▲ One of the many displays at the 4.3 Peace Park. Photo by Justin Nalepa
Mention 4.3, or the Jeju Uprising, to most non-Koreans and it is likely you will be met with blank stares, yet between 1947 and 1954 a conflict was fought on Jeju Island which officially claimed at least 25,000 lives and created 60,000 refugees. (Some researchers believe the true number of fatalities was as high as 80,000.) A third of the then 300,000 Jeju people were either killed or fled. More than half of the 400 villages on the island at the time were destroyed, with only 170 spared.
Discussion of the 4.3 events within Korea has been muted and beset by the polarization characteristic of post-war civilian atrocities in South Korea. Even now, internal ideological division often preempts objective analysis of the tragedy. So what light, if any, can foreign scholars shed on the conflict?
George Katsiaficas, a professor of Humanities and Social Science at Wentworth Institute of Technology, Boston, believes, at the least, that foreign scholars can encourage a U.S. reassessment of its role in the conflict. Katsiaficas believes it was U.S. strategic interests, rather than left-wing insurgency, that were the primary drivers behind the eventual murder of up to a tenth of the Jeju population.
“The muted media coverage of the massacre was not limited to Korea, with U.S. authorities suppressing knowledge of the events,” Katsiaficas said. “An academic colleague of mine was even accused of fabricating the events, such is the ignorance.”
The conflict itself lasted eight long years, yet the most infamous date is April 3, 1948. On this day, Jeju “people’s committees” launched an insurgency against the aggression of local police units and extremist forces, which came under U.S. command.
Over the subsequent years, rape, torture and murder were all employed to terrorize Jeju and the 400 or so insurgents, who were armed primarily with bamboo spears and antique rifles.
A scorched-earth policy was employed by the military -with extremist Northwest Youth League and police assistance -laying waste to all life in the island’s interior. The scarcity of trees on Jeju’s many oreum is an ominous testimony to the dead.
Jeju residents, both young and old, were burnt out from their villages, leaving a wasteland of corpses from the sandy beaches to the caves of Halla Mountain. It is hard to imagine such brutality on today’s honeymoon island.
“The massacre could only have been carried out with the active knowledge and collaboration of the U.S. military, who maintained direct control over military operations south of the 38th parallel,” Katsiaficas said. “Even after control had been officially relinquished, U.S. control was the reality on the ground.”
Katsiaficas believes that the Jeju Uprising should be seen as part of wider U.S. strategic aims to consolidate power in the region and to build military bases against perceived threats from Russia and China. Comparisons with similar events in Taiwan are elucidating.
“To seize Taiwan in 1947, U.S. forces aided in the slaughter of 20,000 indigenous Taiwanese, whose bodies were thrown to the sea or left to rot in the fields. U.S. policy-makers applied the lessons learnt to Jeju Island,” Katsiaficas said.
The scholar is adamant that had the U.S. public been aware of such mass slaughter, there would have been a heavy political price to pay.
“Awareness-raising is one of the most important aspects of foreign scholarship on the Jeju Uprising. To stop the killings becoming a footnote of history it is imperative the U.S. confronts [its] past military aggression.”
On the ground, U.S. complicity was shadowy, with atrocities largely carried out by Northwest Youth League henchmen, and the hated remnants of Japanese collaboration. The U.S., however, with military control below the 38th parallel, has to assume the ultimate responsibility.
“In 1945, even the most cynical New Yorker would not have entertained the idea that the American military would be responsible for the massacre of tens of thousands of innocent islanders, after the end of WWII. I continue to be ashamed of U.S. brutality,” Katsiaficas said.
He is scornful of the scant regard paid to Jeju history and tradition by the world superpower, but believes the strength of the Jeju people can overcome the tragedy and even challenge the increasing militarization of the newly branded “Island of World Peace.”
“Unfortunately, Jeju’s own matrifocal history and unique past remain marginalized factors even today, but if the Jeju people can resist South Korean military designs on building a naval base on the island it will be a shining example of peace and freedom to the world,” Katsiaficas said.
The scholar is under no illusions about U.S. complicity in what is often portrayed as a local uprising, but despite the suppression of Jeju identity under the megalith of Cold War ideology, he believes there is still hope for reparations and sovereignty.
“There is a strong movement for peace on Jeju Island and it shows we must look beyond blame, to reconciliation. How-ever, this is only possible if there is a frank acknowledgement of the past, from all sides,” he concluded.
Only the years to come will determine the lasting legacy of the Jeju Uprising, but for the sake of true reconciliation and the thousands of Jeju people who were murdered, Katsiaficas believes all sides must work together to build a peaceful future for the island and the region as a whole.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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