A group of women in Seoul held a sit-in strike, first to strike for better working conditions, and later to protest the closure of the factory where they were working in, and months later hundreds of people were killed and thousands injured by the Korean military in Kwangju. What may appear to be two seemingly unrelated events are in fact links in an important chain of events in Korean history.
Before one can understand the events leading up to the Kwangju Uprising, some knowledge of Park Chung-hee's 18 years in power is needed, and this site provides an excellent overview. Despite his 'strong-arm tactics' (US publications like Time loved to call him a 'strongman') and repression against those calling for democratic and labor rights, Park remained popular for many years due to the rapid growth of the economy under his rule. As the repression became more severe in the latter half of the 1970s, and the economy began to experience a downturn in 1979 (especially affecting port cities like Busan and Masan) opposition to Park's Yushin system began to manifest itself.
The sit-in held in August 1979 by the female workers of the YH Textile Company was arguably the first overt sign of discontent, and its suppression was the first in a chain of events which led to Park Chung-hee's assassination, and eventually, to the Kwangju uprising. The women had at first held a strike for better working conditions, and then to protest the closure of their factory after its owner, a Korean American, fled the country. When they were locked out of their factory and the government ignored their demands to save their jobs, they protested with a sit-in at the office of Sinmindang, the opposition party. Sinmindang had won a plurality in the 1978 elections, but since one-third of the parliament's members were government-appointed, the opposition didn't win a majority of the seats. Needless to say, Sinmindang, and its leader, Kim Young-sam, were not well liked by those in power.
On August 9th, a thousand riot police were used to suppress the YH sit-in at Sinmindang's headquarters, in the process causing the death of one of the workers, who fell from a window. This event gained the opposition a great deal more support from the public than usual. It also, along with arrests of other Sinmindang members, radicalized the opposition. In a speech on September 10th, Kim Young-sam said that he would start a movement to “overthrow the Park regime,” and a few days later he criticized the government in an interview with the NY Times. As a result of this, he was stripped of his membership in the National Assembly on October 4th. In protest, opposition assembly members resigned as a group on October 13.
On October 16, in Pusan, Kim Young-sam's hometown, anger at his dismissal, combined with discontent caused by the recession, led to a civil uprising (the only information about which I found here).
That morning, more than 1,000 students stormed the library of Pusan University in protest, and as their numbers swelled and citizens joined in, 11 Pusan city police boxes were destroyed. When the government closed Pusan University on the 17th, students of nearby Tonga University walked out in solidarity. In response, the government declared that Pusan would be placed under martial law, beginning midnight of the 18th, and paratroopers were sent in to quell the demonstrations.
The morning of the 18th dawned on a fresh set of demonstrations in nearby Masan, and over 1,000 students of Kyungnam University marched through the streets until 5 p.m.. They attacked 19 public buildings, including the provincial subdivision office of the Republican (ruling) party, Masan City Hall, Masan Law Court, Masan MBC (a local broadcasting station) and the north Masan police box -- all regarded as structures which were helping to maintain the Yushin system. The street demonstrations continued until 2 a.m. on the 19th. Then, 1,500 soldiers descended on the city. By the 20th of October, the Pusan and Masan Democratic Uprisings had come to an end. In all, 1,563 demonstrators had been arrested, 500 of whom were students. "
Though Special Forces units were used to suppress the uprising, and did so harshly, no one was killed.
Disagreements over how to react to the uprising and student agitation in general eventually led KCIA head Kim Jae-gyu to kill Park Chung-hee and and his security chief Cha Ji-cheol on October 26th. The country was put under partial martial law, under which the civilian government retained control, and Kim was arrested soon after. Prime Minister Choi Kyu-ha was put in charge of an interim government, one which began to loosen some of the political controls Park had instituted, and which spoke of having new elections in the near future. This plan was derailed on the night of December 12th, when Chun Doo-hwan used his troops to take over the military in a 'coup in all but name', though just how much 'Seoul Spring' was to be derailed would not be obvious for another 5 months. During that time Chun, who had been part of an association in the military called Hanahoe (see here, scroll down) used the martial law put into place by his predecessors to quietly build his power base.
The loosening of political controls resulted in the venting of a great deal of frustration that had previously been suppressed. As the economy continued to worsen prices began to rise at a rate of 3-4% per month, but the Economic Planning Board froze wage increases at 10-15%. As the period of wage increases arrived in March, numerous labor disputes broke out. In the first 4 months of 1980 alone, there were almost 800 disputes, compared to only 105 in all of 1979. The most prominent strike at this time was the Sabuk coal strike, in Kangwon-do, which began on April 18. When it was realized that the miners' union manager had colluded with management to settle for a low wage increase, 3000 miners and over 2000 family members held a strike. When police injured four miners with a jeep while trying to suppress the strike, the protest escalated and the miners occupied the town for several days, driving away the police. Though it was eventually calmed down, the authorities lied to miners and tried to arrest them after promising not to; they also put a special forces brigade on standby, but never used them.
Students, free of the repressive controls of the previous 5 years, began to openly organize previously banned student associations at the beginning of the new school year in March, beginning with Seoul National University, but soon spreading across the country.
But I'll get to that later...
[Update] Much later it would seem. I updated some information about the YH sit-in and Kim Young-sam, aided a great deal by this essay.