Remembering when hell came to Jeju Island

Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print

Remembering when hell came to Jeju Island

Unwritten in the guidebooks of Jeju Island, and only scantily recorded in the history books of Korea, is a dark piece of history that the 540,000 islanders carry in their hearts. The beautiful soccer stadium built for the World Cup and the golf courses on which vacationers relax are built on ground that was once scorched earth. Once upon a time, the islanders paid with their lives in a tug-of-war for control of the island.

"It is only known that there was a large massacre," Kim Yung-hoon reported to a conference on Jeju in April that was discussing ways to bring peace and reconciliation to the island. Mr. Kim is a member of the Jeju Provincial Council and a leader in the movement to tell the story of the Jeju massacres of 1948-49.

Actually, a fair amount is known -- the dates of the major guerrilla raids and the eradication drives by the police. There is even a consensus on roughly how many perished in those 13 months -- about 30,000, one-tenth of the island's population.

An attempt to record the names of all the dead, however, is stalled at a little over 14,000. "We think there are more," Mr. Kim said. "Some keep silent, or have fled. Whole families perished leaving no survivor to bear witness that they had ever lived."

Kim Hyoung-choe, 81, remembers vividly how he barely escaped death. Scrambling down the steep side of a small forest, just as he had done when he was 27, he steps into the cave in which he with other men, women and children took refuge in November 1948, listening as shots echoed nearby. "Nobody spoke a word. One woman put her hands over a crying baby's mouth. At the end he was dead."

Mr. Kim and three other men left the hiding place to search for a safer refuge. When they returned they found the mouth of the cave blocked with stones. In a nearby glade they found 45 bodies with their arms tied behind their backs, all shot and burned. He identified his grandfather and uncle and wrote down a list of others he recognized. "We buried them as well as we could."

"Why do Jeju people still obsess about it?" Kim Yung-hoon, the Jeju parliamentarian, asked rhetorically. "Because it still causes pain and suffering, mutual accusations, claims on the government."

At the Jeju peace conference, they called it the "4/3 Incident" -- a curiously uninformative name, reflecting the difficulty both Jejuans and Korean mainlanders have had for half a century in understanding what happened. The officially accepted truth has been that it was an uprising by Communist guerrillas that was quelled by government force. That suited the needs of both left (the people wanted socialism, but the United States and Syngman Rhee thwarted their aspirations) and right (legal authority secured the people's rights against lawless terrorists).

The official version may even be a pretty good approximation of what happened. Among the population of fishermen and poor farmers were Marxists, many of them radicalized by forced labor during the Japanese colonial period. And many of the police had been trained by the Japanese during the occupation. No love was lost between brother Jejuans.

On the night of "4/3," April 3, 1948, 500 leftist guerrillas, reinforced by about 3,000 peasants armed with sticks and spears, attacked most of the police stations in northern Jeju. Thirty police and four insurgents were killed.

A manifesto issued that day was couched in standard Marxist rhetoric, addressed to "dear citizens, parents, brothers and sisters" and calling on them to rise against "the American cannibals and their running dogs."

The direct issues were explicitly political -- opposition to separate elections in the South and support for a unified Korea controlled by the left. But Jeju had a long history of loose government control and periodic rebellion, and most historians regard the "4/3 incident" as just that, an incident -- spontaneous, uncontrolled by any larger communist authority.

For several weeks, the rebels had the best of the clashes that followed. Captured police were subjected to "People's tribunals" and summarily executed. Some were turned over to women for execution, "because women had suffered most under the police terror."

Eventually, however, police reinforcements arrived from mainland Korea, along with the "Northwest Student Association," a group of refugee toughs from the North who operated outside any authority.

In one incident, a militia recaptured a village on the island's northern shore that had been occupied for several days by rebels. The commander lined villagers up on both sides of the road. He faced one of the lines of peasants.

"I want you on this side to say that all these people on the other side collaborated with the communists," he ordered.

"But they didn't," some people objected.

"If you don't, you'll get what they are going to get," the commander said. After a while, the villagers reluctantly gestured as they had been instructed. The "guilty" peasants were marched off into a field and executed. In this fashion the island was pacified.

(Michael Breen, "The Koreans")

After that, silence must have seemed safest to those Jejuans who survived and had to live with each other.

In 1999, however, the national government established a special commission to lift the veil and expose the truth. At the least, it can be said that the police overreacted grossly: Some 270 of the island's 400 villages disappeared from the face of the earth.

Though Jejuans themselves did most of the slaughtering, some islanders prefer to look outside and blame mainlanders and the United States.

Force pumped in from mainland Korea certainly proved decisive in putting down the rebellion. And the United States was the occupying power in Korea below the 38th parallel. Could it not have suppressed the carnage?

"The military government found itself in the midst of a genuine social revolution ?and it was completely at sea," writes John Merrill ("Korea: the Peninsular Origins of the War"). U.S. policy "solidified the tragic division of a country, ... destroyed the spontaneous outpouring of popular participation ... and entrenched in power rightist elements."

Yet for all the "blunders, misunderstandings and ill-considered initiatives," Merrill writes, U.S. policy "succeeded in denying the Korean Peninsula to the Soviet Union."

Kim Chang-hyun's father was not a communist. He was the village representative. After the rebels took away his cattle he went to the nearest police station to report it. While his father was away, the police burned down his house on the pretext that it had supposedly become a rebel hideout. Mr. Kim, his mother and five other children ran away, but his mother was caught and shared the fate of so many.

"She was executed. Someone had shot her in the back of the head. Instead of the left eye, there was just a gap. I was 11 years old, the oldest child in the family. Hence, I attended the funeral that was secretly conducted at night. Later on we found out that my father had been executed the day before along with the rebels, although it was clear that he was their prisoner.

"Besides my parents there are 16 other relatives buried. For each of them, I have arranged a tomb." After a pause he says, "I have also forgiven. But what I have not forgotten is that those people who have murdered and tortured are receiving a pension from the state."

Kim Yan-hak, too, has not forgotten. He was 8 when soldiers herded his neighbors into the village center and separated men from women. The men were executed that night. The women were made to look up at the moon, so that the soldiers could identify the prettiest. These endured 10 days of rape and torture before being killed.

"We ask the Japanese to acknowledge their atrocities against Korean women," an outraged Mr. Kim says. "But the government still has not begun to take a look at our own history."

"With Korea's democratization we have a third paradigm." Kang Chang-il, a professor at Daejeon's Paichai University, was speaking at the Jeju peace conference. The two paradigms until now, he said, allow the massacres to be seen only through pro- or anti-Communist lenses.

"If we reread the facts based on the aspirations of the people," he suggested, "it could develop into a moral foundation for reunification."

That seems to be the hope of Jejuans today: Perhaps some future good can come out of past evil.

"We must be future-oriented," said Lim Pang-myung, another of the panelists. Coming to terms with atrocities -- he cited the Katyn forest massacre of Polish officers by the Soviet Army and the strafing by the U.S. Army of Korean refugees at Nogeun-ri -- requires giving up our hold on the past. "Giving up hate is the key to making the victims winners instead," he said.

Kim Yung-hoon, the Jeju parliamentarian, was not so sure. "We often talk of forgiveness, conscience, loving," he said. "But whom do we forgive? With whom do we reconcile?"

Portions of this article first appeared in Die Zeit. (c) Die Zeit, used by permission. Translation from the German by Brian Lee.

by Christian Schmidt-Haeuer

Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)