Jeju Island is where South Koreans love to get away from it all. Hundreds of flights a day deposit mainlanders hungry for escape, relaxation and selfies. With its sea-locked isolation, black soil and relentless wind, Jeju feels almost like a different country altogether.
So it’s hard to believe that 70 years ago, at a critical point in modern Korean history, it was Jeju that took the hardest blow from an ideological conflict raging on the mainland.
Over seven years, from March 1947 to September 1954, between 25,000 and 30,000 islanders lost their lives in what is by far South Korea’s biggest-ever case of state violence — officially at the time, an anticommunist crackdown — against its own citizens.
“Soldiers came bashing at our doors and ordered us to come out,” recalled Go Wan-sun, one of the few surviving islanders who remember the events on Jan. 17, 1949, in the northeastern coastal village of Bukchon.
“They’d set fire to the other thatched houses in the street, so we couldn’t see anything in the smoke. But they dragged us through it to the school yard.”
Go was nine years-old at the time.
“The school yard was full of people,” she said. “I looked around and saw two or three big machine guns on the wall. Their barrels were pointed into the yard.”
What followed was one of the worst episodes of the seven-year violence. Some 400 villagers were shot that day; what remained of their bodies was left strewn in a nearby field in a jumble of limbs and blood.
Go speaks energetically as she recalls the terrible things she saw. Only when she recounts how a soldier cracked her baby brother’s head with a club does she have to stop and collect herself.
‘4.3’ is one of the most well-known ‘incidents’ during the seven-year period.
The background to the ‘April 3 Incident’ — which actually predates Apr. 3, 1948 — lies in the heady political climate after 1945, when Japan’s defeat in World War II ended its colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula. The United States and Soviet Union hurriedly agreed to divide the Korean Peninsula along the 38th parallel north, a line that roughly corresponds to today’s North-South Korean border.
This period of history saw a complex series of ideological and factional clashes, particularly between the sympathizers of the U.S. and the USSR.
The Soviets took over the north. Jeju Island, like the rest of the southern part of the Peninsula, was placed under the rule of the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) as part of an international trusteeship agreement.
Many Koreans on both sides of the border, including islanders on Jeju, were incensed by the trusteeship, seeing it as a further denial of the independence they had craved under Japanese colonial rule.
Following this so-called ‘liberation’ from Japan, People’s Committees formed throughout Korea in preparation for genuine independence from outside powers. Jeju’s local People’s Committee was one of the most stable, operating largely free from the ideological conflict and friction with the military government on the mainland. But when right-wing forces began arriving on the island and oppressing the local population, tensions rose.
People’s Committees were broadly suspected by USAMGIK, conveniently enough, of being communist in political orientation. Jeju was branded the ‘Red Island’ by the USAMGIK and, later, the new South Korean government (inaugurated under Syngman Rhee on Aug. 15, 1948).
On Apr. 3, 1948, armed Jeju rebels attacked units of the local police and right-wing paramilitaries. This incident, before which violent clashes had already begun, prompted an escalating series of crackdowns by the South Korean government. The years of conflict resulted in multiple atrocities, from both sides. But islander casualties were incomparably higher.
Over the next six years, roughly a tenth of all islanders were killed in the name of eradicating communism. Direct U.S. interference is suspected, but hasn’t been confirmed.
Meeting Go is the most revealing and traumatic part of the Jeju Dark Tour, which takes visitors to sites highlighting the most painful parts of the island’s history. Most of the time, the tour feels like an educational field trip, consisting of a series of memorial halls, museums and historic sites.
But that’s the point. If you want a carefree Jeju break, head to the Teddy Bear Museum or an overcrowded seaside café run by a mainlander-turned-islander celebrity. If you’re ready to stomach one of Jeju’s most painful moments in history, put on some walking shoes for a Dark Tour.
One of the tour’s key sites is a gotjawal forest, an ecosystem unique to Jeju. In November 1948, at the end of the harvest season, villagers from nearby Seonheul took refuge inside Doteul Cave. Eventually they were discovered by government authorities, who unilaterally condemned them as communists. 95 percent of the villagers, including children, were killed. This cave isn’t the only one hiding the remains of innocent villagers.
But the crackdown of late 1948 to early 1949 was far from the last of Jeju’s troubles.
Nationwide in 1950, when the Korean War broke out, an estimated tens of thousands of young men were rounded up and executed in operations known as ‘preventative detention.’ Earmarked as communists, they were eliminated by the South Korean government as a perceived internal threat.
One of the worst such cases took place at Seodal Oreum, a former hill in the southwest of Jeju. Former, because it had been used by the occupying Japanese to store ammunition and was then blown up after liberation, leaving a crater.
It was here that, in August 1950, some 150 ‘preventative detainees’ from nearby villages were taken to the edge of the crater and shot. The South Korean military prevented their families from retrieving their bodies for some six years, at the end of which they were largely unidentifiable.
In Baekjoilsonjiji, the ‘graveyard of 100 ancestors,’ the unrecognizable bodies of the 132 victims of the Seodal Oreum massacre were finally buried. A series of unmarked mounds lie silently in the rural landscape, while farmers in the next field fill giant sacks with freshly harvested daikon radishes.
A perspex case in the graveyard symbolizes the way Jeju’s history was silenced over the years. The case contains the collected fragments of the original stone sign of the graveyard, smashed in the early 1980s by those opposed to commemorating the massacre.
For a long time, South Korea was ruled by authoritarian regimes. No one in power challenged the entrenched view that 4.3 and the ‘preventative’ killings during the Korean War had been a communist uprising. History textbooks described 4.3 as an ‘uprising’ — a word some conservatives still use to describe the period today.
After 1954, Jeju locals knew better than to talk about the events of this particular past. Under successive authoritarian governments, even mentioning the events of 1947-1954 was enough to land individuals in trouble, accused of being “commies.”
Meanwhile, the powerful stigma against the victims was passed on to their descendants, blocking them from most good jobs.
The final stop of the Dark Tour is the house of Jin A-young, whose jaw was shot off sometime during 4.3. Jin lived with her disfigurement until 2004, becoming known as the ‘cotton cloth granny’ because of the piece of white fabric she used to conceal what was left of her jaw.
Jeju Dark Tours are part of an ongoing effort by multiple non-governmental organizations to bring greater awareness of 4.3, and to complete the process of bringing justice to victims’ families.
This process finally began in 2000 when the Jeju 4.3 Special Law was signed by Kim Dae-jung, South Korea’s first president to emerge from the opposition camp. Under the law, a ‘truth commission’ began investigating the uprising. In 2003, Kim’s successor and fellow progressive Roh Moo-hyun apologized to the people of Jeju for the state’s actions.
“I can hardly describe how good it felt,” said Oh Im-jong of the Association for Bereaved Families of 4.3 Victims. “But we still need to have the honor of the victims restored. And we need the government to provide compensation to survivors.”
On Apr. 3, president Moon Jae-in addressed a crowd of Jeju citizens at a memorial event marking the 70th anniversary of 4.3.
“We will reveal the truth about violence perpetrated by the state, right the injustice suffered by the victims, and restore their reputations,” Moon promised. “The harsh conflict between left and right has produced a tragic history, but the victims of April 3 and the people of Jeju have transcended the mistrust and hate produced by ideology.”
Cover image: Anonymous graves at Baekjoilsonjiji graveyard. (Ben Jackson/Korea Exposé)