Week 7: Paying tribute at the May 18th Memorial

Gwangju Travel Blog

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Me and Young Im at the May 18th National Cemetary.

Today Young Im took me to visit the May 18th Memorial, a site which commemorates May 18th, 1980, the day on which a democratic uprising began in Gwangju.  The uprising was held in response to a military junta that had taken over the government in a coup d'etat and thwarted the promise of establishing a democratic government in South Korea.  Hundreds of university students and professors in Gwangju protested the government's suppression of the people's wishes for a democracy.  What originated as a peaceful protest quickly became stricken with terror and chaos as the thousands of korean troops deployed to Gwangju opened fire on the unarmed protestors.  For 10 days the conflict lasted during which time marshall law reigned. Anyone caught in the streets was beaten and arrested.

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  Men, women, children and even the elderly were killed mercilessly.  Years later this event became known as the Gwangju Massacre.

Young Im told me that the day before the uprising began she was told to leave work and go home.  Her office was in the downtown financial district, just a few hundred feet from where the massacre would take place.  She said many other Gwangju residents were told to stay in their homes.  Once the turbulent events began she had know way of knowing what was going on.  All public transportation was shut down.  Telephone communication and radio and tv broadcasts were terminated.  The government made every effort to keep those involved in the uprising from contacting others for aid.  A few days after the uprising began Young Im was overcome with curiosity so she walked over an hour from her parents' home in the countryside toward the city to learn what was happening.

  A group of protestors had broken into a munitions store room located just outside of the city and distributed firearms.  The protestors refused to continue being savagely attacked by the troops and so they took it upon themselves to find the means to fight back. 

In the end close to two thousand citizens of Gwangju were killed.  In an effort to quickly put the recent events behind them the troops were ordered to throw all of the corpses into garbage trucks and quickly bury them in shallow graves.  Family members were not even given a chance to identify their deceased loved ones.

 For years after the incident the government continued to propagate the story that the event was nothing more than a disorderly rebellion and it claimed that no one was injured.  After the uprising many of the soldiers who had been involved revealed that they were not told where they were being taken on May 18th.

  They had been under the impression that there was a conflict with North Korea and they were being taken to the border to settle the dispute.  Many of them had no idea that they were in Gwangju beating their own countrymen.

It wasn't until 1997 that the May 18th Uprising graves were exhumed and the victims were taken to the newly built May 18th National Cemetery. 

I was deeply moved by the stories I heard about the Gwangju Massacre.  It's hard to believe that this happened less than 30 years ago.  Now when I walk through the streets in downtown Gwangju I try to imagine the horrific events that took place there.  I've seen the pictures of tanks rolling down the streets and bodies littering the sidewalks .  I've heard from Young Im about her friends who died in the Uprising. I'm extremely thankful that now the people of Gwangju are at peace and finally have a democratic government they can be proud of.


Check out these sites to learn more about the May 18th Uprising:

A BBC News Article recounting the events of May 18th


The Official May 18th Memorial Site


Information about a recently released movie based on the Democratic Uprising


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Me and Young Im at the May 18th Na…
Me and Young Im at the May 18th N…
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photo by: khartl731