The history of this virtuous city can be followed from the righteous army's movement at the end of the Joseon Dynasty to the Gwangju Student Independence Movement and the May 18 Democratization Uprising in 1980, solidifying its position as a city of democracy, human rights and peace. The May 18 Democratization Uprising, in resistance against the military regime's oppression, had a substantial influence on the democratization movement of many Asian countries that are aspiring to justice and freedom from autocratic rule. On May 25, 2011 the May 18 Archives were listed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, and their value in world history was recognized.
Gwangju is "Home of the Arts". Famous artists from this city include: IM Bang-ul, master of Pansori and national singer; Uijae HUH Baek-ryun, master of oriental paintings; JUNG Yul-seong, a modern composer in China; and poet PARK Yong-chul . Inheriting this rich tradition and hosting world-class modern arts and design festivals like Gwangju Biennale and Gwangju Design Biennale, the city is now being reborn as the capital of Korean culture as well as the center of Asian culture. Asia Culture Center was established in November 2015, the longest national project (2003-2023) to promote Gwangju as the center of Asian culture is underway, and Gwangju Design Biennale was held in 2017. Also, the city hosted the 2015 Summer University Games in a low-cost, highly efficient manner while overcoming the MERS outbreak, successfully making the event a cultural festival for world youth. Based on this experience, Gwangju is now preparing for yet another international sports event: the 2019 World Aquatics Championships.
* Representative festivals: Fringe Festival, Gwangju Biennale, Gwangju Design Biennale, Gwangju Kimchi Festival, LIM Bang-wool Gukak Festival, JEONG Yul-seong International Music Festival
Gwangju’s tree-planting efforts saw an additional 10 million trees planted across the city. It was also the first place in Korea to operate a ‘Carbon Bank System’, which was later adopted by other local governments around the country. Gwangju proactively engages with climate change issues, through initiatives such as hosting the Urban Environment Accords (UEA) summit meeting in 2011. In 2012, Mudeung mountain, known as the ‘Mother Mountain’ of Gwangju, was officially designated as Korea’s 21st national park. Mudeung mountain was Korea’s second-most visited national park according to 2016 statistics. It was certified as a national geopark in 2014, and certified as a UNESCO World Geopark in April 2018, thus having its historical value globally recognized.
Gwangju is the second largest Korean city in terms of automotive production. KIA Motor Company Gwangju factory is pumping out 620,000 vehicles per year, and the project for developing an industrial cluster for eco-friendly automotive parts and a production car industry passed the central government's preliminary feasibility study in July 2016 and is now in full motion. The project involves a 303 billion won investment to develop an industrial cluster within Bitgreen National Industrial Complex to support development and production of key components and parts for eco-friendly automobiles. Gwangju is also moving forward to become a true leader of future eco-friendly automobile production through materializing "Gwangju-style jobs" by reaching agreements among the workers, employers, residents and the local government.
In December 2015, the location of Gwangju-Jeonnam Joint Innovation City, also known as Bitgaram Innovation City, the only one of its kind in Korea, was set at KEPCO (Korea Electric Power Corporation) while embodying the establishment of an "Energy Valley." Aiming to invest over 10 million U.S. dollars annually for R&D, attract 500 companies by 2020, and train 1,000 professional personnel, this project focuses on establishing a smart energy hub city, including Bitgaram Innovation City and Gwangju. Seven heads from KEPCO, Gwangju, Jeollanam-do, Korea Power Exchange, KEPCO KDN and KEPCO KPS have guaranteed a joint collaboration in the establishment of an energy valley and devoted themselves to the implementation of this project. An industrial complex is being established exclusively for energy industries and Korea's prominent new energy industry-related companies including LSIS and Hyosung, along with research institutes. With the construction of Gwangju's urban cutting-edge national industrial complex beginning in December 2016, the second phase of the project, including local industrial complexes, is in the process of removing the green belt, while furthering the construction of a new energy hub city.