A tiny city turned out to demonstrate against authoritarian rule, South Korean special forces went in, and when the smoke cleared, more than 200 protesters were dead.
The Kwangju uprising of May 1980 — an event analogous here to China’s Tiananmen Square massacre nine years later — has haunted South Koreans for 27 years. It marked the birth of a strong strain of anti-Americanism and continues to bedevil U.S. relations with one of its closest allies in Asia.
Now it has become the subject of a mainstream movie.
“May 18th,” produced by CJ Entertainment, South Korea’s largest film-production company, opens next month. CJ Entertainment is an affiliate of corporate giant Samsung and a partner with the U.S. production company DreamWorks.
The movie stars South Korea’s most famous actor, Ahn Sung-ki, as a former commando embroiled in the uprising, alongside heartthrob Lee Jun-ki as a student protester.
“I created it as close to the truth as possible,” director Kim Ji-hoon said at a screening for foreign reporters yesterday. “It’s purely based on fact.”
However, one Westerner who was in South Korea at the time of the clashes remained unconvinced after watching the film.
“I don’t think the evolution of the battle was accurate, but some of the moods of the time were,” said Don Kirk, an American reporter who covered Kwangju and consulted with the filmmakers for accuracy.
With South Korea this year celebrating 20 years of democracy, the events of Kwangju have not faded from popular memory.
South Korean special forces, dispatched to suppress anti-government demonstrations in the southwestern city of Kwangju on May 18, behaved brutally.
Furious citizens responded by looting weapons from arsenals. The “black beret” special forces retreated on May 21, leaving citizen militias in control of the city.
Less than a week later, the regular Korean 20th Infantry Division retook the city after more fighting.
President Chun Doo-hwan, a general who had seized power in a coup five months earlier and declared martial law, painted Kwangju as a communist rebellion.
Today, the tragedy is viewed as the violent suppression of a democratic protest. Official investigations found that 207 civilians were killed and more than 900 injured. Some claim the real numbers are much higher.