What I’ve Learned About Gwangju

On the day of the Gwangju Democratization Movement on May 18, 1980, North Korean state radio and television sent breaking news about a “Gwangju People’s Uprising.” It was a great shock for all the people of North Korea that the South Korean military was shooting and wielding clubs against their own civilians.

At that time, they called the incident the “Gwangju People’s Uprising.” The North Korean authorities explained that South Chosun (Korea) military fascists, backed and controlled by the U.S., had dispatched an airborne corps to massacre the civilians. Thus, the main enemy was the U.S. imperialists. Pyongyang also stressed that this incident stemmed from the people’s desire for reunification.

That period, mid-May, 1980, was a really busy time full of farm support activities, but all of a sudden we heard the announcer on the cable broadcast report excitedly, “South Chosun students and civilians are rioting in Gwangju!”

From May 18 to 28, North Korean state media reported on Gwangju continuously, intensively, every day. Features on Gwangju citizens and students, including the cruel and aggressive soldiers, were a tremendous shock to us.

The North Korean authorities reported that South Korean tanks had crushed countless citizens, and that soldiers on drugs had visited incredible cruelties on women, including the pregnant. Following the propaganda, North Korean people felt indescribable hostility towards the Chun Doo Hwan junta of the time.

However, after getting to South Korea I realized that the Gwangju Democratization Movement had not come about due to a deep desire for unification, but just as resistance against the military dictatorship.

Furthermore, in the process of forceful suppression by the military authorities, it was true that there had been many casualties and deaths from the shooting, but I figured out that most of the North Korean propaganda about the incident had been heavily exaggerated.

In North Korea, since 1980, they have held an annual mass rally to cherish the memory of the victims of the People’s Uprising. The participants read a statement and shout slogans denouncing the South Korean puppets and the U.S.

It is hard for North Korean people to accept different views besides those the regime releases through TV or other media. Therefore, for me as a middle school student at the time, I thought the South Korean uprising was the South Chosun students’ and people’s struggle for independence from the American imperialists, as our propaganda told us.

Although all kinds of regulation, monitoring, public executions, violations of human rights in political prison camps and other horrible abuses are practiced in North Korea all the time, North Korean people accept these daily violations as natural, yet the repressive measure by the South Korean military authorities enraged us.

Some North Korean people, laboring under the false reporting, said that the North Korean military should go into South Korea and achieve unification for the communists. Various rumors circulated unchecked, like “the North has dispatched secret agents to the South, so they will make a difference.”

In truth, the Gwangju Democratization Movement of May 18th was a social movement in South Jeolla Province urging Commander Chun Doo Hwan to cease military rule, establish a democratic government, and end martial law.

What was the reason why North Korea did not release the real essence of the incident itself? This was simply because the North Korean regime was neither willing nor able to explain the meanings of democracy and dictatorship.

They propagated the idea that Kim Il Sung was the Great Leader above all else, but from the perspective of democracy he was just another dictator.

If North Korean residents could understand the spirit of the May 18th Democratization Movement exactly, the target of their wrath would surely be the Kim Jong Il regime itself.