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U.S. witness to 1980 South Korea massacre recalls brush with death

Don Baker, professor of Korean history and civilization at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, taught in Gwangju, South Korea, in 1972. Baker returned to the city on a Fulbright Scholarship and witnessed the 1980 massacre of civilians. Photo courtesy of Don L. Baker
Don Baker, professor of Korean history and civilization at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, taught in Gwangju, South Korea, in 1972. Baker returned to the city on a Fulbright Scholarship and witnessed the 1980 massacre of civilians. Photo courtesy of Don L. Baker

NEW YORK, Dec. 4 (UPI) -- The 1980 slaughter of South Korean civilians in Gwangju had an unlikely eyewitness in a former U.S. Peace Corps volunteer who smuggled himself into the city during the military crackdown.

Don Baker, a professor of Korean history and civilization at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, told UPI by phone he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

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One of the few foreign witnesses to the massacre -- during which hundreds of protesters were detained and executed -- Baker said he still gets flashbacks.

"I saw blood on the streets, bodies being taken to the back of a pickup truck and a temporary morgue," he said. "A mother chasing after a wooden coffin, yelling, 'Son, don't leave me.'"

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Baker, who had returned to Korea in 1980 on a Fulbright Scholarship after a stint in the Peace Corps in the early '70s, was carrying with him X-rays of victims to deliver to American missionaries in Seoul. The Korean army had set up roadblocks to stop outbound buses.

On the bus, they pointed a bayonet at Baker's stomach and then apologized after identifying him as a foreigner. They also declined to search Baker's bag of X-rays, but forced all young Korean men to get off the bus. Where the men were taken remains a mystery.

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The traumatic incidents that took place from May 18 to 27, 1980, are being revisited in South Korea, where President Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer, has vowed to "reveal the truth of May 18."

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On Monday, former President Chun Doo-hwan was sentenced to eight months in prison -- but Moon's party has called for heavier penalties.

Life under dictatorship

The Gwangju Uprising receives extensive coverage in South Korea today, but most people in the country at the time may have remained uninformed because the censored media didn't report the massacre.

Leslie Moore, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Korea, stayed in the country after the program. She was teaching at Seoul International School when the uprising began.

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"I don't have a memory of it. I'm not sure why," said Moore, who wrote her mother letters during her four-year stay.

Moore and other Peace Corps volunteers who were in Korea during a dictatorship mostly remember lifelong friendships they forged with Koreans. Many of the Koreans had never encountered foreigners until Peace Corps arrived in their villages to teach English or distribute tuberculosis medicine.

"It was amazing. We couldn't be anonymous at all," said Moore, who slept on the floor and didn't have access to electricity until halfway through her stay.

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David Roden, a Peace Corps volunteer in Korea from 1977 to 1979, said the era was defined by the autocratic rule of President Park Chung Hee, which included nightly curfews and monthly civil defense training. North Korea had attacked the South a few decades earlier and the South always was prepared for a repeat of their past offensive.

But Roden, who was assigned to teach at schools in Busan, Korea's second-largest city, said he also remembers a country of friendly strangers. Young men about his age who he met on a nearby beach would invite him to their homes in the countryside, where they would share with him traditional Korean meals made with fresh farm-sourced ingredients.

"We drank a lot," Roden said.

Giving back

Roden was among 514 former Peace Corps volunteers who received a COVID-19 Survival Box from the South Korean government last month. The box contained antiviral gear including 100 facemasks, as well as traditional utensils, a backpack, ginseng candy, Korean skin care products and instant "stick coffee," a South Korean staple at offices and waiting rooms.

"It was really quite a big deal," Roden said. "Real heartwarming."

More than 2,060 Peace Corps volunteers served in South Korea from 1966 to 1981. The program ended as the country rapidly industrialized and living standards rose for the population.

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Moore, who said she is proud of what South Korea has become, said the masks are of excellent quality.

"This extraordinary gift has filled me with gratitude and humility," Moore wrote to The Free Press in Maine, where she resides.

Baker said Peace Corps moved the needle for the United States at a time when the country's image in the developing world was defined by its military and elite diplomatic corps.

"And occasionally aid programs," he said. "But aid administrators tend to live behind high walls."

Former Peace Corps volunteers in Korea all learned Korean, were educated on Korean culture and lived with or near Korean families. Those programs went a long way in fostering friendships, Baker said.

"They changed [Korean] attitudes toward America," he said.

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