On the 70th anniversary of the massacre, survivors and supporters still demand justice | By ZoominKorea staff and Martha Vickery (Fall 2018 issue)
On April 7, 2018, organizations seeking justice for the survivors and families of the April 3 Jeju Uprising and Massacre in 1948 held a press conference in front of the U.S. Embassy in Seoul.
Three groups —- the Association for the Bereaved Families of the April 3 Victims, the Memorial Committee for the 70th Anniversary of the Jeju April 3rd Uprising and Massacre, and the Pan-National Committee for the 70th Anniversary of Jeju April 3 —- organized the joint press conference to call on the U.S. to issue an official apology for the role of the U.S. Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) in the state repression and genocide that occurred over a seven-year period from 1947 to 1954.
An estimated 200 people including the families of victims, Jeju residents, and peace activists also demanded a full investigation of the U.S. military to uncover the truth on U.S. involvement in the massacre. They attempted to deliver a letter containing their demands to the U.S. Embassy but were turned away by the police guarding the building. They subsequently staged a sit-down protest in front of the building to demand the U.S. accept their letter.
Tuesday April 3, 2018 marked the 70th anniversary of the April 3 Jeju Uprising and Massacre. In April 1948, guerrilla fighters in the southern island of Jeju waged an armed struggle against the U.S.-backed Korean police and right-wing paramilitary groups. More than 30,000 Jeju residents —- 10 percent of the island’s population at the time —- died at the hands of government forces and right-wing paramilitary groups over the course of two years. At the time, the U.S. military occupied the southern half of the Korean Peninsula and controlled all police, military and government forces in the south.
The root of the April 3 Jeju Uprising can be traced back to Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonialism. After decades of struggle and resistance, the Korean people liberated themselves from Japanese colonial rule in August of 1945, only to be occupied again by foreign (U.S.) forces. The U.S. took control of the southern half. It decided to hold a separate election in the southern half to install its own candidate, Syngman Rhee, as president.
In the name of “democracy,” the U.S. decided to install a dictator through whom it could grow its influence in the region. Many disapproved of the U.S. intervention. There were protests which carried on the spirit of the liberation movement against colonial Japan. They challenged the U.S. plan to force the separate election in May of 1948.
The events of March 1, 1947
On the anniversary of the March 1st (1919) Movement to resist Japanese colonialism, residents of Jeju Island mobilized a rally to denounce the U.S.-planned election. In an attempt to control the dissidents, the police force fired indiscriminately into the crowd and killed six civilians, including a young child, a mother and her baby.
In response to the violence perpetrated by the U.S. military-controlled government, the Jeju Chapter of the South Korea Labor Party (SKLP) staged armed protests, burning down polling centers and attacking police stations. Jeju residents also staged general strikes targeting both private and state-owned companies. Over the next year, the U.S. military ordered the arrests of over 2,500 Jeju residents suspected of being communists.
U.S. anti-communism and right-wing extremism
The U.S. justified the suppression of dissidents in Jeju by framing it as a part of the “battle between democracy and communism.” It also enlisted the help of a violent, right-wing Korean paramilitary group called the Northwest Youth League. U.S. military advisers provided training and logistical support for the suppression of rebellions.
In late 1947, at the advice of American Counter-Intelligence Corps, anyone identified as leftist or sympathizing with communism was targeted as “terrorist” by the governor of Jeju Island and the Northwest Youth League. One unnamed former U.S. military adviser was quoted as saying, “My duty was to suppress the rebellion and wipe out the communists. We conducted several mop-up operations across Jeju Island.”
April 3, 1948 and beyond
The struggle of Jeju residents culminated in a mass rebellion on April 3, 1948. Guerrilla fighters of SKLP led the uprising against the police and right-wing paramilitary forces. They attacked police stations and burned down polling centers to prevent the election and denounce the U.S.-controlled government of Syngman Rhee. The SKLP Women’s League led residents into the mountains to keep them from being physically threatened by government forces to vote in the election.
