The gleaming, busy face of “new Jeolla”, GWANGJU (광주) is the region’s most populous city by far. Once a centre of political activism, and arguably remaining so today, it’s still associated, for most Koreans, with the brutal massacre that took place here in 1980. The event devastated the city but highlighted the faults of the then-government, thereby ushering in a more democratic era. Other than a cemetery for those who perished in the struggle, on the city outskirts, there’s little of note to see in Gwangju itself, except perhaps the shop-and-dine area in its centre. Largely pedestrianized, this is one of the busiest and best such zones in the country – not only the best place in which to sample Jeollanese cuisine but also a great spot to observe why Gwangjuites are deemed to be among the most fashionable folk on the peninsula. Also in this area is “Art Street”, a warren of studios and the figurehead of Gwangju’s dynamic art scene. Although most funding is now thrown at contemporary projects, the city’s rich artistic legacy stems in part from the work of Uijae, one of the country’s most famed twentieth-century painters and a worthy poet to boot. A museum dedicated to the great man sits on his former patch – a building and tea plantation on the slopes of Mudeungsan Park, which forms a natural eastern border to the city.
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The Gwangju massacre
The Gwangju massacre
Away from the bustle of Gwangju, in what may at first appear to be a field of contorted tea trees, lie those who took part in a 1980 uprising against the government, an event which resulted in a brutal massacre of civilians. The number that died is still not known for sure, and was exaggerated by both parties involved at the time; the official line says just over two hundred, but some estimates put it at over two thousand. Comparisons with the Tiananmen massacre in China are inevitable, an event better known to the Western world despite what some historians argue may have been a similar death toll. While Beijing keeps a tight lid on its nasty secret, Koreans flock to Gwangju each May to pay tribute to those who died.
In an intricate web of corruption, apparent Communist plots and a presidential assassination, trouble had been brewing for some time before General Chun Doo-hwan staged a military coup in December 1979. Chun had been part of a team given the responsibility of investigating the assassination of President Kim Jae-kyu, but used the event as a springboard towards his own leadership of the country. On May 17, 1980, he declared martial law in order to quash student protests against his rule. Similar revolts had seen the back of a few previous Korean leaders (notably Syngman Rhee, the country’s first president); fearing the same fate, Chun authorized a ruthless show of force that left many dead. Reprisal demonstrations started up across the city; the MBC television station was burnt down, with protestors aggrieved at being portrayed as Communist hooligans by the state-run operator. Hundreds of thousands of civilians grouped together, mimicking the tactics of previous protests on Jeju Island by attacking and seizing weapons from police stations. With transport connections to the city blocked, the government were able to retreat and pool their resources for the inevitable crackdown. This came on May 27, when troops attacked by land and air, retaking the city in less than two hours. After having the protest leaders executed, General Chun resigned from the Army in August, stepping shortly afterwards into presidential office. His leadership, though further tainted by continued erosions of civil rights, oversaw an economic boom; an export-hungry world remained relatively quiet on the matter.
Also sentenced to death, though eventually spared, was Kim Dae-jung. An opposition leader and fierce critic of the goings-on, he was charged with inciting the revolt, and spent much of the decade under house arrest. Chun, after seeing out his term in 1987, passed the country’s leadership to his partner-in-crime during the massacre, Roh Tae-woo. Demonstrations soon whipped up once more, though in an unexpectedly conciliatory response, Roh chose to release many political prisoners, including Kim Dae-jung. The murky world of Korean politics gradually became more transparent, culminating in charges of corruption and treason being levelled at Chun and Roh. Both were pardoned in 1997 by Kim Dae-jung, about to be elected president himself, in what was generally regarded as a gesture intended to draw a line under the troubles.
On the art trail in Gwangju
On the art trail in Gwangju
Outside Seoul, Gwangju is by far Korea’s most artistically inclined city. Much of this can be ascribed to the fact that it’s the largest city in Jeolla, which during the 1970s and 1980s was a hotbed of political activism; the gruesome massacre of 1980 saw raw emotion splashed onto many a piece of canvas. Regional tensions have long since subsided, meaning that present-day Jeollanese have a little less to say, but it’s still worth taking a stroll through some of the city’s many galleries.
The best place to go hunting is a narrow road in the city centre, affectionately known as Art Street. This is a funky collection of shops and studios selling art materials and works by local artists. There are similar streets in other Korean cities, but this one is larger, much more accessible and forms an active part of the city’s life. Traditional art styles remain dominant but they’re complemented – and sometimes sent up – by a more contemporary set. A few arty cafés and restaurants can be found in or just off the road, though as this area is also Gwangju’s centre of after-school education, the discussions you’ll hear are more likely to be about pop than Picasso. Near the eastern end of Art Street is the contemporary Kunsthalle Gwangju gallery, a regional offshoot of the facility in Seoul, and similarly fashioned entirely from shipping containers. It’s a temporary facility, filling the vacuum left by delays to the still-under-construction Asian Culture Complex, set for completion on an adjoining plot in 2014.
More traditional in nature is the work of Ho Baeknyon (1891–1977). Better known by his pen name Uijae, he was an important painter-poet-calligrapher, and in uniting those fine arts was likely one of the main catalysts behind Gwangju’s dynamic art scene. His old house and tea plantation, as well as a museum (Tues–Sun 10am–5pm) dedicated to his work, stand on the slopes of Mudeungsan (무등산), a pleasant park bordering Gwangju on its eastern side, and easily accessible by bus from the city centre. The most interesting piece on show is a ten-picture folding screen, whose images are said to represent the world’s rainbow of personal characteristics: are you bamboo-, blossom- or orchid-like in temperament?
Lastly, those visiting in the autumn of even-numbered years will be able to attend the Gwangju Biennale (wgb.or.kr), the biggest and most important art festival in the land. Most of the action takes place at a huge dedicated hall north of the train station, and there’s so much to see that even a full day is unlikely to be enough.