How Activists Kept the Memory of the Gwangju Uprising Alive

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How Activists Kept the Memory of the Gwangju Uprising Alive

The story of the “Gwangju White Papers” and “Beyond Death,” the first underground handouts to discuss the Gwangju Uprising.

How Activists Kept the Memory of the Gwangju Uprising Alive

Families and relatives gather around the coffins of dead protesters at provincial headquarters in Gwangju, South Korea, May 23, 1980, some 250 kilometers south of Seoul, South Korea.

Credit: AP Photo/Kin Chon Kil

The Gwangju Uprising of May 18-27, 1980, was a pivotal step in South Korea’s march toward democratization. After protesting students were brutally attacked by soldiers, the people of Gwangju joined in armed resistance against the martial regime of Chun Doo-hwa, who had seized power in a coup. The uprising was put down by government troops; the final death tally remains hotly debated, but most academic estimates place it at over 1,000 dead.

The public outrage sparked by the incident sowed the seeds of Chun’s downfall, though it would take another seven-plus years for South Korea to hold its first democratic presidential election. But from the outset, the truth about what had happened in Gwangju was obscured and distorted by the Chun regime. Thus the legacy of the Gwangju Uprising owes much to the South Korean democracy activists who worked tirelessly – and at much personal risk – to document what happened during the uprising and massacre of May 1980.

The recently released book “Gwangju Uprising: The Rebellion for Democracy in South Korea” (Verso, 2022) by Hwang Sok-yong, Lee Jae-eui, and Jeon Yong-ho and translated by Slin Jung tells the story not only of the uprising itself but of the larger battle to keep its memory alive in South Korea. The following is an excerpt adapted from the book. 


Efforts to bring the truth of the Gwangju Uprising to light began in late 1980, before the aftershocks of the resistance had faded. One of those who led the charge was former Gwangju City Council member Cho Bong-hun, who was caught up in the Standards of Democratic Education incident and imprisoned. Immediately following his release in November 1980, he returned to his hometown and began to collect documents concerning the uprising and recorded the facts of the incident. In December, Cho called on an acquaintance from his imprisonment at Seongdong Prison in Seoul – Soh Jun-seop, a doctor of international relations – to join his endeavor in Gwangju. At the time, Soh was wanted for his involvement in the 1980 student protests known as the “Springtime of Seoul.”

The May uprising had left the city in a state of fear. Cho and Soh’s work took place in secret at the former’s apartment in Sinan-dong, Gwangju. They undertook extensive research over the first seven months from November 1980 to May 1981, reaching out to witnesses through the clergy, churchgoers, and the families of the detained to gather as much information as possible. Their work gained momentum when the state of emergency martial law was lifted in March 1981 and a significant number of those detained for their involvement in the uprising were given special pardons in early April. The oral testimonies of those who fought on the frontlines proved invaluable to Cho and Soh’s work. With the assistance of Cho, a dozen resistance participants gave eyewitness testimonies and firsthand accounts to Soh.

Although Soh had not been in the city during the uprising, he used the collected testimony as a foundation to piece together the events that took place in Gwangju. He accessed court records and news articles to create a timeline of events, making sure to exclude testimonies that were too exaggerated or were not true to the facts.

“The Gwangju White Papers” was completed in early May 1981. The first draft spanned approximately 500 pages with 200 characters per page. Having finished the compilation, Soh traveled to Seoul with the timeline of the Gwangju Uprising and photocopies of some of the most critical documents.

The collection of information in Gwangju was put on hold in early July that year because of the Adeul Community incident. Jeong Cheol (also known as Jeong Ui-haeng), chair of the Adeul Community (an activist group with roots in a high school literary club), had produced handouts calling for democratization and the publicization of the truth of the Gwangju Uprising since October 1980. On May 10, 1981, he produced thousands of handouts titled “The Truth Behind the Gwangju Uprising” and handed them out in residential areas across the city with fellow members with the hopes of starting a rally to commemorate the first anniversary of the uprising. Ten members were caught by intelligence agents and taken into custody, with Cho Bong-hun among them.

The booklet was the first structured record of the Gwangju Uprising, distributed at a time when many citizens doubted the facts presented by participants and were subjected to distortions of the truth. As such, it caused no small uproar among the people of South Korea and played a key role in the intensification of democratization movements across the country in the 1980s. The pamphlet also provided the foundations of anti-U.S. movements in South Korea by presenting proof of the U.S. role in the Gwangju massacre.

