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Shedding light on a dark corner of Jeju's pastThe first in a series of articles examining issues surrounding the April 3 Massacre
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승인 2011.03.26  16:25:45
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▲ A large memorial in the Jeju 4.3 Peace Park, Jeju City, commemorates the lives lost during the Jeju April 3 Massacre. Photo by Justin Nalepa

For the purposes of accuracy and language The Jeju Weekly has decided to refer to the events of April 3, 1948 not as an uprising, nor as a revolt, and not as an incident (a term favored by the Korean government for its neutrality) but as a massacre.

The word is defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary as “the act or an instance of killing a number of usually helpless or unresisting human beings under circumstances of atrocity or cruelty.”

We understand that we are in the minority in using this word. Over the past year of conducting interviews on this subject, all those asked, whether conservative or liberal, politician or survivor, have referred to the massacre as an incident.

As discussed in my previous article concerning the massacre’s terminology, the issue over appellations has been at the forefront of debate since 1987, when Korea’s shift to democracy rendered the once restricted topic merely one of volatile conversation across political lines.

Prior to the signing of the Special Act in 2000, the massacre was most-commonly referred to as the April 3 Communist Rebellion in textbooks, in all public records, and by mass media.

Past ruling factions of South Korea have preferred titles that vindicated their roles in the deaths of an estimated 30,000 people on Jeju Island, and consequently vilified survivors and victims by casting them as instigators.

Moderate groups and left-leaning organizations have adopted the government term “incident,” a wholly neutral classification that neither attributes blame nor encompasses the magnitude of what actually occurred. In English “incident” is exponentially more flawed, as it often denotes a small-scale event. The Korean word it is translated from “sageon,” while still neutral, connotes larger though still not catastrophic events.

During my interview with Jeju April 3 Peace Foundation President Jang Jung Eon, terminology was a natural topic of discussion. Jang insisted that an English substitute for incident was necessary.

However, he disagreed with the use of “massacre.” From my understanding this distaste grows from the fact that massacre implies fault. Somewhat at odds are the placards in the Jeju April 3 Peace Museum (for which Jang’s foundation acts as the overseeing body) that compare the events of the massacre with Darfur, the Holocaust, and other genocides.

By definition it was not genocide, but it was a massacre.

On March 1, 1947(*), a day that would become known on Jeju as The Shooting Incident, people took to the streets. World War II was over, Korea was divided, and the presidential election for the newly-created South Korea loomed. It was a day of celebration. It was Korea’s Independence Movement Day, a day to commemorate the country’s struggle against Japanese rule. This presents a tidy picture of a country moving towards modern democracy.

However, South Korea's independence was the result of a bisection, and with this divide came inevitable casualties, families divided forever, a strip of land between the now two nations around which landmines waited and snipers dwelt, and the sudden realization that one's own countrymen could be the enemy. In this light it is unsurprising that Jeju's people took to the streets not only to cheer but also to protest against the election to be held on May 10, 1948.

At Gwandeokjeong, Jeju City, a large congregation had formed to celebrate when, according to the 4.3 Peace Park Museum, a policeman’s horse kicked a child. This angered the crowd, and as the officer attempted to flee the scene, the Jeju citizens displayed their anger by shouting jeers and throwing rocks. The police then opened fire on the crowd in retaliation, killing six and injuring eight.

As unrest grew, on April 3, 1948, less than a month before the election, a group claiming to be members of the South Korea Labor Party attacked police stations, polling centers, and political opponents. The Jeju people were understandably skeptical of foreign governments and worried that the upcoming election was, as Song Jung Hee wrote in the March 31, 2010 issue of The Weekly, “a unilateral attempt of the U.S. ruling government under the U.N. flag to separate a southern regime and to employ its first president Syngman Rhee.”

The number of people involved in this attack is uncertain. At one point popular speculation was that 3,000 people were responsible for storming the government facilities. According to literature distributed at the Jeju 4.3 Peace Museum, the numbers are closer to 500 armed with 27 Japanese rifles and sharpened sticks. Hunjoon Kim, a research specialist from the University of Minnesota,wrote there were “approximately 350 left-wing guerrillas,” while the 4.3 Research Center (an independent research organization) doubts that there were that many guns available to the citizens and asserts that that the Jeju people were too poor and unable to organize in such a mass.

Months of fighting followed between the police and the dissenters and eventually martial law was declared. Jeju was labeled a “red island” by the Korean government, and major military operations were conducted to rid the area of alleged communists. This comprises what we now know to be the massacre. It is estimated that between 1948 and 1954 30,000 Jeju citizens, including women and children, were killed mostly by the military and North West Youth league in their attempt to apprehend communists. A topographical line was drawn two kms from Jeju`s coasts, and all citizens, businesses and villages that lay above that line were considered to be a threat and burned during the scorched earth operations. 30,000 was one tenth of the population of the island at the time.

For the next half century public discussion about the massacre was shunned. Anyone who questioned what happened was themselves considered to be a communist and therefore liable to be arrested and tortured. Moreover, cultural conversations about the events were taboo, and in contradiction to the massive reconstruction of the social and physical reality of Jeju which had to take place.

It was only in 2000, with the passing of a Special Law that finally permitted an official investigation into the events and clashes between the Jeju people and the authorities during 1948 to 1954, that citizens were able to openly talk of what happened and to articulate their stories.

What effect have those muted 50 years had upon our understanding of the Jeju April 3 Massacre? How will history see the events of the Jeju Massacre? How relevant is the massacre to today’s Jeju as it aims to be a bustling international tourist destination? What are the scars of this catastrophe on the identity of South Koreans here and on the mainland?

In this issue and the next, The Weekly will examine and attempt to explain and investigate some of the lesser known aspects of the massacre and revisit some of the more prevalent issues that surround this tragic chapter in Jeju’s past.

(*) An earlier version of this article misstated the date as 1948. It was 1947. The Weekly regrets the error.

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