Jeju Uprising

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Jeju Island is located off the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula.

The Jeju uprising, known in Korean as the Jeju April 3 incident (Korean: 제주 4·3 사건), often shortened simply to 4.3, was an uprising that occurred in the Korean island of Jeju from April 1948 to May 1949. Residents of Jeju opposed the division of Korea and the holding of separate elections in the south, and were eventually violently suppressed by the South Korean government and right-wing paramilitary groups in a scorched-earth operation, resulting in a massacre that took an estimated 30,000 lives, or one-tenth of the island's population.[1] Additionally, thousands of the island's residents were arrested, and of those who survived their imprisonment, some remained imprisoned for decades, while others carried their arrest record with them and faced social ostracization and disadvantaged employment prospects.[2] People attempting to speak publicly about the incident faced secret arrests and beatings even decades after it occurred.[3] The Jeju massacre has been claimed to be the second largest massacre in South Korea's modern history.[4]

The events of the Jeju uprising and massacre directly contributed to the Yeosu-Suncheon rebellion in South Jeolla province, which occurred from October to November in 1948, when members of a South Korean military regiment in Yeosu refused to transfer to Jeju Island. The rebellion was led by 2,000 left-leaning soldiers based in the Yeo-Sun area who opposed the Syngman Rhee regime and his government's handling of the Jeju uprising. The rebels staged guerrilla-style fights against the military. When the government intervened to quash the uprising, a large number of civilians lost their lives. Kim Deuk-joong, a history researcher at the National Institute of Korean History, said, "The Yeo-Sun incident provided the Rhee administration with an excuse for enacting the National Security Law and establishing a strongly anti-communist nation in his early days as president."[5]

Official suppression of the 4.3 incident[edit | edit source]

The facts of the Jeju massacre were officially suppressed for decades, only coming to light in January 2000 when a Special Act was decreed by the South Korean Government calling for an official investigation of the incident. According to researcher Kim Hun Joon in The Massacres at Mt. Halla: Sixty Years of Truth Seeking in South Korea, "the massacres were systematically hidden from the general public, and calls for truth and justice were totally suppressed under consecutive anti-Communist military regimes until 1987." Author Hyun Ki Young is noted in an article from The Jeju Weekly as being credited with writing the first public mention of the Jeju massacre in a 1978 short story. According to the article, Hyun "was unofficially arrested and tortured after the story’s publication,"[3] one example of some of the measures taken to suppress mentions of the 4.3 incident. Following the transition from military dictatorship to liberal democracy in the 1980s and 90s, "local students, activists, and journalists openly embarked on a movement to reveal the truth. After many painstaking years of grassroots advocacy, the Jeju Commission, South Korea's first truth commission, was created in 2000."[6]

Background of events[edit | edit source]

Jeju People's Committee[edit | edit source]

After Korea's liberation from Japanese colonization, the Jeju People’s Committee was formed with the head of the Farmers Guild and the Fishermen’s Guide as its leaders. Peoples' Committees formed throughout the Korean Peninsula and enjoyed widespread support. However, the U.S. military government in Korea (USAMGIK) did not recognize their legitimacy and began to forcibly dismantle them. According to the Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation, "In every aspect, the Jeju People’s Committee was the only political party and the only government in Jeju" after liberation from the Japanese, and E. Grant Meade, a USAMGIK officer, said, “The Jeju People’s Committee was the only political party in the island and the only organization acting like a government.”[7] The committees had the respect and support from most villagers. Committee members were known in their communities from their long years as school teachers, union leaders and for resistance to Japanese abuses or for their organizing work in Japan.[8]

When the USAMGIK arrived on Jeju, it found that the Jeju People’s Committee and all the village and county People’s Committees were functioning successfully as a de facto government with popular support. The USAMGIK did not disturb or challenge this de facto government, which was unusual because the USAMGIK had as its mission to insure that a right leaning government hostile to socialism emerged in Korea,[8] and had already struck down other People's Committees throughout South Korea by this time. Unlike in the mainland, where the People's Committees were immediately disregarded and systematically dismantled by the USAMGIK, the People's Committee on Jeju Island remained intact for a longer period, serving as the island's governmental body until 1948 when it, too, was violently dismantled in conjunction with the process of the Republic of Korea being officially established that year.

