Hong Sung Dam, Leaflets of Warriors 1, 1985 Woodcut

The Gwangju Massacre of May 1980 was an important moment in Korea’s history, a turning point for Koreans on the peninsula and in the U.S. It was an episode that sparked the democratization movement in Korea, as it exposed the reality of its military dictatorship – and the true relationship of the U.S. government and military to South Korea and the Korean people. The impact was felt by many Korean Americans as well, and in that way, led to the eventual founding of Nodutdol.

In 1980, trade unionists, students and ordinary people all over South Korea had been protesting for months for worker’s rights and democracy after 19 years of military dictatorship. The previous dictator, Park Chung Hee had been assassinated and Major Chun Doo Hwan had just taken power in a coup and began to brutally suppress the democratization movement.

In Gwangju, the sixth largest city in south Korea, people rose up against the Chun Doo Hwan dictatorship in May 1980. The dictatorship sent in military forces and paramilitary groups into the city, resulting in over 2000 casualties and several hundreds of people, including children, were massacred in the streets, and then thrown into mass graves. For many years, this was suppressed history, and mention of the uprising and massacre was dangerous. Only in 1997 were Chun Doo Hwan and others convicted of their crimes, and in 2002, finally, a memorial cemetery was built to honor those who fought and died for democracy. For Koreans, this devastating episode revealed the true face of their government, and helped to give birth to a nation-wide movement for social justice in South Korea that eventually led to the first democratic elections in 1987.

Moreover, this tragedy changed many South Koreans’ view of the American role there. South Korea’s military has essentially been under U.S. control since 1954, due to their defense treaties and the Combined Forces Command (a combined U.S.- South Korea military command, led by a US general) For Korean troops to be sent to Gwangju, the U.S. military command would have had to direct such, or at minimum, acquiesce to such a plan. In fact, the U.S. authorized the Korean Army’s 20th Division to re-take Gwangju – as acknowledged in a 1982 letter to the New York Times by then-Ambassador Gleysteen. The U.S., however, continues to deny foreknowledge of the initial deployment of Korean Special Forces, who began the massacre.

Horrified by the events that took place on the days following May 18, 1980 and yet inspired by a city that rose up in the face of absolute repression, many Korean Americans began a journey of learning about and contributing to the struggle for the democracy in South Korea. South Korea is no longer a dictatorship, but the sight of military troops and tanks killing innocent people have been etched in the minds of millions. It turned a generation into activists and fighters who continue to fight today against the dangers of military power, for reunification, for social and economic justice, both in South Korea and the U.S.

Nodutdol remembers the legacy of the Gwangju Massacre and in this issue of enews, we decided to share some of the art and poetry that came out of that time period. For more information about the Gwangju Massacre, please visit our website and click on resources and download the KEEP files.

Hong Sung Dam, Dog Food, 1988 Woodcut


We Must Enter The Bright World You Opened For Us

by Kim Yong-T’aek

Shedding your warm blood,

breaking the chains of oppression and tyranny,

you opened wide the bright, blue sky,

casting off entirely our flesh, bones, and blood,

our impure blood,

under dazzling sunlight

our naked bodies

a new world opened in radiant joy

You whom we can never forget,

advancing among blood-splattering bullets,

leaping over falling brothers

into black darkness

ah, weeping, screaming,

while the hot bullets once shot

brought flowers into bloom,

flowers deeply engraved in our breasts

flowers that shed light

on that world where humans came after living human lives

on that world where humans will have to go after living human


In May

we can hear it all

see if all

though we shut our eyes, block our ears

Their flowers blooming at the end of a sound of shooting.

In May

no matter where we look

you are blooming, dazzling flowers,

fresh bright flowers that open wide the hills.

If we go out into the fields,

wild flowers at mother’s side

opening up paddy-fields and meadows.

If we go down to the river,

bright flowers opening every bend in the meandering stream.

If we go out into the streets,

undulating human flowers in every street.

Onward, ever onward,

let’s press on, opening up a good world.

Onward, ever onward,

and now

the sun shoots aloft,

the southern land, scorching like a fireball,

scorches the bodies which tread and roll there,

the dry clay moistened with spittle sticking…

toward May

toward Kwangju, toward Kwangju

with May’s white sunshine blazing

onward, onward onward onward.

Piercing the ocher colored clay

bamboo groves here and there

wide meadows here and there

high mountains here and there

rising trembling

you who come bearing lotus lanterns

you people of the land

onward onward onward onward

muching, crunching

mouthfuls of dusty clay

with your drought-burned faces

piercing through the dusty wind, the harsh dusty wind

crossing red rivers

climbing over red mountains

passing red meadows

smashing false history

you blossomed with the blood red of azaleas.

giving light to the yard of Chon Pong-Jun’s hatched house in the fields of Kobu

and the blood-red-hued hill path, glaring angry-eyed

onward, ever onward.

Swallowing once again red earth, onward to the land of the burning cuckoo’s song

that sticks in the burning throat,

to the land that now opens bright anew

land of democracy

land of the common folk

land of unification

land of liberation

land of freedom and hope, overflowing with love

passing beyond darkness

onward to my land

with no one falling

that does not rise again

no one leaving that does not return again.

Onward onward onward ever onward

to resurrection, the land of resurrection.

Straightening what is bent

raising up what is pressed down

onward onward to a bright world,

Onward ever onward to liberation’s land.

Translated by An Son-Jae, Chung Sngyong, Rhyu Simin, et al.

Memories of May 1980: A Documentary History of the Kwangju Uprising in Korea. 2003, Korea Democracy Foundation, Seoul, South Korea