Collecting Information for an Investigation of the Gwangju Uprising

Parallel to Cho and Soh’s efforts, Jeong Yong-hwa (later director of the Gwangju Democratization Movement Commemoration Committee) also worked to collect information concerning the Gwangju Uprising. He was arrested in 1978 for his involvement in the Standards of Democratic Education incident at Chonnam, which violated Emergency Measure 9. He was again arrested on suspicion of involvement in the Gwangju Uprising and was released on October 31 the same year with a stayed sentence. Immediately, Jeong tasked himself with the collection of information concerning the uprising.

The documents collected by Jeong included personal written testimonies, journal entries, and memoirs, public statements, medical records, arraignments, verdicts, court records, and photographs. Approximately six apple crates’ worth of information had been compiled. Partial lists of the dead and detained were included, as well as “The Chun Doo-hwan Massacre Operation” by Kim Hyeon-jang and “The Torn Flag” by Kim Geon-nam (pen name Kim Mun).

Kim Geon-nam was a Christian literary hopeful born in Muan, South Jeolla Province in 1946. His work, an emotionally charged firsthand account of the atrocities that took place in Gwangju, was published in booklet form by Nampung Publications in April 1989. Kim gave a reading of the work on June 3 at Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul, but recordings of second-hand readings distributed by nuns were found by authorities. The incident made headlines across the country on June 13.

When the Adeul Community incident was discovered by authorities in July 1981, Jeong Yong-hwa had taken all six boxes of documents he had collected and hidden them at the home of Park Yeong-gyu, the classmate of a friend. Jeong’s involvement in the Adeul Community incident made him a wanted man. He spent a year-and-a-half eluding authorities before he finally turned himself in at the end of December 1982, at which point he was released due to suspension of indictment.

The release of Jeong Yong-hwa in late December 1982 led to the resumption of compilation work. Jeong immediately confirmed that the documents he entrusted to Park were safe and began the publication process. By this point (December 25, 1982), Jeong Sang-yong and all the others imprisoned for their involvement in the Gwangju Uprising had been released.

The South Jeolla Council of Youth Activism for Democracy was launched on November 18, 1984. Jeong Sang-yong was named the chair, with Jeong Yong-hwa serving as vice-chair. The priority of the new council was the public disclosure of the truth behind the Gwangju Uprising. The documents collected and hidden by Jeong Yong-hwa would be used to secretly compile a record of the events that took place in May 1980.

At the beginning of October 1984, Jeong Sang-yong asked Lee Jae-eui (later policy adviser for the Minister of Commerce, Industry, and Energy) to take on the task of bringing together the information in prose format. There were three reasons Jeong chose Lee, who was then a returning third-year student at Chonnam National University’s Department of Economics. First, Lee had not been involved in any political incidents after his arrest and ten-month imprisonment in the direct aftermath of the Gwangju Uprising. Second, Lee had been in downtown Gwangju during the uprising and had personally witnessed the massacres perpetrated by martial law forces. Not only that, Lee had entered Province Hall immediately after the military pulled out of the city on May 21, which meant that he had a relatively clear grasp of the way events unfolded at Province Hall during the uprising. Third, Lee had gotten to know others imprisoned during the uprising during his term at Gwangju Prison and would have an easier time contacting them for research and information. The earlier failure of the Adeul Community incident taught Jeong, Jeong, and Lee to begin the project in utter secrecy.

Lee agreed to personally take charge of all aspects of the project related to writing. He organized a writing team and determined the content and direction of the book. Seeking a writing partner, Lee reached out to his friend and high school classmate Cho Yang-hun (later president of Uri Plant Research Center), who had been caught up in the same incident as he had and imprisoned. They had been fellow members of a book club at Chonnam University and could also call on junior members to contribute. Jeong Yong-hwa gathered all the documents he had hidden at Park Yeong-gyu’s home and handed them to Lee.

The Selection of a Publisher and an Author

Once the manuscript was ready, the team searched for someone to take on the nominal title of “author” and a publisher – knowing full well that the author and the publishing house’s leaders would likely be arrested. The team sought out several well-known individuals for their assistance but were met with reluctance. Finally, Jeon Gye-ryang – chair of the Association of the Families of Fallen Gwangju Uprising Activists – volunteered to take nominal responsibility for editing the publication. The book would be released by the publishing house Pulbit, which was headed by Na Byeong-sik – a graduate of Gwangju Jeil High School who was caught up in the National Youth and Student Alliance for Democracy Conspiracy in 1974 during his studies at Seoul National University and sentenced to death.

