Details about what happened in Gwangju, South Korea from May 18 through May 27, 1980, remain elusive four decades later as the nation commemorates a watershed tragedy. It remains a highly-charged subject in which the roles of the governments of the United States and South Korea in putting down the uprising are debated while an open discussion of North Korea's role is increasingly suppressed by the the current leftist government in Seoul.
At least 165 people were killed and 75 went missing in the uprising. And North Korea has been the beneficiary, analysts say.
The song about the bloodshed, “March for the Beloved,” would appear to be honoring the victims, but conservatives say “the beloved” is really the late “Great Leader” Kim Il-Sung of North Korea. The proof, they say, is that the song was used in a North Korean film 29 years ago about the uprising.
Some Koreans see Gwangju as a turning point in the struggle for democracy. Chun Doo-Hwan, the general who seized power after the assassination of Park Chung-Hee in October 1979, ruled for seven more years. Finally, in June 1987, he had to yield to mass protests that ushered in a democracy constitution calling for direct elections of a president and National Assembly.
Seoul-based correspondent Donald Kirk was in Gwangju during the riots and reported on the role played by Chun and the U.S. military forces. Visiting the headquarters of the uprising in the provincial building before the end, he "and other journalists got an impassioned briefing by Yun Sang-Won, spokesperson and leader of the "citizen's militia," who died in the massacre.East Asia Research Center Director Tara O has focused on the widely-unreported role of North Korean in the uprising, noting that a North Korea escapee who wrote a book about the uprising has been sued for libel.
Evans Revere, then a young U.S. diplomat in Japan, later deputy chief of the U.S. embassy in Seoul, fears “blame for the massacre can be placed on the United States.” One talking point for this position is the claim that Gen. John Wickham, the U.S. commander in Korea, authorized the movement of the 20th division to Gwangju. Operational control, however, was a formality. Wickham did not have the power to tell Chun not to send South Korean troop down there and was shocked by what happened.
“The record seems pretty clear that Chun and the generals were lying to the United States about their intentions,” Revere told me in an email. “Using their control of the media to portray the United States as supportive,” they were “making sure that the U.S. was portrayed as complicit.” Chun “was essentially playing the same game,” the blame game, “that the Left has been playing ever since the massacre.”
Lee Ju-Seong, who escaped the North and arrived in South Korea in June 2006, published a booklet describing the 1980 Gwangju Uprising as a special military operation involving the deployment of North Korean forces by Kim Il-Sung, at the behest of Kim Dae-Jung, to subvert South Korea. (This caused quite a stir in South Korea, where “5.18” has become known as a “democracy movement” and a sacred topic, Tara O noted.)
On Nov. 7, 2019, Kim Dae-Jung Peace Center, on behalf of Lee Hee-Ho (Kim Dae-Jung’s wife) sued Lee Ju-Seong, who wrote and published the book titled "Purple Lake", for libel. The book is about North Korean involvement in the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, which Koreans refer to as “5.18” (May 18). At a hearing presided by Judge Jin Jae-Kyung, Seoul Western District Court, on April 8, 2020, Prosecutor Kim Sang-Gyun asked for a 1-year prison sentence for the author for defaming former president Kim Dae-Jung.
The judge is scheduled to sentence Lee Ju-Seong on June 3.
Lee believes he faces such suppression because his publications have “revealed the truth about [President] Moon Jae-In and pro-North Korea leftists in South Korea.”
"Purple Lake", published in May 2017, is based on the experience of North Korean special forces operative Jung Soon-Sung, who said he and others infiltrated South Korea and participated in guerilla operations in Gwangju in May 1980. Lee Ju-Seong also described the operation as part of the subversion of South Korea planned by Kim Il-Sung, North Korean leader and Kim Dae-Jung, who later became South Korea’s president.
Former North Korean special operative Jung has also defected to South Korea, which made Lee’s interview with Sung possible.
In his letter to Judge Jin Jae-Kyung, Lee stated his book is based on what he has heard, seen and experienced in North Korea, his interviews, especially with the former North Korean special operative who deployed to Gwangju in May 1980, videos about 5.18, and official and other documents.
