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'The Jeju 4.3 event is a microcosm of Korean politics'Dr. Kim Hun Joon discusses what can be learned from the Jeju Massacre
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승인 2012.04.09  14:54:48
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Dr. Kim Hun Joon, winner of the 2008 American Political Science Association Best Dissertation Award in the human rights category, has been researching the Jeju Massacre since 2001 with the purpose of better understanding the politics of Korea. His work on the massacre has been frequently referenced and consulted during The Weekly’s coverage of those tragic events on the island during 1948 to 1954, commonly referred to as 4.3 in Korean.

I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Kim, who is currently a Research Fellow at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, at the end of last year during a conference we both spoke at about the Jeju Massacre. Though coming at the topic from two very different angles — he as a researcher and I as a journalist — his understanding of the events was not only vast but also rather applicable, especially compared to work by other academics. This email interview concerning the doctor’s thoughts and opinions about the Jeju Massacre was conducted late last month.

When and why did you start researching the Jeju Massacre?

▲ Dr. Kim Hun Joon
The Jeju 4.3 massacres are the first instances of state violence in South Korea. I was at first interested in the issue of North Korean refugees and went to the US to study North Korean defectors in 2001 at the University of Minnesota. However, as I studied politics and human rights issues around the Korean peninsula, I realised that there have been many instances of gruesome and systemic human rights violations and state violence in South Korea. I then conducted some preliminary research, starting from the most recent instances of torture and disappearance under authoritarianism like what occurred in Gwangju. Then I worked my way back through civilian massacres during the Korean War like in Geochang, those involving the Bodo League, and committed against prisoners. I then ended up studying the Jeju 4.3 events.

What is the ultimate goal you would like to achieve through your research?

I am interested in understanding Korea as a nation. Thus, I want to understand who we are and how we got to where we are right now in terms of politics, the economy, society as a whole, culture, and even the division of the peninsula.

Understanding the Jeju 4.3 events, and through the process of trying to unearth facts, South Koreans finally established the 4.3 Truth Commission and started to address past human rights violations. Within the 4.3 events one can see the role of foreign powers, popular resistance to oppressive rule, ideological divide, conflict, the escalation of violence, the cruelty of state violence and instances perpetrated by paramilitary rightist youth group members [the North West Youth League], 50 years of silence, and continuous social movements. The Jeju 4.3 events and the process that followed the massacres is a microcosm of Korean politics. I’ve tried to understand Korean politics through the Jeju 4.3 events.

What aspects of the Jeju Massacre do you think need more research?

The study of the Jeju 4.3 events has been focused on its characteristics as being an armed uprising — whether it is a communist rebellion or a popular uprising. Although there has been a considerable amount of research done on the causes of the events, it is still not enough to determine their characteristics. In addition, the people of Jeju have suffered for a long time under consecutive anti-communist regimes and their struggle to find truth and restore the victims’ honor has not seen much study. The history of the movement is a story of victory, and the 50 years of activism could act as a lesson to other countries. This part, in particular, has to be studied further.

In your opinion, what is the greatest misconception about 4.3?

When we think about the Jeju 4.3 events, and especially when it is presented to the public, people often understand it as either a communist rebellion or a popular uprising. During the ideologically conflicted years before 1987, this dichotomous understanding of 4.3 has been consolidated and reaffirmed. However, we have to understand that the Jeju 4.3 events are multifaceted with different phases of communist armed protests with popular support of the initial uprising and phases of mass suffering. We have to see all of its phases in order to understand the truth about the Jeju 4.3 events.

What is the best way for Jeju to move on from the pain of the massacre?

The social movement’s 50-year history of trying to find truth and restore honour to the victims has been an important way to redress the pains inflicted by the Jeju 4.3 events. And the involvement of the general public, victims, activists, journalists, politicians, students, and intellectuals has all contributed to the process. In a way, this process has been an important avenue to cure the island of its scars, and all these efforts have now been concentrated by the Jeju April 3 Peace Foundation.

I believe the best way to redress the remaining pains still felt on the island is to first of all have all previously important research actors —the 4.3 Research Institute, The 4.3 Bereaved Families Committee, the provincial alliance, students, and journalists — work together with the Jeju April 3 Peace Foundation. The foundation could act in a leadership position but the role of the other parties is important in corroborating the foundation’s work and to balance their activities.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

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