Sunday, May 17, 2020

May 18, 1980 Korea

This year marks the 40th year of the democratization movement in Gwangju on May 18,1980. It was a peaceful protest by college students and citizens who demanded democratization, but the military government responded with force by sending airborne troops to Gwangju. The news of these events has been publicized widely within the Catholic media during this month of May. The Catholic Peace Weekly mentioned it in its editorial and featured articles.

The events that took place in Gwangju for about 10 days from May 18th to 27th, are disputed and not fully understood. The Archdiocese of Gwangju continued the spirit of May 18 by taking the lead in spreading the truth of May 18. They recall the activities and roles of the church around May 18th, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the May 18th Gwangju Democratization Movement.

On May 18, 1980, protests centered on college students gathered in front of Chonnam National University were no different than other parts of the country. It was a period of student protests that shouted for democracy across the country after the 12/26 murder of President 
Park Chung-hee and the 12/12 military take over. The difference from Gwangju on this day was that the people who suppressed the protests were soldiers, not the police.

On May 17, the new military government expanded martial law, dispatched airborne troops to Chonnam National University, Chosun University, and Chonbuk National University and began to attack students. Innocent citizens were no exception. The soldiers randomly beat, trampled, and imprisoned many all over downtown Gwangju. There was no distinction between men and women in the bludgeons and swords wielded by airborne troops. In a short time, the street became a frenzied battlefield.

Citizens who were indifferent to student protests also began to join the protests in anger at the ruthless violence of soldiers. As the number of citizens participating in the protests increased, the airborne troops did not hesitate to shoot. Citizens also began to arm themselves against the shooting. The soldiers retreated to the outskirts of Gwangju on the 22nd and re-entered the city on the 26th with a tank in front.

The citizens of Gwangju were angry. The merciless response of soldiers of a different level from previous, evoked rage and fear at the same time. Priests were no different. However, watching young people and citizens bleed and fall in front of their eyes, the priests began to take steps to achieve a peaceful settlement.

On May 21, some of the parish priests participated in the Gwangju  Citizen Response Committee, and the negotiations with the martial law command took the lead in recovering the weapons possessed by the citizens. There were citizens who responded to violence to the end, but the priests pushed for nonviolent resistance.

At that time, Archbishop Yoon of the Gwangju Archdiocese was busy moving between Seoul and Gwangju. In close contact with the parish priests, he told Cardinal Kim of the Seoul Archdiocese, what happened in Gwangju, who sent a letter to President
Choi Gyu-ha.

However, Archbishop Yoon's heart was always heavy. He later recalled May 18 and said he regretted countless times and prayed for forgiveness to God for seeing people who had been assaulted by the soldiers and bleeding outside the Catholic Center in the middle of the city and was too afraid to go outside. This was always a source of great sadness to the Archbishop.

This sadness of heart was a debt that many had who survived the May 18 Democratization Movement. On the other hand, however, it was also the driving force that motivated many to make known the truth and continued the spirit of May 18.

The new military, which led the suppression of May 18, defined May 18 as a Gwangju riot caused by mob-controlled rioters aiming at social turmoil and state overthrow. It was prohibited to mention or report on May 18 other than what the government allowed. Attempts to conceal the May 18 Democratization Movement revealed what the new military thought of May 18.


It was the Catholic Church that steadily and courageously voiced the truth. Archbishop Yoon visited Cardinal Kim Soo-hwan to report the situation in Gwangju, and when he heard this, Cardinal Kim met with Chun Doo-hwan and US Ambassador Gleysteen and asked to stop the bloodshed. Archbishop Yoon sent a message to believers requesting prayers and to report the situation in Gwangju. 

The Gwangju Archdiocesan priests made efforts to correct the government's false announcements and distorted reality in June by announcing the statement 'The Truth About the Gwangju Incident'. In the talks during the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Korean War, Cardinal Kim comforting the grief of the citizens of Gwangju, said he hopes the situation will be resolved fairly and honestly according to the truth.

Archbishop Kim Hee-jung of the Gwangju Archdiocese said in a recent interview, "The spirit of the May 18th Democratization Movement should not stay in Gwangju. The value of democracy, peace, human rights, and reunification of May 18 must be spread as values ​​of the world."

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