May 18th Democratic Uprising

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Historic Implications of May 18th Democratic Uprising

The May 18th Democratic Uprising is the beacon of democracy!

The May 18th Democratic Uprising refers to a popular movement in the city of Gwangju during which citizens rose up against Jeon Duhwan's illegal military dictatorship and called for democracy. In the course of the Democratic Uprising and in the absence of the police, citizens showed a higher level of citizenship as evidenced by the fact that there were no reports of thefts in such places as financial institutes or jewelry shops. In addition, the endless queue to donate blood for the injured demonstrated great citizenship and a great community was formed to help. This movement was filled with such unprecedented struggles which were ultra-rational and ultra-ethical. After civil rule was reinstated, the incident received recognition as an effort to defend democracy from military usurpation.

After continuous calls from the public for a truth-finding investigation into the May 18th Democratic Uprising, former presidents Jeon Duhwan, Roh Taeu and 17 others were convicted for their connections with the December 12, 1979 coup, the Gwangju Movement. A national cemetery was constructed ,and a day of commemoration was held (on May 18th), and acts to compensate and restore honor to victims were carried out.

The Gwangju Democratic Movement gave a chance to highlight the immorality of the fifth republic which inherited the Yushin regime of former president Park Jeonghui, collapsed the regime and became the trigger of a power shift over 50 years and the birth of the civil government.

Finally, this movement respected the tradition of autonomy, democracy and peace, all of which were shown in the past public resistances and was recorded as a symbolic struggle to preserve human rights in the development of democracy in modern Korean history.

Cause and Development of the May 18th Democratic Uprising

Gwangju, Cross of our Nation! The City of Eternal Youth!

On October 26, 1979, the former president Park Jeong-hui, who was in power for 18 years after staging a coup d' etat, was shot to death by Kim Jaegyu, who was then Director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency. After the collapse of the Yushin dictatorship, political officers with ROK Army General Jeon Duhwan at the center took control of the government through another coup d'état on December 12.

With the beginning of a new semester in March 1980, professors and students led nationwide demonstrations for an array of reforms, including a restoration of student unions, an end to martial law and the ousting of the remnants of the Yushin regime, venting their frustrations for political democratization in earnest. In response, the government took several suppressive measures. On May 17, 1980, the new military regime expanded martial law to the whole nation, a measure directly opposed to the public’s aspiration for democracy that continued after October 26, 1979. Military troops were engaged and an operation called ”Lavish Holiday” was put into place in Gwangju.

This was the moment that gave rise to the protest against the martial law in Gwangju, where the aspiration for democracy was at its peak and with university students at the forefront. The trigger of the movement was the incident at the gate of Chonnam National University at 10 a.m. on May 18th. Students who were suppressed by martial troops moved downtown to Geumnamno (the street leading to the Jeollanam-do Provincial Office) area. Witnesses say soldiers clubbed and arrested both demonstrators and onlookers.

The violence of the troops infuriated the citizens and caused them to enter the protest. High school students in Gwangju joined the protest and about 200 taxis drove toward the provincial office to meet. That same day, angry protesters burned down the local MBC station, which had misreported the situation currently unfolding in Gwangju. The violence climaxed on May 21. At about 1 p.m., the army fired at a protesting crowd gathered in front of the Jeollanam-do Province Office, causing casualties. In response, some protesters raided armories and police stations in nearby towns and armed themselves with M1 rifles and carbines. During the protest, Gwangju was isolated from the outside world.

The citizens tried to expand the protest across Jeollanam-do to give information about the situation that was happening in Gwangju. In the meantime, the Citizens' Settlement Committee, formed by folks from every walk of life, negotiated with the army demanding the release of arrested citizens, compensation for victims and prohibition of retaliation, all in exchange for the disarmament of militias. The negotiations came to a deadlock, and on May 27, martial troops led by tanks took control of the Jeonnam provincial office, where leading protesters resisted to the bitter end. The May 18th Democratic Uprising came to conclusion after many lives were claimed over its 10-day duration. This was a frustrating moment of ruthless infringement on democracy.

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