In the early hours of April 3, 350 guerrilla fighters attacked 12 of the 24 police stations on Jeju Island. In the weeks leading up to the May 10 election, the guerrillas dismantled election offices and disrupted all communication about the election by cutting telephone lines and blocking access to roads and bridges. Due to their resilient efforts, the election result in Jeju was rendered null and void. Months later in July of 1948, however, Syngman Rhee was installed as the president of South Korea.
In response to the guerrilla opposition, the U.S. officially declared Jeju to be a “red island” and ordered all residents identified as associated with communists to be hunted down. This order was referred to as “the red hunt.” The struggle against the so-called “red hunt” was not a one-day ordeal. It lasted more than seven years, during which the police and right-wing paramilitary forces claimed tens of thousands of lives.
On November 17, just four months after taking office, Rhee declared martial law on Jeju Island. He then ordered the South Korean military to enact its “scorched earth” strategy against the guerrilla fighters who were still resisting the authority of the newly-formed South Korean government. The Rhee government deployed the martial law army and made a proclamation to the Jeju residents that anyone caught within the Chungsangan area would be identified as a “rioter” and killed immediately. In a five-month period, 95 percent of the Chungsangan Village was burned down, and the villagers who were able to survive and escape were forced to take refuge in the mountains.
The U.S. used anti-communist propaganda to justify its mass repression and genocide on Jeju Island. Its media conjured up baseless stories about Soviet influence behind the Korean uprising against U.S. military presence. In January of 1949, the New York Times published an article claiming that Soviet submarines were near Jeju Island to give aid to the so-called leftist rebellion. On April 9, 1949, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea John Muccio claimed Soviets infiltrated Jeju to wage “terrorist attacks.” There was no conclusive evidence, however, to back up such claim
Breaking 50 years of silence
For decades, the historical record of the Jeju Uprising and Massacre was buried deep along with stories of the thousands of people killed at the hands of the U.S.-backed right-wing South Korean police. More than 50 years later, South Korea passed a special law to mandate the government to investigate the truth behind the uprising/massacre. In 2003, former President Moo-hyun Roh issued an official apology to the people of Jeju: “Due to wrongful decisions of the government, many innocent people of Jeju suffered many casualties and destruction of their homes.”
The apology, however, has yet to be followed up with any substantive action that meets the demands of the families and supporters of the fallen victims. Organizations like the Association for the Bereaved Families of the April 3 Victims, the Pan-National Committee for the 70th Anniversary of Jeju April 3 Uprising and Massacre, and the Jeju Council have been at the forefront demanding justice and proper reparations from the parties responsible for the massacre. In October of 2017, they launched a petition campaign to gather 100,000 signatures to call on the U.S. to take responsibility for its role in the violent military repression against the people of Jeju.
According to The Hankyoreh newspaper, the Pan-Korean Committee on the 70th Anniversary of the Jeju April 3 Uprising and Massacre presented 10 demands, including; a government investigation of the massacre and the U.S. responsibility for it; reparations for victims, surviving families and communities; a law to identify and restore the honor of people imprisoned as a result of illegal trials; funding for preservation and maintenance of historical sites related to the Jeju uprising; funding and support for a system to collect reports on victims and surviving families; government support to discover and excavate remains of the mission; funding for an institution to help survivors and families heal from massacre-related trauma; a law to prevent defamation and misrepresentation of the uprising; and designation of an appropriate name for the uprising.
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Jeju Dark Tours promotes awareness
Tours happen all over Jeju Island, the southernmost island and honeymoon hotspot of Korea. Tour busses are lined up at all sorts of attractions from beaches to mountain parks, catering to a wide variety of tourists from many countries who come to see Jeju’s many natural resources and unique places.
Using tourism as a hook, a new non-profit human rights and advocacy organization is raising awareness of Jeju’s turbulent history of government oppression with a tour business called Jeju Dark Tours. It attracts youth groups, activists, human rights groups, journalists and other curious people who are interested in what happened to the Jeju people in the years after the division of Korea into North and South in 1948.
