Book Review: Gwangju Diary: Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age

If you work and live in Gwangju you most probably have encountered mention of the 1980 May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising and many of us enthusiastically want to learn more about the background, facts, and truth about the Uprising then, “Gwangju Diary: Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age” will provide you with plenty of facts about the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising.

The Gwangju Diary is not a formal diary, but it gives insight into the events that took place from May 14th to 27th, 1980, when the country went into political turmoil due to the assassination of President Park Chung Hee. However, on May 18, 1980, the military General Chun Doo-hwan declared full martial law and curfew all over Korea that triggered a civil Uprising in Gwangju against the regime. The Student groups took to the streets of Gwangju on May 18 and chanted “End the Martial Law” and harshly clashed with regime troops in downtown Gwangju.

Gwangju Commune is protesting against Martial Law 1980, Gwangju Republic of Korea

The military enforced a media blackout, and later the city of Gwangju was cut off from the rest of the country. Throughout the resistance, the people of Korea only listened to regime propaganda and remained unaware of the exact situation of Gwangju from May 14 to May 27, 1980. Therefore, the book provides you with the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising perspective of the resistance showing that this was a student resistance against the regime that fabricated it as a “rebellion”.      

The book has an impressive and captivating background. On 1985, five years after the end of the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising, a small group of former Uprising activists secretly organized underground meetings and decided to write a “Diary” about the facts regarding the Uprising. The objective of this book was to elucidate the facts of the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising so that more people would know accurate information of the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising. This book consists of facts and testimonies of the eyewitnesses who had joined the Uprising as resistance leaders, members of mobile units, outpost militias, and activists.

Gwangju Diary Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age

The book was first published in the Korean language in 1985 under the name of dissident novelist Hwang Sog-young. The purpose of the cover author was to protect the identity of the real author Lee- Jae-eui and other underground Uprising resisters from the brutal regime of General Chun Doo-hwan, who was still “deadly”. The book consists of four chapters and 136 pages. 

Author Lee- Jae-eui himself participated in the Uprising while he was a junior at Chonnam National University in 1980. The author does not exaggerate his bravery but shares the reality that due to the brutality and violence done by General Chun’s regime students joined the Uprising. He wrote that “I joined the Uprising, not because I possessed extraordinary courage or an uncommon sense of justice, but because I happened to find myself in the middle of a massacre, like so many other Gwangju rebels. At first, I was struck with horror but then, the anger burning in my heart drove that horror out”.

The present English version of the book was published in 2017. The introduction to the book is incredible, written by Bruce Cumings, who’s professor and expert on modern Korean and East Asian history. Professor Cumings really does justice in the introduction to the book by stating that “the Gwangju rebellion was South Korea’s Tiananmen crisis-an event that shaped the broad resistance to the 1980s dictatorship, and paved the way for democratization in the 1990s, as well as the conviction, on charges of treason and sedition, of the perpetrators who massacred innocent citizens in Gwangju”.

The book shows the Gwangju commune commitment and affirmation to stand for the protection of human dignity and democratization in Korea. The series of incidents tell us of the firm will and struggle of the Gwangju commune for civil supremacy over the military regime in Korea. The joining of taxi and public buses drivers in this struggle proved that the Gwangju public was united and stood up against the military regime. The book also provide sketches and maps of the resistance for the readers so they can truly understand scope of the Uprising. However, all this resistance were dreadfully crushed by the military.

These incidents show that the use of excessive force could turn civil resistance into a bloody massacre. Similarly, when the May 18 resistance activists saw the violence, deaths and atrocities of the troops, they turned to protect themselves, their friends, and human rights from the regime troops.

The author shared the initial days of resistance from May 14 to May 18, 1980 of the students from Chonnam National University and Chosun University. The students at the beginning remained peaceful and organized “the March of Torch” on May 16 1980 to denounce the former military regime of General Park Chung Hee “aimed to raise a massive number of torches to symbolically cast out the darkness of eighteen years under Park Chung Hee’s military dictatorship in Korea”.

On May 17, 1980, the peaceful resistance faced excessive force from police and undercover intelligence agents. The police raided the houses of several key student leaders and activists and arrested them to end the student resistance against the martial law regime.

However, on May 18, 1980, the General Chun regime declared the “Total Martial Law”, and the military occupied the provincial offices Gwangju that shocked the students and people of Gwangju. The students and citizens of Gwangju now more aggressively went to protest against the action by the military regime.

On May 19 the students again took to the streets when they heard that “they will kill Kim Dae Jung and slaughter everyone in Gwangju”. Such speculation caused more anger among students and Gwangju citizens. They started to march towards city hall and Kŭmnam Avenue. The students and citizens of Gwangju fought barehanded with the paratroopers, but the paratroopers crushed all these marches with a brutality that caused more resistance, and these marches turned into the Uprising against dictatorship.

However, the students and citizen of Gwangju with strong civil resistance pushed the military troops out of the centre of Gwangju and occupied the city. It is important to note that no bank, shop, or house was looted or burned during the citizen occupation of Gwangju. They offered peace dialogue with the military, but all these efforts were wasted by the Chun regime, which called this resistance a rebellion and riot against his government and indiscriminately used violence against the students and Gwangju citizens.

Gwangju: Student, Labor Union and Citizen of Gwangju march for Democracy 1980

Therefore, on May 27, 1980, the General Chun regime sent tanks, helicopters and especial commando brigades to Gwangju to crush the Uprising. The first battle took placed at Kyerim Elementary School in Gwangju. The paratroopers stormed the school, and crushed the resistance of students. Several students lost their lives and some surrendered.

On May 27, 1980, the final significant battle took placed around 4:00 am along Gumnamno Avenue and Province Hall that was surrounded by tanks and military helicopters. The government forces issued warning for total surrender, but the rebels stood against them. The paratroopers mercilessly attacked the Gwangju Province Hall and killed many young students, detained several and at last the May 18 Democratic resistance was silenced by the Chun regime, and “the new bloody sun rose in Korea”.

These are the real testimonies about the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising, and there is no thrills and suspense mixed into this book to make it more attractive for the readers. However, these facts become shocking and worrisome. Author Lee- Jae-eui wrote the facts and left it to us to decide and discuss the sacrifices of the May 18 Democratic Gwangju Uprising heroes who lost their lives and future for the protection of human rights and the flourishing democratization in Korea.

Author Lee- Jae-eui at Old Provincial Hall Building near Asia Culture Center Gwangju

Let me share with you the exciting news that the May 18 Memorial Foundation now holds all copyrights of the book “Gwangju Diary: Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age” and provide free access to the public to download a free pdf copy to read it. So, if you are interested to learn about the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising please, follow the link and download it. Finally, let us not forget the sacrifices of the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising and keep spreading the May 18 Spirit in the world to help defeat future tyrants. To download this book free please browse the link.


Shahnawaz is presently associated International Staff with the May 18 Memorial Foundation Gwangju. His areas of research are human rights, democratisation, social movements, peace-building and refugees. He recently graduated in Human Rights and Democratization from Mahdiol University, Thailand. 

1 thought on “Book Review: Gwangju Diary: Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age

  1. Pingback: Soulèvement de Gwangju - My Blog - massacre de 1980

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