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  5. Continuous Distortion of the May 18 Uprising in South Korea: A Challenge for Transitional Justice

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FOCUS March 2019 Volume 95

Continuous Distortion of the May 18 Uprising in South Korea: A Challenge for Transitional Justice

Praveen Kumar Yadav

The Gwangju Uprising of 1980 also referred to as the “May 18 Democratization Movement[,] was the cornerstone [of the Korean movement] towards democratization and has been considered to be the milestone of Korean democracy.”1 The struggles of the Gwangju Uprising prompted the pro-democratic forces to extend the fight nationwide. Seven years later, in the June 1987, another uprising finally defeated the dictatorship and restored democracy.

The work towards transitional justice and reconciliation after the Gwangju Uprising started thirty-nine years ago and still continues at present. The truth on what happened during the uprising has remained elusive despite government investigations. 

Several significant government investigations on the Gwangju Uprising have been held including prosecution investigations (1995), Past Affairs Truth Unveiling Committee of the Defense Ministry (2007), Past Affairs Truth and Reconciliation Settlement Committee (2010), and Defense Ministry Special Rapporteur (2018).2 They all had significant results but still failed to unveil the complete truth. Notably, they failed to find out what happened to the missing persons, how many people died, and who ordered the firing on the demonstrators on 21 May 1980. 

In order to deal with the Gwangju Uprising, citizens’ and civil society organizations identified five principles:3 (1) conduct of fact–finding/investigation; (2) punishment for those responsible for the violence; (3) reparation/compensation for the victims; (4) restoration of the honor of the victims; and (5) commemoration projects.  

The pardon of the two former Presidents - Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo - after spending only two years in jail stopped the completion of transitional justice in the country. 

In February 2018 the Korean National Assembly passed the Gwangju Uprising Fact-Finding Special Act to investigate “the human rights violations committed by the government’s martial law troops and identify who gave the order to open fire.”4  

May 18 Uprising 
The assassination of President Park Chung-hee in 1979 raised the hope for democracy among the South Koreans. But this hope was crushed by the military coup led by then Army General Chun Doo-hwan in 1980.

On 17 May 1980, Chun imposed martial law nationwide and ordered the arrest of thousands of pro-democracy activists.5 The next day (18 May 1980), soldiers stopped students protesting against martial law in front of Chonnam National University in Gwangju city. When the students refused to stop, the soldiers brutally beat them. The soldiers also beat the bystanders and passersby. Thereafter, the students went to the South Jeolla Provincial Hall protesting the soldiers’ brutal action. They chanted the slogans "Lift the emergency martial law," and "Chun Doo-hwan out." The soldiers viciously attacked the students in response. This abuse outraged the citizens of Gwangju city. For ten days (18 - 27 May 1980), people bravely fought the soldiers to defend Gwangju city and demanded democracy. On 27 May 1980, the soldiers suppressed the protest and sang a war song in triumph. Eventually, Chun became the fifth President of South Korea on 1 September 1980. He led a dictatorial government until February 1988. 

Official figures put the number of casualties during the uprising at 5,517 in total, including one hundred fifty-five dead, eighty-one missing, and many others who were injured and died due to injuries, and detained by the authorities. However, figures from different sources vary from those of the government. 

The 1980 Gwangju Uprising started the democratic movement in South Korea that continued till late 1980s. The death of Park Jong-chul due to police torture in 1987 made the South Koreans realize the significance of the Gwangju Uprising. The May 18 Democratization Movement was revived with the search for truth and justice for those who suffered from state violence.

Continuing False Claim 
The 2017 three-volume book (Chun Doo Hwan Memoirs) of Chun distorted the Gwangju Uprising history by asserting that there was no gunfire from helicopters during the Gwangju Uprising. He also accused the late priest Cho Chul-hyun of making a malicious argument and wrote that he should be ashamed of calling himself a clergyman. Cho, an eyewitness of the 1980 uprising, said that he saw helicopters firing on the protesters.

In response to Chun’s lies, Cho’s relatives and activists sued him for defamation in April 2017. The Prosecution agreed that helicopters opened fire during the crackdown and indicted Chun in May 2018. 

Two members of the Liberty Korea Party (LKP) (Kim Jin-tae and Lee Jong-myeong) organized a public forum on the Gwangju Uprising at the National Assembly building on 11 February 2019. Jee Man-won, a controversial far-right commentator, repeated in the forum his claim that North Korean soldiers were deployed in the Gwangju Uprising.6

Jee was convicted of defamation by the courts in 2003 and 2013 for his false claims about the involvement of the North Korean military in the Gwangju Uprising.7 A report states that the Korean “Supreme Court had ruled Jee guilty of defamation for such claims in 2013.”8

Another member of the party, Representative Kim Soon-rye, also gave controversial remarks during the public forum and “referred to family members of those who died in the May 18 movement as a ‘monstrous group’ formed by ‘pro-North Korea leftists’ that is ‘dipping into tax money.’”

The LKP recommended Kwon Tae-oh, a career soldier and former secretary-general of the National Unification Advisory Council; Lee Dong-uk, former reporter for the Chosun Monthly, and Cha Gi-hwan, a lawyer, for membership in the Gwangju Uprising Fact-Finding Commission. Activists and advocates for the victims of the Gwangju Uprising expected them to block efforts at getting the truth out since they have expressed bias against the uprising.10 In February 2019, President Moon Jae-in rejected two of the three LKP nominees to the Commission. The failure of LKP to nominate acceptable nominees and the controversial position of some LKP members have delayed the establishment of the Commission.11

These developments show the continuing distortion of the truth about the Gwangju Uprising. 

