South Korean President Moon Jae-in wipes away a tear during May 18 events memorializing a massacre by South Korean soldiers in the city of Gwangju. Photo: AFP

Four decades after a massacre of civilians by special force troops in May 1980, South Korean President Moon Jae-in stood on the spot where the blood was spilled and vowed a full accounting.

“We will make sure not a single person is left behind,” he said in a televised speech outside the former Provincial Government Building in the city of Gwangju on Monday. “Complete disclosure of the facts cannot be stopped … it will be the foundation of unity.”

The event now known as “The Gwangju Uprising” or the “Gwangju Massacre” will be made “part of our proud history,” Moon said.

Even now, 40 years later, South Korea has not fully recovered politically or psychologically from a perfect political storm that broke over Gwangju, a southwestern Korean city. Multiple factors converged to lethal effect. 

Following the assassination of ex-general and President Park Chung-hee in October 1979, an ambitious general, Chun Do-hwan, undertook a creeping power grab. Citizens of Gwangju who had been politically and economically disfavored under Park’s 18-year rule rose and demanded democratic governance.

Chun deployed the special forces to quell the challenge to his authority. Details of exactly what happened next remain hazy, but the overall narrative is clear.

“Black beret” airborne rangers used brutal force. Protesters fought back. Shots were fired. Gwangju citizens raided armories and after chaotic street fighting, forced the ranger battalions from the city on May 21.

For days, Gwangju was in open rebellion with its citizenry openly supportive of the rebels. Seoul marshaled more troops and blockaded the city. Mediation failed.

On May 27, the army stormed in with massive force. The hardcore of the uprising was wiped out in a last stand at the Provincial Government Building where Moon spoke on Monday.

Smoke rises over the city of Gwangju and pro-democracy protesters mass in the street as a military helicopter flies overhead in this photo from May 1980. Photo; AFP

Bloody memories

Ahn Hae-kyun, now a Seoul-based financier, was a 10-year-old in Gwangju at the time. “We did not go to school, so I was at home,” he said, recalling his surprise to see news footage of Gwangju buildings ablaze.  

“H” – who spoke to Asia Times on condition of anonymity and who is now a successful entrepreneur in Seoul – was a solider in one of the special forces battalions that flew to Gwangju in a C-130 to reinforce comrades in the city.

“We arrived at Songjong-ri airport at night time. We thought it was just a riot. We had rifles, we did not have bullets,” he said. “We had heard that [the protesters] were very violent, they were taking rifles and that sort of thing. We thought, well, this is our job, this is special forces.”

As the black berets went by bus from the airport to the city, a vehicle approached. “We thought it was local soldiers coming to escort us – but they were firing!” he said. “We jumped out of the bus, ran and hid in the rice paddies.” After the rebel vehicle drove off, “H’s” unit regrouped and headed into Gwangju.

There, the reality of the situation was becoming clear as the civilian casualty count rose.

“I was living next to a hospital and on the street, I saw trucks and buses with people in pull up,” Ahn said. “There were lots of injured people, coming in, and dead people covered by the national flag.”

Ahn watched tracer bullets arcing across the night sky. Though it was a warm May, his parents tacked heavy blankets across the windows in a vain attempt to stop bullets.

“H” had no idea how the fighting in the city started. “My guess is that the military opened fire, so civilians attacked the police to be armed,” he said. “I think that is what happened.”

He admitted the black berets were enraged after taking casualties. “They were demanding that commanders issue them bullets,” he said. However, he added that there was a friendly fire incident in which two ranger units opened fire on each other. Some troops subsequently faced court martials over this.

With Seoul controlling all domestic media reports from Gwangju, it was left to a handful of foreign correspondents to tell the story. US reporter Don Kirk infiltrated the area by taking a taxi through country back roads.

Overhead were military helicopters, dropping leaflets and broadcasting messages over loudspeakers, urging “brothers and sisters” to return to their homes.

Inside the besieged city, Kirk remembers being deeply impressed by the spirit of the predominantly young rebels.

“I remember when they took over the governor’s office they were giving out press cards and some of them spoke quite good English and this one young guy gave a very, very impassioned speech about their determination,” Kirk told Asia Times. “I never saw him again.”

