May 18 is the memorial day of the “Kwangju Massacre,” an event in 1980 triggered by the 1979 assassination of South Korean President Park Chung Hee and the imposition of martial law and a follow-on military coup by President Chun Do Hwan. The citizens of Kwangju, in a push for national democracy and against further dictatorship, rallied as part of nation-wide demonstrations. When the government called for an end to all such demonstrations by May 17, the students in Kwangju defied these orders.
Special airborne forces were deployed into the city on May 18, leaving perhaps hundreds or even thousands of students and citizens dead. In response, students and irate citizens broke into police and military armories and drove the central military forces out of the city. Kwangju then existed for a few days as a semi-independent democratic entity, before additional troops re-entered the city and took control, bringing to an end a nine-day period of unrest and civil self-rule.
The actual death toll remains unknown; some number it in the low hundreds, others into the thousands. Every year thereafter, there has been a May 18 rally in Kwangju, illegal for the first several years, semi-legal thereafter, and fully legal and state sanctioned after the election of perennial opposition candidate Kim Dae Jung. The citizens of Kwangju have long harbored bitter feelings toward the United States for either condoning the military crackdown in the city or at minimum of failing to intervene to protect the civilians in the city from the military regime.
For those of Kwangju, it seemed unthinkable that the United States, which laid claim to being the torchbearer of democracy and freedom, could support a military dictatorship that used violence to quell what had begun as peaceful student rallies against martial law and the coup and for the establishment of true democracy in South Korea. Those bitter feelings, the feelings of betrayal and disillusionment, still linger today, not only in Kwangju but in the new Korean nationalism movement and the cyclical waves of anti-American sentiments.
In 1996, when I lived in Kwangju, there were still regular spring demonstrations and clashes between students and riot police. While somewhat choreographed, with seemingly set roles and timings for each participant, these often ended in injuries, and some demonstrations even ended in death, usually from asphyxiation from excessive teargas inhalation. The joke about demonstrations at the time was to note that, while Cheju Island is famous for its "Wind, Rocks and Water," Kwangju, too had those three elements, only the Wind was teargas, the Rocks were thrown by students and the Water came from the police water cannons. The May 18 memorial was a time of bitterness and anger, of students remembering the sacrifices of their parents and elders and taking to the streets in defiance of the corrupt system of politics in South Korea and in opposition to the United States, calling on Washington to fess up to its responsibilities for 1980.
At the time (1996 was the last year of major high-profile North Korean incursions into South Korean land territory), such actions by students and citizens of Kwangju were still considered leftist and suspicious. Riot police were deployed throughout the memorial period, though there was little direct interference by security forces. But at the time, on the evening of May 17, I sat in a crowd of some ten or 15 thousand students and citizens, all chanting for the Americans to apologize for Kwangju and leave Korea.
Yet despite my conspicuous blond head in the sea of black hair, I was never threatened or treated with anything but friendship or pleasure at taking the time to attend the memorial. It was “America” the concept, the military and government that they hated, not Americans themselves.