Remembering the Kwangju uprising


By Phil Clarke

More than two million people died in the 1950-3 Korean War when the United States, under UN cover, went to war to defend South Korea at war with the North. Of those two million, just 53,000 were American troops. The overwhelming majority of the others were Koreans — hundreds of thousands of them civilians killed in US bombing raids. Although no-one knows for sure, as many as 100,000 Chinese volunteers who came to the aid of North Korea were also slain. The whole of the Korean peninsula was wrecked by the war and the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, totally destroyed by incessant US bombing.

This was the enormous price to prop up "democratic" South Korea. In fact, the country's autocratic first president, Syngman Rhee, was chased from office in 1960 by a popular uprising against his election frauds. In May 1961 a military dictatorship was established under General Park Chung Hee.

The first civilian president, Kim Yong Sam, was elected only in December 1992, and the army remains a powerful force in politics, waiting in the wings. Workers' organisations and left activists face the constant danger of repression.

A key event in the struggle to ditch military dictatorship in the South was the May 1980 uprising by 200,000 workers and students in the city of Kwangju. The inside story of that courageous rebellion is little known in the West, and even to many Koreans.

Under Park, all workers' organisations were banned. However, as industrialisation developed in the late 1970s, strikes became widespread. Illegal workers' organisations, notably the National Democratic Workers League, were established.

As unrest spread, so did dissension in ruling circles; in 1979 Park was assassinated by the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, and preparations were made for elections the following year. But by the following spring it was clear that the military had no intention of allowing democratic elections, and a military strongman, General Chun Dwoo Hwan, took over.

On May 17, 1980, martial law was declared, and a ruthless suppression of oppositionists began. The Kwangju rebellion began the very next day with student demonstrations.

Troops dispatched to control the students went on the rampage, bayoneting dozens of students and other citizens at random. Outraged by the massacre, the workers of Kwangju rose, seizing arms and vehicles, in effect establishing a workers' militia. Government troops were forced out of the city.

By May 21 police stations had been seized, thousands of Molotov cocktails had been made and 200,000 workers had joined street demonstrations. The students' leader and most prominent personality in the uprising, Yoon Sang Won, led attacks on an arms depot and a car factory to prepare mobile fighting brigades. The rebels published their own paper, Fighting News.

As the workers seized the city, the lack of working-class organisation and leadership began to tell. The city mayor appointed a committee to negotiate with the army. This committee called on workers to surrender their arms — and, tragically, many did so.

The most determined rebels, led by Yoon Sang Won, fought back, organising a giant rally on May 25, calling on the workers to rearm themselves and prepare to meet the inevitable invasion of government troops.

Chun Doo Hwan, a surviving leader of the rebellion, recalls that the militants were under no illusions that they could hold out in one city. Their aim was to go down fighting and "make the price higher" for the government to reimpose military dictatorship, to set an example of fighting resistance for the future.

On the morning of May 27, thousands of government troops swept through the city. A hard core of 150 rebels around Yoon Sang Won gathered at the provincial building — the local town hall. Refusing to surrender, most died fighting, including Yoon Sang Won.

During all these events, more than 50,000 US troops were still in Korea. It is highly unlikely that the US government was not informed of the plans of the Korean CIA and army throughout. Many in Kwangju harboured the illusion that US troops would not allow a massacre to take place and would intervene to protect the civilian population. But the US forces sat on their hands and allowed the massacre to take place, arguing it was an "internal affair" — ironic in view of today's US campaign against the "internal affairs" of North Korea.

While dictator Chun won an easy military victory, the dictatorship had suffered an enormous moral and political defeat. Just 14 years later the Kwangju rebellion is a key part of the tradition which inspires the new generation of the Korean labour movement.

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