Emanuel Pastreich spoke on the importance of storytelling to societal healing. Photo courtesy Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation
What is the spirit of Jeju 4.3? Among a panel of artists, writers, and filmmakers at the Jeju 4.3 Peace Forum Roundtable on Friday, Oct 30, the answer for survivor and poet Kang Joong-hoon was simple and succinct.
Jeju 4.3 survivor Kang Joong-hoon.
Photo courtesy Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation
“The desire to live. We were only able to live through the strength that Jeju 4.3 gave us,” he said.
Kang lost his father, three brothers, grandfather and grandmother in the massacre and fled to Seoul in despair at 17 years of age.
Malnourished and selling newspapers on the capital’s streets, he was then attacked by a gang moving in on his patch.
The lessons of Jeju 4.3 swiftly returned as his mother whispered in his ear.
“I fought back, but with love. My mother always taught me never to take sides. She said we should forgive and reconcile with our enemies.”
Panelists tour the Peace Park grounds.
Photo by Eric Hevesy
After returning to Jeju, and the warmth of the family home, Kang eventually found solace in the pen and poetry, using it to reach out to others in pain.
Such magnanimity is the mission of all post-conflict societies, and the assembly at Jeju 4.3 Peace Park, organized by World Culture Open, looked at the special role of arts and culture in forging such a path in a session titled “Jeju 4.3 Incident, Communicating Through Culture.”
The panelists, from France, the UK, the US, Cambodia, Japan and Korea, spent the morning touring the grounds of Jeju 4.3 Peace Park, and learning about the conflict that killed up to 30,000 islanders between 1947-54 in the name of anti-Communism.
The conflict left deep divisions in Jeju society and, despite a presidential apology and official investigation report in 2003, it has been dubbed “the unfinished conflict” due to weak reconciliation.
Emanuel Pastreich (left) walks with Michael Breen (center) and Jeju Weekly editor Darren Southcott. Photo by Eric Hevesy
In contrast to the somber tour, the afternoon’s spirit was then captured by French artist Kim Keum-suk, whose graphic novel of O Muel’s award-winning 4.3 movie, Jiseul, was released earlier this year.
Author and roundtable host Kwon Yoon-duck gave the floor to Kim after the coffee break, and she spontaneously burst into a chorus of pansori, traditional Korean folk song. Her deep chords reverberated across the hall and gleaming smiles banished any remaining tension.
Kim Keum-suk (center) cheered up proceedings with a chorus of traditional song. Photo courtesy World Culture Open
This was the power of art at its most tangible, yet much of the discussion was at the more abstract level, looking at culture’s role in healing and building a shared conception of truth from which to reconcile.
Artist Kim, whose graphic novel retains the dark humor of the movie, added that it was important to interpret history in a humanist way, while also dealing with anger and pain.
American Emanuel Pastreich on a day of sadness
and happiness. Photo by Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation
Emanuel Pastreich, American academic and author of ‘Another Korea That Only Koreans Don't Know,’ also stressed that we cannot rely on fact-finding to engage people with history. Storytelling, he said, is indispensable to connect with the human psyche.
“Through storytelling you start to understand the story from the bottom up … and it will grow from there. You guys are artists, reporters, and painters, and from this you can develop a story that can be related to other people and the general public.”
Many sharing the stage with Pastreich were involved in such storytelling.
Filmmaker Sakai Atsuko. Photo courtesy
Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation
Japanese filmmaker Sakai Atsuko, who filmed a documentary on the late Jeju-based artist Lee Jung-seop, agreed that imagination was the key to not only art, but mutual understanding.
Jeju-born poet and former editor of the Jemin Daily newspaper, Heo Yeong Sun said her work interviewing 4.3 survivors helps to “heal unhealed wounds,” and she echoed Sakai in saying the process of storytelling is cathartic, even for non-victims.
“No one knows the essence of 4.3, but through my stories I try to educate others. Many were sacrificed and their names were hidden … They suffered beyond imagination.
A single poem, picture or movie can touch the hearts of people more than a thousand words,” she said.
British author Michael Breen.
Photo courtesy Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation
Most of the talk was of victims, but British former journalist and author Michael Breen emphasized that truth is always contested, and we must be prepared to listen to all versions of it, even when that challenges the established narrative.
“There is the government truth, but I think there is another truth which is everyone’s truth. The government cannot control that, and we have to hear viewpoints we don’t like to hear,” he said.
In doing this, Breen added, victims and perpetrators can be brought together in dialogue, from which some kind of shared narrative can emerge.
The panel was in agreement that arts and culture have a key role in building the platform for such narrative construction.
Cambodian Phloeun Prim was present to share his experience as executive director of Cambodian Living Arts.
Cambodian Phloeun Prim. Photo courtesy
Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation
Prim supports young leaders in Cambodian arts and culture to safeguard the nation’s heritage that was almost lost to the Khmer Rouge (1974-79). The regime targeted artists and intellectuals in an attempt to silence “the voice of the people,” he said.
At 3 years of age, Prim was carried to safety by his mother. Despite having no memory of his ordeal, he said that future generations also need healing because “they are affected by their parents’ trauma.”
“We use arts and culture to give back identity to the people... We want them to express themselves and not be closed off. It is really important to look at how culture and the arts can express what happened and heal,” he said.
While the panel recognized the importance of a cultural platform for engaging with painful memories, Pastreich said that its limits should also be recognized.
Panelists contemplate the statue of mother and child in the Jeju 4.3 Peace Park grounds. Photo by Eric Hevesy
“We cannot get rid of all the pain. That is not the goal. The important thing is that we learn.”
Survivor Kang, who earlier said “a tear was a luxury” during his youth, asked for professional historians to continue their search for the truth, but asked for society to find a way to move on.
“We should not forget about this incident, but at the same time we should not be too obsessed. We should forgive and reconcile,” he said.
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