Friday, June 1, 2018

Jeju 4.3 Is Now Our History

"Special Exhibition Commemorating the 70th Anniversary of Jeju 4.3", open March 30 - June 10 at the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History, special tour provided for the Royal Asiatic Society members. All content here is compiled and published in the special exhibition publication.
Sadly, it has remained difficult even to discover the truth of Jeju 4.3, despite it being the tragedy in modern Korean history with the second largest number of casualties. The efforts to resolve the issue, which were begun by private citizens and universities in the 1980s, eventually led to the 2000 enactment and promulgation of the Special Act on Discovering the Truth of the Jeju 4.3 Incident and the Restoration of Honor of the Victims. Significantly, the national government finally began working to discover the truth of Jeju 4.3 and restore the honor of the victims and their bereaved families. In the process, the Report on the Truth-Finding Investigations of the Jeju 4.3 Incident was adopted by the national government, and in 2014, April 3rd was designated as a national memorial day. [This special exhibition commemorates the 70th anniversary of Jeju 4.3, which actually began March 1st, 1947, when 50,000 locals gathered to celebrate the 28th anniversary of the March 1st Movement broke into chants of “Unified Korea”. The ensuing suppression operations resulted in the deaths of nearly 30,000 Jeju residents, and no survivors were allowed to speak freely of it in the subsequent 40-plus years.]

Chinoh Chu, Director of National Museum of Korean Contemporary History
The red camellia which stands strong against biting cold and looks like drops of blood on snow-covered ground came to be the symbol for those in Jeju who suffered the tragedy of the 4.3 Incident.


Jeju Island, a place historically thought of as almost mystical, has developed as unique cultural landscape as its natural scenery. The Jeju people have traditionally formed a close community, helping one another to withstand the natural adversities, including the harsh winds. With Japan located very close, ancient Jeju locals had long struggled to defend their livelihoods as a result of being frequently raided by Japanese pirates. During the Japanese colonial era, Jeju became the production site of agricultural and fishery products for Japan, as well as its military base, subject to exploitation and forcible mobilization.

Imperial Japan, on the brink of collapse with signs of losing World War II, fortified the entire island of Jeju, inflicting extreme torment on Jeju residents. With the restoration of Korean sovereignty, however, the exhilarated Korean people could finally look forward, with hopeful faces, towards establishing a new nation. The Jeju branch of the Associated People’s Committee supported by the locals, worked smoothly with the United States Army Military Government in Korea. However, the shivering chill of the Cold War was gradually approaching Jeju. Although the stinging wind of late winter continued, spring seemed to be near.

Hail to liberated Joseon! Hurrah! Hurrah!

The 1932 anti-Japanese movement carried out by Jeju haenyeo is cited as a noteworthy civilian resistance against the Japanese occupation of Korea. The women divers of Jeju stood up against the then government-patronized Haenyeo Association and were later joined by local youth and farmers. With the participants totaling 17,000 people, it was the biggest anti-Japanese movement in Jeju and the biggest women’s movement in Korea.

With the unfavorable prospects on WWII, Imperial Japan started fortifying the entire island of Jeju as a way of guarding its main islands. It constructed airfields called Jeongtteureu, Altteureu, and Jintteureu in Moseulpo and Jeju-eup. The imperial government of Japan even created artificial cave fortifications in the volcanic hills as strongholds in case of landing operations by the US forces. Japan treated the islanders of Jeju as mere consumables, mobilizing even those elderly residents in their 70s for the construction of the fortifications. After long years of suffering, Korea finally regained its sovereignty on August 15th, 1945.