In his testimony on April 8, Lee talked about the time when he was 15-years-old in North Korea. On May 19, 1980, there was a notice in North Korea every 10 minutes that there will be important news on Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) that evening; KCNA broadcasted the Gwangju Uprising and that is how he discovered that there was an uprising at a place called Gwangju in South Jeolla Province in South Korea.
Lee began working at a special valve factory called “5.18 Machinery Factory” in Muncheon City, Gangwon Province as a mechanic. He was curious about the number “5.18” in the factory name and asked what it signified. A senior official explained that “the factory used to be called Muncheon Machinery Factory, but Kim Il-Sung ordered the factory be renamed to honor the combat performance and achievements of the soldiers, who deployed to take part in the Gwangju Riot in South Korea. That is when I (Lee) first learned that the Gwangju Riot was a Kim Il Sung-ordered North Korean military operation.”
The following paragraphs are in The Rage of Gwangju, published by North Korea’s Korea Workers’ Party Publishing in 1985:
The rioting mass [in Gwangju in May 1980] acquired 314 military vehicles by ambushing the puppet’s military vehicle [contractor] factory Asia Motors, and also seized an additional 414 other types of vehicles."Lee stated that there is plenty of factual and scientific evidence that North Korea deployed its special forces to Gwanjgu for operations during the Gwangju uprising, but the prosecutors, who are supposed to value judicial independence, justice, conscience, common sense, and fairness, are not interested in the truth," Tara O noted.
The rioting mass rode around in these acquired vehicles and acquired lots of weapons by driving into the bastards’ armories. Among the rioting mass of 600 people, one team ambushed the puppet military’s 1st Training Center of the 199th Logistics Support Group and stole plenty of weapons, and robbed lots of explosives and charges stored in a separate house in a rocky mountain in Jawon Neighborhood.
Another riot group of 200 drove into the armory of the homeland reserve forces in the downtown and acquired lots of rifles and guns. And [they] surrounded the puppet military’s ‘Martial Law’ zone in front of the ‘Catholic Center’ and stole the bastards’ military vehicles and many buses.
Thus the weapons that the rioters stole on the 21st [of May] from morning to 4 p.m. during the weapons stealing struggle were 2,240 Carbine [shortened rifles), 1,235 “M-1” semi-automatic rifles, 28 guns, 46,400 live ammunition, 4 armored personnel carriers, about 400 military vehicles, 100s of kg of explosives, and 100s of charges.
Some 350 or so 5.18 or related organizations have sued Lee in the past. On May 15, 2013 on Channel A TV, Lee described his interview with a North Korean Special Forces operative Jung Soon-Sung, who deployed to Gwangju on May 21, 1980 as a security guard to protect Moon Je-Sim, the commander of North Korea’s 1010th Unit, who commanded North Korea’s special operations in Gwangju.
Numerous “left-wing politicians and Gwangju 5.18 groups” demanded that Lee be punished.
Lee is not the only person "to be sued, harassed, and/or punished for discussing North Korean special forces involvement in 5.18 or discussing any information that calls into question the current narrative of the Gwangju Uprising as a democracy demonstration, from which the Moon administration and many politicians derive much of their political capital and legitimacy," Tara O noted.
Dr. Ji Man-Won, a retired Republic of Korea Army colonel who has published at least nine books about the Gwangju uprising, was jailed during the Kim Dae-Jung era in 2002. He was also "sued, harassed, and even physically beaten for decades by 5.18 organizations and the City of Gwangju for his writings," Tara O noted.
On May 25, 2013, 338 5.18-related organizations, including the 5.18 Commemoration Foundation and Gwangju Council for Civic Organizations, formed the “5.18 History Distortion Countermeasures Committee” – an organization with the Gwangju Mayor as the committee chair with over 337 members, including dozens of lawyers as key members – to fight against Ji Man-Won's research.
In 2016, National Assemblyman Park Ji-Won, People’s Party, sued Dr. Ji Man-Won, Newstown (a small news outlet with a YouTube channel) for libel for “distorting the 5.18 Democratization Movement” into a “North Korean military invasion incident” and calling the “Special Law on 5.18” a “treasonous law that benefits North Korea.”
