Most first-time visitors to Korea won’t have put Gwangju (광주) on their list. Many of them may not have even heard of the southern city. Gwangju’s rich history as a protest hub isn’t one to dismiss, and if it’s your second or third time visiting Korea or if you’re currently living here, we couldn’t recommend the city more. The most famous uprising took place In May 1980 when thousands sacrificed and endangered their lives for democratic freedom, forever changing the course of Korean history, politics, culture, and identity.
As the Gwangju Uprising took place only 40 years ago, many survivors remain. Today, the city is flooded with statues, museums, parks, and learning centers dedicated to educating locals and tourists alike about what took place that fateful spring. We’ve put together a travel guide to help visitors understand the uprising through its museums, battlegrounds, and memorials. To better appreciate these locations, let’s step back to May, 1980 when it first began.
The Gwangju Uprising: A Brief History
The Gwangju Uprising was a mass protest against the South Korean military government led by Chun Doo-Hwan. It took place in the Jeollanam-do city of Gwangju between May 18th and 27th, 1980. It has been said that nearly a quarter of a million people took part in the rebellion. While this particular rebellion did not bring about democratic reform in the country, it was a major turning point in the struggle for democracy.
To better understand how this uprising came about, it would be useful to take a step back in time to the anti-communist reign of Syngman Rhee (이승만), South Korea’s first President. During his nearly 18 years in charge, Rhee grew continuously more hostile toward his political opposition. This began a string of student-led democracy protests in the early 1960s which would continue for decades to come. Following Rhee, Park Chung-Hee (박정희) enacted his own military coup and displaced the government in 1961. Like Rhee, he took control of office for the next 18 years.
Park not only oppressed his political competition but the press and university students as well. In 1972, he introduced the Yushin Constitution which allowed him a full dictatorship. This led to his assassination on October 26th, 1979, which initiated another coup led by Chun Doo-Hwan (전두환). Once in power of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, Chun was able to declare martial law in April 1980. This declaration sparked a series of nationwide protests led by activists, students, religious leaders, and opposition leaders who demanded democratic elections. Gwangju, having a long history of democratic preference and student uprisings, was the center of this movement. On May 18th, some 600 students gathered at Chonnam National University before government forces beat them back. This led to nearly the entire city of Gwangju getting involved, igniting what would later be known as the Gwangju Uprising. With approval from the U.S., an act that sparked anti-American sentiment for years to come, Chun sent Special Forces to contain the unrest. Brutal beatings, killings and kidnappings took place under the discretion of the national military.
As the uprising continued, protestors found weapons wherever they could. They broke into police stations and armed themselves with guns, bats, knives, pipes, hammers, and so on. By the evening of May 21st, the government had retreated and the citizens of Gwangju declared the city liberated. This silence did not last for long. On May 27th, Chun’s forces unleashed tanks, armored personnel carriers and helicopters that attacked every corner of the city. It took the military a mere two hours to stamp out the uprising. According to documents from that time, nearly 200 civilians were killed, but the people of Gwangju put that number closer to 2,000. This seems far more likely, considering they were shooting round after round from helicopters.
It wasn’t until 1993 that Korea saw its first president democratically elected. In 1998, Kim Dae-Jung (김대중), who had once been arrested and sentenced to death for his role in the uprising, became the second democratically elected President (more on him later in the tour). His successor, Roh Moo Hyun (노무현), also had ties to the uprising. Both Chun Doo-Hwan and army general Roh Tae-Woo (노태우) were convicted of mutiny, treason, and corruption in 1996. Kim Dae-Jung, being the great leader he was, officially pardoned both of the men in 1997.
All of the places you’ll see listed on our historical tour are devoted to the uprising and maintaining its memory. They all play a part in the establishment of democracy in Korea, the country we’re able to thrive in today. It’s our greatest wish that you come away from this tour not only knowing more about Gwangju, but understanding the strength of the Korean people as a whole.
The 5.18 History Tour
1. 5.18 Archives: The Records of May
The city of Gwangju established the 5.18 Archives to collect and preserve the history of this movement and share its significance with visitors from around the world. The archives, which are housed in the city’s former Catholic Center, contain over 4,000 books, nearly 1 million pages, and nearly 4,000 film records. They also collect other media such as audio recordings, academic materials, government data, civilian statements, medical records and so on. UNESCO officially listed the archives as a Human Rights Documentary Heritage in May, 2011.
