19 March 2013, Republic of Korea

After spending the night in Gunsan, JC Lee drove us to the Saemangeum Seawall. The misty morning made it a bit hard to see. Our next stop was in Gwangju. We met with some pastors for a traditional lunch. After lunch, I spoke with a group of pastors. A trip to the National Cemetery for the May 18 Democratic Uprising followed. This profound site houses the remains of individuals killed during the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising.

The May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising was an expression of civilian dissatisfaction with a military junta that had seized power, thus circumventing the progress of democracy in the Republic of Korea. On May 17, 1980, the leaders of the junta declared martial law in an effort to consolidate power and to suppress the people’s growing demand for democratization. The government sent troops, including paratroopers and elite units, to the major cities.

IMG_0197The beginning of the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising is marked as the morning of May 18, 1980 when students in front of Chonnam National University were beaten and chased off by troops. Demonstrations and confrontations continued until May 27 when the troops put down the uprising.

As is often the case in such situations, conflicting casualty reports are given. The May 18 Memorial Foundation reports:

4,369 all told: 154 killed, 74 missing, 4,141 wounded (including those who died from their wounds) and placed under arrest. This data is based on the present condition of compensation related to The May 18 Uprising, as of November 31, 2006.

Other sources report other casualty figures.

The martial law forces took the bodies of civilians killed, using garbage trucks, for burial in the Mangwol-dong Cemetery. Through the years, pro-democracy advocates and citizens of the Republic of Korea called for investigations and reconsideration of the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising. Many believe that the uprising exposed the immorality of the regime and led to the beginning of greater democracy. The participants in the uprising played a pivotal role in the movement of the Republic Korea to independence, democracy, and peace.

In 1997, the graves of those killed in the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising were exhumed and their remains re-interred in the National Cemetery for the May 18 Democratic Uprising. As well as the graves, the cemetery includes a cultural hall that tells the story of the uprising and a room with photographs of many of those killed. The National Cemetery provides a moving tribute to the vision, commitment, and sacrifice of the participants in the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising. It is a reminder of these people and a witness to the ideals of democracy for which they gave their lives. It is also a testament to the people of the Republic of Korea and their efforts to come to terms with the past to move into the future.

See you along the Trail.

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