Gwangju democratic uprising


South Korea hasn’t had an easy path to democracy and Gwangju has a prominent place in the fight against dictatorship. In December 1979, there was a coup d’etat. There followed a struggle between the military trying to maintain power and those demanding greater democratic freedom.


It all came to a head in May 1980. There were demonstrations around Korea, led by students but also involving many other citizens. In Gwangju, it led to violence in which up to 165 protesters died.

This is all commemorated in the May 18th National Cemetery. It’s a moving experience, and deliberately so – grand memorials, sombre music, and rows of graves for those who died. Many of them were my age or younger. And all this happening when I was 21, and taking my finals at university. I was quite unaware.

I assume that most people would advocate democracy and see the outcome (that the spirit of democracy eventually triumphed, even if they didn’t at the time) as successful. However, I would have liked to see a more balanced description of the events; I had a real sense of history being written by the winners.



An hour or so north of Mokpo on the train, and still in Korea’s south-western Jeollanan province, is Gwangju. It’s a city of 1.5 million set in an otherwise rural setting.


I took these photos of people selling their goods on the streets – mostly elderly and mostly women. Some of them are tiny, and it’s probably been many years since some of them could stand up straight.


Korea has had a pretty torrid recent history. It’s a major world economy now but it had to build from pretty much nothing following the devastation of the Korean war. That finished 60 years ago, so these women would have been alive at the time, and lived through the hardships of the post-war years.


I watched the women in the top two pictures from the organic coffee shop where I was having breakfast – tea, smoothie and a muffin.