Gwangju, South Korea — Dying for Democracy

When people ask me why I like to travel, I tell them over and over again that I enjoy it because I learn things. It teaches me. It humbles me. It challenges me. I find that to be worth every dollar I spend on it and every small frustration I might experience along my way.

My visit to Gwangju presented me with a major historical lesson.

Let me backtrack briefly. One of my great friends is from Gwangju and currently teaches there at Chonnam National University. He and I first met back in 2003 when we simultaneously started working on our doctorates in Communication at The University of Alabama. I haven’t seen him since a brief visit in Seoul five years ago, so I told him I’d make my way down to the southwestern part of the Korean peninsula and spend a couple of days with him during my extended stay in Korea.

He took me to the May 18th National Cemetery. I had no idea about Gwangju’s history of pushing for democratic reforms in 1980 when South Korea was ruled by the military. Furthermore, I did not know the South Korean military utterly crushed this effort with deadly force.

I won’t delve into all of the history here, but The May 18 Memorial Foundation has lots of information about it. The number of known victims continues to change, but the current numbers are at 4,493: 165 people killed between May 18 – 27, 1980; 66 people still missing; and 4,262 arrested and/or wounded. The May 18th National Cemetery was built to memorialize the victims and serve as a reminder that South Korea should never again fall under the influence of a dictator.

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Chonnam National University played a significant role in Gwangju’s history as a leader in the push for democratic rights. Several students and professors are listed among the May 18 Uprising’s casualties. Chonnam National has embraced this history, and you can still find evidence of it on campus.

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