Finally, the team had to find a writer to take responsibility for the book. Democratization activists convened multiple times in Seoul and Gwangju to discuss the issue. The Seoul meetings were attended by Jeong Sang-yong, Moon Guk-ju, and Na Byeong-sik, and the Gwangju meetings by Jeong Yong-hwa, Lee Jae-eui, and Jeon Yong-ho. Participants suggested the novelist Hwang Sok-yong for the role. His name on the cover would have multiple positive implication: First, his status as an established writer would draw a significant number of readers, which would lead to the widespread proliferation of the truth concerning the Gwangju Uprising; second, Hwang was well-known internationally and could not be so easily taken by authorities. Third, Hwang could contribute to the book as an editor and polish the manuscript further.

The final meeting took place in mid-April 1985. At the meeting, Hwang agreed to take nominal responsibility for the book, joining Na Byeong-sik as the public face of the manuscript.

In mid-April, Jeong Yong-hwa, Jeon Yong-ho, Lee Jae-eui, and Cho Yang-hun took a photocopy of the typed first-draft manuscript to Hwang’s home in Unam-dong, Gwangju. Lee and Cho requested polishing and revisions, but also requested that the content remain as untouched as possible (because the content had been meticulously checked against testimonies and documents). In addition, they asked that Hwang personally copy out the text onto manuscript paper himself so that in the case of investigation by authorities, the writers could point to Hwang as the author of the book. Hwang gave his immediate agreement and locked himself in a small inn next to the Pulbit office in Seoul for six weeks to complete his work.

During this process, Hwang added an introduction to the book and added subheadings for ease of reading. The title – “Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age” – was taken from a line in the poet Moon Byung-ran’s “The Song of Revival.” Finally, the manuscript was published in booklet form on May 20, 1985, labeled, “Edited by the South Jeolla Social Activism Association, Written by Hwang Sok-yong.”

Confiscation and Arrest

Predictably, authorities immediately confiscated 20,000 copies of “Beyond Death” and took Hwang and Na into custody. At the same time, the first edition of the book – released in such a rush that the cover page was devoid of design work – entered circulation and was devoured by hungry readers. Although the book was sold in secret at bookstores near post-secondary schools and only publicized by word of mouth, it became an immediate bestseller. In the process, many bookstore owners were arrested by authorities and those who were caught in possession of the book during spot checks were taken to police stations to be interrogated.

Following his arrest, Na was put on trial and Hwang was released immediately following an investigation. Authorities had learned their lesson from the similar case of poet Kim Chi-ha that putting Hwang on trial would only serve to publicize the truth of the Gwangju Uprising further. Hwang was released on the condition that he leave South Korea.

Upon his homecoming in April 1993, he was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for his visit to North Korea, which was a violation of the National Security Act. He was given a special pardon and released in March 1998. His association with “Beyond Death” made him the target of many unwarranted accusations and slander from conservative media.

The publication of “Beyond Death” in 1985 was only the beginning of a turbulent journey. It was cited as strong circumstantial evidence during the National Assembly hearing on Gwangju and the December 12 Military Insurrection and the Gwangju Uprising trials. It was also one of the main sources cited on the Ministry of National Defense Truth Commission’s report on the Gwangju Uprising.

The election of a conservative president in 2008 signaled a change for the negative, however. Far-right agitators and the far-right internet community Ilbe, under the silent protection of the government, set out to distort and slander the truths of the Gwangju Uprising. They claimed that North Korean soldiers had made their way to Gwangju in May 1980 and accused masked resistance members of being North Korean special forces. The song “Marching for Our Beloved,” sung to commemorate the Gwangju Uprising, was forbidden from official ceremonies. Agitators accused “Beyond Death” of being ungrounded and copied from North Korean sources, even resorting to ad hominem attacks on the writers by accusing them of being North Korean agents. Courts gave lukewarm responses to lawsuits against these agitators.

The people of Gwangju were outraged. By the end of 2013, many were calling for a new edition of “Beyond Death” to teach new generations about the truth of the Gwangju Uprising and fight back against the conservative administration’s attempted distortion of history.

This article is an adapted excerpt from the recently published book “Gwangju Uprising: The Rebellion for Democracy in South Korea” (Verso, 2022) by Hwang Sok-yong, Lee Jae-eui, and Jeon Yong-ho, translated by Slin Jung. “Gwangju Uprising” was supported by English PEN’s “PEN Translates!” program.