Go Wan-soon won’t forget the day the soldiers came. Then nine years old, she was sitting in her home in the seaside village of Bukchon when troops burst in. Go, her mother and three-year-old brother were herded outside at bayonet point. Houses were going up in flames. They were dragged to the yard of the elementary school, which was ringed by soldiers.
“It was crowded, full of people,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘Why so many? What is it?’” Many people, she noticed, were holding hands.
Fearfully, Go sat behind a low wall. When her little brother wailed, a soldier smashed him over the head with a stick. “He went very silent.” Then Go heard the ripping sound of automatic gunfire. People toppled to the ground.
She “crawled like an ant” through a nightmare. “I saw a bloody leg, I saw a baby on top of a mother’s breast, looking for milk, but the mother was already dead,” she said. “Heads were separated, all the bodies were mixed together, the soil was dark with blood – it shone in the sun.”
Go sheltered in a narrow street. “All the houses were burning, ashes were flying around,” she said. An old woman sat in front of her blazing home, her hair on fire. Soldiers appeared. Go heard the click of rifle bolts, then a jeep pulled up. A voice ordered, “Cease fire!”
The troops departed. The village had been attacked in revenge for the death of two soldiers, killed nearby in an ambush by partisans.
In the smoldering ruins, “bodies lay scattered like radishes in a field,” Go said. Among the dead lay her aunt, breasts and belly ripped open by bayonets.
She was instructed to cover cadavers with blankets “so crows would not peck out their eyes.” Go, now 79, paused in her account. “When I remember, it breaks my heart.”
In the months that followed, there were more traumas. Her uncle “disappeared” – she heard soldiers had tied rocks to his body and hurled him into the sea. Her little brother died from the after-effects of his head wound. Go almost died of starvation in the ruins.
And at night, she heard of spectral encounters. “People said they saw a white skirt, a white top – there were ghosts,” she said. “I could not go to some places, I was so scared.”
Bukchon was, in fact, just a small part of a much wider tragedy. Goh is one of the last witnesses to what Koreans today call “Sa-Sam” (literally “4:3” or April 3rd), the biggest – but probably least known – massacre in recent Korean history. Up to 30,000 people were killed on Jeju Island amid a murderous counter-insurgency campaign in 1948-49, prior to the Korean War, which started in June 1950.
Black secrets of a sunlit paradise
This gruesome history is not known by most of the millions of Chinese who visit Jeju (also spelled Cheju), 80 kilometers off South Korea’s south coast, with visa-free access, or the South Korean honeymooners who flock here.
Dubbed “the Hawaii of Korea,” Jeju is famed for its sparkling water, women divers and picturesque dormant volcano, Mount Halla. It welcomes visitors with brochures advertising mazes, a dinosaur theme park, a “Hello Kitty” museum – even a museum of eroticism. Few visitors are aware that Jeju International Airport’s runway was paved over a mass grave.
Today, President Moon Jae-in spoke at a ceremony on the island to mark the 70th anniversary of the uprising, the massacre, and the decades-long cover-up.
“Despite the lingering tragedy and deep sorrows that have led to tears, spring will blossom here in Jeju like late blossoms in full bloom,” he told a crowd of thousands. “You have not forgotten the incident… we are overcoming the time of silence.”
A message of reconciliation from Pope Francis was also read out.
In 1945, Korea was divided by the USA and the USSR following the defeat of Imperial Japan. In the South, UN-mandated elections were scheduled for May 1948 against considerable opposition; both Labor Party leftists and some nationalists resisted on the grounds that elections would reinforce division. In a demonstration in Jeju on March 1, a child was trampled by police and six demonstrators shot. A general strike spurred hundreds of arrests.
On April 3, 1948 – the date from which the subsequent conflagration takes its name – 500 to 700 partisans attacked police outposts island-wide. Some had ties to North Korea; others were aggrieved at local misgovernance. So significant are the day’s events that in “The War for Korea, 1945-50” (2005, University of Kansas Press) US military historian Allan Millett considers 4:3 the start of the Korean War. The conventional date, however, is 25 June 1950, when North Korea invaded South Korea.
In response, Seoul deployed police, troops and – most notoriously – the “Northwest Youth Corps,” a paramilitary manned by fanatical Christians who had been forced to flee North Korea. Adding to the distrust, some troops deserted and joined partisans in the hills.
With the line between combatants and non-combatants blurred, a “Red hunt” was unleashed across Jeju’s 700 square miles. The population was herded into coastal villages protected by militias with bamboo spears; Jeju’s rugged interior became a free-fire zone. On this killing ground, subject to scorched-earth tactics, people hid from sweeps in volcanic caves and tunnels. There, in claustrophobic blackness, they were hunted by troops using thermite grenades. Villages were razed. Bloodied bodies of dead partisans were displayed in public. Many of those captured were shipped to mainland prisons, never to return.
