The last week of June, 2017, saw the deaths of two Americans – one of them Korean, the other from the US South - who in separate ways had a profound impact on the people of Korea. Chun Sun-tae, who lived in California, and Betts Huntley, who was from North Carolina, also influenced me deeply. Our common bond was the Gwangju Uprising of 1980 and our mutual concern for peace and justice in Korea.
I first knew Chun Sun-tae when I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area from 1980 to 1982. At the time, he was running a luggage store in Oakland, California, and had become very active in the local Korean community in the aftermath of the Gwangju Uprising. As part of his political awakening, he decided to visit his family in North Korea, becoming one of the first of many Korean-Americans to go back to their homeland.
Over time, Mr. Chun helped many Koreans visit the once-forbidden North. He later gained a modicum of fame when he starred in Memory of Forgotten War, a documentary about the Korean War by the Korean-American film makers Deann Borshay Liem and Ramsey Liem (here is a section on Mr. Chun from the film’s website). In a tribute on his Facebook page, Mr. Liem wrote:
“Chun Sun-tae was not only a critically important participant in our film – his life story so vividly brought to life the hard realities of the Korean War, the terrible unending division of Korea, and the longing for family reunion - but a great fighter for Korea’s liberation and peaceful reunification.”
Mr. Chun was from Kaesong, a village that was south of the 38th parallel but ended up under communist control after the war. In the film, Mr. Chun talks about a swimming outing to reservoir he made with his friends in Kaesong in June 1950. “The next day, he awakes to bullets dropping in the water and the sound of machine guns and mortar fire, and discovers Kaesong is occupied by the North Korean army. When Kaesong is later sealed off for peace talks, Chun is left on the outside while his father is trapped inside the city; he never sees his father again.”
Mr. Chun also left behind two brothers and a sister. After going to college in Seoul, he immigrated to the United States in 1964. Nearly two decades later, I interviewed Mr. Chun after he made his first trip North. To my surprise, I learned that he had been a college student in Seoul during and after the 4.19 uprising against the dictator Rhee Syngman, a period of ferment and yearnings for an end to the country’s division.
“I was on the front lines,” he told me. “I was lucky to survive. But after April 19, all I remember, day and night, all we were talking about was reunification.” He said that messages about unification were going back and forth between students from South and North, and plans were being made for grand meetings of both sides in Panmunjom.
But all that stopped abruptly after the May 16, 1961, coup d’etat by General Park Chung Hee, who declared martial law and banned any contact with the North. Park “blocked the course of history,” Mr. Chun told me, sadly. Memories of Park’s coup were triggered in 1980 when General Chun Doo Hwan seized power in a similar crackdown, driving Chun Sun-tae to be politically active again. Except for his frequent visits to his family in North Korea, he lived in California for the rest of his life. He died there during the last week of June.
Betts Huntley, who died in North Carolina on June 26, served with his wife Martha as a Presbyterian missionary in Gwangju for many years. In May 1980, while working at the Gwangju Christian Hospital as a doctor and a chaplain, he witnessed the massacre by Chun’s Special Forces and the subsequent uprising in which Gwangju citizens liberated their city from the martial law army.
Unlike many foreigners in Gwangju at the time, Rev. Huntley and his wife refused US government pleas to leave the city. Instead, they sheltered people who came to them for safety from the marauding martial law troops. On July 7, Gwangju’s MBC television broadcast a special tribute to the missionary honoring his service to the city.
Rev. Huntley and his wife were the first direct witnesses to the Gwangju Uprising I met. In February 1981, I visited Gwangju at the tail end of a two-month visit to South Korea. I had heard about the Huntleys through missionary friends of my parents in Seoul, and they welcomed me to their home. I spent several days there, and heard first-hand from Rev. Huntley and his wife about huge number of casualties and the terrible wounds caused to Gwangju citizens from bullets, clubs, boots and bayonets.
With that information, I began my quest to discover the truth of what occurred in Gwangju and the role played by the United States in General Chun’s suppression of the uprising. Fifteen years after my visit to the Huntleys, I obtained the collection of declassified US government documents that finally told the true story about the US role.
One of the documents I obtained was a cable from US Ambassador William Gleysteen to the State Department titled “Insider’s Account of Kwangju Riot,” using the false term about the uprising favored by the US government. I instantly recognized the account as the work of Rev. Huntley, even though he was not identified. But it humanized the uprising in ways the US government never did.
In one memorable passage, Rev. Huntley wrote, “What we saw in Gwangju was a demonstration of free people pushed too far. I liken it to the Boston Tea Party.” He added: “The May 18 incident was not communist-inspired or infiltrated or infected.” He knew it was a peoples’ uprising, based on citizens’ demands for justice and democracy (his report is attached in PDF format).
▲ Full text of the document which US Ambassador William Gleysteen sent to the State Department amid the Gwangju Uprising. Title “Insider’s Account of Kwangju Riot”," which was a false term about the uprising, is eyecatching.
Unfortunately, the US government paid little attention to his account. But without the help of Rev. Huntley in 1981, I may never have obtained my documents. I and the citizens of Gwangju therefore owe him a great deal.
Both Chun Sun-tae and Betts Huntley are examples of how ordinary people caught in extraordinary events can influence history. May they both rest in peace.