On mainland Korea April 3 is a day like any other, but on Jeju Island it is a day of mourning.
Today marks 65 years since the start of the Jeju Massacre. It remains one of the darkest periods of the country’s history, an event which saw tens of thousands of Jeju citizens killed in the armed conflict between left-wing militants and South Korean forces.
From 1948 to 1954 roughly 10 percent of Jeju’s population, or 30,000 people, were killed, mainly by the newly formed South Korean government in their hunt for communists. The government was backed in its policy by the United States.
Even now, after six decades and with the island’s population nearing 600,000, most Jeju natives can name a family member who was killed during the massacre. But it was only until recently that to name that family member, or even to openly discuss the tragic event, was considered an illegal act by authorities that could result in imprisonment and torture.
For nearly 50 years the military government of South Korea blamed the massacre on communists and to openly talk of it was to admit culpability.
It was only following the democratization of South Korea in 1987 that the citizens of Jeju were free to demand the truth behind the history of the massacre, a part of Jeju history that had been blocked by a succession of Korean military regimes. After years of struggle by bereaved families, researchers and civil rights groups, the Special Act of 2000 was passed by the Korean government and a full investigation was launched into this atrocity.
The massacre’s origins begin with the end of World War II with the Korean Peninsula regaining its independence after suffering under Japanese colonial rule for 35 years (1910 to 1945). But the peninsula soon found itself again occupied — this time by two foreign forces (the U.S. in the South and the Soviet Union in the North) — and was almost instantly immersed in inner conflict.
Following Japan’s defeat and exodus, Jeju was at first relatively free of violence. When American forces arrived to form a military government, Jeju already had a de facto government in place. This was the People’s Committee (also referred to as the South Korean Labour Party), a left-wing political group.
The working relationship between the U.S. military government and the People’s Committee was amicable but tensions soon escalated on the island. The economic conditions of Jeju were worsening due to government rationing, new taxes and the repatriation of around 50,000 citizens from Japan who moved there during the occupation.
On the mainland, increasing conflict between the U.S. military government and left-wing political groups forced the United States’ hand. Leftist political organizations throughout the country were reigned in to ensure stability. As a result of this crackdown, the People’s Committee of Jeju, which had gained much favor with the islanders, was unseated.
Soon after, on March 1, 1947, Korea’s Independence Movement Day, large scale violence first broke out on Jeju.
It was supposed to be a day of celebration. Thousands of people took to the streets of Jeju to honor their struggle under Japanese rule, but they were simultaneously protesting the upcoming interim South Korean election, which they saw as solidifying the bisection of the peninsula between North and South Korea.
In Gwandeokjeong, Jeju City, thousands congregated in protest. A relatively minor incident was all it took for the situation to turn violent. The catalyst was provided when a police officer’s horse kicked a child. The crowd turned on the policeman hurling insults and rocks.
In retaliation, the police opened fire on the crowd, killing six, wounding many, and arresting several others.
Around a week later, the Jeju citizenry went on a general strike in response to the police violence, ceasing all government activity and demanding the release of those who had been arrested.
To end the protests hundreds of police from the mainland were sent to the island, along with North West Youth League (NWYL) members, to control the situation and rid the island of those deemed democratic dissenters. The NWYL was made up of refugees from the North who fled from communism. Many had experienced the loss of family members in the struggle against the communist North.
The introduction of new government forces further weighed upon the island’s precarious financial situation. The NWYL terrorized the island, committing brutal crimes in their hunt for communist sympathizers.
Mass arrests were being conducted with the tipping point occurring a year later on March 1, 1948 when 2,500 people were taken into custody.
On the early morning of April 3, 1948, a small band of roughly 350 members of the People’s Committee, armed with 27 rifles, attacked police stations and polling stations to protest the arrests and the upcoming election that would see Syngman Rhee voted in as president. Jeju was the only province not to participate in the election.
Jeju was then referred to as the “Red Island” by the Korean government and was assumed to be full of communist sympathizers. On Nov. 17 martial law was declared. A topographical line was drawn 5 kms (3.1 miles) from the shore, and anyone living inland of that demarcation was considered a Communist and treated as such. This included women and children.
The “scorched earth” plan only lasted four months, but by its end more than 70 percent of the island’s villages were razed, tens of thousands were left dead, and even more were made refugees on their own island.
The suppression had been full and complete.
The Jeju Massacre only officially came to an end when on Sept. 21, 1954 the ban on travel on Mt. Halla — which was put in place because the mountain was where the dissenters hid throughout the conflict — was lifted and Jeju citizens were allowed to roam the entire island freely.
The final report on the Jeju Massacre, made of the investigation initiated by the Special Act of 2000, was accepted by the South Korean government in October 2003.
Later that month, then President Roh Moo-hyun would keep one of his campaign promises and, while on Jeju Island, apologize on behalf of the government for the horror that the Jeju citizens experienced vowing to restore their honor.
“The people of Jeju have suffered grave losses in lives and property under the forces of history wrought by the Cold War and national division,” he said.
“Today’s government apology will not put an end to the past, but I believe this is a start to settling the past.”
On April 3, thousands are expected to attend the 65th memorial service for those who were killed during the Jeju Massacre at The Jeju April 3rd Peace Park, near Jeju City. On hand will be Prime Minister Jung Hong-won as well as many other dignitaries including Jeju Governor Woo Keun Min to pay their respects to the families and citizens of Jeju for their loss.
Sources: John Merrill, “The Cheju-do Rebellion.” Bruce Cumings, “The Question of American Responsibility for the Suppression of the Chejudo Uprising,” The Jeju April 3rd Peace Park