April 3, 1948, is the day attributed to the start of a prolonged massacre on the island of Jeju committed by South Korean government forces. From 1947 to 1948, an estimated 30,000 people were killed.
The conflict began after World War II with Korea regaining its independence after Japan’s 35 years of colonial rule over the peninsula. On November 14, 1947, the United Nations passed UN Resolution 112, calling for a general election over the whole Korean peninsula under the supervision of a UN commission. However, the Soviet Union, occupying the northern part of the peninsula, refused to comply with the UN resolution and denied the UN Commission access. The UN General Assembly adopted a new resolution calling for elections in areas accessible to the UN Commission, which at that time included only members of the United States Army Military Government in Korea, also known as USMAGIK.
On Jeju, this was met with both happiness and concern. With Japan being kicked out of the country, Korea had no government and many Jeju citizens objected that the election for the country’s first president, scheduled for May 10, 1948, was only occurring in Korea’s southern half. By voting in the election, they would have been supporting the divide of the country. In response, the people of Jeju went on a general strike, deteriorating the island’s relationship with its country’s fragile government.
On March 1, 1947, Jeju islanders gathered in Gwandeokjeong, Jeju City, to commemorate its Independence Movement Day and to simultaneously protest the upcoming presidential election. Through much confusion and to the quell the protest, police open fired on the crowd killing six people.
In response to the government’s continual suppression of the people of Jeju, on the early morning of April 3, 1948, a small group of islanders attacked police stations and political figures. In turn, the government labeled the citizens of Jeju as Communists and the newly formed US-backed South Korean government set out to cleanse the island of opponents to democracy.
This was the beginning of the Jeju Massacre (commonly referred to as 4.3, or “sa sam” in Korean).
Oh Seung Kook, 55, deputy secretary general at the Jeju April 3 Peace Foundation, who started to study the events surrounding this tragic aspect in Jeju’s history in order to provide a Jeju perspective, said that concerning the massacre, “The government needs to think about the Jeju people’s perspective. [At that time] the people of Jeju just really wanted a unified Korea,” meaning that the people opposed the election not because they were Communists, but because they wanted to prevent the bisection of their country.
Kim Seok Bo is a survivor of the Jeju Massacre. He escaped from the throes of death while army soldiers were shooting the villagers of Bukchon on January 17, 1949. At midnight he went to the nearby village of Neobeunsungi with his mother after the army had begun the massacre.
“My mother was trying to find my brother and sister relying on the moonlight. When I was there with my mother, I saw lots and lots of corpses. I saw a man who lost half of his face. I was so scared,” he said.
Five hundred people, half of all those who were living in Bukchon village at that time, were killed. They were killed in many places around Bukchon village like Dang Pat, Neo Beun Soong Ee, and the Bukchon Elementary School field.
“The armies were taking people to Dang Pat by car. At that time, people didn’t see cars very often, so people tried to get into them. They didn’t know it was a road to death. When my family arrived at Dang Pat, my brothers and sister had already been killed and my mother and I were the only survivors from our family.”
Those from the village were separated into two camps; those who were related to police officers and those who were not, with the former being saved and the latter executed.
“Soon, the commander came and ordered them to stop shooting people. We wriggled out of the crowd and hid among the police officers’ families since they were the only people who were allowed to live.”
He said that it has only been recently that he has been able to discuss the massacre, and even still it is very difficult to go into great detail. The reason for this, he continued, is that some of the other survivors in the village don’t like for him to share his experiences.
“I think survivors don’t want to think about the massacre. Neither do I. It’s painful to think about that time and talk about it to people. However, I want many people to know about this horrible historical event called 4.3.”
So do I.
Although Jeju Island is known for its beautiful scenery, world peace is not about beautiful scenery. In Jeju, it comes from extending the lessons learned from the 4.3 Massacre. Lessons like, “true peace is not fighting one another for ideological differences” and, “basic human rights are the greatest value we must pursue at all times.” These morals aren’t just lessons that should have been learned at the time of the incident, they are still valid today and should be universally applied.
- Seeking Truth after 50 Years: The National Committee for Investigation of the Truth about the Jeju 4.3 Events. (2009) The International Journal of Transitional Justice, Vol. 3: 406–423, doi: 10.1093/ijtj/ijp014