Three lawmakers of the main opposition party, then called Liberty Korea Party, were punished for holding a public hearing on the Gwangju Uprising, where the issue of North Korean involvement was one of the topics. "It was also one of the topics that the Truth Commission on 5.18 was legally bound to investigate, but never did," Tara O noted.
The 5.18 organizations blocked the entrance to the hearing. The Democratic Party of Korea decried the hearing and demanded the three opposition lawmakers be punished.
Tara O noted that the Liberty Korea Party, led by Kim Byung-Joon, "instead of protecting freedom of speech and its party lawmakers," took swift disciplinary actions against the three – National Assemblyman Lee Jong-Myeong, a retired colonel, who lost both of his legs from a North Korean mine in the DMZ, National Assemblyman Kim Jin-Tae, who sponsored the event, but was not present, and National Assemblywoman Kim Soon-Rye, who spoke at the hearing.
After the criticism and his party’s “Ethics Committee” decided to expel Lee Jong-Myeong, Lee stated “it is the basic duty of a national assembly representative to investigate and collect various inputs on whether or not North Korean forces intervened or North Korean forces infiltrated, which is within the scope of the ‘5.18 Truth Investigation Law’ passed with the agreement of the ruling and opposition parties.”
Tara O noted that, in early 2018, ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK, Deobureo Minjoo Party) lawmakers tried to delete “freedom” from South Korea’s constitution. They also wanted to add “5.18 spirit” in the constitution.
On May 14, President Moon Jae-In vowed to include “5.18 spirit” in the constitution.
On May 18, Moon also said “distortion and damage will no longer stand,” when he gave an address marking the 40th anniversary of the Gwangju Uprising.
This was "ominous," Tara O wrote, "as it means further suppression of freedom of speech, especially in discussing what really occurred over the 10 days in May 18-27, 1980, including whether North Korean special operations forces were involved, as described in Purple Lake."
Various lawmakers in the South's ruling party have introduced proposals that criminalize discussions that raise questions about the Gwangju narrative.
National Assemblyman Park Kwang-On proposed the “Distortion of 5.18 Special Law Amendment,” which imposes seven years or a ₩70,000,000 ($62,000) fine, and his party adopted the amendment as his party platform in 2018. It imposes fines upon:
• “A person who distorts, falsifies, and spreads false propaganda through newspapers, magazines, broadcasts, publications, concerts, exhibitions, documents, pictures/paintings, etc.”
• “Those who insult or slander organizations related to the 5.18 democracy movement”.
It also mandates the government to make “5.18” a part of history education and human rights education.
DPK’s National Assemblyman Lee Gae-ho announced that he will propose “the Special Act on the 5.18 Democratization Movement” as the first legislation for the 21st National Assembly, which begins on May 30. Lee stated, “I will prevent distortion by law and inherit the spirit of Gwangju.”
The proposal "is designed to penalize discussions on 5.18, which is suppression of freedom of speech," Tara O noted.
Freedom of speech and publishing is guaranteed by the constitution of South Korea. The freedom is also highlighted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the foundational document of the United Nations, where South Korea is a member.
Article 21 of the South Korean Constitution states: “All citizens have freedom of speech and publishing and freedom of assembly and association.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, states:
• Article 19: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”
• Article 8: “Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.”
Tara O wrote: "It is ironic that those who insist that the Gwangju Uprising is a 'Democratization Movement' are in the forefront of trampling on freedom of speech that is guaranteed by South Korea’s constitution as well as the ideals of liberal democracy as reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."
Lee Ju-Seong stated in his Final Affidavit: “I risked my life in search of freedom and came to the Republic of Korea, a so-called democratic country, and told the truth. I’m becoming a sacrificial lamb of the prosecutor’s lawfare for telling the truth, and I will never forget this horrible feeling.”
Lee Ju-Seong, Dr. Ji Man-won, Newstown, and others "should be able to discuss the Gwangju incident freely, without the fear of imprisonment, financial bankruptcy, and physical and psychological harm that they have been subjected to," Tara O wrote.
"Their human rights have been violated. The court should dismiss the cases. The judiciary, legislative, and executive branches of South Korea should uphold the constitution and the ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."
Free Press International