The Gwangju Uprising was a massive civilian protests against the South Korean military regime that occurred in 1980. Nearly a quarter of a million people participated in the rebellion by storming local police stations and using stolen weapons to cause havoc in the streets. The government brutally responded by arresting, beating, and killing dissidents and repressing rights in an effort to reestablish order. Although the rebellion was unsuccessful, it is commonly considered a crucial moment in the South Korean movement for democracy.
The rebellion was a response to Chun Doo-Hwan repressive military leadership. Chun was a brutal appointee of president Choi Kyu-Hah who headed the Korean Central Intelligence Agency. A mere month after assuming leadership of the KCIA, Chun declared martial law in an attempt to silence any potential opposition. The declaration resulted in a series of nationwide protests organized by students, labor unions, and political opposition centered Gwangju. On May 18, 1980 600 students gathered in Gwangju to protest grievances and were quickly repressed by military forces. Civilian demonstrators with grievances of their own soon joined. With U.S. support, Chun and special military forces descended on Gwangju and severely beat everyone they encountered. Instead of restoring order, it further incensed citizens and caused more to join the protests. As the rebellion rose citizens broke into police stations and armories and seize government weapons. On May 20, 1980 the citizens of Gwangju faced and defeated over 21,000 armed forces. The liberation lasted shortly when Chun’s military forces regrouped and finally quenched the disorder with tanks, guns, and indiscriminate killing. The rebellion ended with over 2,000 dead civilians.
Although the uprising did not have the immediate effect of liberalizing the reigning government, it did have long term effects on democratic institutions. Chun’s chosen successor instituted democratic elections, a first for the Korean citizens.