Gwangju, where Korea’s modern history was written in blood

The May 18 National Cemetery in Gwangju

The May 18 National Cemetery in Gwangju

By Habib Toumi

BAHRAIN: On my first visit to South Korea in 2019, I was awed by several beautiful places, impressive monuments and breathtaking landscapes.

I enjoyed modernism at its most bewildering sophistication and I dived into history at its deepest meanings.

Yet, amid all the bewildering sophistication and brilliant modernism, the most poignant places I saw were

The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the scarred area between the two Koreas, and the May 18 National Cemetery in Gwangju, the martyred city in the south of the country stood among the most poignant moments during the visit to take part in the World Journalists Conference organized by the Journalists Association of Korea.

Gwangju was an emotional stop on our trip across the peninsular country following the conference.

The vibrant metropolitan city located in a picturesque nature and exquisite scenery offered a soothing feeling of tranquility and peace that co-existed with its growing vitality and modernism led by a particularly energetic and ambitious local team of officials.

Yet, in 1980, this city was the theater of a massacre that still reverberates in the collective memory of South Koreans in general and the families of Gwangju in particular.

The city, nestled in the Southwestern part of South Korea, was the launchpad of a democracy movement that swept across the peninsula and changed South Korea forever.

Graves of the brave in Gwangju

Graves of the brave in Gwangju

It was here that on May 18, 1980 brave people massively protested against military oppression, sacrificing their lives so that their fellow citizens could live in peace and dream of a better future.

Hundreds died or disappeared in one of the major calamities to hit the country. However, their sacrifices were not wasted. Their valiant action eventually helped build modern Korea and consecrated peace and democracy as the foundations for a life in dignity for all Koreans.

The events that unfolded here in 1980 remains 41 years later vivid, deeply entrenched in the collective memory of the city and the country. The start of the inexorable movement as small protests before turning into a full-blown insurrection to do away with authoritarianism and build a democracy was possible thanks to a high sense of sacrifice and to a collective action by people who put county and honor above everything else.


Students pay their respect to the fallen

Students pay their respect to the fallen

Rich tributes have been paid to the heroes buried at the May 18 National Cemetery, the “holy ground for democracy” and the symbol of freedom.

Inside the beautifully manicured cemetery, the two 40-meter parallel pillars, based on a traditional Korean “flagpole” design, make up the Memorial Monument that represents the concepts of new life, survival, and seeds of hope.

Old and young visitors, including well-disciplined school students, solemnly walked into the graveyard.

Koreans, and particularly people from Gwangju, are still highly emotional about the uprising, the blood that had been spilled and the lives that had been lost to ensure that peace, security and dignity prevailed in their country.

For them, peace and dignity are the robust foundations for everything that could build a nation and as such, they deserved to be duly protected, cherished and promoted. Their values should be passed on from one generation to the other.

Gwagnju on May 18, 1980

Gwagnju on May 18, 1980 (Yonhap)

Many of the city residents were not born in 1980, but they have learned its significance in the country’s history and progress. They are ready to talk about what happened and how it happened as if they had witnessed it.

They talk about it in heroic terms, enthusiastic about the deep sense of sacrifices of their families, neighbors and the people of the city who dared show the way forward to achieve democracy.

Such a spirit, consolidated by regular visits organized for school students to the cemetery, will help ensure the perpetuation of the nation’s sense of sacrifice and commitment to peace.

It will also reinforce the status of Gwangju as the city where the painful pangs of the birth of democracy in the Republic of Korea were first felt.



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