Dodging Accountability12
Chun failed to attend the 7 January 2019 court hearing on a defamation charge against him supposedly due to flu and high fever. Activists and victims of the Gwangju Uprising who gathered at the High Court of Gwangju loudly expressed their disbelief. They considered Chun a great liar.

Chun has been avoiding appearance in court. Prior to the January 2019 court hearing, Chun claimed that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, he asked for a long period of preparation for the trial, and tried to change the venue of the trial from Gwangju city to Seoul. When the Gwangju High Court rejected his petition to change the trial venue, he went to the Supreme Court which upheld the lower court decision.13 The Gwangju High Court issued a warrant of arrest to force Chun to appear in the next hearing scheduled for 11 March 2019. 

Outrage for the Distortions
In response to the controversial remarks by the LKP members, The Korea Times published an editorial entitled “Anachronistic View”14 that reads:

It is ludicrous to make such a claim. Scholars, officials, and civic activists have already conducted numerous investigations and concluded that the Gwangju Incident was a pro-democracy movement against the Chun Doo-hwan-led military junta. Chun seized power through a military coup after the Oct. 26, 1979 assassination of then President Park Chung-hee.

The editorial questions how they (LKP members) could even denounce the pro-democracy movement, which claimed more than two hundred lives, as a "riot." They had not even hesitated to describe the pro-democracy activists as a group of "monsters." 

Tim Sharrock, who did extensive reporting on Gwangju Uprising and received honorary citizenship from Gwangju city in 2015, reiterated that there was absolutely no evidence of North Korea involvement from the thousands of documents of American government agencies.15

Civic groups launched a petition16 on the website of Cheong Wa Dae (Blue House/Executive office and official residence of the President of the Republic of Korea), signed by 9,000 people (as of February 2019), demanding their removal from the parliament for their defaming remarks about the Gwangju Uprising. 

On 16 February 2019, thirty-nine years after the Gwangju Uprising, people in Gwangju city gathered again at Geumnam-ro street to protest the distortion of the truth about the uprising. The  historic event in 1980 took place on Geumnam-ro street. The demonstrators and the leaders who spoke during the protest gathering pointed out that the root cause of the Gwangju Uprising was Chun’s military coup.17

The investigation by the Gwangju Uprising Fact-Finding Commission is highly important considering that the witnesses are getting old and evidence must be secured. This fact-finding effort is considered as the ultimate opportunity for discovering the whole truth about the Gwangju Uprising. 

Civic groups, including the May 18 Memorial Foundation, have demanded that the LPK lawmakers giving controversial remarks about the Gwangju Uprising should make a public apology to the victims and activists of the democratic movement. The LPK itself should take an action against them, and recommend members for the Gwangju Uprising Fact-Finding Commission who have proper historical awareness and common sense that the people in Gwangju city can accept.  

Last but not the least, a special legislation to prevent the distortion of history is a must. This will pave the way for a successful transition to justice. 


Praveen Kumar Yadav, a human rights researcher from Nepal is an International Intern at the May 18 Memorial Foundation.

For further information, please contact: Praveen Kumar Yadav, International Affairs Department, The May 18 Memorial Foundation, 152 Naebangro Seo-gu Gwangju Republic of Korea 61965; ph: +82-62-360-0518; fax: +82-62-360-0519; e-mail. 518org[a][a]; (English).


1 Lee Gi-bong, "Missing for 38 Years, We Must Remember Them," Mayzine, vol. 10, November 2018, Accessed on 15 February 2019.

2 Lee, ibid.

3 Ahn Jong-Cheol, "The Significance of Settling the Past of the December 12 Coup and the May 18 Gwangju Uprising,” Korea Journal, Vol. 42. No.3, Autumn, 2002, pages 112-138, Accessed on 22 February 2019.

4 Praveen Kumar Yadav, “Distortion of the May 18 Uprising Enrages the Nation,” 광주인 (Gwangjuin),

5 Cheolwon Kim, Their Gwangju: Gwangju Uprising and the June Struggle, Hanul M-Plus, 2017, page 16. 

6 "Anachronistic view,” The Korea Times, 10 February 2019, Accessed 18 February 2019. 

7 Kim Hoo-ran, "Gwangju deniers damage democracy," The Korea Herald, 20 February 2019,

8 Kim Bo-gyung “[Newsmaker] Outraged Gwangju citizens take to National Assembly over opposition lawmakers’ Gwangju Uprising remarks,” The Korea Herald, 13 February 2019,

9 Kim Bo-gyung, ibid.

10 See Lee Kyung-mi and Song Gyung-hwa, "LPK recommends far-right figures to Gwangju Uprising Fact-Finding Commission," Hankyoreh, 15 January 2019,

11 Choi He-suk, “Moon accuses Gwangju Uprising deniers of undermining foundations of Korea,” The Korea Herald, 18 February 2019,

12 Praveen’s Webspace, “Chun is Absent Again at Gwangju High Court,” 8 January 2019,

13 “Top court orders ex-President Chun to be tried in Gwangju in defamation case,” Yonhap News Agency, 30 November 2018,

14 The Korea Times, op. cit. 

15 "Tim Sherrock’s Tweet," Accessed on 18 February 2019.

16 See petition at the website of Cheong Wa Dae,

17 There is also the view that the Gwangju Uprising has roots in the "authoritarianism of the Republic of Korea’s first president, the anticommunist Syngman RheeChong-suk Han," "Kwangju Uprising - South Korean history," Encyclopedia Britannica,