▲ The hangars lie in farmers' field in southwest Jeju. Aircraft flew from here to attack Chinese cities. Photo by Tamara Lang
On Aug 15 1937, the air around Moseulpo hummed as green and yellow Japanese aircraft touched down on the Altteureu Airfield at the base of Mt. Songaksan, Daejeong-eup, having just dropped 300 tons of bombs on the Chinese cities of Nanjing and Shanghai. The Japanese attack on Nanjing continued until winter, culminating in the massacre of 300,000 men, women, and children now known as “The Rape of Nanjing.”
Standing on the Altteureu Airfield under a cloud-swept sky on Dec 13 2014, the 77th anniversary of the massacre, the concrete aircraft hangars are little more than dark semi-circles among green fields. There is little sign that this farmland once served as the primary base for the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service in its aggression against China, leading 36 major air raids.
“We confess today that our land was used in the senseless killing of the Nanjing people” began a hangar-side memorial service as part of the 6th Annual Symposium for the Declaration on the Demilitarized Island of Peace. The day’s events were under the theme “Seeing Nanjing in China through the Altteureu Airfield in Jeju” and ended with a series of lectures on the same topic.
It had just started to hail as a spokesperson walked to the hangar to speak. He was from Gangjeong, a village on Jeju’s southern coast and the site of a planned naval base. The controversial plans have attracted fierce opposition from many local residents and international activists.
“We know how difficult it is to stop the construction of a military base,” he said. “If [a base] is built, it is the beginning of a long struggle.”
Poet Kim Suyeol read a tribute poem, followed by a song by Cho Sangdon. A community elder knelt before an impromptu shrine and read from a sheet of white paper. He told of the Jeju people who were forced to build the Altteureu Airfield in the 1930s, and those who had died in the process.
▲ A memorial ceremonial is held for the victims of Nanjing at Altteureu Airfield, Daejeong-eup. Photo by Tamara Lang
“I pray that the spirits of those who died in Nanjing be comforted by our small effort,” he said, dipping the paper in fire to send his prayer aloft.
Those in attendance stepped forward to lay flowers upon the shrine — 30 white flowers for the 300,000 victims in Nanjing.
Following the ceremony, attendees relocated to Moseulpo where lectures were held on the threat of militarization, thus linking the historical Altteureu with the modern-day Gangjeong.
Professor Seo Seung (Ritsumeikan University, Japan) spoke on “Nanjing Massacre and Japanese Militarism,” expressing fear that Jeju could become a militarized zone, particularly as it is “outside of the center,” areas traditionally militarized by great powers as is happening with the East China Sea. “Building a base,” he stressed, “means that you plan to use it.”
Alongside detailing the history of the Nanjing massacre, Seo expressed disappointment in right-wing government factions in Japan continuing to deny the massacre. “It is more than a historical event,” he concluded.
Following Seo, Professor Cho Seongyun (Jeju National University) presented “Nanjing in the history of Altteureu,” stressing the site’s role in the Japanese pioneering of long-distance air raids. Emily Wang, a peace activist from Taiwan, compared the differences in how Japan and China remember the events in “Seeing Nanjing from Gangjeong.”
Park Chan Sik, director of the April 3rd Peace Foundation truth-finding team, then looked to reconciliation through a demilitarized triangle of “peace islands” including Taiwan, Okinawa, and Jeju in “The Value of Peace in the History of Jeju.”
Park urged Jeju to return to a Tamna ideal with an autonomous identity and solidarity with other victimized areas, a reference to the Jeju Massacre of April 3 1948, which left an estimated 30,000 Jeju residents dead at the hands of the Korean military with US tacit support.
The lectures ended on a note of urgency as village leader Yang Gum Eun reminded the audience that the military still owns the abandoned airfield, and he himself had actively, and successfully, resisted its rebuilding 30 years ago. Another speaker concurred, pleading with the community to remain together and for the government to be honest about its intentions.
“After Gangjeong, Moseulpo will be next. It is our responsibility to protect this land.”
The symposium was organized jointly by People for the Demilitarized Jeju Island of Peace, the Solidarity for Islands of Peace Korean Committee, and the Gangjeong Peace School.
Special thanks go to Jae Young Lee, Director of the Korea Peacebuilding Institute(KOPI) for providing English interpretation.
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