Han Rimhwa, author and activist, has been engaged with the themes of Jeju’s historical period of massacre, Sasam, for nearly three decades. In 1991, she published one of the earliest literary works on the topic, a three-volume novel entitled, “The Sunset on Mount Halla.”
While researching material for her novel, Han reports multiple police detentions. Her mother, also questioned, covered for her daughter by informing police that Han was a scholar conducting academic research.
Accused of being a spy, Han insisted that this was her history and that she had “a right to know.” She was ultimately able to publish and reports being subsequently contacted by more than 60 media representatives. She has written at least 10 articles on the topic of Sasam since that time.
Han is the current president of Jeju Writers’ Group, an organization which she helped to create in 1987. With nearly 100 members today, the group is very active with many members focused on Sasam. On Friday the 2nd of April, the group hosted a literary conference on writing about the tragedy: what aspects still to focus on, how best to do so, and what direction “Sasam Literature” should take in the future.
The group has also organized a poetry and art exhibition at the Jeju April 3rd Peace Park this month, and a corresponding poetry recital.
On April 9, Han and her group are leading a “pilgrimage” in the foothills of Mt. Halla following in the footsteps of that era’s refugees. The event is believed to be the first of its kind and is “for the healing of Sasam.”
“All of my writing life has been about Sasam,” sighs Han, who lost two elder sisters to the massacre. “If I hadn’t encountered it, my life might have been so happy. Or not,” she added with a bemused smile.
Han has also researched and published extensively on the traditional culture of Jeju, with a special focus on the diving women. She has written numerous articles and a total of six novels as well as documentary materials for both MBC and KBS. But Sasam is what she considers her life’s work.
She describes it as a “tense, difficult subject” which “derailed the plans for [her] writing life,” giving her “no freedom.”
Even now, she wonders what would happen if she “shed Sasam.”
The fifth-born of nine daughters, Han describes her mother as “powerful.” Han’s father, a commercial fisherman, died when Han was a middle school student, and her mother raised the family on her own. She insisted that her daughters receive higher education and become professional women; they were the first females from their village to do so.
“My mother was born in Seoul and came to Jeju upon marriage,” Han recounts, “but she soon became a ‘strong Jeju woman’ and saw to it that her daughters were as well.”
Han has presented on numerous occasions, including the 2005 Women’s World Conference held in Seoul, where she spoke about the sociocultural and religious meanings in the life of the “jamsu,” or diving women.
She was co-author of a 2003 study, “Jeju Women’s Lives in the Context of the Jeju April 3rd Uprising,” which was presented at the International Conference of Jeju April 3rd (Sasam) Uprising and East Asia Peace held at Harvard University that year.
Han served for several years as editor-in-chief of Peace Island magazine, co-sponsored by the Jeju Provincial Government and Jeju National University’s World Association for Island Studies and Institute of Peace Studies.
She was also the organizer of a Jeju memorial for former President Roh Moo Hyun who, she relays, not only issued a formal apology to Jeju on behalf of the central government for the massacre of 1948 but also initiated the creation of the Jeju April 3rd Peace Park and the law school of Jeju National University. She still questions why the memorial was poorly attended.
When asked about the accomplishment of which she is most proud, Han thinks for some time, then shrugs her shoulders with a small laugh and replies, “Nothing,” signifying her humble nature.
As to what she would still like to achieve, she relays that she is currently working on two new novels and also wants to write a complete history of Jeju, which she states has heretofore been published only by time period.
She somewhat wistfully adds, “I hope to one day write my story ... of a Jeju girl’s life of beauty and freedom.” It would seem that this is a fantasy life that, because of her entanglement with Sasam, she was not permitted to have.
When it comes to the future of Jeju, she expresses hope that “Jeju’s people can move into a very light time – free of politics and in a natural condition, to simply enjoy the life and natural beauty of Jeju.”
Until the pain of Sasam is finally healed, she feels, this pleasure is only experienced by the tourists.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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