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(Yonhap Feature) 70 years later, Korea still coming to terms with Jeju bloodshed

All Headlines 11:26 April 01, 2018

By Song Sang-ho

JEJU/SEOUL, April 1 (Yonhap) -- Kim Sun-yeo, 72, vividly remembers her tragic birthday 70 years ago. On a winter day in 1948, government forces ran berserk in her mountainous village on the southern island of Jeju. One fired a gun at her family. The bullet penetrated her left leg and her mother's waist before hitting the head of her seven-year-old brother. The wounded mother rushed to the forest, holding her bleeding daughter in her arms and her dead son on her back.

"It was when I was just three years old. But unbelievably I still remember the scene of our home burning. It is just unforgettable," Kim said.

More than 10,000 islanders are estimated to have been killed and nearly 3,600 to have gone missing during the government-civilian clash from 1948-1954, an outgrowth of Korea's ideological division following its 1945 liberation from Japan's colonial rule.

Seventy years later, the Seoul government is trying to come to terms with the Cold War tragedy, which has largely been forgotten or described as a communist atrocity for decades.

Efforts to find the truth and restore the honor of victims started in the late 1990s under the liberal president of the time, Kim Dae-jung, and were continued by his like-minded successor Roh Moo-hyun. But these efforts fizzled out as budgets were cut and research was stopped under the following conservative administrations.

The Jeju April 3 Incident is now back in the limelight as liberal President Moon Jae-in, who took power last May, pushes to address the grievances of the victims of past state abuses. Establishing the truth about the Jeju massacre is one of his 100 major election promises.

This photo, taken March 22, 2018, shows Kim Sun-yeo, a 72-year-old resident of the southern island of Jeju, showing the scar from the gunshot wound she sustained during a government crackdown in 1948. (Yonhap)

What initially fueled the Jeju incident was a deadly clash between police and civilians on March 1, 1947.

Police fired shells into crowds protesting against mounted officers for hitting a child during a street parade marking the anniversary of the country's 1919 independence movement and then ignoring the injured youngster. The shelling left six civilians dead.

The attack deepened public resentment against the government, which was fanned by shortages of food and basic commodities, outbreaks of a contagious disease and not least by the employment of pro-Japanese collaborators as police and other public officers.

Public anger came to the fore on April 3, 1948, when leftist civilians, mostly from a communist group called the Workers' Party of South Korea, staged an armed uprising against police and rightist groups, resulting in more than a dozen deaths.

The rebels denounced the rule of the then-U.S. military government and the envisioned separate election in the South, which they said would perpetuate national division. The Korean Peninsula was divided at the time into the U.S. military-controlled South and the Soviet Union-backed North.

The uprising only toughened a notorious crackdown that was justified by enforcers on the pretext of "exterminating communist sympathizers."

Armed police and military officers carried out a brutal campaign to quash any resistance to their authority, which reportedly included extrajudicial killings. In January 1949, they even conducted a massacre in a village that killed 400 people.

The confrontation lasted until 1954, one year after the three-year Korean War ended in a truce. Many victims had been labeled as "commies" when the South was in the thick of an anti-communism campaign.

"There were some who called me a commie in the wake of the April 3 incident," Song Gap-su, an 86-year-old survivor, said. "Now that 70 years have passed by, I hope that all misunderstandings will disappear and my honor will be restored."

This photo taken March 29, 2018, shows a special exhibition to mark the Jeju April 3 Incident at the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History in Seoul. (Yonhap)

A government fact-finding panel has so far recognized 14,232 people as victims of the incident. In 2003, a government report put the number of Jeju islanders affected by the incident at between 25,000 and 30,000.

In the decades after 1954, authoritarian governments distorted or covered up the truth behind the incident and muzzled victims for the sake of public order and peace, survivors and the families of the deceased victims have claimed.

But this tragic piece of the country's modern history was brought to the fore in 1978, when Hyun Ki-young, who hailed from Jeju, published "Uncle Suni," a novel depicting the mass killing on the island.

Government efforts to verify the truth behind the incident began only in the late 1990s.

Shortly after taking office in 1998, then President Kim Dae-jung pushed for a special bill aimed at ascertaining the cause of the Jeju incident and restoring the honor of the victims and their families. The bill was passed by the parliament the following year.

In October 2003, then-President Roh Moo-hyun made a rare trip to Jeju and issued a public apology as a government representative.

"I deeply apologize and give my words of solace to the bereaved families and residents of (the island) for the past wrongdoings of the state power," Roh said.

In 2006, Roh also traveled to the island to attend a memorial service for the victims -- the first time a South Korean president had done so.

A dozen years later, the government designated April 3 as the national commemoration day for the victims and administered what had until then been a civilian-led annual memorial ceremony for the first time.

The current government has also been seeking to enhance education about the tragedy and register related records as UNESCO World Record Heritage as part of efforts to help promote peace and human rights and prevent similar atrocities happening on the peninsula or anywhere in the world.

With the lapse of time, the incident is fading from memory. In last year's public survey commissioned by the Jeju April 3 Peace Foundation, only 7 in 10 respondents said they knew about the Jeju incident.

But many islanders still suffer from gruesome memories and deep trauma. Yang Chang-ok, a 75-year-old Jeju native, flinches whenever he comes across police officers.

He was only five when he, along with his grandfather and mother, was hiding in a dark cavern to get out of harm's way during the brutal crackdown. But they were forced out of it in a hail of gunfire.

The authorities didn't show any leniency just because he was a little child. Police grabbed his legs and threw him out of the way, the reason why he now has problems with the knees.

"Even today, the scene of police officers standing in front takes me aback. It is not like I did anything wrong, but I tend to shrink back, fearing they could harass me," he said.

This photo, taken March 22, 2018, shows Yang Chang-ok, a resident of the southern island of Jeju, at his house on the island showing the scar from the gunshot wound he sustained during a government crackdown 70 years ago. (Yonhap)


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