Prior tensions[edit | edit source]

Although the Jeju People's Committee was still functioning as a government on the island, all throughout U.S.-occupied South Korea, Japanese colonial-era police and officials had been reinstated to their positions and the USAMGIK had been dismantling People's Committees. According to the testimony of Kang Soon-hyun, who was 27 at the time of the 4.3 incident, "People resisted because, even after liberation, the pro-Japanese had not been punished, there were no jobs available and they were being suppressed by a corrupt police force." The Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation adds, "Islanders, particularly the youth who felt the situation most keenly, were outraged and began to demand justice."[9]

Artist Kang Yo-bae’s depiction of the 1947 'Shooting Incident,' sketched from the descriptions of witnesses.[10]

March 1 Shooting incident[edit | edit source]

According to the Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation, conflict boiled over on March 1, 1947, during an event to commemorate the March 1 Independence Movement, a commemoration of the beginning of the resistance to Japanese colonialism. This incident, known as the March 1 Shooting Incident, can be identified as the trigger event of the Jeju uprising and subsequent massacre. People had gathered to simultaneously celebrate the March 1 Independence Movement and to protest the upcoming general elections.

Around 30,000 people gathered at Buk Elementary School under the slogan “Let’s achieve unification, independence in the spirit of March 1.” Koreans believed that if they were able to establish an independent country free of foreign influence, then the social conflict would naturally be resolved.[11] Ahead of the ceremony to mark the March 1 Independence Movement, the USAMGIK deployed around 100 police officers from the police reserve.

As the people were marching to the west of the pavilion, a boy was trampled by the horse of a mounted police officer. The crowd was enraged when the police officer ignored the injured boy and some of them began pursuing the mounted policeman and throwing stones. As people ran after the mounted police officer while he headed to the nearby police station, police officers fired on the crowd from a watchtower. As a result, six civilians were killed and six more were injured.[10]

The police who fired the shots that day were part of the USAMGIK deployment from the mainland. Most of the people killed had been shot from behind, evidence that the police shot at them while they were running away. One of the victims was a woman carrying a baby while others were students and bystanders. The police then started arresting the organizers of the March 1 Independence Movement ceremony, which further infuriated the Jeju people.[10]

General strike in Jeju[edit | edit source]

As part of the strong resistance and protest by the Jeju people, a general strike was called for March 10 to 22, 1947. "Students refused to attend school, vendors closed shop and even public officers did not go to work. Although the strike made it harder for locals to provide for themselves, they did so to call for justice following the March 1 shooting." The USMGIK reacted by designating Jeju an “island of reds” and began indiscriminately arresting people, blaming North Korea for the civil unrest. Jeju's governor at the time resigned in protest, and expressed support for unification.[12] According to the Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation, in the month following the March 1 shooting, "around 500 people were arrested and 245 people were detained. In the year leading up to the uprising in April 1948, around 2,500 people would be arrested. This not only indicates that most of Jeju’s youth and educated population had been arrested by the USAMGIK, but also indicates that the Jeju 4·3 Uprising was not a sudden event but was rooted in ongoing animosity toward the USAMGIK."[12]

Banner of the Northwest Youth League, a right-wing paramilitary group who assisted government forces in the mass murder of Jeju islanders in the name of anti-communism.

The Northwest Youth League[edit | edit source]

Alongside police officers from the mainland, the Northwest Youth Association was deployed to Jeju Island after the shootings on March 1 under orders from the USAMGIK. Although they were given the title of police officers, they were not paid and sustained themselves through the looting of Jeju Islanders. From that point until the start of the 4.3 Uprising in 1948, around 760 members of the Northwest Youth Association entered the island. Another 1,700 arrived later. Upon the first arrival, they wore police uniforms before later donning military uniforms. According to the testimony of Kim Minjoo, who was 17 in 1948:

When we found out that our schoolmate Kim Yong-cheol died at Jocheon police box after being tortured, our anger toward the police and the Northwest Youth Association grew. We handed out brochures stating, ‘No more vicious police!’ We were shocked when we saw people who had initiated the April 3rd Uprising getting killed by the police. The police and the Northwest Youth Association made it impossible to live in my village, so I went up the mountain in August 1948. I was in the second grade of Jocheon Middle School. I did not expect this situation to continue for that long. By chance, I met Lee Duk-koo, the second commander-in-chief of the guerrilla unit. He used to be my school teacher and I was happy to see him. He looked at me with an anxious face and asked me why I was there, and not studying.[13]

Jeju uprising[edit | edit source]

Many Jeju islanders resisted the division of the Korean Peninsula and strongly protested the first election that was scheduled for May 10, 1948, that would confirm the formation of the Republic of Korea south of the 38th parallel. Additionally, Jeju islanders were aggravated by the March 1 shooting incident and the terror, mass arrests, and deaths that had been brought about by the USAMGIK-employed National Police and the Northwest Youth League's presence on the island.[14] Believing that the elections would further reinforce Korea's division and opposing the oppression by the National Police and the Northwest Youth League, guerrilla fighters of the Workers' Party of South Korea attacked local police and the rightist youth groups stationed on Jeju Island. On April 3, 1948, 350 individuals on Jeju attacked police stations. On this day, 12 of the 24 police stations on the island were attacked and 14 people were killed. The armed resistance announced: “Resist against Oppression!”[15] This is considered to be the beginning of what is known as the 4.3 incident. In the ensuing events, according to the findings of the National Jeju 4.3 Incident Truth Committee, 86% of the killings on Jeju were done by security forces and 13.9% by armed rebels.[14]

The people's resistance to the division of the peninsula and the establishment of the Southern regime triggered a brutal suppression by government and right-wing paramilitary forces, which not only targeted communist guerillas, but imposed its deadly measures on virtually the entire citizenry of Jeju island.

