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Trauma and healing: Jeju’s path toward full recovery
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승인 2013.04.02  20:28:09
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Locals seek out the names of relatives and friends on a memorial wall at the Jeju April 3rd Peace Park Photo by Douglas MacDonald

Jeju is a post-conflict society in active pursuit of healing.

The mid-20th century tragedy known as “4.3” (“sa-sam”) according to a significant anniversary date, was an era (1947-1954) filled with mass executions, decimation of entire villages by fire, refugee hideouts in caves and similar structures, unexplained disappearances, suspicion, betrayal, extended terror and generalized instability. While the details including culpability may never be fully revealed, it nonetheless represents a time of sustained and repeated trauma for all involved.

The battle for truth, justice, reparation and reconciliation is ongoing, bravely fought by activists, researchers, artists, writers, and survivors and their families. Indeed, it would be difficult to find any native person of Jeju who has not been directly or indirectly affected.

Across the nation, the term “healing” has suddenly and powerfully entered the cultural narrative, and while it is applied widely, it represents an awakening in the Korean psyche of insufficiently addressed emotional wounding.

Until quite recently, the concept of “healing” was deemed unfamiliar to Koreans. Today, it has exploded onto the national stage. Well-being, an earlier movement, is a concept that assumes a baseline of health. Found insufficient by many, the need to achieve the latter before the former becomes possible would now seem to be more widely understood.

In February, Jeju’s association for families of 4.3 victims and survivors organized a seminar to explore the need for a trauma center. Council member Kang Chang-il (Democratic United Party) is sponsoring a bill for the creation of such a facility.

Gwangju already has a trauma center, to address the post-traumatic symptomatology of those who were directly affected by the 1980 military massacre of pro-democracy activists. While it is not well funded, doesn’t have its own facility but exists in rented space, and is only now beginning to achieve adequate organization and treatment success, according to Oh Seung-kook, deputy secretary general of Jeju’s 4.3 Peace Foundation, it is a positive step and a model for Jeju.

Government funding at both national and provincial levels is required for such an undertaking, emphasized Oh.

Much is not yet realized about the nature of Jeju’s trauma, however. Not all trauma results in post-traumatic stress symptoms, as the acute phase typically passes within one to three months following the traumatic event. However, Type II trauma, sustained and/or involving multiple incidents, is especially difficult to resolve and more often results in lasting symptomatology.

The fact that a half-century of political suppression followed this period, to include government denial of culpability and criminalization of its discussion, as well as extension of victims’ “criminal” status to family members, served to fester this wound and prevent any true measure of healing.

The concepts of “victim” and “survivor” are also too narrowly applied, as traumatization extends well beyond those who were on the “front line” – directly affected physically and/or emotionally. The effects of trauma and terror reach also to those who were not present for actual events but who were secondarily affected, such as the family members of those killed or who disappeared.

Young children are especially vulnerable in a terror-filled environment, particularly those under the age of five, for whom brain development is highly susceptible to the influx of stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, norepinephrine, and others. This phenomenon, which negatively impacts the ability to form healthy relationships, results in emotional instability, and prevents the development of a core sense of safety and belief in a benevolent world, is often referred to as the “neurobiology of terror.” This profoundly affected age cohort can be found among those Jeju people now in their 60s.

Intergenerational transmission of trauma is another often poorly understood concept. Children reared by adults who suffered severe traumatization for which they were not treated, even if those children were not born until well after the event itself, suffer many of the same psychological symptoms as their parents and are prone to develop such disorders as depression, anxiety, social phobias, and substance abuse, among others.

A memorial to 4.3 Massacre victims at Jeju April 3rd Peace Park Photo courtesy Jeju April 3rd Peace Foundation


It is well known among researchers of post-conflict societies that the effects of war and other sustained traumas, such as that experienced by the people of Jeju, can take up to 100 years – five generations – to fully resolve.

Humans are resilient, even in the face of severe and sustained trauma. Resilience is the ability not only to survive extreme hardship but even to thrive in its aftermath. The people of Jeju, having faced multiple hardships for centuries, share a high degree of adaptability and a strong sense of community that has contributed to their survival.

With a history not only of hardship but of multiple invasions by others and perceived insults from the mainland and central government, the people of Jeju have formed and relied upon a strong bond with one another which has sustained them despite this severe and long-lasting rift in the fabric of their society.

Individual resilience, however, deteriorates with age, as researchers of Holocaust survivors have learned. A particularly vulnerable group on Jeju, in addition to those who were young children at the time of the traumatic events, are the “old-old” as they are known in the medical field. Those over 80 years of age who suffered trauma at an earlier time in life, yet were resilient and highly functioning subsequently, are known to experience latent post-traumatic symptoms with the breakdown of physical and cognitive-emotional health that often comes with advanced age.

The key feature of trauma symptomatology is a distortion of time. The past does not invade the present, in the form of memories that a person can’t escape, as is often thought. The past in fact, for the traumatized person, folds in on the present; that is, past traumatic events are experienced, consciously or unconsciously, as if they are occurring now, which can be extremely disabling.

The disruptions to Jeju society, to its sense of community and individual relationships, to the health of its elders including those who do not perceive themselves to be ‘survivors’ of this historic trauma, are ongoing and in need of greater understanding – and, healing.

Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist from New York. She now makes Jeju Island her home.

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