The aftermath of the city’s storming was remembered widely.

“After it was all over, there were all these pine coffins lined up outside the Provincial Government Building,” Kirk said. “People were peering in, trying to identify their loved ones.”

“I was smart, so I got out of the on-site recovery team,” “H” said. “They were recovering hands and legs …”

Ahn had a more prosaic memory. On the way to school, he recalled collecting the empty cartridge cases scattered on the streets.

Unanswered questions

Today, with a left-wing government installed in Seoul and fully empowered after winning a landslide in legislative elections in April, a new fact-finding commission, the May 18 Democratization Movement Commission, has been inaugurated. It started work on May 12.

This means a range of questions that previous investigations had not addressed may finally be answered.

Who gave the special forces the order to open fire? Who provided them with live ammunition? Were helicopters used as firing platforms? Were there cover-ups and fabrications in the months and years since?

And are the body counts accurate? Early official counts totaled 170 civilians, police and soldiers killed, but an association of bereaved family members in Gwangju says there were 241 dead and missing civilians alone. Other estimates range from the high hundreds to 2,000.

Young people make clear their support for protesters in Gwangju in May 1980. Photo: Mar del Este/Wikipedia Commons

A brighter heritage

Though official news about Gwangju was heavily suppressed, as details leaked out, a nationwide student movement grew in the 1980s, protesting against the Chun regime on campuses and streets drenched in “Seoul perfume,” or tear gas.  

The tipping point came in 1987. After two students were killed – one under secret-police interrogation and one from a flying tear-gas grenade during a demonstration – South Korea’s middle class stood up.

Housewives and salarymen joined students on the streets. With the riot police overstretched and exhausted, the situation hung in the balance. Would Chun deploy troops, leading to an even greater massacre? He caved in, and Korea moved to “one man, one vote” democracy.

Since 1987, Korea’s politics, behavior and attitudes have grown increasingly democratic, but Gwangju has long been an open sore on the domestic Korean body politic.

It also gave birth to anti-Americanism in South Korea. Recent research suggests that Washington was aware of the black beret’s deployment to Gwangju, and green-lighted the final assault on the city by regular infantry units.

But American reporter Kirk, who was briefed by then-US Ambassador William Gleysteen, is unconvinced by claims of US perfidy.

“The US did not know what the hell was going on. My impression is they were caught by surprise,” Kirk said. “They did not know what to do – or how to deal with Chun Do-hwan.”

A way forward?

How to deal with Chun remains a question today.

In 1996 he was sentenced to death. However, after discussions between outgoing President Kim Young-sam and incoming President Kim Dae-jung – both former pro-democracy activists who had themselves suffered under military dictators – Chun was granted a presidential pardon to promote national unity.  

Chun, now 89, lives quietly in a Seoul compound near a major university where his rule had been fiercely protested. Though suffering from Alzheimer’s, he has been summoned to court in Gwangju for defaming a (now deceased) activist priest, who Chun accused of exaggerating the military’s crackdown.

In court hearings, he has remained bullishly unrepentant.

Gwangju native Ahn admits that he has moved on – he had forgotten that Monday was the 40th anniversary – but thinks it is not too late to make an example of Chun. “He should be tried,” Ahn said.

“H” believes the special forces were badly misused in Gwangju, but insisted many atrocities had been exaggerated. He admitted that helicopter-mounted machine-guns may have been fired, but angrily denied charges of sexual violence and was dubious about bayonet use. “Movies about Gwangju show the soldiers as devils,” he said.

His comrades suffered stress and discrimination. One lost a job at the prestigious Bank of Korea when it was discovered he had worn a black beret in Gwangju, another was forced to leave a market stall for the same reason and yet another emigrated to South Africa to work on fishing boats. Others became alcoholics.  

But “H” agreed with Ahn that Chun must accept responsibility.

“Chun and the military coup guys should be punished, they are the real virus – Kim Dae-jung made a huge mistake,”  he said. “If Chun apologies – if he says, ‘I am sorry’ – that is the medicine.”