Liberty regained at the coastal seas of Seogwipo and on Halla Mountain

On September 28th, 1945, the US forces and Japan signed the total surrender of the prostrate nation. Young Jeju locals who had suffered forced labor and those other residents who had become factory workers in Japan returned to their Jeju homes, increasing the local population by early 30%. Many young men and women, who were enlightened and aware of national and social issues after experiencing the labor movements in Japan, worked to achieve the dream of establishing a ‘new’ nation by engaging in autonomous activities, teaching in evening schools, and opening educational institutes. However, Jeju faced rising unemployment rates resulting from the sudden return of a large population, as well as a grave lack of basic necessities due to the illegalization of trading commodities with Japan.

Osaka Passenger Ship (1945)
It was the local branch of the Associated People’s Committees that exerted a practical influence on the liberated communities at Jeju. The Committee was led by independence activists who were respected and relied upon by their neighbors. The moderate Committee without ideological confrontations within the organization could maintain a cooperative relationship with the US military government. Even in late 1945 when similar committees in Korea were shrinking in terms of their influence, the Committee, based on its organizational power, continued to work for such projects as maintaining public order, educating the residents on modern agricultural techniques, eradicating illiteracy, and establishing educational institutes. The Committee remained active until March 1947.

The island in tremors before turmoil

The US military government rehired some of the officials and police officers that used to serve under the Japanese colonial government. With the nation now decolonized, it was desirable for independence activists to lead state affairs. Rather, the seemingly recuperated status of the pro-Japanese officials and those who had previously worked as imperial Japanese police deeply disturbed the locals.

The United States-Soviet Joint Commission launched for the formation of a Provisional Korean Government held its first meeting but finally adjourned in August 1946, without reaching an agreement. When the US military government was tightening guard against the left-wing circles, Jeju experienced an administrative system reform. The island of Jeju, which had pertained to Jeollnamado Province became the nation’s ninth province. The provincial administrative system helped the US military government gain momentum to strengthen its police forces and further expanded the 9th Regiment, a local defense force. Under these circumstances, the Jeju People’s Committee underwent the shrinkage of its realm of activities.

Jeju was also confronted with the mounting discontent of its residents about financial difficulties. After national independence, the local society was hit by a growing unemployment rate and a concurrent cholera epidemic, as well as a poor harvest of barley. Amid the grueling social and economic situations, the US military government began allocating quotas to the local farmers for the delivery of rice. Opposing the policy, the Committee led an anti-quota delivery movement, actively supported by Jeju locals. Additionally at this time, a corruption scandal involving the police officers and officials of the US military government caught the local public’s attention.


The Cold War eventually formed a radical confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union. Under growing suppression by the US military government, the South Korean leftists formed a legitimate mass party entitled the South Korean Labor Party (SKLP). The SKLP also launched a local headquarters in Jeju (SKLP Jeju).

On March 1st, 1947, the unjust firing by police on civilians in the March 1st Movement celebration ignited great turmoil throughout the spring in Jeju, which, until that time, had shown no significant public unrest. To protest against the police’s firing, the public and private sectors of Jeju decided on a general strike to begin on March 10th. The situation worsened due to the subsequent suppression operations by the police and the tyranny of the right-wing Northwest Youth Association partisans.

The next spring in 1948, the prospected south-side-only general election progressed into a fierce confrontation between the US military government and Korea’s left-wing partisans. The SKLP Jeju, which went through changing leadership and ideological conflicts among its members, staged an armed rebellion on April 34d. A peace agreement was reached on April 28th to prevent large-scale bloodshed, but was later broken due to arson perpetrated by far-right thugs that occurred in the village of Ora-ri. The situation kept on worsening.

Public rising in fury

The March 1st Movement celebration in 1947 drew a crowd of local participants, totaling 25,000 to 30,000 people. Soon after the commemorating event and a street parade, a six-year-old child was kicked by one of the police horses. However, the mounted officers tried to leave the site without taking any action, and people followed them to the police station, throwing stones at them. The police then fired on the crowd, leaving six civilians dead and eight severely injured. The deceased included an elementary student and a mother in her 20s who was holding her baby.

