My article, reprinted from Yonhap News Agency, 01 April 2011:
By Anne Hilty
JEJU ISLAND, South Korea, April 1 (Yonhap) – As April 3 approaches, the people of Jeju Island are compelled to remember dark times and renew their commitment to peace.
Referred to locally as “Sa-sam,” literally “4-3,” it marks the anniversary of a violent incident on Jeju that sparked a six-year period of anti-communist conflict throughout South Korea.
In 1948, following the 36-year Japanese colonial rule, the Korean Peninsula was in turmoil as pro-American and pro-Soviet political forces jockeyed for control. U.N. mediation recommended peninsula-wide elections for a unified government. The U.S.-backed southern region held unilateral elections following a boycott by the Soviet-backed north.
Jeju citizens also boycotted the elections. The government in Seoul deemed the affair seditious. In Jeju, it was viewed as a protest against the division of Korea.
Debate over the ideology of that time rages on.
On April 3, 1948, a group of Jeju residents, reportedly agitated by “pro-North Korean villagers” and labeled as “communist rebels,” attacked local police stations and government offices. Police responded forcefully, which resulted in the deaths of many civilians accused of sympathizing with the protesters.
Local police and national military forces then began a period of suppression now officially deemed “excessive.” An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people, about 10 percent of Jeju’s population at that time, were killed over the next six years. Many of those victims are believed to be innocent civilians, executed after being labeled “Red.”
Throughout South Korea, some 200,000 to 300,000 civilians died at the hands of military and police forces during the period after being ostracized as pro-North Korea, and mass graves are still being excavated.
Decades later, the pain of Sa-sam still runs deep.
60th anniversary of April 3 incident marked at Peace Park on Jeju Island. (Photo provided by Koh Gill-chun)
For Jeju, this is one of the most defining events of modern society, representing a profound cultural wound. The community strives even today to uncover the truth, achieve justice and realize some measure of healing.
“The traditional culture of Jeju disappeared at that time. We are still struggling to fully recover people’s minds,” according to Oh Seung-kook, researcher and deputy secretary general of the Jeju 4.3 Peace Park established in 2008.
Jeju, a volcanic island of 1,845 square kilometers, has a complicated history of multiple invasions and conflict leading up to the period, creating in its people a deep suspicion of outsiders that was strengthened by the events of Sa-sam.
“The collective memory of Jeju regarding these events is one of distrust toward others and an increased insularity,” said Kim Yu-jeong, a noted Jeju-born social critic.
Details of that era continue to emerge today in ongoing research and activist efforts. Some of its themes are being played out again, in a protest over the construction of a naval base in Gangjeong Village.
For four years villagers, joined by island and peninsular activists, have resisted the central government’s plans.
The central government has given 7.8 billion won (US$7 million) in compensation to village residents and proposes to build an “eco-friendly” naval base as well as a tourism port. But villagers remain conflicted over the issue and protests continue.
“Many people here connect the current struggle against the naval base to the Jeju 4.3 Uprising,” reported prominent political activist Choi Sung-hee.
The routine presence of military personnel in uniform, according to principles of trauma psychology, can present a “trigger” to “re-traumatize” the already deeply traumatized people of Jeju.
“It is nothing but systematic violence that cannot stand together with the Peace Island, and a behavior that dishonors the Sa-sam spirits,” stated Gangjeong mayor Kang Dong-Kyun in a recent press conference.
Kang was referring to the central government’s 2005 declaration identifying Jeju as an “Island of World Peace.”
Residents of Jeju protest government plans to build naval base on the island. (Photo provided by Choi Sung-hee)
As explained by Han Tae-kyu, president of the International Peace Institute located on Jeju, this term refers to a goal for Jeju to become “a mecca for world peace with a focus on East Asian concerns; it has nothing to do with Sa-sam or the naval base issue.”
“We want to develop Jeju as a center of international relations,” conveyed Yu Ji-eun, ambassador adviser for international relations, “to help build relationships with our neighbors and with countries throughout the world.” An annual “peace forum” is held on Jeju toward this goal.
For Jeju itself, however, peace has not yet been achieved.
“The wounds of Sa-sam can be seen in the extreme conflict over the naval base,” according to social critic Kim.
“Many Sa-sam issues are being solved, but there is still a deep trauma in the minds of the Jeju people,” echoed prominent Sa-sam artist and political activist Koh Gill-Chun.
Only recently has the central government begun to reassess the scope of the Jeju massacre and compensate its survivors. In 2006, then-President Roh Moo-hyun officially apologized to the people of Jeju.
In 2009, the nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission announced that there had been “a total of 14,373 victims, 86 percent of them at the hands of the security forces and 13.9 percent at the hands of armed rebels” on Jeju.
Some 70 percent of the island’s 230 villages were burned to the ground and over 39,000 houses were destroyed during the period, it said.
Although much has been done to heal the wounds of the Jeju incident, local critics believe its legacy is far from over.
“Who can say that the Jeju April 3 incident was over 60 years ago? It’s a tragedy for those who died at that time and is an ongoing one for their descendants who shed tears now,” stressed Jo Seong-yoon, a Jeju villager,.
Renowned Sa-sam artist Kang Yo Bae agrees. He compares its history to the rings of an old tree — hidden, still to be revealed.
“One day, Korea will be unified peacefully,” he said. “At that time, the meaning of Sa-sam will change significantly.”