▲ An estimated 700 people were executed at the present site of Jeju International Airport, and though there was a full-scale excavation during 2007, the remains of only 237 bodies were found. Photo courtesy Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation
As airplanes land on the gray runway, passengers feel their stomachs churn with excitement. Millions of people visiting Jeju each year begin their trip at this very place: Jeju International Airport. Along with Jeju Island’s development as Korea’s number one tourist attraction, Jeju International Airport has been visited by millions of people last year alone.
While the airport is now a busy tourist intersection filled with animated footsteps, it has not always been the case. In fact, a tragic history is hidden beneath its lively exterior.
“The crack of gunshot continued at the airfield all day long,” reminisced Kim Eui Hyup, whom I interviewed last summer.
Kim was 11 years-old when he witnessed the massacre at the airport. He was ordered to dig air-raid shelters at the current spot of Jeju International Airport. One day while he was working, trucks filled with hundreds of people entered the airfield. Soldiers sent by the government dragged people out of the trucks and started to shoot them. Dead bodies were ruthlessly thrown into big holes. Kim saw this horrific scene from over a fence.
“About 60 years have passed since then, but I still remember it vividly,” Kim said with a sigh.
What he experienced was a part of Jeju’s unresolved past, the infamous April 3 Massacre. Estimates vary, but approximately 30,000 Jeju people, many falsely accused of being communists, died during the incident. Jeju airfield, which has since developed into the current Jeju International Airport, was a significant execution spot where hundreds of people were killed; many of their bodies are still buried under the runway of the airport.
Unfortunately, this is not a well-known fact. The airport now stands as if nothing had happened, and people walk around it totally unaware of the sad history buried under their feet.
Even the inception of Jeju airfield was based upon a depressing history of the island. Dating back to the Japanese colonial period, the airfield was built originally as a military base for the occupiers by the hands of exploited Jeju people. After the Japanese withdrew from Korea, it was taken over by the U.S. military. However, the airfield was not used by U.S forces, making it a perfect place to carry out a mass-death sentence.
There were two major events that caused the massacres at the airport: the infamous court martial and the preventive custody measure.
The court martial refers to special judicial procedures that deal with crimes under military criminal law or other punishment legislation. In other words, the trials for those who violated military law are held by the military, not by a civil court. During the Jeju April 3 Massacre, two courts martial were held, on December 1948 and on July 1949. Most people who were brought to trial were executed.
Among the accused were some who had started unrest on April 3rd, but most of them were innocent civilians who escaped to the mountain to avoid retribution. Furthermore, trials were not properly held; the records of lawsuits, including the sentencing, do not exist, and the accused themselves were not aware of whether they had stood trial. Trials during the April 3 Massacre cannot be called legal. Hence, on March 14, 2007, the Korean government defined all 868 convicts executed by the courts martial as victims.
According to records of The United States Military Advisory Group to the Republic of Korea, Jeju airfield was where on Oct. 2, 1949 a mass-execution of 249 people was performed.
The preventive custody measure, another event that caused mass murder at the airport, is a type of imprisonment used to confine people who are likely to commit a crime. During the April 3 Massacre, only the military had authority to hold people under preventive custody. Since this act confined people who did not commit crimes, many innocent Jeju citizens were unfairly arrested. According to official police documents, a total of 820 people were confined due to the preventive custody order, and executions of prisoners were carried out over two separate dates: Aug. 4 and 19, 1950.
The second execution, of about 500 convicts, was conducted at Jeju airfield. Adding this number to the victims killed by the court martial makes for an estimated 700 people executed at the airport.
▲ Photo courtesy Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation
Now more than half a century later, people buried under the airport have gradually been forgotten. The Jeju airfield has expanded to the present Jeju International Airport, which is always filled with visitors. Research on the massacres at Jeju airport was difficult because the events surrounding the April 3 Massacre were concealed by the government for decades.
Only after the 4.3 Special Law was proclaimed in 2000 in order to recover victims’ honor and to conduct fact-finding investigations was an excavation project at the airport considered. Eventually a full-scale excavation at Jeju International Airport was started in 2007. Since two major massacres happened at the airport, excavation sites were in different locations. Excavation of the preventive custody site was first, followed by the site of those killed as a result of the courts martial executions.
“We had a lot of difficulties while carrying out the excavation project,” said Kim Chang Hoo, head of the Jeju 4.3 Research Institute.
The Jeju 4.3 Research Institute was in charge of planning and investigating the excavation project at Jeju International Airport. The project was not easy because more than 50 years have passed since the mass executions. Moreover it could disturb the running of the airport. During the first excavation, a huge pit where victims were buried was found near the runway, revealing atrocious scenes of the bodies of the Jeju April 3 Massacre. The project was completed on March, 2009. It was reported that 239 full bodies and 1,000 lost articles were found.
“Jeju people had believed that victims buried under the airport were mostly from Jeju City. However, it turned out that the bodies that we excavated were mostly people from Seogwipo City. That means there are many other victims still buried under the airport,” Kim said.
Kim assumed that those unexcavated pits would be located right under the runway of the airport. He also said that these would contain the largest number of bodies. However, since the runway is currently used by the airport, the excavation project cannot be immediately carried out.
Even today, airplanes busily run along the runway, where hundreds of people remain buried. Jeju International Airport is more than a mere gateway to the mainland. It is a place of sorrow and pain for Jeju people, and there is still much fact-finding research that should go on at this airport. The tragic history at Jeju International Airport should not be forgotten.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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