This year, April 3, 2018, was the 70th anniversary of the rebellion of the Jeju people against the repressive mainland government, which was backed by the U.S. military. Because of the anniversary, the history has recently gotten some extra attention.
The Jeju Dark Tours is the brainchild of Gayoon Baek, who founded the organization in 2017. An experienced organizer and advocate, Baek was engaged to work on resistance to the naval base in the Jeju village of Gangjeong for a large Korean watchdog organization. She was in Jeju frequently for some years, and began to learn more about what is commonly called “the April 3 events,” shorthand for the seven-year oppression of Jeju Islanders by the Korean military under U.S. command.
This era began with a shooting of civilians at a Korean Independence Day celebration (held March 1, 1947) and lasted through September of 1954. It was fueled by a Cold War-era mentality that turned violent, resulting in indiscriminate massacres, burning of whole villages, and other atrocities. Many were jailed without charge, some for years.
An anti-Communist law in South Korea, known as the National Security Law, kept Jeju people from openly advocating for justice for many years. Under the National Security Law, anyone who sympathizes with North Korea was subject to criminal prosecution. Since the Jeju Islanders who fought back were viewed officially as pro-Communist, their family members feared they would be prosecuted if they spoke out. The National Security Law helped the government to keep this history quiet for many years.
Providing materials in English is also part of Jeju Dark Tours services. A free booklet and map brochure are available in English, telling the story and listing important sites. The English language brochure has a map on one side, and a photo and description of 49 different historical sites on the reverse.
Jeju Dark Tours also offers lectures at various locations on mainland South Korea to educate the public on the April 3 events, in conjunction with other non-profit organization. Earlier this year, she said, Baek lectured in Seoul and will have a similar lecture in the city of Suwon. In 2019, educational lectures were held in Busan and Gwangju, according to Baek.
Baek developed contacts on Jeju prior to founding her organization, and has built trust with the network of bereaved families. They needed her, she said, because they needed an English speaking advocate to work on their behalf to discuss the issue with the U.S. government, and present their demands for an official apology for the U.S. role in the human rights violations perpetrated on the Jeju people.
The bereaved families are not yet prepared to make official demands of the U.S. government, Baek said. There needs to be more public awareness of the Jeju Island families. “Another problem is that there are not many documents in English, and some of the facts on those documents are wrong,” she said. Few accounts in English exist about this era of Jeju Island history —- Baek was responsible for translating one of the few accounts available in English.
Beyond the problem of documentation, explaining the U.S. involvement in the Jeju uprising and government suppression is a challenge. “It’s very complicated. It went on for seven years, and seven months. Obviously, it’s very difficult to explain it in one or two sentences.” The bereaved families need a summarized version of the issue, and they need a specific demand to make of the U.S. government before presenting their case to the U.S. embassy, she said.
The best possible outcome, Baek said, would be widespread recognition of the U.S. involvement in the Jeju massacre and suppression, such as the recognition of American military accountability for the attack at the village of No Gun Ri. The Associated Press implicated the U.S. military in attacking civilians who were in retreat, and firing into a tunnel where they were hiding.
The organization wass barely a year old in 2018, and Baek still had two years left of a three-year start-up grant to get the organization on its feet. They are also relying on memberships, as many Korean organizations do, to supply operating funds. She is hoping that using the tourist trade to spread public awareness of Jeju Island history, and the revenues from tours to fund the other aspects of the organization will be a winning business model.
The Dark Tours are more than just tours, Baek believes. “The reason I started the Dark Tours was because I think it is an important part of peace education and human rights education. It is part of a movement.”
Check out Jon Letman’s feature story on the 75th anniversary of the Jeju Uprising.
Martha Vickery is a long-time professional journalist and long-time amateur Korea watcher, co-founder of Korean Quarterly, and editor since its founding in 1997. She has raised three now-adult children, two of whom are adopted from Korea, with the help of the Korean American community in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area.