Ever since the uprising took place, there have been ceaseless calls for a deeper investigation in order to properly punish respective parties, compensate victims, and commemorate those who lost their lives. This is what I love so much about the Archives – they’re not just a museum. They’re a research center that continues to fight for survivors and victims nearly 40 years later. This tops the list of our historical tour because it not only preserves the memories but educates the world further on fundamental human rights.
Some of the most interesting records kept here are the trial records and military judicial authorities on Kim Daejung’s conspiracy for a rebellion. On May 21st, 1980, under martial law, a new regime took power under the false pretext that Kim Daejung was conspiring to form a rebellion. Kim had been known as a pro-democracy rebel of the state since his youth. The regime released the statement: ‘The Gwangju Uprising is a rebellion organized by subversives in Gwangju, and instigated by the communist Kim Daejung with the aim of overthrowing the state’. On September 17th, 1980, Kim was sentenced to death by the military court but his punishment later changed to life imprisonment. In December 1982 Kim left South Korea for medical treatment in the USA, but the trip became an exile. He officially returned in 1985, when he resumed his role as one of the principal leaders of the political opposition. Kim went on to serve as a democratic President of South Korea from 1997 until 2003, paving the way for a new political narrative on the peninsula. The documents in the archives related to him hold a very special place in the hearts of Gwangju citizens and Koreans in general.
The museum holds a huge amount of information on fascinating documents such as damage data, victim bury plans, hospital records, and the personal data of all victims. Included in some of the more personal records are hand-written student speeches, journals from May 1980, eyewitness accounts, medical records of injured protestors, National Assembly minutes, compensation information for victims, and even declassified documents on the uprising by the US government.
1st Floor & 2nd Floor Exhibition Halls | The story of the uprising is displayed here in chronological order up to the present day. Visitors can learn about main incidents through installations, documents, videos, and sound clips. These rooms were hard to take in for an empath like myself, but are vital to understanding what took place 40 years ago.
3rd Floor: Exhibition Hall 3 – Heritage | The third hall celebrates the addition of the uprising to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. It shows the step-by-step process of transmitting and collecting these records to share with future generations. This is also where visitors can leave their comments on a sticky-note wall, a popular trend in Korean museums.
4th Floor & 5th Floor: Reference Library & Storage | The reference library holds nearly 30,000 books on democracy, women’s rights, children’s rights and more. If you’re a nursing mother or need a spot to calm down with infants, there is a Nursing Room available.
6th Floor: Exhibition Hall 4 | This floor memorializes the original building: the former Catholic Center. Here, visitors can see the office of Archbishop Victorinus Youn Konghi. His desk, personal items and the window which he looked out to witness the uprising are all preserved just as they were in 1980. The Archbishop was well-known for his hunger strikes against authoritarianism. When we understand the long persecution of Catholics in Korea, it’s no wonder that they were at the forefront of the uprising.
Guidelines for Visitors:
-No running, no excess noise
-No food, no pets except for guide dogs
-Phone on silent mode
-No flash photography, no tripod
-No commercial photography
Address: 221 Geumnam-ro, Dong-gu, Gwangju | 광주시 동구 금남로 221
Opening Hours: 9AM – 6PM (Closed Mondays, January 1st, Lunar New Year’s Day, Chuseok) / Last admission 5:40PM
Guided Tours: 10, 11, 2PM, 3PM, 4:30PM
Website: Click Here
Accessibility: Elevators are available
2. May 18th National Cemetery
The May 18th Cemetery began construction in 1993 and officially opened in 1997. In 2002, it was granted ‘National Cemetery’ status and thus became an integral part of Gwangju’s history.
What to See
The Door of Democracy – The main entrance door honors the concept of democracy that so many people fought and died for during the Gwangju Uprising. It is the first site you’ll come in; be sure to sign your name in the guestbook and take a free memorial pin while you’re at it.
Myeongdangsu & Hwagye Pond – A beautiful display of fountains marks that visitors are now entering a sacred space, a traditional architectural feature with roots in ancient Korea. The shallow pond surrounds the cemetery entrance and is home to a beautiful array of carp, fancy carp and goldfish.
The Door of Memory & Memorial Tower – This towering, stone doorway captures your attention from the moment you begin to ascend the staircase. The shape resembles two hands that symbolize the ultimate sacrifice given to the democracy movement. Up ahead is perhaps the most iconic feature of the cemetery – a grand tower stretching 40m into the sky. The egg shape structure includes the written wish that the spirits of victims will be born again into a happier life. A plaque at the front asks visitors to take a moment of silence for the victims before entering. Additionally, visitors can spot blue statues on both sides of the Worship Square that display Gwangju civilians singing, fighting, healing and eating together.
