The Kwangju Uprising (or “5.18,” after the date it began) was a popular revolt against the Korean government that lasted for ten days in May 1980. What began as a peaceful demonstration against the reimposition of military rule turned into a bloody citizens’ uprising when the people of Kwangju, outraged by the brutality of government troops sent in to suppress dissent, pushed the soldiers to the edge of town and proclaimed a “Free Kwangju” (haebang Kwangju). The military eventually retook the city with tanks and tear gas but not without great cost in human lives and government credibility.
In retrospect, the Kwangju Uprising stands as one of the most important political events in late twentieth-century Korean history, a powerful symbol of popular opposition to thirty years of repressive military rule and a milestone in South Korea’s long journey to democratic reform. Nonetheless, 5.18 also remains, at the millennium, a contested event, the subject still of controversy, confusion, international debate, and competing claims….
In 1979-1980 I had been in Korea for thirteen months, doing research for my doctoral dissertation. My project concerned the role of judges as mediators in civil disputes, and I had chosen the district court in Kwangju as my research site. Ironically, I first visited Kwangju (to arrange housing) just days after the October 26, 1979, assassination of President Park Chung Hee–retrospectively the first in a chain of events leading to the May uprising.