Captain Lee Su-bok, the 9th Infantry Regiment (1948)
The March 1st Movement that year celebrated across the country resulted in several clashes between the left-wing and the right-wing protesters. On Jeju, it was even more difficult to settle the public unrest because the police were the ones who did harm to the local civilians. However, the police insisted that the firing was lawful and reacted to the uprising with hardline policies including a curfew order and recruitment of additional officers from outside Jeju. The people were agitated. In protest against the US military government, the SKLP Jeju staged a general strike on March 10th, was led by both the private and the public sectors on Jeju, an unprecedented scale in Korea at the time, with 95% public and the private employees joining in the strike. It came to a lull around March 20th after hardline suppression operation by the US military government.

Post of U.S. military government in Korea (1945)
 Into the storm

The US military government ignored the causes of the general strike and simply determined that the public hostility toward the police who opened fire was later amplified by the SKLP Jeju. The national police defined Jeju as a ‘red island’, urgently dispatching 400 additional officers as a backup force. In the following year, 2,500 civilians were taken into custody indiscriminately. Three youths in their 20s, including Kim Yong-cheol, Yang Eun-ha, and Park Haeng-gu, who had been arrested by the combined forces of the police and the Northwest Youth League (NYL), died from torture. The far-right NYL committed repeated terrorist attacks, including assault, murder, and sexual violence, in the name of rooting out leftists. As a result, the public became infuriated.

The police continued the armed crackdown as the May 10th general election was nearing. Within the SKLP Jeju, the young, radical hawks began raising their voices. The hardliners feared that their organization would be endangered once the South Korean government was established, and carried out armed resistance. On April 3rd, 1948, 350 armed SKLP members revolted against the right-wing police and the NYL, under the slogans of ‘anti-South Korean government’, ‘pro-unified independence,’ and ‘anti-America’. The revolt attacked regional police stations and homes of right-wing activists. Under the deteriorating circumstances, a peace talk was held on April 28th between Kim Ik-ryeol, commander of the 9th Regiment of the National Defense Guard, and rebel leader Kim Dal-sam of he SKLP. The two parties reached an agreement on the cessation of combat, disarmament of the forces, and the safety of the rebel leaders. After three days, however, some police forces and right-wing thugs burned houses in Ora-ri to thwart the efforts to put an end to the conflict. This resulted in a broken agreement and the US military government ordered the 9th Regiment to stage a full-scale attack.


In 1948, Korea saw nation-wide armed clashes between those for and against the May 10th general election. Between February and March, with only a few months left before the election, a total of 239 attacks on the police took place. With the armed rebels keeping the election at bay, Jeju became the only region in South Korea that refused the May 10th election. In August and September 1948, South and North Korea established their respective governments that were hostile to each other. The government of the Republic of Korea viewed Jeju as a group that challenged the authenticity of the newly launched administration, while the US, which was about to withdraw its forces from Korea, regarded the situation on the island as a setback that might hinder the world order it was trying to achieve. Furthermore, six of the armed rebel leaders, including Kim Dal-sam, defected to North Korea in August 1948, the Jeju people encountered an even stricter response by the government. Given that a lot of the residents were persuaded by the rebels to move into the mountain areas, it was irresponsible for the leadership to defect to the North.

In October 1948, the 9th Regiment announced that anyone trespassing in the mountains located 5km or father from the coast would be considered armed rebels and be shot to death. The police forces proclaimed martial law in November, which triggered the subsequent mass slaughters. The number of those identified as ‘armed rebels’ and executed never surpassed 600, according to the official announcement by the government. However, the indiscriminate suppression operations against unarmed civilians whom the state-led forces considered enemies resulted in the deaths of 25,000 to 30,000 residents. 10% of the victims were children and elders. Leaving immense damage behind, the suppression operations officially ended in 1954. It was seven years after the police’s firing during the March 1st Movement celebration.