Relievo Wall – These impression sculptures can be seen in both the Worship Square and History Square. They show numerous events in Korean history where the resilient spirit of the Korean people fought against injustice and oppression. Some notable events are the Japanese Invasion of 1592, Donghak Peasant Movement, The March 1st Independence Movement, and the 4.19 Revolution.
Yuyeongbonganso – This hall is just to the right of the square and features images of the deceased. This hall is not always open, but they ask for your utmost silence and respect at all times.
The Door of History – Inside is an experience learning center for young children that helps introduce this difficult topic to children, as well as Korean history in general. Opening Hours: 9AM – 5PM / Telephone: 82-62-268-5189 (Reservation Suggested).
Exhibition Hall – 165 portraits of the deceased victims line the hallways and guide you through the darkness. Perhaps one of the most famous photographs from the Gwangju Uprising and one of the most famous photographs in modern Korean history is that of a boy holding the framed image of his deceased father. The boy was only four years old when his father passed in the uprising. After making your way past the portraits, water trickles down into a beautiful stream aptly named ‘A Stream of Tears’. It’s a symbolic art piece that flows endlessly, always with a lit candle, in honor for those who have passed.
Address: 200 Minju-ro, Buk-gu, Gwangju | 광주시 북구 민주로 200
Opening Hours: 9AM – 6PM (Last Entry 5:30PM)
Website: Click Here
Accessibility: Yes, elevators available
Getting here is not easy if you don’t have a personal car. We took a taxi there but unfortunately had issues getting one back into town. If you’re looking to take public transport, look for Intra-city Bus 518. The bus comes every weekday at 25-minute intervals and on the weekends at 35-minute intervals. The bus stop is located just outside of the parking lot near the main road.
3. May 18th Memorial Culture Center (Memorial Park)
Located in the May 18th Memorial Park on the Western side of Gwangju, this huge hall has a plethora of exhibitions related to the uprising. Similar to other museums on this list, there are interactive exhibitions and educational opportunities available to the public.
One of the next best things this park has to offer are memorial statues. There are several statues to honor the students and civilians who lost their lives in the struggle. On a more general note, the park is a very peaceful and comforting place with a towering bamboo forest that offers you a moment of silence from the nearby city streets. Follow this forest to the other side of the park and you’ll end up at Mugaksa Temple (무각사). Although this temple has little to do with the Gwangju Uprising, it’s an architecturally rare site that offers tourists a moment of silence. Today, the temple has been rebuilt in a minimalist fashion that echoes a high-end NYC gallery. There is a templestay available here, as well as a nice cafe if you’re looking to take a tea break.
Information (Culture Center)
Address: 61, Sangmuminju-ro, Seo-gu, Gwangju | 광주시 서구 상무민주로 61
Entrance Fee: Free
Website: Click Here
Accessibility: Paved pathways in many areas of the park, some may be slightly patchy.
4. May 18th Democracy Square & Jeonil Building
The Democracy Square is a popular meeting place for shopping, cafes, or gallery exhibitions. This square is considered to be the ‘heart’ of the Gwangju Uprising, where civilians would meet for speeches and action plans. It was more than a democracy square – it was a battlefield.
The nearby Jeonil Building means something different to many people, and for tourists who don’t know the history behind this dated skyscraper, they’ll simply walk by thinking it was an eye sore. But for the local people of Gwangju, it is a reminder of their courage. The building goes by another name: The 245 Building, because of the 245 bullet holes in the building that came from a helicopter-mounted machine gun. You can spot traces of these holes both outside and inside of the building – just look for the red squares. The building is currently undergoing some renovations to become a new cultural space, but it’s worth taking a look at the outside.
Information (Jeonil Building)
Address: 245 Geumnam-ro Dong-gu Gwangju | 광주시 동구 금남로 245
Opening Hours: 9AM – 7PM (Closed New Year’s Day, Seollal, Chuseok)
Accessibility: Elevators available
Gwangju became a favorite city of mine as soon as I stepped foot in it. The kindness of its people, the resilience of their morals, and the dedication to the curation of its history is unmatched. The greatest honor a visitor could do would be to learn about what makes this city so quintessential to the Korean identity. By experiencing our Gwangju Uprising Tour, you’ll be able to better understand what the City of Light is all about.
Did we miss something? Send us an email or leave a comment below and we’ll be sure to get back to you.