Only in the campaign’s final stages were amnesties offered and aid distributed. Seoul declared victory in April 1949, but there were more killings ahead. Hundreds of leftists were shot in 1950 in the early stage of the Korean War, in “preventative execution.” Jeju officials today estimate a total butcher’s bill of 25-30,000 dead – 10% of the island’s population, a fifth of them women.
Cover-up, remembrance and reconciliation
Members of the Northwest Youth Group settled on Jeju, establishing churches and communities; some became senior figures in the police and politics. And under military governments in Seoul, what happened on the “Red Island” was suppressed for decades. A memorial raised by islanders to their dead was destroyed in the 1960s. In 1978 a sympathetic novel about the massacre was published, but withdrawn shortly after and its author imprisoned.
Anyone connected to partisans was ostracized. “I could not get a job, I could not speak out,” said Go, the massacre survivor. “Everyone thought Bukchon people were communists: I had to give up all my dreams.”
Bereaved families were silent. “It is very easy, even today, to blame someone saying, ‘You are a communist, you are pro-North Korea!’” said Kim Eun-hee, head of research at the Jeju 4:3 Peace Memorial. “If anyone was related to the uprising, they could not get a job; if you were the bereaved family members of police or army, it was different.”
It was only after democratization in 1987 that a Jeju newspaper was able to start an investigation. Books, films and TV dramas followed. Finally, liberal president Roh Moo-hyun visited Jeju and delivered an apology in 2003.
Today, some 109 civic groups, funded largely by the island’s local government, research, excavate remains and commemorate the killings. The Jeju 4:3 Peace Memorial was raised in 2000. It includes a domed shrine with names of the dead, plus 4,000 graves of those lost in prisons on the mainland, and a museum.
Even today, the extent of the killings remains little known; many still find it hard to break the habit of years gone by and speak out. “A Korea History for International Readers” (Humanist, 2010) by the Association of Korean History Teachers devotes entire chapters to Japanese colonial atrocities; yet the Korean-on-Korean killings on Jeju merit one line.
“Not many people know what happened on this island 70 years ago,” said Yang Yoon-kyung, chairman of the 60,000-member Association of Bereaved Families. “This pains us.”
Across Jeju, there is an almost desperate urge to inform the world. Last month, a restaurateur refused payment for drinks, imploring a visiting reporter to write the story. “Please let people know,” pleaded Kim.
Still, there are contradictory narratives about “4:3.”
While some partisans certainly had North Korean connections, Jeju tour guides label them pan-Korean nationalists. Go, the massacre survivor, is even-handed. “During the day, the soldiers and police bullied us,” she said. “At night, the armed resistance came down and bullied us.”
The numbers killed are questioned by some. Millett, in his history, cites census figures between 1946 (233,445) and 1949 (253,164) which actually show a rise in the island’s population. But even Millett concedes that the peace won was “Carthaginian” – a reference to the city famously annihilated by Rome.
There are no surviving partisans: Only a handful escaped to Japan. The victors – those who did the killing – never confessed and were never punished for their excesses. “Not a single person has spoken up from the police or paramilitaries,” Kim said. “Maybe they are ashamed.”
Still, there have been reconciliatory moves between representatives of victims and the security forces. “Every year, we meet and we pay respects at different memorial parks; we go together,” said Han Ha-young, chairman of the Jeju City branch of the Bereaved Families Association. “The police officers were also victims.”
Younger people dispute this. “Deep inside their hearts, they still hate each other,” said Kim. “We are very uncomfortable with the word ‘reconciliation,’” a tour guide admitted.
While no US troops were directly engaged, the April uprising started under the US Military Government in Korea, which held power from September 1945 to August 1948. US officers – though critical of the Jeju governor – advised and supplied South Korean forces and praised counter-insurgency operations, while US vessels patrolled the waters, intercepting insurgents boats.
“I feel that the US government was heavily responsible for this, it happened during the US military government,” said Yang Jo-hoon, chairperson of the Jeju 4-3 Peace Foundation. “Now is the moment to ask the US for responsibility.”
Members of the Bereaved Families Association have met US academics, researchers and individual senators, but were advised to make Jeju a government-government issue. To this end, the foundation is collecting 100,000 signatures for a petition to present to US officials.
However, Moon, in his remarks today, made no mention of the US role or responsibility.
Survivors of the “4:3 incident” are passing, but 70 years later, still bear psychological scars. “We have depression, we are traumatized,” Go said. Recalling the post-massacre lack of food, she said, “I still cannot bear it when my stomach is empty – I feel scared.”
In Bukchon – known as “The Village with No Men” after the massacre – body-sized black stones are crafted in a memorial artwork. It includes a rough, rock sculpture of a dead, nursing mother. A more intimate monument of black stone erected to commemorate the dead children stands in a copse of pines where the wind blows in from the sea. Visitors have placed sweets and toys in its recesses.
In her twilight years, Go finds some contentment in the monuments and freedom to speak. “This is the peak of my life: I am happy I can speak up about those killed souls,” she said. “Now, I am ready to die in front of you.”