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Lunch, a rocky field and some spent cartridgesLee Jaehu, Chairman of the Bukchon Village April 3rd Victims and Bereaved Families Association, shares a tale of massacre from his hometown
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승인 2014.04.02  18:43:57
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▲ Photo courtesy Japari Film

Background to the Jeju Massacre

By winter 1948, Jeju Island was under martial law due to violence that began on March 1, 1947, after a child was hit and killed by a police horse at a Japanese liberation demonstration. In response to the death and further socio-economic grievances, a general strike was called and 41,211 participated.

Tensions were heightened further by an approaching general election on May 10, 1948 in the UN-administered South. Many Jeju people refused to participate fearing it would lead to national division as it was not held in the North.

There were protests in the weeks leading up to the election and on April 3 a number of police stations were attacked in the early morning. A military and police crackdown followed and the date became forever associated with the conflict.

President Rhee Syngman eventually declared martial law on Nov. 17, 1948 and those who didn't participate in the election were called Communist sympathizers. Many islanders fled to the mid-mountain regions to escape the increasing violence and police forbade contact with them declaring some villages ※enemy territory.

Some Bukchon residents had also refused to take part in that May election and they were to pay a heavy price. Their tale is told by Lee Jaehu, Chairman of the Bukchon Village April 3rd Victims and Bereaved Families Association.

This story was told by Lee Jaehu and translated by The Jeju Weekly's Kim Jinmi (

It was a warm late-spring day and I was in the fourth grade of elementary school. I lived in Naensibillebatt, near Bukchon Village, Jocheon-up. As soon as I arrived home, my mother told me to take lunch to my eldest brother who was plowing a field. The lunch was just a clear soup with flour dumplings, sujebi, and some pickled garlic. My mother then picked up her mangsari, a net which all haenyeo (women divers) have, and rushed off to the seashore.

On my way to the fields I passed a hill and I could hear “sumbisori” from the sea. Sumbisori, a song of peace, is the sound haenyeo make when they resurface and exhale.

“Hoi~ hoi~ huyi~”

I couldn’t find my brother, but I saw an older man and he took the lunch. My stomach began growling with hunger. I noticed some round yellow pieces of iron scattered about and I asked the old man what they were. He told me they were spent bullet cartridges. “When you grow up I will tell you all about the history of this field,” he said with a sigh, and looked up at the sky.

I remembered a candy vendor ex- changing the cartridges for notebooks and so I started to pick them up. I couldn’t hold all of them, so I filled my hat and glanced at the lunch bag, which contained some leftover soup and dumplings. “Can I eat it, uncle?” I asked. “Sure, I left it for you,” he replied. I will never forget that taste. With the empty bag I combed the field and found about 20 spent cartridges and even rubber shoes and sneakers.

Unwitting, I happily continued to collect the spent cartridges in the field, not knowing they were the evidence of a mass execution which had occurred during the Jeju April 3 period. I now know the history of that field and of the spent cartridges, and it is time to share it.

▲ Children's graves at Bukchon. Photo by Anne Hilty

The Bukchon massacres

On the morning of Dec. 15, 1948, there was an urgent call from the military in Bukchon Village, Jocheon-eup, for resi-dents to gather at Hamdeok military base at 10 a.m.. The military eased people’s fears by stating they had no malicious intent and the young and those who had contacted the refugees in the upland regions would not be harmed.

A total of 40 residents thus gathered and 16 were judged free to go, while the rest were detained at the base. At 4 p.m. the next day, rumors were heard that the detained were to be taken east. Then from the east, gunfire was heard. It seemed to go on forever. Everyone was overwhelmed with anxiety.

The people were standing out on the road and as the troops passed they pointed back eastward. The villagers ran in that direction and soon found the tragic site. The stone wall had fallen down and there were broken branches marking a trail across the field. The dead had no speech, but those branches were their last words.

The scene was indescribable, the field bloodied with 24 dead. Suddenly, a sound was heard: “Save me.” Having lost blood, the survivor was saved by being given one man’s urine for hydration. Shot in the thigh, it was a miracle Lee Sangyeong (Lee Hanjin’s father) had survived by hiding among the bodies and evading the soldiers as they searched for lingering life.

Why were these people executed and left to die on that December day? Merely for their refusal to participate in the general election held back in May. They feared the vote - not being held in the Soviet-administered North - would lead to the division of their country. However, the military accused them of supporting the North Korean Namro party, a shameful falsification.

There were many such young people who believed the nation should remain unified. There was a prophecy known at the time that if the election was not held in both North and South Korea, then the nation would forever be in historical regret. The Jeju people thus resisted the election. The issue was that simple!

The government accusations of the involvement of the North Korean Namro party were false and victimized uneducated illiterate people. How could they justify such murder and imprison innocent people? That winter, the winds of murder swept Jeju Island.

A few months later, on June 16, a mili-tary car was attacked by some of the fled hiding in the mid-mountain region. In retaliation police burned Bukchon Village to the ground.

All village residents, including women and children, were called to Bukchon Elementary School. The military killed the people right there and then took others to Neobeonsungyi and Dangbat before killing more.

On that very day, 300 people were killed. The total local victims during the April 3 period is assumed to be 450, according to research by Bukchon Village Elders’ Association. There were 300 households in our village at that time and the proj-ected total population was 1,000. Half of the population was sacrificed.

It is with hope that I remind people of this history more than 60 years later. To ensure peace and and justice, we must allow no distortion of history and establish truth for future generations.

The official interpretation of 4.3 has changed with each change in government. We of the April 3 Victims and Bereaved Families Association resolve to justly testify this history for all Jejuans, past, present and future.

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