Jeju massacre[edit | edit source]

The counterinsurgency strategy enacted against the people of Jeju island was, in the words of researcher Kim Hun Joon, "extremely brutal, involving mass arrests and detentions, forced relocations, torture, indiscriminate killings, and many large-scale massacres of civilians."[6] Additionally, "due to the strategy adopted by the 9th and 2nd Regiments that allowed wanton destruction of the villages situated in the middle of Halla Mountain [...] Ninety-five percent of the villages were burned down and completely destroyed and most of the villagers were killed."[14]

The severe crackdown started Oct. 27, 1948, when Song Yo-chan, who was appointed the 9th regimental commander, announced in a decree that all land beyond 5 km from the coast is “hostile territory” and any individual entering the region “will be killed unconditionally.”[16]

In 1992, investigators from the 4.3 Research Institute study the long-hidden remains of massacre victims in Darangshi cave on Jeju island, where civilians including men, women, and children were suffocated to death 45 years prior, when government forces set fire to the narrow cave entrance.[17]

According to The Jeju 4·3 Incident Investigation Report, "In around the middle of November 1948, uncompromising repression operations were carried out. Under these operations, a curfew was imposed on the residents of the upland areas and if anyone broke it, he or she was executed without exception. From the middle of November 1948 to February 1949, for about four months, the anti-guerrilla expeditions burned down the upland villages and killed the residents collectively. [...] During this period, the casualties were the highest and most of the upland villages were literally burnt to the ground."[18]

A combination of government forces and violent far-right paramilitary groups, notably the far-right anti-communist Northwest Youth League, carried out these attacks.[19]

According to the Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation:

[M]ost villages situated in the mid-region of Mt. Hallasan were burned and all villagers unable to leave were brutally killed. No exceptions were made even for women, children or the elderly. These killings were illegal even during war, and this merciless carnage continued unchecked. At the start of the conflict, around 500 members of the armed resistance were identified by the military and the police. However, some 30,000 people were killed in order to punish those 500 people, and in the process many evil and unimaginable acts were committed on the island. This is why people call this period “the era of madness.” The period continued until the spring of 1949.[16]

Death toll of Jeju massacre[edit | edit source]

The camellia flower can be seen in the island of Jeju as a symbol of the 4.3 incident's victims. Above: A camellia flower pin. Below: Camellia flowers forming the shape of Jeju Island.

Because the facts of the Jeju massacre were officially suppressed for several decades, only coming to light in January 2000 when a Special Act was decreed by the South Korean Government calling for an official investigation of the incident, an official death toll could not be established until that time. Additionally, discoveries of mass grave execution sites, such as the one uncovered in 2008 near Jeju Airport,[4] illustrate the difficulty of calculating the massacre's true toll. According to a report by the National Commission on the Jeju April 3 Incident, 25,000 to 30,000 people were killed or simply vanished, with upwards of 4,000 more fleeing to Japan as the government sought to quell the uprising. As the island’s population was at most 300,000 at the time, the official toll was one-tenth of the inhabitants. However, some Jeju people claim that as many as 40,000 islanders were killed in the suppression.[4] Other estimates claim as many as 60,000 people may have been killed by the end of these events.[20] The 30,000 death figure, or one in every 10 Jeju residents at the time, is a common figure given for how many people lost their lives during this period, and is the one cited on the Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation website.[1]

Long-term imprisonment of Jeju islanders[edit | edit source]

One result of the decades-long suppression of the facts of the massacre is the long-term imprisonment of Jeju islanders arrested on suspicion of being communists during the conflict. Many of those arrested on these charges died in captivity. Others remained in prison for up to 20 years, and those who had been released were not cleared of their criminal records, and were ostracized by the community or disadvantaged in their job applications for having criminal records. Decades after being arrested, some of the remaining victims had their names legally cleared of the charges in 2019, due to a ruling that found that the military court of the time did not follow proper legal procedures, made groundless charges, and that there were no court records found from the time explaining why those arrested were given such harsh sentences.[2]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 "Background to the Jeju 4·3 Uprising and Massacre" (2018). Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation. Archived from the original on 2022-07-23.
  2. 2.0 2.1
    “The suit was filed by 18 plaintiffs who were jailed after being branded as communist insurgents ― with around 2,500 others ― during the ideological conflict that flared up on the southern island after Korea's independence from Japan. Many died in captivity. Even after surviving the massacre and imprisonment, the plaintiffs were ostracized by the community or disadvantaged in their job applications for having criminal records. [...] The plaintiffs demanded a retrial in 2017, saying they were arrested and imprisoned for up to 20 years without fair procedure. There were no court records found from the time explaining why the plaintiffs were given such harsh sentences.”

