Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 53 Number 15, May 21, 2023 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

43rd Anniversary of Kwangju People's Uprising

Legacy of Kwangju Uprising Demands that US Be Driven Out of Korea

Republic of Korea soldiers confronting students at Chonnam National University, May 18, 1980

The Kwangju People's Uprising took place in the city of that name in the south-west of the Republic of Korea (ROK) May 18-28, 1980. It was a glorious revolutionary initiative undertaken by the students, workers, women and youth to affirm their right to govern their own country. They were rising up against the US domination of Korea and the Chun Doo-hwan military dictatorship that represented it. From the time it forcefully divided Korea at the 38th parallel following the surrender of Japan in 1945, the US imperialists strove to maintain this division by force, including launching the Korean War on June 25, 1950, in which close to four million Korean men, women and children perished.

Thus, the Korean people, whose contribution to the victory of the Allies in the Second World War was second to none, were criminally deprived of their right to self-determination. Instead, a US-style anti-communist government serving US monopolies and Korean landlords and capitalists was imposed in the south in 1948, in the name of democracy, freedom and human rights. This is the same self-serving drivel the Biden administration is peddling now to maintain a military grip on Korea and to justify further militarising and integrating the ROK into the US war machine.

"Let's Go to the Province Hall", woodcut print by Korean artist Hong Song-dam, one of the participants in the uprising

The Kwangju People's Uprising was a collective response to martial law imposed by the Chun dictatorship in May 1980. Chun had come to power in a coup engineered by the US Carter administration after the assassination of President Park Chung-hee, the pro-US anti-communist military dictator who ruled the ROK with an iron fist from 1963 until his death in 1979. Chun imposed martial law in an attempt to subdue popular actions by the south Korean people demanding democracy and a civilian government.

According to various news and eyewitness reports, the Kwangju People's Uprising was triggered by student demonstrations on the morning of May 18 when some 600 students gathered at Chonnam National University to defy the new military edict shutting down the universities and stifling any political dissent. The police were unable to hold the organised resistance of people so a Special Forces unit trained for assault missions was dispatched to quell the uprising. The Special Forces used tear gas, batons and rubber bullets which served to widen the resistance as workers, shopkeepers, and parents took to the streets to defend the youth. The soldiers then opened fire, killing some 200 people and wounding hundreds more.

On May 20, some 10,000 people demonstrated against this terror and violence. Due to the widespread militarisation of the society, most major workplaces in south Korea held caches of weapons. Protesters seized these and commandeered buses, taxis and even armoured personnel carriers, forming armed militias to fight the army. A student-produced daily newspaper called Militants' Bulletin kept everyone informed against the disinformation of the mass media aimed at criminalising the rebellion and splitting their ranks. In the face of determined armed opposition of the people, the Special Forces were forced to withdraw.

The next five days were unprecedented in ROK history. The people organised a Citizen's Settlement Committee and a Students' Settlement Committee which worked to organise the people and ensure the well-being of everyone. Food, medical and transportation systems were organised and lively political discussions took place where the people gathered to discuss and plan their opposition and continued resistance.

On May 24, 15,000 people attended a memorial service in honour of those who died at the beginning of the uprising at the hands of the Special Forces. On May 25, about 50,000 people gathered for a rally in Kwangju and adopted a resolution calling for the abolition of martial law and the release of political prisoner Kim Dae-jung, who would eventually be elected the eighth President of the ROK [1].

Memorial wall to those killed during the Kwangju People's Uprising

As the people in Kwangju continued to assert their political demands, US President Jimmy Carter, who had campaigned on a platform for a "human rights foreign policy", intervened directly to crush what was perceived as a threat to US strategic interests in the region. The US National Security Council met at the White House on May 24 to plan a response. Subsequently, US General John A Wickham Jr, Commander of the US-ROK Combined Forces Command, ordered General Chun Doo-hwan to redeploy the ROK army's 20th Division from the De-Militarised Zone (DMZ) separating the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the ROK, to Kwangju to crush the uprising. This plan was delayed three days while a US navy flotilla led by the aircraft carrier USS Midway was deployed to Korean waters just in case reinforcements were necessary [2].

On May 27, at 3:30 am, the ROK army attacked Kwangju in Operation Fascinating Vacations. The people of Kwangju resisted courageously against the US-directed military assault against them. In the ensuing battle, thousands of civilians were killed and close to 15,000 people were injured. More than 1,500 people were taken into custody and countless others were tortured and summarily executed. Dozens of other activists were arrested, tried and executed and others were thrown into prison. Within a year, General Chun had proclaimed himself President of the ROK, and began a campaign of terror against the communists, socialists, leftists and any other progressive forces that would challenge his US-sanctioned military rule. However, the workers and people of the ROK continued their organised opposition to US imperialism and their local puppets, and eventually ended the military dictatorships in the ROK by the end of 1990.

On the 43rd anniversary of the Kwangju People's Uprising, we call on everyone to intensify their support for the heroic Korean people in their just struggle to end the US military occupation of south Korea, to resolutely oppose the US nuclear blackmail and military provocations against the DPRK and to vigorously support their more than 70-year struggle to realise the independent and peaceful reunification of their divided nation and affirm their right to be.

Hail the Historic Legacy of the Kwangju Uprising!
US Troops Out of Korea!
Korea Is One!

1. As President of the ROK from 1998 to 2003, Kim Dae-jung was instrumental in co-operating with the leader of the DPRK Kim Jong Il, to strengthen inter-Korean relations, which led to the signing of the historic June 15 North-South Joint Declaration in Pyongyang in 2000, opening up a bold new chapter in the struggle of the Korean people for peace and reunification. Kim was also responsible for ensuring that the victims of US-sponsored state violence and terror in Kwangju were honoured. He inaugurated annual memorial events for the victims beginning in 1997 and established the graveyard in Kwangju where hundreds of the victims are buried as the National Cemetery for the May 18 Democratic Uprising.
2. Online database of the 4,000 declassified US government documents on the US role in the Kwangju Uprising of 1980.

2. Online database of the 4,000 declassified US government documents on the US role in the Kwangju Uprising of 1980.


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