Chun's hard-line policy led to a confrontation in Kwangju, a city of 600,000 people located 170 miles south of Seoul, in South Cholla Province, the scene of an uprising and bloodbath between May 18 and 27. As noted in a report issued by the Martial Law Command, the students and "hot-blooded young soldiers" confronted each other, angry citizens joined in, driven by alleged rumors that the "soldiers of Kyongsang Province origin came to exterminate the seeds of the Cholla people."
The Kwangju massacre was to became an important landmark in the struggle for South Korean democracy. It heightened provincial hostility and marked the beginning of the rise of anti-American sentiment in South Korea.
According to the report, the sequence of events was triggered by student demonstrations on the morning of May 18 in defiance of the new edict. Some 200 Chonnam University students began demonstrating in the morning and by 2:00 P.M. they had been joined by more than 800 additional demonstrators. City police were unable to control the crowd. At about 4:00 P.M., the Martial Law Command dispatched a Special Forces detachment consisting of paratroopers trained for assault missions. The report did not mention it, but the paratroopers killed a large number of people.
On May 20, some 10,000 people demonstrated in Kwangju. On May 21, the Special Forces were withdrawn and the city was left to the rioters. A memorial service was held on May 24, with approximately 15,000 citizens in attendance.
On May 25, approximately 50,000 people gathered for a rally and adopted a resolution calling for the abolition of martial law and the release of Kim Dae Jung. A committee of leading citizens was organized on May 23 to try to settle the impasse, but "impure elements" and "maneuverers behind the scene" allegedly obstructed an effective solution. On May 27, at 3:30 A.M., an army division that had been circling the city for three days launched an attack. After light skirmishes, the army quashed the revolt in less than two hours. The army arrested 1,740 rioters, of whom 730 were detained for investigation.
A number of conclusions can be drawn from the Martial Law Command's account. The uprising started with student demonstrations. The Martial Law Command dispatched assault troops whose random killings angered citizens who had not participated in the initial student demonstrations. According to later reports by the command, nearly 200 persons were killed, including 22 soldiers and 4 policemen; of the 144 civilians killed, only 17 died on the final day of assault. And, regardless of who spread the "wanton rumors," they evidently were credible enough to prompt the gathering of 50,000 Kwangju citizens.
Chun, touring the city after the revolt had ended, told the people of Kwangju not to make an issue of what had happened, but to learn from it. The specter of Kwangju, however, was to haunt him for years to come.
There were several aftereffects resulting from the Kwangju incident. It deepened the chasm that had existed between the Kyongsang provinces (from which Park and Chun originated) and the Cholla provinces, of which Kwangju is a capital and from which the opposition leader Kim Dae Jung came. The United States' role also was controversial. General John A. Wickham, Jr., had released South Korean troops from the South Korea-United States Combined Forces Command to end the rebellion; President Reagan had strongly endorsed Chun's actions.