Michael Breen says reconciliation needs to go beyond the ceremonial to be meaningful. Photo courtesy Jeju Special Self-Governing Province
Jeju 4.3 remains a defining chapter in Jeju history and society.
Although the conflict had already simmered for over a year, April 3, 1948, lives in infamy as the date on which local police stations were attacked by left-wing groups.
Islanders say that the “rebels” were not Communists, as claimed by the authorities, but locals protesting against state violence, injustice, and extreme poverty.
In the ensuing state crackdown, which lasted until 1954, as many as 30,000 people are thought to have died as the military left a legacy of murder, rape and razed villages.
Punitive anti-Communist youths from the mainland committed many of the atrocities as they harried the armed groups across the island’s hinterland. Innocent villagers fell victim to both.
The conflict left deep scars in Jeju society as survivors were harassed and labeled “red.” In the authoritarian decades that followed, any discussion of the massacre was silenced by the state.
Despite the official Jeju April 3 Incident Investigation Report published in 2004, true reconciliation has still not been achieved.
Time to talk
Michael Breen wants to see victims and perpetrators
brought face to face. Photo courtesy Michael Breen
A roundtable discussion organized by World Culture Open at the 5th Jeju 4.3 Peace Forum seeks to contribute to such reconciliation on Oct 30.
Michael Breen, journalist and author of ‘The Koreans’, joins artists and filmakers on a special panel to discuss 'Seeing Jeju 4.3 Through Culture'.
In discussion with The Weekly ahead of the event, The Korea Times columnist said that truth is essential for genuine repentance.
“For repentance to take place, the truth must be uncovered, and the guilty must reach the point where they ask for forgiveness,” said the former correspondent for The Guardian, The Times and The Washington Post.
“It is important to accept that they [the perpetrators], too, have pain that needs to be released for them to get to this point. It may be guilt. It may be their own sense of victimhood,” he said.
During the conflict, most of upland Jeju was treated as enemy territory and state forces destroyed as many as 84 villages. Armed rebels also preyed upon mountain communities, and many families were split along ideological lines.
Breen says the massacre was then “swallowed into silence” by the Korean War, as well as fear, survivor guilt, and the need to “get on with life.”
The Englishman added that, after people were forced to “repress the pain” for so long, reconciliation requires balance between “the legal issues on one side, and the ceremonial aspects of healing on the other.” Once this is achieved, victims and perpetrators can be brought together for true healing and forgiveness.
“Just having a prime minister light some incense doesn’t do anything,” he said.
Moving beyond blame
Although Breen sees a weakening of the entrenched social divisions of the past, the movement for truth itself can be divisive, as old wounds — and ideological conflicts — are reopened.
When seeking true reconciliation for historical injustice, he says, we must look beyond blaming Park Chung-hee, collaborators, the Left or Right, or foreign powers, and recognize “what was bad in society as a whole.”
This includes challenging the nationalist myth of the “innocent Korean,” he said, and recognizing Koreans suffered more “at the hands of their fellow Koreans” post-liberation than under four decades of Japanese occupation.
By facing this hard truth with “integrity and honesty,” and being less “nationalistically attached to history,” society will see injustices “through the lens of democracy and civil rights,” the core values of the modern Korean state.
“It is very difficult for Koreans to come to terms with the unpleasantness of recent history, and it will continue to be difficult for as long as we hold on to the myth that Koreans have historically been the innocent victims of other powers.”
Michael Breen will talk on the subject of “Seeing Jeju 4.3 Through Culture” at the 5th Jeju 4.3 Peace Forum Roundtable at 2-5pm, Friday, Oct 30 at the Jeju 4.3 Peace Memorial Hall, Jeju 4.3 Peace Park.
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