We tend to commemorate events that are more than a century old, even though there have been much more recent workers’ uprisings which have been covered up by the media and ideology with the veil of ignominy. In particular, the communes and uprisings in East Asia tend to be forgotten or neglected, such as the 1927 Chinese revolution or the Saigon commune in 1945. One of the more advanced examples of such struggles occurred exactly forty years ago in South Korea, a date so recent that many of the participants are still alive. The events of that time are a lesson not to be forgotten.
The months prior to the lift
Throughout most of the post-war period and up to 1998, South Korea found itself under the boot of several U.S.-backed military dictatorships striving to put workers to work by force to industrialize the country. Anti-government protest initially took root around the massively student based Minjung (“popular”) movement from the 1960s onwards against the Park Chung-Hee dictatorship.
Revolts and riots by the student-led people’s movement swept the country for almost two decades, but the working class only began to respond in the late 1970s. Several strikes swept across the country in 1979, when the economy was hit hard by the oil crisis and some plants were reduced to 30 percent of their capacity. In August 1979, the workers of the textile factory “YH Trading Company” went on strike at the plant. They were being paid the equivalent of a cup of coffee a day and the owner had just closed the plant and fled to the US with all the company’s money. They were beaten up by a thousand policemen, with one worker dying at the hands of the police. The event ignited the spirits of workers and students across the country. In October 1979, university students in the industrial cities of Busan and Masan in the southeastern part of the country initiated marches of the people’s movement for the democratization of the country. Many industrial workers joined in Busan, and in Masan the march was massive, with thousands of workers leaving the industrial export processing zones and going to join the students. The government sent in paratroopers to suppress the demonstration with bayonets, which ended up with more than twice as many workers arrested as students.
Dictator Park Chung-Hee was killed by his secret police chief just after the demonstrations in Busan and Masan. The whole state apparatus was in upheaval during the following months waiting for the rise of a new military leader, which the student movement tried to take advantage of to restart the democratic people’s movements. However, the student movement planned to ask for help from the US, South Korea’s main ally, “in the name of democracy”. The doubts of the student movement itself in the face of this absurd attempt to rely on a foreign power to “save Korea” caused the movement to back down in Daegu, Busan and the southeast, but not in Gwangju, the capital of the southwest (Southern Cholla region).
In Cholla, university students were relatively disconnected from what was being decided in Seoul and the southeast of the country and decided to launch demonstrations for democracy and the reunification of the country starting on May 14, 1980. The students demonstrated in Gwangju calling for improved working conditions for workers and political reforms. From May 14 to 17, they met little resistance from the authorities who announced their goodwill on May 17. However, paratrooper brigades entered the Cholla region on the night of May 17 and student leaders were arrested that same night in Gwangju. The student body has been decapitated. However, the students leave the two city universities on the morning of 18 May and begin a peaceful demonstration.
18 to 21 May: The students retreat and the proletariat takes over the struggle
Paratroopers are under orders to suppress students. They charge with gas and truncheons against peaceful demonstrations and drag the students to the police trucks after beating them up. The students flee and spread out all over the city, regrouping under the national flags and singing hymns in front of the Korean soldiers. The soldiers, who are Vietnam veterans, start threatening to massacre the students and stick their bayonets into the rifles. They will spend the rest of the day bayoneting the students. Night falls on Gwangju. The next day, small shopkeepers and housewives hold a small demonstration in the morning that is easily suppressed by the paratroopers and police. The workers begin to leave the factories and their jobs in the afternoon, in the midst of the police and paratroopers’ hunt for students, and offer hiding places to the fleeing youth. The workers begin to arm themselves with sticks and metal rods and attack the military instead of fleeing.
Something new happens on May 19th in Gwangju. Unlike in Busan or Masan, where student-initiated demonstrations had collapsed under police and military repression, the proletariat in Gwangju came out to confront the same paratroopers who had suppressed the demonstrations in Busan. Unlike the students, the workers did not walk around with the flag while singing the national anthem to beg the soldiers not to kill them. The workers went out to ambush and hunt down the paratroopers. A great uproar broke out in the transport companies and workshops. A thousand mechanics from the regional transport terminal were mobilized and the inspectors helped the demonstrators to flee. The military has killed several taxi drivers and beaten up any bus driver who looked upset. Transport workers throw the first burning truck at the police barricades, forcing them to retreat and build defensive barricades around the regional government. Night falls again on Gwangju.
The next day the previous paratrooper brigade is withdrawn and two new brigades appear. In the morning the tension is palpable but the military does not attack anyone or make a fuss. However, the press keeps on lying and the workers do not resign themselves to letting them insult their dead. Tens of thousands of protesters gather in the afternoon on Kumnam Avenue, right in front of the regional government and the police/military barricade. The protesters’ advances are repelled with gas and clubbing, until a long column of buses, trucks and hundreds of taxis driven by the workers arrives to charge against the barricade, but they are stopped. The army begins to use flamethrowers to burn protesters alive in front of the provincial government.
