Have you heard about the Gwangju Uprising?
In the Spring of 1980, 170 South Korean civilians were reported killed by their “own” military, the numbers could be possibly way higher. But the question is what caused the military to go into so far south-west of the country when it is suppose to protect the front lines?
Imagine the military that works ardently on the front line to protect its people, one fine day opens fire at its “own” people, killing hundreds of innocent people, people with families who went missing; never to return again. In Spring of 1980, the military came unannounced; shooting people mostly college students on sight, from age 18 and up; arresting them and beating them mercilessly to death. Their crime? They dared to protest against the law.
Before understanding why it happened we have to look at Korea’s history. The North Korean and the South Korean border were connected by a bridge as they both had built their capital on the bank of the river. But because of this, immigration was made easy and a lot of illegal immigration was taking place. Thus, the South Korean Government decided to move their Capital to the other side of the river, to Seoul. Seoul that we know of today looked something like this.
The rapid economic growth only happened in the last 60 years which is statistically a lot faster than any other capitalist country and the Government managed to do this by moving the major schools to Seoul. Parents want the best for their children and education is one of them. So naturally Seoul’s population grew as parents wanted their children to live close to the schools. With the rise in population, transportation improved and the overall economy started to bloom in Seoul. But everyone who came to the city were not rich, many came to take advantage of the job opportunities. But with rapid development the land price skyrocketed and they couldn’t afford the hefty price of the city and therefore opted to live in slums. Slums did not fit into the picture that the Korean Government had envisioned for a new developed Korea. Forceful removal of the slum people began on the order of the Government, transporting people in mass quantities, shoving them in trucks and dumping them into the South-west rural side of South Korea such as Gwangju as we know today. Over time Gwangju’s economy also grew, with prominent colleges like Chonnam National University(CNU).
College students from CNU were protesting against the “Martial Law”, a law that allowed direct military control over civilians. Civilians were frequently interrogated if they were found to be guilty of having any links with North Korea. The military often misused their totalitarian power over the people, terrorizing them and oftentimes used violence on them without any solid evidence of their links to North Korea. The college students were aware of this misuse of powers and stood against it.
Protests were in underdevelopment throughout the May of 1980.Things were looking bright as it seemed that their voices were being heard and soon after more people joined the cause. Protests were not only happening in the Gwangju Province but throughout the country, even Seoul. But from May 18th, the situation went from peaceful to violent as the military stepped in. The soldiers were brainwashed into believing that spies had infiltrated the Gwangju Province and they were allowed go to any lengths to eradicate them, even killing them on sight. Their main target; college students.
The higher ups manipulated the army into believing that there were spies in the city, it was a dirty move to protect their own power position. They knew very well the after effects had the law been demolished. They would lose control over the people and decades of violence in the name of law and order would be criticized.
Over the next 10 days from May 18th to May 27th, the military were given total control over the city. Arresting college students and if they resisted, killing them then and there with no justification. They even attacked those who were helping college students to survive the wrath of the military, their deaths were not mourned over by the government as they were labelled as “allies” to the rebels. Soon the movement was beyond control, soldiers went rogue and killed anyone regardless of their age, Children in elementary school or elders over 60, no one was spared. The estimated death is calculated to be around 169+ with more than 2000 injured and many were unidentifiable, some never to be found again.
“Youth of May” released in 2021 on the 41st anniversary of the Gwangju Uprising captures the essence of the past. It foretells the thunder before the storm through the fictitious characters Hee Tae and Myeong Hee whose love story, unfortunately, got intertwined in history. Hee Tae wasn’t even a protestor and Myeong Hee didn’t get a chance to go to college. But they had dreams but none got to see them turn into reality. The part is played perfectly by Lee Do Hyun and Goo Min Si and their acting was able to bring alive the memories of the unfortunate break in the Peaceful Life of the people of South Korea.
As the future generations are unable to sympathize with the past, this K-drama is a gateway to relive the heartbreaking memories which come alive every year in the month of May.