. It all came months after Korea’s most famous (or infamous) president/dictator was assassinated and power was moving to yet another military strongman.
Students and citizens had long been demonstrating for their rights but the situation erupted into bloodshed starting on May 18th, 1980. Who started the violence? Claims differ depending on the storyteller but at least 200 people died during the standoff. Protestors held sticks and stones at best while the military brought guns and bayonets. Lives were taken and the military eventually suppressed the protestors but the spirit of Gwangju kept churning. The Gwangju 518 Memorial serves as a reminder of that but for further proof, one just needs to go and see the city in person. Gwangju doesn’t allow its citizens and even visitors a chance to forget.
Memories of that day surround the city almost like Mt. Mudeung guards it from ill will. Even during a recent visit, songs continue to ring for newer causes. This time, they demand answers and action from the government regarding the tragic Sewol ferry disaster. Protestors charge through the downtown alleys at night. Peaceful yet still passionate, their voices hope to change some big problems that I don’t understand as an outsider. That fight for change has always been here and will never go away.
“The (G)wangju Incident is widely considered to be a watershed in modern Korean politics.” – Tim Warnberg.
Many people have covered the events surrounding May 18th and a ceremony is held every year to commemorate the events between that day and May 27th, 1980. The Gwangju May 18th Memorial Foundation also awards a prize for Human Rights, with notable winners including Aung San Su Kyi of Myanmar. The Gwangju 518 movement’s importance is crucial to the Korea that we know today and honestly, I look at the struggle as a gift given to the Korean people. The Gwangju 518 Memorial stands as a testament to the fight and spirit that lives on in Gwangju. I hope that it never dies because if it does, trouble might be brewing ahead.