Lamenting, a woodcut by Park Kyong-hoon (1988)
Iron Thorn Flower, woodcut by Park Kyong-hoon (1989)
Citizens, but treated as non-citizens

The police operations at the time meant ‘sweeping’ those staying in the mountain areas as 'armed rebels.’ Amid rounds of indiscriminate fires and arson attacks, nearly 95% of the villages in the mountains were burnt to the ground. Even those that were forced to move to coastal villages following the order of the police and the military were often summarily executed when suspected of supporting the armed rebels. This increased the number of those taking refuge in the mountain areas.

The state-led forces organized neighborhood groups of the United Young Men’ Party and the Minbodan in the coastal villages to have them take the lead in the suppression operations. This destroyed the traditional communal bound. Those who had been long-time neighbors ended up killing each other to survive. The armed rebels also murdered the resident they suspected of supporting the police forces. In the daytime, the police and the military killed the residents, calling them ‘rioters,’ and at nighttime, the armed rebels purged them, branding them as ‘reactionaries’. But when the armed rebel leader Lee Deok-gu was shot to death in June 1949, the group was virtually annihilated. Soon after the outbreak of the Korean War, the massacre of civilians continued through orders of preliminary custody. Those involved in Jeju 4.3 that had been imprisoned in different parts of the nation were summarily executed.

People hiding out in the mountains to reject the 5.10 General Election (May 1948)
Proceeding of court-martials

During Jeju 4.3, two court-martials were called for civilians in 1948 and 1949. Most of the accused were innocent civilians, including villagers in the mountain areas that had escaped death during the police operations and those that had been hiding on Mt. Halla to survive and who later believed the police propaganda saying the forces would ‘spare their lives’ if they would come down to lower-altitude areas. When examining the proceedings, no written records or protocols of the trials have been found that could prove that the martial courts followed legitimate procedures. The courts proceeded with hundreds of hearings every day, sentencing 345 persons to death in just three days. The survivors later universally stated that they had been jailed without due trial. Seo Jong-cheol, former vice Commander of the 9th Regiment, and Kim Jeong-mu, Former Chief of Staff for Logistics, also testified that no official trials had been proceeded by the court-martials. Many of those subject to trials at the martial courts were instead scattered to different prisons across the country, and were summarily executed after the outbreak of the Korean War. Some were allegedly missing at the time, but nothing has been ascertained about whether they are now dead or still alive.

Punitive expedition forces searching the villagers' hideout in the mountains (1949)
The corpse of Lee Deok-gu, who was a leader of the Armed Resistance, hanging in the plaza in front of the Jeju Gwandeokjeong Pavilion (June 1949)
Inmates waiting in line to be interrogated (Nov 1948)
 Unjust orders not fulfilled

The massacre that occurred during Jeju 4.3 was attributed to the extremists that believed that all leftists, including communists, must be punished. The term ‘red’ was so vague in a concrete sense that it could apply to anyone, although the victimized locals, excluding a small population, were not communists. Nonetheless, those that viewed communists as enemies of the state and detested them justified the indiscriminate suppression as an act of patriotism. However, even in the times of collective madness, there remained those that explicitly opposed to the ‘unjustness’ of the events and put into practice their love for humanity.

One of them was Moon Hyeong-soon, Chief of the Seongsan Police station. After the Korean War broke out, he was ordered by the national government to execute 81 people who had been jailed preliminarily but transferred only six of them to the hands of the military. He decided not to follow the order for the remaining prisoners, opposing the mass slaughters with a written comment “unjust orders not fulfilled” on the orders received.

Moon Hyung-soon Police Chief, woodcut by Lee Yun-yop, 2018
Reverend Jo Nam-soo, who himself had been attacked by the armed rebels, visited Police Chief Moon Hyeong-soon to save the lives of those at risk of being killed under false accusations. As Chief Moon pledged not to punish those who would turn themselves in, Jo addressed the locals to persuade them to surrender themselves to the police, ending up saving many people.

