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When terminology and tragedy collideResearchers still debate controversial legacy of Jeju’s 4.3 massacre
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승인 2010.12.16  13:45:26
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▲ The proclamation of martial law in order to quell the rebellion, issued by the Syngman Rhee regime on Nov. 17, 1948. Photo courtesy Yang Jo Hoon


Disturbance, incident, massacre; revolt, rebellion; truth, distortion; reconciliation, litigation.

All of these words have been used in one form or another to illustrate a specific idea of what has come to be known on Jeju as sasam, April 3rd.

It is this rhetorical battle between the government and activists which has been debated somewhat openly in the news, in parliament, and among citizens for around the last 10 years. Simply coupling the date with a qualifier reveals a political leaning. The inherent idea of rebellion is different to that of incident, and incident to that of disturbance, all of which drastically change what April 3rd means.

On Nov. 5 this conflict was inflamed when, unbeknownst to interested parties, the April 3rd massacre, (along with other controversial periods of Korea’s history) was introduced to an international audience on foreign soil — endorsed by the Korean government — in a way that has angered many on the island.

At the 2nd International Symposium on Transitional Justice and Beyond in South Korea, hosted at the Hilton at the Ballpark in St. Louis, Missouri, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the Republic of Korea (TRC) presented a three-article report detailing their process, findings, and lessons learned during the five year project.

▲ Bereaved families visit the Memorial plaque. Photo courtesy Jeju April 3 Peace Foundation


Two weeks later on Nov. 18, OhmyNews reporter Kim Sung Soo took the commission to task, in particular its president, Lee Young Jo, for “distorting” the truth of the Jeju April 3rd massacre and the subsequent Gwangju May 18th massacres by referring to them as a “communist-led rebellion,” and a “popular revolt,” respectively.

In retaliation for Lee’s report the Jeju 4.3 Bereaved Family’s Society, the Provincial Solidarity for Jeju 4.3 Truth Revelation and the Jeju 4.3 Research Institute all requested that Lee stop his “anti-historical actions” and “take responsibility for distorting 4.3.” Though Lee’s initial report failed to garner much public attention for a myriad of reasons, Kim’s article did.

Due to the onslaught of criticism of the report, the TRC released a statement claiming that the terms were taken out of context and were only “used to introduce the historical background in which the incident was initiated,” and that later in the report “it clearly indicates that the Jeju residents were victimized,” by government forces.

To further complicate the situation the commission stated that Kim was once a TRC employee who was “released,” that he is currently “involved in an ongoing lawsuit against President Lee,” and that he has since “committed slander” on the commission and the OhmyNews websites.

The reason behind the anger directed at Lee for his statement from the 4.3 organizations and concerned citizens is that by using the “term rebellion, victims of 4.3 feel like they are being treated or referred to as Commies or Reds,” said head of the Jeju 4.3 Research Institute Kim Chang Hoo, in an interview with The Jeju Weekly.

“By defining the key event as a communist rebellion, civilian massacres and human rights abuses were easily justified as collateral to, and a necessary part of, the efforts to prevent communization,” according to Kim Hun Joon’s 2009 article “Seeking Truth after 50 years: The National Committee for Investigations of the Truth about the Jeju 4.3 Events.”

The argument concerning the terminology and corresponding definition of the tragic events associated with April 3rd has been at the center of controversy since it was allowed to be publicly discussed. This happened with the establishment of the 4.3 Committee and the creation of the special Act in 2000 that stated the government would investigate what actually occurred. It was in this document that 4.3 was first politically referred to as something other than a “communist rebellion,” wrote Kim Hun Joon, using “disturbance” instead due to its neutrality.

Kim Hun Joon continued that “for the ruling party and activists, the definition of the events was the single most important aspect,” with the government trying to avoid words that would associate the state with responsibility for what happened and with activists fighting to rid themselves of being characterized as communists.

The head of the Jeju 4.3 Research Institute, Kim Chang Hoo, said “‘Incident’ is the governmental and occasional term that we use regardless of ideology or the size of the act. We use the term for neutral meaning. I don’t think the term ‘incident’ affects significance.”

What makes this situation even more confusing is that Lee Young Jo’s report is full of grammatical errors which at times prevent understanding of crucial ideas. Also, he refers to Gwangju as both a “massacre” and an “incident” while spelling the city in question as Gwangju and Kwangju on the same page. These errors make it very difficult to take the report seriously.

“This supports the fact that there is no consistency in the presentation given by Lee,” said Kim Chang Hoo. “Not only are there contradiction in terms such as incident and massacre, but the contents in the paper [is] irrelevant with its own title. I see this paper as hurriedly written.”

This prompts the question why has there been so much discussion concerning this paper.

Kim Chang Hoo said that since the report was given to an international audience it may have an effect on the global image of these events. “That is why we are angry at the presentation. We do not have plans to deal with the situation internationally right now, but we are demanding the TRC and Lee to clearly explain about the status quo and to express their stance,” he said.

Concerning Lee’s justifications of using the term “communist-led rebellion” and his later view that many civilians were killed at the hands of government forces, Kim Chang Hoo said, “It is the part that the conservatives admit.

They agree on the fact that the government excessively suppressed the public by force. But they stand firm on their side that the suppression was to put down Communists and Reds.”

What further appears to invalidate the report is that former TRC employee Kim Sung Soo would publicly decry wrong doings on the part of the presentation. Kim Chang Hoo pointed to this as “a public display of the confusion in the commission itself,” and that “even the members of the TRC are suspicious” about the impetus behind the symposium on international soil.

He continued that due to the change in political power from the former more liberal party to the present conservative Lee Myung Bak administration, the TRC went through an ideological transformation. “I think the statement of TRC Lee reflects the general perspective of the neo-conservatives, also called the New Right, on Jeju 4.3 and Gwangju 5.18 incident. They see these acts as anti-government riots.”

In his conclusion Lee states that “virtually all conceivable victims of historical injustices were restituted, their honors restored and their sufferings acknowledged,” to which Kim Chang Hoo responded as being utterly false.

“Research to reveal the truth of 4.3 and other historical incidents are insufficient. There are more than 200 incidents nationally that need to be inquired. But nothing has done to identify the truth of the cases.”

Concerning the word restitution Kim Hun Joon writes that “reparations were a secondary matter compared to the investigation of the massacres and redefinition of the 4.3 events,” during the creation of the Special Act. In fact “The opposition party refrained from using the word ‘reparation’ because the term itself implied that the state was responsible for the massacres and abuses.”

Kim Chang Hoo said that this report will have little effect upon research into the April 3rd massacre since the Special Act has no expiry date “I see that publishing of the final governmental report is the implication of the meaning that the government would not bring out the problem anymore.”

He elaborated that “I believe the current conservative government wants to put an end to this controversy on historical problems such as the 4.3 and the 5.18 incidents.”

The TRC is required to publish all findings and disband by Dec. 31 of this year. Though the presentation given on Nov. 5 had very little to do with either the Jeju or Gwangju massacres, its future implications on how these tragic events will be perceived is currently unknown, if it will have any effect at all.

(Chris J. Park, Erin Ah-nam Kim and Jean K. Min contributed to this article.)

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