Jeju Island Study Trip: Part 1

We take the YAVs on four big study trips/retreats during the one year they live with us in Daejeon. Our first trip was to Busan for the World Council of Churches Assembly. This time we went to Jeju Island. It is Korea’s largest island, and it hangs off the southern tip of the peninsula. It is known these days as a vacation/resort location, particularly for honeymoon couples. However, we went to learn about some of its darker history and some of the ways the islanders continue to deal with sufferings of the past. We spent 6 nights and 7 days there learning about the history of the island, it’s connection to the history of the mainland, and it’s unique culture that differs a bit from the mainland. I’ll cover different parts of our week there over the course of several posts.

Jeju April 3rd Peace Park (4/3 “Sah Sahm”)

jeju peace park group WEB

This memorial was created to remind us all of the massacre that began on April 4th, 1948 in response to an uprising against the US Military Government and the local leadership it set up in Jeju. Over the course of 7 years an estimated 20,000 to 30,00 people were killed or disappeared. Every single family on Jeju was affected by this massacre, and its ripples continue to influence lives today. I will try to give you a brief description of the context in this post. I will also direct you to other places where you can learn a bit more.

A Truth Commission to determine exactly what happened during those seven years was only created as recently as the year 2000 in the wake of a successful Korean Democracy Movement (1987) and did not conclude its efforts until 2009.

The Truth Commission found that the spark of particular unrest came from a March 1st, 1947 demonstration. The demonstration commemorated the March 1st Independence Movement that began under Japanese occupation. They also demonstrated on behalf of the hope for a unified country, thus in protest of the US Military Government plans to hold unilateral elections in southern Korea for a separate government. Korean National Police fired upon the demonstrators killing six and leaving six severely injured. Workers and farmers across the island responded with a general strike. The US Military Government and the Koreans they appointed in leadership on Jeju decided this was the work of Soviet/northern Korean communists so they moved to suppress the strikers. The group of islanders decided that only armed retaliation could break the suppression, so they attacked a police station on April 3rd, 1948. The US Military Government, it’s Korean appointees and the subsequent South Korean Government then began an operation that included brutal suppression of the entire island that lasted from 1948 until 1954; this suppression included torture, illegal imprisonment, mass executions, and disappearances. I will mark the most noteworthy aspects of those 7 years.

Jeju graves WEB

A statue at the grave site marking the 4,000 or so known victims whose bodies were never found.

  • Of all those killed or disappeared, the Truth Commission found that around 80% were attributed to government forces and only 12% were attributed to rebel groups.
  • The majority of the victims were between the ages 10 – 29 while 5.8% were under the age of 10 and 6.1% were over the age of 60.
  • The US Military Government and the Korean commanders it appointed approved a “scorched-earth” tactic, especially in the years of 1948-49. Before 1948 Jeju had somewhere over 400 villages. After 1949 almost 300 of those villages no longer existed having been burned to the ground.
  • The South Korean government revived an old law that the Joseon Dynasty had outlawed in the previous century: if you are convicted of a crime (especially against the government) then all of your relatives are shunned by the rest of the province shutting out job opportunities, land rental/ownership, and travel off of the island. Thus the entire island became wrapped into and affected by suppression of those struggling for democracy and others assumed to be associated. This public shunning continues to affect families today.
  • No evidence of a link to the Soviets or northern Korean forces were ever found, although that was the most common fear used to legitimate US Military Government and later South Korean government policy in Jeju.
Jeju mother statue

This statue commemorates a mother and daughter whose bodies were found in a snowbank having been gunned down by government forces.

Through all of this pain and sadness we get a sense of the 한 (han) of the people of Jeju. Han refers to a deep kind of unjust suffering and the scar it leaves on people. Nevertheless, the memorial also honored the bravery and the hope of those who finally came out to tell their story bringing the truth to light. We pray that their courage will give us the strength to struggle for peace and life in the face of death. The Island of Jeju has, since the end of the Truth Commission, been declared an Island of Peace for the future. May it be so.

Further reading:

Islanders Still Mourn April 3 Massacre – Article from the Jeju Weekly

Jeju April 3rd Peace Park website

Seeking Truth After 50 Years – A paper on the work of creating the Truth Commission

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One Response to Jeju Island Study Trip: Part 1

  1. Reblogged this on Along the Graybeard Trail and commented:
    Way behind on this – but here is a reflection on the visit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Young Adult Volunteer program in South Korea to Jeju Island, a place of beauty, pain, and courage.

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