    Lee Suh-yoon (2019-01-17). "Jeju massacre victims get their names cleared in court" The Korea Times.
  3. 3.0 3.1
    “After the publication of his story he attended a protest with a friend of his. They were both arrested.“I was tortured for three days. I was tortured by the NIS [the Korean equivalent to the CIA],” said Hyun. There were two men, one holding Hyun from behind while the other beat him, threatening him to not write about the massacre again. In the booth of the restaurant Hyun, slight in stature, demonstrated how he was restrained and mimicked taking blows to his ribs.

    They made sure not to break his bones, he said. “If bones were broken there would be problems.” Evidence that this unofficial arrest and torture occurred. Technically Hyun had committed no crime. If they arrested him there would have to be a trial, one that would expose to the rest of Korea the truth of the Jeju Massacre.”

    Darryl Coote (2012.11.20). "My Dinner With Hyun Ki Young" The Jeju Weekly.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Song Jung Hee (2010-03-31). "Islanders still mourn April 3 massacre" The Jeju Weekly.
  5. “439 Civilians Confirmed Dead in Yeosu-Suncheon Uprising of 1948.” Jan. 8, 2009. Hankyoreh. Archived 2022-09-06.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Kim, Hun Joon. (2014). The Massacres at Mt. Halla: Sixty Years of Truth Seeking in South Korea. Cornell University Press.
  7. "Jeju’s political climate following liberation" (2018). Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation. http://jeju43peace.org/historytruth/fact-truth/factstruth_article4/
  8. 8.0 8.1 Jay Hauben (2011-08-20). "People's Republic of Korea: Jeju, 1945-1946" The Jeju Weekly. Archived from the original on 2022-07-23. Retrieved 2022-07-23.
  9. "Life on Jeju after liberation" (2018). Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 "The trigger for the Jeju 4·3 Uprising and Massacre" (2018). Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation.
  11. Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation (2018). "Commemorating the March 1 Independence Movement"
  12. 12.0 12.1
    “If the USAMGIK wanted to instill democracy in Korea, then it should have listened to the voice and agony of the Korean people. Unfortunately, the USAMGIK reacted in the opposite manner, designating Jeju an “island of reds” and began indiscriminately arresting people. Although the government blamed the influence of North Korea for the unrest and claimed that “90 percent of Jeju people are leftists,” recent research challenges this and indicates the whole island was enraged by the policies of the USAMGIK. [...] USAMGIK ignored the public and continued to suppress the Jeju people. In the month following the March 1 shooting, around 500 people were arrested and 245 people were detained. In the year leading up to the uprising in April 1948, around 2,500 people would be arrested. This not only indicates that most of Jeju’s youth and educated population had been arrested by the USAMGIK, but also indicates that the Jeju 4·3 Uprising was not a sudden event but was rooted in ongoing animosity toward the USAMGIK.”

    The Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation (2018). "The March general strike in Jeju"
  13. Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation (2018). "The arrival of the Northwest Youth Association" Archived from the original.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 "The National Committee for Investigation of the Truth about the Jeju April 3 Incident: Summary of the Report's Conclusion". 2008.
  15. Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation (2018). "Day of infamy: April 3, 1948"
  16. 16.0 16.1 Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation (2018). "Fall 1948 and ‘the era of madness’"
  17. "Darangshi Cave Unearths yet More Jeju Massacre Tragedy." 2012-03-23. Jeju Weekly. Archived 2022-09-04.
  18. Jeju 4·3 Peace Foundation (2003). The Jeju 4·3 Incident Investigation Report (p. 469). The National Committee for Investigation of the Truth about the Jeju April 3 Incident.
  19. ““Despite the Northwest Youth League lacking legal backing to exercise their power, President Rhee and the KDP allowed the group to use aggressive force against supposed Communists without restrictions. [...] Professor Bruce Cumings of the University of Chicago states that at the time, Jeju’s local government and police were comprised mostly of mainlanders who “worked together with ultra-rightest party terrorists,” otherwise known as the Northwest Youth League.””

    Lauren Flenniken (2011-04-10). "The Northwest Youth League" The Jeju Weekly.
  20. Ghosts of Cheju (2000-06-18). Newsweek. Archived from the original. Retrieved 2021-21-30.