The Lost Democracy Generation

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What caused the Gwangju Massacre of May 1980?

May 18th rolls around with less fanfare each year, as we move further away from live memories of the bloody Gwangju Uprising. During Korea’s version of Tiananmen Square, defiant ordinary citizens fought back against military police to protest General Chun Doo-hwan’s coup d’etat to install himself as the new president in 1980. South Koreans had just endured 18 years of General turned President Park Chung-hee, who started his dictatorship with a coup d’etat of his own in 1961.

Here was finally a chance to move forward with a real democracy with votes that weren’t rigged and a legislature not controlled by the “president”. But the 10-day massacre, which was supported by the U.S. military and never fully acknowledged by the South Korean government until 2018, left an infected, betrayed wound in South Korea’s western capital. For the first time, large-scale anti-American sentiment spread throughout the nation, especially among liberal circles.

These days, the 10-day massacre has turned into a political litmus test of whether you’re a leftist ‘Westerner’ or right-wing ‘Easterner’. Like the use of many other historical events, the fixation on the Gwangju Uprising gives footing to launch political attacks against your opponents today rather than really reflecting and atoning for the past.

For the men and women who saw a chance at freedom get snatched by another military regime, lost hope and bitterness were left imprinted on their hearts and psyche. They were the lost democracy generation.

If you feel injustice over a government cover up, you are labeled a communist leftist. If you feel like we should bury the past and honor all of Korea’s leaders, even its dictators, then you’re labeled a far-right authoritarian.

How did it get to a bloody massacre?

Climate of Mass Anti-Government Protests: Starting the year before in 1979, large protests, especially among college students, popped up around the country in opposition to the repressive Park Chung-hee dictatorship. The less popular Park grew, the more abusive his practices became and people had become fed up. President Park started mulling widespread crackdowns of demonstrations regardless of the death toll to his own citizens.

Power Vacuum: President Park Chung-hee was assassinated on October 26, 1979 by his own Director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency. For weeks, the succession of power remained on shaky ground because President Park had redesigned the constitution earlier that decade to ensure that he could rule for the rest of his lifetime. Korea’s prime minister assumed the temporary role of president at the beginning of December.

Sneaky Power Chess: General Chun Doo-hwan was ordered to lead the investigation into the assassination of President Park. In one clever move, he took control of the nation’s powerful intelligence agencies because he was investigating the head of the KCIA as the assassin. All budgets would be approved by his new investigation unit and all intelligence briefings would go to him first. Then, he made sure to convict and get rid of anyone who wasn’t loyal to him by sticking insurrection charges against them, since he was the head of the assassination investigation after all.

General Chun’s Coup d’Etat: Though he accused KCIA Director Kim Jae-gyu of assassinating President Park to seize power, Chun himself made this move by orchestrating a coup d’etat on December 12, 1979 just six days after the prime minister took the acting president position. He arrested Army Chief of Staff Jeong Seung-hwa (who gave him the job of leading the assassination investigation) on charges of conspiring with Kim Jae-kyu to assassinate the President. He took control over the military, gave himself a promotion in rank, and also made himself the KCIA Director.

Testing out the Cushions in the Blue House: Though the prime minister was still the acting president, it was clear he was going to muscle his way through once he solidified power. With control of the military and intelligence, he expanded martial law to the entire country. He exaggerated the threat of a North Korea intervention and installed himself in the Blue House, Korea’s presidential residence and headquarters. Then a little problem in Gwangju got in the way of his master plan.


Poverty. Imprisonment. Corruption.

Life in a dictatorship isn’t fair and there’s not much you can do about it. That’s why when President Park Chung-hee was assassinated, there was a window of opportunity for South Korea’s democracy to course correct. When it appeared martial law would usher in another generation of military dictatorship, the citizens of Gwangju took up arms and rebelled against the military police occupying their city.

“On 17 May 1980, Chun expanded martial law to the entire country, due to rumors of North Korean infiltration into South Korea. To enforce the martial law, troops were dispatched to various parts of the nation. The KCIA manipulated these rumors under the command of Chun.” 

“The expanded martial law closed universities, banned political activities and further curtailed the press. To enforce the martial law, troops were dispatched to various parts of the nation. On the same day, the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) raided a national conference of student union leaders from 55 universities.[1] About 2,700 people, including twenty-six politicians, were also arrested.”

Well, on May 18th Gwangju wasn’t having any more of that. Students clashed with police. Then paratroopers were called in. Both demonstrators and innocent onlookers were severely clubbed to death. Public bus and taxi drivers led a motor blockade and transported the injured to the hospital. Soldiers sprayed bullets at the crowds and threw tear gas at the cars to lure drivers out so they could beat them.

The Provincial Office became ground zero of the fighting with heavy gunfire exchanged between civilian militias and the army. By May 22, the army blockaded transportation and communication lines into and out of the city. Still, news of the uprising leaked out and protests exploded in other regions of the country.

Negotiations between civilians and the army lurched and stalled. By May 27, five army divisions reinvaded the city and defeated the citizens within 90 minutes. Part of the attack was the horrific use of machine gunfire from helicopter aircraft to kill citizens. The government had denied this for decades. But a government panel in 2018 confirmed this crime against humanity.

This undated handout photo taken in May 1980 and provided by the 5.18 Memorial Foundation on May 15, 2020 shows a soldier beating a man during pro-democracy protests in the southern city of Gwangju. – On May 18, 1980 demonstrators protesting dictator Chun Doo-hwan’s declaration of martial law confronted his troops and 10 days of violence ensued. But conservatives in the South still condemn the uprising as a Communist-inspired rebellion backed by the North, while left-leaning President Moon Jae-in wants to enshrine it in the constitution.

Warning for the United States

Though the January 6, 2021 Capitol Riots could be seen as a half-baked insurrection by a majority of rioters inexperienced in the art of overthrowing a government, it was a coup d’etat no doubt about it. Consider it a test run and an introductory offer. If you let this slide, the next one will be more savvy, organized and perhaps successful.

Look to the elements of the Korean model. It doesn’t take too many more steps from where you’re at to gather the threads necessary. One more term of Trump would definitely have been able to do get the institutional moles in place.

Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as they storm the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6. ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images

Remember, the rioters were looking for Pence and Pelosi – the figurehead of the Senate and the head of the House. Capturing those two takes out the legislative branch. Removing the people’s instrumental voice in government is what the dictators of Korea did as one of their first moves. Dictators remove checks and balances structurally. Then they move on to murder those who aren’t loyal to them. Do you really want all this drama if you can avoid it?

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