After midnight, the rest of the city’s military withdraws to the train station and fortifies the position. Workers from the Ilsin and Chonnam textile factories charge into the station, frightening the military. The order comes to open live fire on the demonstrators, sweeping them away. The protesters respond by throwing burning fuel trucks into the station, driving the troops away. In the city, only the completely surrounded paratroopers in front of the province hall remain.
21 to 24 May: The workers’ militias and the defeat of the army
The provincial government is defended by troops armed with armored vehicles and helicopters; there is no way to attack it without weapons. The workers send trucks to the nearby town of Hwasun, where the miners give them explosives and join the uprising in Gwangju themselves. At the same time, women textile workers ride seven buses and raid the police stations in Naju city, where they take arms and ammunition. In all, the workers get 3,000 World War II rifles, dozens of semi-automatic assault rifles and 46,400 rounds of ammunition. The armed units that would later be centralized in the Gwangju workers militia, mainly made up of young workers, begin to form around the workers:
The militia was mainly made up of construction workers, workshop or shoe polishers, ragpickers, street vendors, waiters and domestic workers.
Kwangju Diary, Lee Jae-eui 1999.
At the same time, workers in the “Lotte”, “Coca-Cola” and other factories began to form a distribution network to meet the needs not only of the rebels, but of the families in need. This network was to be centralized and extended over the next few days. Workers’ guards were also formed to prevent the looting and destruction of public property:
That afternoon, workers parked guards around the Chonil building, post offices and telecommunication centers. People believed that public property should be protected. The guards formed spontaneously and discouraged other rebels from trying to destroy the buildings
Kwangju Diary, Lee Jae-eui 1999.
The militias opened fire on the troops in front of the provincial government and shot down a helicopter that was harassing them with machine guns. The army eventually abandoned its position and fled in its armored vehicles at full speed through the streets of Gwangju while machine-gunning the houses of the residents. The revolt has taken over the city and is now celebrating with great fanfare.
24th to 26th May: A new ephemeral order reigns over Gwangju
However, the “influential people” of Gwangju did not lose their way and set up a “settlement committee” to negotiate the city’s surrender to the army. This committee includes factory owners, local clergymen and leaders of the university student movement. No one follows them at first, but the committee plans all kinds of humiliating surrenders as the workers reorganize the city:
Hospitals suffered from the great waves of dead and wounded, as well as a shortage of blood during the first days of the uprising. Many people went to the hospitals to donate blood. Suddenly all the blood banks had more than enough in reserve. The electricity, water and telephone networks were all functioning normally. There was no looting or robbery of banks. There was no violence between the militia and the people. The crime rate during the liberation was much lower than during the military dictatorship. If anything happened, a militia patrol unit was sent to bring the suspect to the investigation office. With all the public administrative and security offices gone, the people showed wonderful morale and autonomy. […] Foreign correspondents seemed surprised to see Gwangju under such a miraculous order. Donations to the resolution committee and the YWCA, now an activist stronghold, were pouring in from religious organizations and ordinary residents. People had originally brought food to 400 militia and rebel leaders spontaneously. As the uprising developed, each district collected food or money to send to the provincial government building.
Kwangju Diary, Lee Jae-eui, 1999
In the Korean media, Gwangju had become a nest of North Koreans that needed to be crushed immediately. In the “media reality,” as opposed to the reality without adjectives, the city was under total anarchy and looting. The journalistic lie served its purpose: no help came from the rest of Korea. The workers were furious, sticking covers of the Japanese Asahi Shinbun on the walls to compare them with the lies of the Korean media. Few words were more feared than “communism” in South Korea, and the secret services began to spread rumors about North Korean agents among the people of Gwangju.
Meanwhile, the students had erected themselves as self-proclaimed leaders of the revolt and were demanding the disarmament of the workers’ militias. The workers were running the city and distributing production and food according to need, but they had not built any political body or organization. The militias handed over half of the weapons to the settlement committee, but refused to go any further; the militia refused to be led by students who had run away in front of the army and now pretended to be their superiors. The students refused to take into consideration workers from a class lower than their own. Meanwhile, state agents had deactivated all the detonators of the explosives that had been obtained from the mines.
May 27: Fall of Gwangju and subsequent falsification
The army brutally stormed Gwangju from all directions on the 27th. The total number of civilian deaths is still unknown, but it was probably from several hundreds to thousands. The American aid that the students presented as manna did not and would never come.
For almost two decades, official propaganda continued to either deny what had taken place or pretend that it was a North Korean conspiracy. When the military dictatorship fell, democratic governments rushed to include Gwangju in their democratic mythology, inflating the role of students and presenting the workers’ uprising in Gwangju as a prelude to the democratic state.
But the reality had been quite different: pushed by events, the workers of Gwangju went far beyond today’s society, showed the world a small window through which to glimpse the possibility of a much better world.
Communism is not an ideology or a method, it arises from the movement and universal nature of the working class, it is a product of its own objective conditions. The class struggle of the working class tends towards centralism, towards the extension and affirmation of universal needs as the ordering criterion of society, regardless of the continent or culture to which the workers belong. If the European communist movement of the 19th century as such had never appeared on the face of the earth, the workers’ struggles would still tend to the same thing: decommodify society.