▲ Prime Minister Jeong Hongwon (far right) delivered the government address and Ahn Cheol Soo (second from left) was also in attendance. Photo by Douglas MacDonald.
More of Douglas MacDonald's images can be viewed here.
Markers of nationhood were everywhere, most obviously in the national flag, the taegukgi, poking out between milky pink cherry blossoms on the avenues leading to April 3 Peace Park. At the ceremony itself, mourners gave a rousing rendition of the national anthem, aegukga, bringing tears to many mourners’ eyes. When the flag was raised, all stood in salute, hands on hearts.
The message was one of unity and national mourning on the day of the first ever April 3 National Memorial Day, after its designation on March 25 by Park Geun-hye. The only thing missing was the president herself, after she disappointed mourners with her absence, despite intimations she would attend.
The designation had given hope that Park would be the first Korean president to attend since Roh Mu-hyun in 2003, who gave the first official apology for the state’s role in a conflict that left up to 30 thousand dead between 1947 and 1954, known as April 3 or 4.3 (“sa-sam”).
April 3 marks the day in 1948 on which a number of police stations were attacked by left-wing political groups in response to police and military aggression. March 1, 1947, is often cited as the actual conflict spark, when a child died after being hit by a police horse. In the run up to the May 1948 general election violence had again flared after locals refused to participate, fearing it would divide the nation.
The incidents escalated tensions and an island-wide conflict between guerrillas and the Korean military raged until 1954, with the dead estimated at up to 30 thousand, the bulk of whom were innocent villagers. 80 percent of the killings were committed by state forces, reports the Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation.
▲ Representatives of Korea's major faiths paid their respects at the memorial service. Photo by Douglas MacDonald
The victims were silenced for decades. Their voices only began to be heard after President Chun Doo-hwan was forced from office by the June Democracy Movement in 1987 and the first official 4.3 memorial day was held on April 3, 1989.
Jeju people are thus used to government distance on the matter, yet the current president was expected after the recent national designation. The mood was not one of disappointment however, and Prime Minister Jeong Hongwon delivered her words, stressing the importance of national unity and togetherness.
“Today’s memorial service is a ... significant leap towards Korea’s hopeful future. Henceforth, we expect to push forward developing Jeju as northeast Asia’s most loved peace island ... The government endeavors to support reconciliation efforts in a spirit of harmony and coexistence to spread throughout the nation,” he said.
The national designation had buoyed the mood somewhat, despite the somber occasion. The focus on national unity and coexistence was reinforced as the mourners rose to give a rendition of “Beautiful Country.” As hundreds stood and sang, they asked rhetorically, “Am I not happy, born in this beautiful land of abundant dreams? Am I not happy, born in this land of wide seas and blue skies?”
Clouds did give way at times to allow those blue skies to burst forth, bringing into sharp contrast the perennial black arch towering over the altar and congregation. In stark white script was written, “Dark history, by the light of history ... overcoming conflict with coexistence and harmony.” Below, the rows of plastic seats - nearly all occupied by mourners in their 60s, 70s and 80s - were surrounded by white tents representing villages from across the island.
▲ A mourner looks down at a memorial plaque at the Jeju April 3rd Peace Park. Photo by Douglas MacDonald
The mourners had mostly arrived in groups defined by school, hometown, family and other roots of identity. Having paid their own respects for nearly seven decades, the government’s full recognition had ended “a long wait,” a phrase heard often. The relief was palpable as President Jeong Mun-hyeon of the Jeju 4.3 Victims and Bereaved Association made his address.
“Respected President Park Geun-hye, thank you, so, so much! The victims of this tragedy must have been waiting so long for this ... Seeing [the progress in 4.3 reconciliation] I think this is a huge turning in the history of 4.3. Henceforth, we must ensure that future generations do not suffer a repeat of this hurt,” he said.
Jeju Governor Woo Keun-min was also present and hoped the government’s handling of 4.3 reconciliation could become a model. He also pledged further effort for the victims and bereaved, stating the government’s full commitment to pursuing “tangible [reconciliation] measures to honor victims.” He closed poignantly, “The nation has fallen silent. The heavy load has been put to eternal rest.”
Not for all, however. As the dignitaries laid wreaths and lit incense at the altar, many among the seated rose to seek out the names of loved ones among the memorial plaques, lined up in their hundreds to the rear, shining with a black marble finish.
Generations of families kneeled as they located their relatives’ plaques. Rice cake was drawn from backpacks and placed as offerings to the souls of the departed. Many wept while others said prayers. Others walked alone, hands clasped and heads bowed.
It was a reminder that despite the welcome progress that the national designation represents, for a history as painful as 4.3, true unity and reconciliation may always be one step beyond.
▲ A family leave offerings for a loved one at the Jeju April 3rd Peace Park. Photo by Douglas MacDonald
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