Gwangju is the home of Korean democracy. It’s best known for two notorious student uprisings: The Gwangju Student Independence Movement in the early 20th century, against Japanese rule and the Gwangju Uprising in the 1980s, in which around 200 (higher or lower depending on the source) students were killed by army forces suppressing a pro-democracy demonstration.

If anyone has missed what it’s like to have a revolution from dictatorship to democracy I will mention that during their protests other citizens robbed the local police stations to get arms, which resulted more deaths.

Sunrise reflecting on the roads of gwangju. View over the city from the rooftop of a residential block.

I had heard that the city had a few sights of cultural and historical interest to see. So I woke up early and went to explore the snowy and cold city and its finest offerings.

Cold and snowy sunny morning.
Icicles hang from the traditionally decorated rooftop of a temple in the art district.

I was passing a school where children were having a snowball fight in the courtyard. The kids saw me and shouted “hello mister”, but being an unfriendly foreigner I started to throw snowballs at them shouting “hello” in return, which resulted in a massive Cold (Snowball) War. Where a group of 40 opposed a single man hiding behind the car. They probably weren’t expecting that.

Boy behind the school gate.
Boy behind the school gate.

I ran under the fire of white grenades and a little guy decided to reward me with the biggest snowball he had made. I admired his efforts as he struggled to lift it.

Boy attempting to attack me with his gigantic snowball.

Brutal repression and frequent protests brought Gwangju to the fore of the democracy movement in South Korea. People in the city are proud of the uprisings that occurred here and tend to be at the forefront of any political coup in the country.There are a few monuments established in the city to recognise these events, but tourists only tend go to the one that relates to the pro-democracy movement of the 1980s (I wonder why). Instead of visiting the popular 5.18 Memorial Park or cemetery, I went to Ssang Chon Dong, which was established to commemorate the first student uprising against Japanese Imperialism in the early 1900’s. The Park includes a museum with detailed accounts of the time. How convenient.

The plane-like shaped centre of the monument symbolises the joint will of the martyrs of the student independence movement. The monument portrays the power of a gathering crowd and from a distance the harmonious standing stones ressemble a burning torch. The concept behind the monument’s creation was to be a place where people can contemplate and pay their respects to the fallen together, as they walk amongst the stones.

The rather large monument is situated in a very quiet, hilltop park, located in the geographical centre of the city. It’s not that widely known and takes quite a long walk to reach.Gwangju was also the location for the annual Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in 2006, one of those in attendance was Nobel Peace Laureate Mikhail Gorbachev. There are a few connections between the controversial Soviet leader and South Korea.The Gwangju Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates was held to commemorate the 5.18 uprising, which helped propel Korea toward democratization, and to acknowledge the progress made by the Joint Declaration between North and South Korea in 2000. The Gwangju Declaration was made in a bid to promote peace and democratisation across East Asia. Mikhail Gorbachev, who led the dissolution of Soviet Union and the start of democracy in Russia, is one of the laureates.

Nobel Peace Laureate memorial in Gwangju.

Gorbachev received his Nobel Peace Prize in the same year that the Soviet Union collapsed. His leading role in the peace process is, to this day, characterised by the international community as having been extremely important, however possibly less so back home.Despite democratisation efforts, North and South Korea are still technically at war (having never signed a peace treaty after the Korean War) and share the world’s most heavily fortified border. South Koreans genuinely believe that the tension and confrontation between them and the North have become a huge threat to their peace and democracy and the border remains a tightly controlled area, heavily under the influence of the U.S. Army.Gwangju is one of few places where military planes can be seen flying over the city on a daily basis. In just a couple of hours I spotted dozen of jets overhead, as the F-22 jets are so noisy they’re hard to confuse with passenger planes.

Military planes flying above Gwanju.

Other than jet noise, the city is very quiet and the roads are empty. In fact, it was so quiet that I rarely saw any people. Which was perfect, as it helped me to digest all the historical and political information I’d seen and to think about where South Korea is today.The country is currently in a good, economically stable, place, where little girls can walk safely through the big streets of Gwangju, talking on their own mobile phones.

School girl talking on her phone and walking in an empty residential area.
Lotus pond in the winter.
Lotus pond in the winter.
Umbrellas are widely used in asian countries, not only during rainy weather, but also in snow and sunshine. Woman with umbrella.
The shoe store might be empty of people but it’s pretty full of shoes.

Just as I was leaving the most rebellious city in South Korea, I stumbled upon one of the most popular places in the whole Korean world, a sticker photo booth. These boxes look similar to passport photo booths, but are designed to take picture of you (suits my narcissist collection) which you can then customise using the software available on the screen.As a designer I would say that these machines are insidious backstabbing ninjas that threaten to destroy the whole essence of custom design and should be destroyed.