▲ Ora village leader Yang Nam Ho, left, with fellow April 3 Massacre survivor Lee Mu Kyung, converse of the past, when they had to flee from thier homes and find refuge in hiding during the military's scorched earth campaign. Photo by Darryl Coote
Nov. 17, 1948 was the day that newly-elected President Syngman Rhee placed Jeju Island under de facto martial law. Legally he was unable to do so, there being no allowance for martial law in the Korean constitution at that time — this only occurred via a constitutional amendment on Dec. 1. Still, the validity of the order remained unchallenged until 2000, when the government first began investigating the events of the April 3 Massacre in earnest.
Scorched earth is a time-honored strategy where a force moving through potentially hostile territory destroys everything that might be useful to opposing forces. By signing his fiat into law, Rhee paved the way for the military’s scorched earth campaign, which took place over the following four months.
The military had been drained of political moderates prior to this period. The May 1, 1948 burning of Ora village had undermined ongoing peace negotiations between 9th Regiment Commander Kim Ikruhl and Kim Dalsam’s band of militant islanders. Then the fire was used to discredit and dismiss Ikruhl, who was replaced by a more hard-line commander. The military’s tactics were further radicalized by the presence of the Northwest Youth League.
Even though the military operations on Jeju from Nov. 17, 1948 through March 1949 are described by the umbrella term “scorched earth,” the actual tactics employed on Jeju went well beyond destroying resources and infrastructure. Estimates vary, but the total number of people killed during the entire April 3 Massacre is widely accepted to be 30,000, one-tenth of the population. According to Oh Seung Guk, a researcher at the April 3 Peace Foundation, 70 percent of the total killing took place during the four-month-long scorched earth campaign.
The actual plan — a copy of it visible in the April 3rd Peace Park Museum — was this: two-and-a-half miles inland the military drew an imaginary line. Anyone inside the line was a Communist and was considered an enemy combatant. The military sent raiding parties to ferret out people hiding on the side of Mt. Halla and to torch the inland villages.
According to April 3 Massacre survivor Lee Mu Kyung, “Most people didn’t understand what terms like ‘democracy’ or ‘communism’ meant.”
Whereas traditional scorched earth methods are employed when moving through potentially hostile territory, the military deemed all territory in the center of the island hostile. Instead of a concerted effort to gain and hold new territory (thus making it non-hostile), military reports show only a torrent of raids along a very static border. Lee said people were not allowed to return to the inner part of the island until 1953 — even though the scorched earth policy ended in 1949.
In some places, the police and military ordered evacuations before they instituted the 2.5-mile line. Then again, in the 4.3 Peace Park Museum there are several accounts of soldiers ordering an evacuation, then either shooting people as they ran, or tracking them down later as “fugitive families” and executing them post-evacuation.
Lee, who was 11 at the time, fled with his mother and sister from Ora village to near what is now Gu-Jeju; then when scorched earth began they were evacuated again to the coast near Yongduam. “We were lucky,” he said, and explained that his family was only treated so well by the police because there were none among them who could be a threat. The family of another survivor — Yang Nam Ho, who was 5-years-old — ran instead to the mountains. Both men agree: it was a very confusing time.
Those on the wrong side of the scorched earth line often hid in the caves that dot Jeju’s geography and were generally killed upon discovery. Smoking survivors out into gunfire was “very common” according to Oh, but three children and eight others hiding in Darangshi cave were actually suffocated with smoke. The cave was only discovered in 1992, and research done by Jemin Ilbo, a Jeju newspaper, concluded that the fire had been set by the military.
After Japanese occupation and before the Republic of Korea was formally established, the area that is now South Korea was controlled by the American Military Government in Korea. Even when the Republic was officially established in August of 1948, the United States still maintained oversight of the military under the new name, U.S. Provisional Military Advisory Group (PMAG). As Brig. General William L. Roberts, chief of PMAG, explained in a September 1948 letter to Prime Minister Lee Bum Suk, “...operational control of the Korean Constabulary still rests with the commanding general, USAFIK [United States Air Force in Korea].”
He went on to emphasize, “...it is of paramount importance... that all orders pertaining to operational control of the Constabulary [Republic of Korea] be cleared with the appropriate American Advisor, prior to publication.” This would suggest the Republic’s military planned and conducted their own operations, but never without the explicit go-ahead of United States. This includes all scorched earth operations. In a future column to be published in the Jemin Ilbo by Yang Jo Hoon, a U.S. report says, “the 9th regiment has adopted the program of mass slaughter,” and evaluates it as a “successful action.” Another document from PMAG chief William L. Roberts praises the 9th regiment’s commander Song You Chan as displaying “excellent powers of command.”
The scorched earth program implemented on Jeju was, in many ways, a perfect storm of oppressive military tactics: a president eager to exert his new-found powers (even inventing new powers for himself); a hard-line paramilitary organization backed by the fledgling government; a war brewing between and around the two new nations; a people fed up with years of occupation (the April 3 Peace Foundation estimates of violent Jeju citizens range from 350-500 or between 1.2 and 1.6 percent of those killed); and a superpower which allowed and sometimes encouraged the most brutal of tactics.
(Interpretation by Koh Yu Kyung)
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