In BTS’ upbeat track “Ma City” from their HYYH pt. 1 album, J-hope’s verse ends with a phrase that may strike some international fans as strange: “Everyone press it, 062–518.” J-hope raps the digits as if they were a phone number or a postal code, but there’s much more significance to this short string of numbers.
Fans who are familiar with “Ma City” know the song pays homage to the BTS members’ hometowns. They proudly sing and rap about where they came from, a trend we’ve also seen in songs like “팔도강산 (Satoori Rap).” This string of numbers that can seem out of place to some are direct references to J-hope’s hometown of Gwangju — 062 referring to the area code, and 518 representing May 18, 1980, the start of the democratization movement in Gwangju.
A reference to Gwangju’s democratic movement appears in just one other BTS-related song: a pre-debut track Suga produced and composed titled “518–062.” He worked on the track as a member of D-Town, with rapper Nakshun who penned the lyrics and performed the raps. When he uploaded the song, Suga wrote a note describing the purpose of the song as asking that “people not allow the uprising to fade little by little from their memories and to remember it once again.” You can read the full lyrics and note here.
The importance of including these numbers in J-hope’s verse and Suga’s composition cannot be overlooked. The Gwangju Uprising stands to this day as an important reminder of the price Korean citizens had to pay to gain democratic freedom. To better understand the significance of this lyric and the day it pays respect to, let’s look at the events surrounding May 18, 1980 and the subsequent fallout.
The seeds that would sprout into the Gwangju Uprising were planted in 1979, when South Korean president Park Chunghee was assassinated on October 26 by the Korean Central Intelligence Agency. In the power vacuum that remained, Chun Doohwan led a military coup and by December 12, seized power for himself and his allies. Declaring martial law in Seoul, Chun suspended the civilian government and granted all authority to his military. Chun’s actions were met with widespread protests, but Chun continued to suppress the nation.
In the early hours of May 18, 1980, martial law was extended to the entirety of South Korea. Troops were sent across the country, with troops arriving in Gwangju and occupying local university campuses. Like many of their fellow citizens, students in Gwangju began to hold protests. The protests soon turned violent when the troops began to respond by beating students with clubs. When the situation escalated, more troops were sent into Gwangju — this time with machine guns. Students and the citizens who joined them in protesting were ruthlessly brutalized and murdered at the hands of their own armed forces. This was the start of what would eventually be named the Gwangju Uprising.
The bloodshed didn’t stop Gwangju citizens from protesting martial law, calling for a fair and just civilian government. On May 19, both students and citizens continued to gather in protests, this time on the main streets of the city. Military troops used a tank to fire upon the civilians, later using flamethrowers as more people gathered. The massacre continued into the next day, as troops shot and killed citizens gathered outside City Hall.
But the spirit of Gwangju’s citizens was not broken — they continued to protest despite the horrible acts committed upon them, and on May 21, they armed themselves by breaking into police stations. When the armed citizens faced the military, the troops temporarily withdrew, leaving Gwangju to self-govern until May 26. The next day, troops returned to the city and finally took control. An official speech made after the military regained control in Gwangju framed the incident as a conflict with armed citizens that had to be stopped, rather than a series of severe militaristic suppressions and cruelties. The truth of what happened at Gwangju was being buried.
But specs of the truth began to break through the black cloud of secrecy. Due to media censorship and government coverups, many did not know the full extent of what happened in Gwangju. However, several young men, including a few students, took drastic actions to try to bring to light the truth of what happened.
In Seoul, university student Kim Uigi prepared flyers about Gwangju before he jumped to his death off the 6th floor of a building; he was just 21 years old. Shortly after Kim’s death, Kim Jongtae set himself on fire after shouting democratic movement slogans that demanded truth. These sacrifices continued as the government consistently denied the events of the Gwangju Uprising. On the first anniversary of May 18, students gathered in a silent protest at Seoul National University. Kim Taehun, from Gwangju, jumped to his death from the 4th floor of a building while shouting slogans. The next year, four students at SNU planned a protest but were arrested before they could start it. In court, they were found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison each. Two of the students developed psychological problems due to their experiences, and later committed suicide. Self-immolations and suicides occurred sporadically until at least 1988.
