Official order to shoot civilians during 1980 Gwangju massacre uncovered

Posted on : 2017-08-25 19:22 KST Modified on : 2017-08-25 19:22 KST
Document contradicts four previous official investigations into the 5.18 Democratization Movement
A copy of the document containing an order to open fire on civilians during the May 18 Democratization Movement in Gwangju. The document is the first piece of evidence showing official permission to use lethal force on demonstrators. (provided by 5.18 Memorial Foundation)
A copy of the document containing an order to open fire on civilians during the May 18 Democratization Movement in Gwangju. The document is the first piece of evidence showing official permission to use lethal force on demonstrators. (provided by 5.18 Memorial Foundation)

The first internal records have emerged of a command to shoot citizens that was issued during the Gwangju Uprising on May 18, 1980. This goes against the claims from four previous investigations by the National Assembly, Prosecutor’s Office, and Ministry of Defense which found that “a commander on the ground made the decision to open fire in self-defense, and was not ordered to do so by a superior.”

A classified document obtained by the May 18 Memorial Foundation on August 24 which is titled ‘Gwangju Uprising’ and appears to have been written by the Gwangju 505 Branch of the Defense Security Command states that at 11:15pm on May 20, 1980, the ROK Army Training & Doctrine Command and troops stationed close to Chonnam National University were commanded to carry loaded weapons with 20 rounds per soldier, and open fire if faced with an emergency. At the time, the troops stationed near the university belonged to the 3rd Airborne Brigade, led by Brigadier General Choi Se-chang. Choi had served as Deputy Commander of the 1st Airborne Brigade under the command of Chun Doo-hwan and was a close associate of Chun, who by then had been promoted to Major General and was the chief of the Defense Security Command (DSC).

Although it has been confirmed that live ammunition was distributed to the paratroopers and citizens were killed by gunfire, the person responsible for giving the order has not been identified in the 37 years since the uprising. Records from an investigation by the Defense Ministry’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission in 2007 show that Choi distributed live ammunition to the paratroopers at 10:30pm on May 20. A collection of personal accounts of the Gwangju uprising released by the ROK Army Military History Institute also state that regiment Colonel Lee Sang-hyu (leader of the 9th Company of the 13th battalion of the Airborne Brigade at the time) gave 30 rounds of M16 ammunition to each company commander, the use of which was to be controlled by the brigade commander.

Following this, the 3rd Airborne Brigade opened fire despite an order to hold fire and refrain from using live ammunition issued by their superiors in the 2nd ROK Army at 11:20pm on May 20, leading to the deaths of four Gwangju citizens that night. The following day, paratroopers opened fire on protesters outside the former Chonnam Provincial Office on Geumnam Avenue between 1:00 and 5:00pm, killing 34 more civilians.

However, the 2007 investigation by the Defense Ministry’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission stated that it was “impossible to determine” who had issued the order to open fire. Jung Soo-man of the May 18 Memorial Foundation stated, “It is very significant that we have found records of an order to open fire written by security forces at the DSC. I hope that this clue will help to uncover the truth about who issued the order and why.”

The confidential document also made reference to the movements of ROK Marines, stating that one battalion of the First Marine Division stationed in Masan, South Gyeongsan Province, was to be dispatched to Mokpo, South Jeolla Province. This shows that Chun Doo-hwan and his military junta also planned to mobilize the Marines to suppress the protests in Gwangju. This comes on the heels of testimony from Air Force pilots that they had loaded fighter jets with air-to-surface bombs on May 21-22 and were awaiting orders to attack Gwangju. However, the Marines were ultimately not deployed to Gwangju.

By Jung Dae-ha, Gwangju correspondent

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