Kim Seong-ong, then Gugang (leader of the gu district) of Shinheung-ri in Namwon-eup, responded to the state-led police forces asking the whereabouts of the villagers with only one answer: “I don’t know.” His efforts to protect his community members gave him an honorable nickname, Molla Gujang, basically ‘Leader I Don’t Know.’


Although many of the Jeju people suffered life-long damage after Jeju 4.3, lost loved ones, or lost their hometowns, they have withstood the painful history, reminding themselves of the old local saying, “You live through life and flow with life.” At times, their eyes were filled with tears, longing to see their missing family members again. Sometimes, entire neighborhoods performed ancestral rites on the same day, since that was the day of a bloodbath in the entire village. Jeju 4.3 did not just end in the past, but branded the offspring of the victims as communists in the form of guilt-by–association, leaving indelible scars. The survivors could not even grieve as much as they wanted. It was taboo to speak of Jeju 4.3, and the Jeju people had no choice but to visit a shaman to appease the souls of the deceased family members and express their repressed sorrow.

It was four decades later, around 1987 pro-democracy movements, that the nation finally began discussing the issues related to Jeju 4.3. There was an active movement for truth-based investigations into the events, and the local demand for the resolution of Jeju 4.3 motivated the political sphere to take action. In 2000 the National Assembly enacted Special Act on Discovering the Truth of the Jeju 4.3 Incident and the Restoration of Honor of Victims, which led to state-led investigations into the matter. The findings were contained in the Report on the Truth-finding Investigations of the Jeju 4.3 Incident, followed by a presidential apology. The Jeju 4.3 Peace Park was officially opened to the public in 2003, and in 2014, April 3rd was designated as national memorial day. This year, Jeju Province will resume the excavation of the remains for the identification of the missing, which has been suspended for the past 10 years.

Saramshimin Sarajinda (You live through life and you flow with life)

By the time the bloodshed of Jeju 4.3 had ended, half of the married women in Jeju were called holleomeong (widow). Samdado an ‘island with lots of wind, stone and women’, the popular nickname given to Jeju, was in fact a scar left by Jeju 4.3. The many holleomeong raised their children on their own, worked as the breadwinners in their families, and rebuilt the ruined villages.

The Jeju people, living with the pain of Jeju 4.3, came to have a ‘red’ complex that was more deeply rooted than in other regions of Korea. After the Korean War broke out, local youths joined the military as a chance to demonstrate that they did not pertain to the ‘rioters’. Though victims, the Jeju people could not openly grieve for the loos of their loved ones, nor talk about their memories. In 1954, Bukchon in Jocheon-eup held a memorial event for their young community members who died during the 1950-1953 Korean War. As most of its members were killed during the massacre in 1948, the village decided to pay tribute to the 1948 victims as well. The mourning villagers eventually burst into a rage of tears, with lamenting interjections of “aigo!” meaning “alas!” It was later reported to the police, and the villagers and the community leader came to be in trouble. This was the occasion that is now referred to as the Aigo Incident, which indicates that there was a time when even grief was to be monitored.

Wondong Muhon-gut (Jeju shamanic exorcism to console the spirits of the dead), (1990)
Preparing garments for the souls of the deceased (1990)
A southern island that never sleeps

Jeju 4.3 includes tragic events that resulted in the second-largest number of casualties in modern Korean history after the Korean War. However, it took over half a century to discover the truth. The recognition of Jeju 4.3, in line with the democratization of the nation, changed from accusing it of being ‘armed rebels’ to recognizing the ‘violations of human rights by national authorities’.

Though in the past, Jeju 4.3 will remain a contemporary issue as long as people still suffer from the tragedy. When the painful wounds caused by Jeju 4.3 are viewed and cured by the perspective of universal human rights, we will be able to open the door to peace in a true sense. The historical evaluation of Jeju 4.3 now remains as the task that should be fulfilled by our contemporaries and the coming generations. How shall we remember Jeju 4.3, and how can we speak of the events that occurred seven decades ago?

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