It was the most notorious moment in South Korea’s turbulent path to democracy: the May 1980 military crackdown on a student-led protest in the southwestern city of Gwangju.
The Gwangju Uprising, as it would later become known, began as a demonstration against South Korea’s brutal military leaders, who had recently expanded martial law.
Shortly after the protest began, elite paratroopers attacked the students with batons, rifles and bayonets. But as the crackdown escalated, so did the citizens’ resistance. Eventually Gwangju erupted into open rebellion, with residents raiding a local armory, seizing weapons and driving the military out of the city. A few days later, the military returned, crushing the civilian militia.
The Gwangju violence marked a pivotal moment in South Korean history. Not only did it rekindle a nationwide pro-democracy movement, the violence also unleashed a wave of anger at the United States, which had long backed the country’s military rulers as a way to counter North Korea.
Though May 18, the day the protest began, is now celebrated as an unofficial memorial day in South Korea, the incident is still a major source of polarization. Far-right conservatives continue to insist, without providing evidence, that North Korea was behind the protests, which they characterize as riots.
But amid a leftward shift in South Korea’s political landscape, the country is making a fresh effort to find a common narrative about Gwangju.
Uncovering hidden truths
Newly empowered after a landslide legislative election win last month, the left-leaning government of President Moon Jae-in has prioritized the Gwangju issue, especially during this month’s 40th anniversary of the movement.
Standing in front of the former provincial government building in downtown Gwangju where the 1980 civilian militia made its final stand, Moon earlier this month promised full support for a new, independent fact-finding committee to look into the crackdown.
Many details about the incident remain unknown, including the death toll (the official count at the time was around 200, but independent groups say the actual number is much higher), as well as who ordered the use of helicopters that eyewitnesses say fired on civilians.
Moon is also pushing to recognize the “May 18 Democratization Movement” in the preamble of South Korea’s constitution, formally enshrining it as part of South Korea’s long fight for democracy.
Some conservatives are even changing their tone.
Ahead of the 40th anniversary, South Korea’s main conservative party apologized for its past members who “defamed” and “insulted” the Gwangju movement.
“In the future, the May Uprising will no longer become a political issue, and it should not be the subject of social conflict,” said the statement by the United Future Party. The sacrifice made by Gwangju protesters, it acknowledged, “became the seed of democracy that we all enjoy today.”
It’s not the first time conservatives have made conciliatory statements about Gwangju, and some say the latest comments may be motivated in part by the conservatives’ humiliating loss in the April election.
The recent comments “reflect the new mood of the conservative party leadership,” said retired South Korean lieutenant general Chun In-bum, an authority on South Korean political and military relations. “I hope that these reflections will lead to reconciliation and not just a political gesture for votes," he added.
Gwangju pain lingers
But in Gwangju, a historically disenfranchised city where the pain of the massacre hasn't gone away, the comments were welcomed.
“I personally see it as a positive change. I accept their apologies,” said Lee Myung-ja, whose husband was detained for two years after leading some of the student demonstrations.
Lee now helps run the May Mothers House, which hosts community events for elderly women whose families were killed, wounded or arrested during the crackdown.
After singing group songs with about a dozen other women on a recent weekday afternoon, 89-year-old Lim Geun-dan recounted to VOA how authorities killed her 29-year-old son – a tailor with a newborn baby daughter.
“They beat him until he was dead,” she said. “When I went to examine his body at the morgue, his skull had been fractured and one of his eyeballs was punctured.”
Like many in Gwangju, the women say the current fact-finding commission may be the last chance to deliver justice, since many of the victims and perpetrators are elderly.
Military strongman Chun Doo-hwan was sentenced to death in 1996, in part because of his role in the massacre, but was later pardoned. Now 89 years old and suffering from Alzheimer’s, Chun remains defiant and defends his actions.
In 2018, South Korea’s defense ministry issued its first-ever apology for the massacre, following a five-month investigation.
But many in Gwangju also want an apology from the United States, which at the time had operational control of all South Korean military units.
Specifically, many Gwangju residents feel the U.S. could and should have done more to restrain their allies, especially after the South Korean military notified Washington it was moving an elite military unit away from U.S. control to deal with the unrest.
U.S. military and diplomatic officials have long insisted they did not have enough influence to stop South Korea from deploying the troops. Once the troops were deployed, U.S. officials say they did not have adequate real-time info about the crackdown.
“The U.S. government didn’t have a clear picture,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, then a 26-year-old junior foreign service officer at the U.S. embassy in Seoul. “And I don’t think (U.S. officials) had leverage sufficient to prevent the South Korean government from putting down an uprising they saw as an existential threat.”
At the time, Fitzpatrick served as an assistant to U.S. Ambassador William Gleysteen. The title of Gleysteen’s 1999 memoir - Massive Entanglement, Marginal Influence - concisely summarizes the challenges the U.S. faced in simultaneously supporting South Korea’s authoritarian leaders while also pushing for democracy.
“We were always encouraging reform, but there was a higher priority on deterring North Korea,” said Fitzpatrick, now retired after serving 26 years as a foreign service officer and later a U.S. nuclear policy expert. “Given the U.S. military presence and the overriding need to deter North Korea and to keep the South Korean military strong, human rights took a backseat.”
Since 2004, U.S. ambassadors to South Korea have occasionally visited Gwangju, where they praise South Korea’s democracy movement. But notably, they do not issue formal apologies.
“We have asked many times for the U.S. government to apologize … but they haven’t done that so far,” said Lee Jae-eui, who took part in the uprising and later co-authored an influential book on the uprising.
The U.S. Embassy in Seoul did not release a statement on the 40th anniversary of Gwangju, and the State Department did not reply to VOA’s request for comment. But earlier this month, the State Department released a batch of newly declassified documents, many of which contain contemporary observations about Gwangju by Ambassador Gleysteen.
Ben Engel, who researches U.S. policy in South Korea during the 1970s and 80s, said publicly available U.S. records don’t reveal a “smoking gun” that proves the U.S. knew and approved of what Chun was doing.
But Gleysteen clearly thought the protests needed to be subdued, even if he had reservations about using the military or violence to suppress the protests, Engel said.
“It's almost like he doesn't want to admit to himself that he knew what Chun was doing,” Engel said. “He knew it was wrong, but that it would achieve the result that his government wanted.”
‘Crucible’ for US policy
Even four decades later, the incident stirs strong emotions among U.S. officials who were in Seoul during the time. Some still won’t talk about it on the record.
Kathleen Stephens, U.S. ambassador from 2008 to 2011, says the period surrounding the Gwangju Uprising served as a "crucible" for U.S. policy toward the South.
"Those who were in Seoul during that period carried that with them for a long time," said Stephens, who also served from 1983 to 1989 at the U.S. embassy in Seoul as a political officer.
"The experience led U.S. policymakers to take a somewhat different approach to South Korea" later in the 1980s, when the country moved decisively toward democracy, she said.
South Korea’s democracy may still be relatively young, but it is one of Asia’s healthiest. And while anti-U.S. sentiment still exists, it is largely confined to the fringes of South Korean politics and society.
But many Koreans, especially in Gwangju, feel that a full accounting of the past is still necessary.
“Punishment is not the goal,” President Moon said on the Gwangju anniversary this month. “It is about documenting history accurately. If you have courage to confess the truth now, then the path of forgiveness and reconciliation will open.”
Lee Juhyun contributed to this report.