Disinformation

Conspiracy theories fly decades after South Korean pro-democracy massacre

In 1980, protesters in the city of Gwangju were met with a brutal military crackdown, but the far right tells another story

Photo: François Lochon/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Forty years ago today, a pro-democracy protest erupted in South Korea that saw more than 160 citizens killed by the country’s military government. On May 18, 1980, over a thousand students took to the streets in the southwestern city of Gwangju, calling for democratic reform and an end to martial law. 

Chun Doo-hwan, who had seized control of the nation’s armed forces in a coup the previous year, demanded that the uprising be immediately suppressed, sending in troops, tanks and helicopter gunships. Over the next two days, as the numbers of protesters grew to tens of thousands, hundreds were attacked, beaten and shot dead. 

The story of the Gwangju Uprising is widely recognized as a brutal episode in the country’s history, yet conspiracy theorists believe that demonstrators were acting on the orders of military officers from communist North Korea. The rumor continues to circulate to this day. 

Lee Kang-gap was 23 years old, working at a furniture factory when the massacre took place. He joined the demonstrators after witnessing innocent people being brutalized and killed by the government’s troops.

“A friend of mine who was not a protester was shot by a soldier on his way from work to home,” Lee wrote in an email. “The troops considered anyone in their sight a rioter and attacked everyone.”

Paul Courtright, 64, was in South Korea as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer at the time. He recalls large numbers of people being beaten, even though they were obeying the military’s orders to disperse.

“What struck me was that the violence was being directed at older people, general people on the street, rather than young protesters,” Courtright said.

Despite eyewitness testimony and documentary evidence of the government-sanctioned violence, some still believe that the protest was secretly organized on the orders of North Korea’s military.

This conspiracy theory has been repeatedly debunked and dismissed by the media and courts. But that has not stopped members of far-right messageboards posting contrary narratives. Last week, for instance, a member of one private forum shared a Facebook post promoting the North Korea conspiracy.

It read, “The U.S. Department of State has finally released reports on the Gwangju riot after 40 years. The report states that North Korean infiltrators landed in Gwangju and sneaked in. The May 18 uprising was not a democratic movement, it was a riot with North Korea involved.” 

The original post was shared 409 times and attracted many positive comments. 

“Those who glorify the riot are commies,” read one.

Such views echo a dark period in South Korea’s past during which members of the democratic movement were accused of being communist sympathizers, simply for holding different views to those of the government.

“The country was unstable and people needed an easy term to describe those who opposed the government. In the military, commanders and soldiers called anyone who brought any confusion to society commies,” said Lee Kyung-nam, a former special forces member who was deployed to Gwangju to suppress the protests.

Researchers and historians have pointed out that it would have been impossible for hundreds of soldiers to cross the border and infiltrate the city. Yet some politicians have also advanced the idea that North Korea was behind the uprising. 

Last year, members of the conservative Liberty Korea Party organized a public forum on the Gwangju Uprising in Seoul. The event featured a well known far-right figure and Gwangju denier named Ji Man-won as a guest speaker. 

After widespread public criticism, the Liberty Korea Party issued a statement that views expressed at the gathering were not that of the party.

Kim Jung-han, a Humanities Korea Research Professor at Critical Global Studies Institute at Sogang University described the promotion of such views by politicians as “very problematic.”

“The Gwangju Uprising led to the 1987 June Democracy Movement, which then led the society to overthrow the military dictatorship and begin democratization. It seems that those who repeat the disinformation have an ultimate goal to deny our history of democracy,” he said.

Courtright agrees. “Some people continue to use North Korea as a fallback position to explain something that they don’t understand,” he said.

Meanwhile, former protesters and victims of the movement continue to speak out in the hope that those responsible for the massacre are finally brought to justice. Chun was initially sentenced to death in 1996, but the country’s top court later imprisoned him for life – he was eventually released in 1997 on a presidential pardon. Chun is currently on trial for allegedly defaming a priest who testified to the military crackdown in Gwangju.

Goo Sung-ju was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in jail for his part in the protests. He served only a few months, before being released on probation the same year. He remembers the violence vividly.

“I hope that Chun Doo-hwan gets the punishment he deserves,” he said.

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Chaewon Chung

Chaewon is a multimedia journalist with Coda Story. She graduated with a Master’s in journalism from Columbia Journalism School and has also reported with SCMP, BUST, Korea Exposé, and others.