May 18th Pro-Democracy Movement

Today we’ll start with my hometown #2 Gwangju and the May 18th Pro-Democracy Movement. This happened back in 1980, just two years before I was born. If you’re interested, there’s a wonderful movie about it, called ‘Taxi Driver’ (택시 운전사) English Here. The movie is pretty much faithful to the actual events, except for the car chase scene at the end. That was for DRAMA.

Basically, what happened was the then president, what happened was the then president, 박정희 (Jeonghi Park), kinda pushed the line between dictator and president a little too hard. He was president from 1963-1979, meaning he was presidents numbers 5-9. Even though he was the president that really started firing up Korea’s economy after the Korean war, people were understandably a little done with him.

Then, on October 26th, 1979, 김재규 (Jaegyue Kim) the Director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (중앙정보부장) assassinated Jeonghi Park. After the assassination, a temporary government was set up until an election was possible. However, on December 12th, 1979, 전두환 (Duhwan Jeon) took control of the government by way of military coup.

Starting in May of 1980 there were continual student uprisings all over the country demanding that President Jeon step down from his position as president. This did not go over well with President Jeon and on May 17th he declared a state of martial law. All government and media activities were halted.

On May 18th, 1980, university Students in Gwangju gathered to protest President Jeon and demand that he step down. The government sent soldiers to end the protests. The soldiers were not gentle about how they handled the situation and in the downtown area of Gwangju, not only were protesting students shot and injured, but also non-participating citizens. When the up until then uninvolved adult citizens of the city saw the soldiers’ violent response, they stepped in and began protesting as well.

Now that there were so many people involved, the soldiers were not able to immediately silence the protesters. For 10 days the soldiers and citizens clashed until on May 21st the army finally withdrew from the city. There were a total of 166 deaths as of the last day of the fighting. In the days that followed, another 276 people were added to that number as they succumbed to fatal wounds inflicted during the fighting. 3,139 people were injured and 54 people simply vanished.

Initially, the government under President Jeon refused to acknowledge the incident. Because the government had tight control over all of the media outlets at the time, none of them were able to report the real facts about the incident. Later, many Koreans came to believe that the incident involved North Korean spies.

Jürgen Hinzpeter, a German reporter who was stationed in Japan, snuck into Gwangju on the 20th of May and stayed until the 23rd, documenting the atrocities of the soldiers. For the most part, all of the pictures and film footage of the uprising in use to day were shot by Hinzpeter. His story is the basis of the Taxi Driver movie.


  1. Jürgen Hinzpeter Wiki Encyclopedia:
  2. 5.18 Gwangju Pro-Democracy Movement Wiki Encyclopedia:
  3. Jeonghi Park Wiki Encyclopedia:
  4. Jaegyun Kim Wiki Encyclopedia:
  5. 김삼준.(2018). 한국사회 이해 기본. 한국이민재단.
  6. 설규주, 김찬기, 송성민, 김자영. (2018). 한국사회 이해 심화. 한국이민재단.

Author: Miranda New

Wife, mom, teacher, writer, expat. A little bit of this, a little bit of that.