One may ask why a string of students and other citizens took such dire measures to call attention to what happened in Gwangju. As Oh Seungyong, a professor at Chonnam National University states, “From May 18, 1980 to 1983, the law on campus stabilization prohibited all assembly and political expressions on campuses. People couldn’t express their dissent without extreme methods like self-immolation. In order to say what was forbidden, extreme self-sacrifice was a pre-requisite.”
Despite these heroic efforts, the militaristic government continued to suppress the truth and the Korean media. If not for the efforts of foreign journalists, it’s likely much of the world would have remained unaware of the atrocities of Gwangju. A German journalist, Jürgen Hinzpeter, was one of the few able to prove what really happened in Gwangju. When he arrived in Seoul from his assignment in Tokyo, he took a taxi into Gwangju. The military had blocked off roads, but the resourceful taxi driver, referred to as Kim Sabok (which may not have been his real name), made his way around military barriers and safely got Hintzpeter to Gwangju. Hinzpeter was able to document some of the events of Gwangju, later smuggling the footage out of Korea and publishing it for the world to see. Hintzpeter was later named an honorary citizen of Gwangju for his efforts, and modern memorials of the event paid special tribute to him, though there was no mention of the Korean self-sacrifices until much more recently.
South Korea saw much struggle nationwide as citizens demanded a democratic process over the years after Gwangju. In 1987, they finally got it when Chun instituted elections. He was eventually convicted of his crimes and sentenced to death, though he was later pardoned. The year 1997 saw the first recognition of May 18 as a national memorial day, and in 2015, the May 18 Archives opened in Gwangju, providing detailed exhibits of the movement. UNESCO added documents from the Gwangju Uprising as a “Memory of the World” in 2011.
In 2017, South Korea’s current president, Moon Jaein, announced he would reopen investigations into the military’s involvement in Gwangju. In 2018, it was confirmed that helicopters had also been used to fire at civilians during the fight. This same year, the government also acknowledged and apologized, via a statement from the defense ministry, for the atrocities committed against the citizens of Gwangju, including the sexual assault, torture, and rape of many women, some of whom were teenagers at the time. Though the official numbers have always indicated around 200 deaths from the massacre, other activist organizations say there were as many as 600 deaths. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the movement, but many bereaved families are still waiting for answers from the government, which President Moon has continued to push for.
No matter the number of causalities or the exact details of the event, the Gwangju Uprising remains an important part of South Korea’s history, a history that should not be forgotten by those of us in the modern day. By including this small reference to Gwangju in their lyrics, BTS reminds us to not forget those who have fallen — whether from our own countries or another — and that remembering and honoring sacrifice is an integral part of being human. As the front page of the May 18 Archives website states: “History will repeat itself if you do not speak the truth and do not remember the past.”
Choe, Sang-Hun. “In South Korea, an unsung hero of history gets his due.” The New York Times. 2 Aug. 2017. Accessed 16 May 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/02/world/asia/south-korea-taxi-driver-film-gwangju.html
France-Presse, Agence. “Gwangju apology: South Korea sorry for rape and torture committed by troops against protesters after 1980 coup.” South China Morning Post. 7 Nov. 2018. Accessed 16 May 2020. https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/east-asia/article/2172098/gwanju-apology-south-korea-sorry-rape-and-torture-committed
Kim, Hang. “The commemoration of the Gwangju Uprising: of the remnants in the nation states’ historical memory.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 12(4).
May 18 Archives. http://www.518archives.go.kr/eng/
“Their Gwangju, Our Gwangju.” Video documentary by MBC. https://youtu.be/z6ycdzF1Lso
Yeo, Jun-suk. “Panel confirms army helicopters fired at protestors during Gwangju uprising.” The Korea Herald. 7 Feb. 2018. Accessed 16 May 2020. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20180207000802
손상원. “5월단체, ‘5.18 관련 사망자 606명.’” 연합뉴스. 2005.05.13. https://news.naver.com/main/read.nhn?mode=LSD&mid=sec&sid1=103&oid=001&aid=0001001551