[Special Feature Series: April 3 Jeju Uprising, Part IV] The silence of the blank white memorial stone

Posted on : 2018-04-03 00:05 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
An official name has yet to be agreed upon for the bloodshed that ravaged Jeju Island in 1948
Visitors examine a white memorial stone for t
Visitors examine a white memorial stone for t

Visitors entering the darkened “Cave of History,” the first exhibit hall at the Jeju April 3 Peace Memorial in Jeju City’s Bonggae neighborhood, hear a brief twittering of birds and see broken water jars and urns lying on either side. From the sound of water droplets seemingly dripping one by one from the ceiling, they can sense that the setting is a cavern. For Jeju residents, the natural caves located around the island were a place of refuge for those fleeing from the massacres during the April 3 Uprising of 1948. At the end of the cave lies a white marble tombstone, which gleams in the sunlight pouring down through a cylindrical column.

The names of those who went missing in the April 3 Jeju Uprising are displayed at the Jeju April 3 Peace Park.
The names of those who went missing in the April 3 Jeju Uprising are displayed at the Jeju April 3 Peace Park.

A historical episode that remains unnamed

No letters are written on the face of the white memorial stone. An explanatory plaque says, “White memorial stone for the Apr. 3 Incident, a historical episode that remains unnamed.” The stone has yet to be erected because it lacks a name. This symbolizes the current status of the Apr. 3 Incident, which still lacks an official name 70 years later.

While the government’s “Fact-Finding Report on the Jeju Apr. 3 Incident” received final approval in Oct. 2003, leading to an apology by the president and the designation of the date as a national day of remembrance, there is still no official agreement on what to call the events that took place on Jeju Island in 1948.

“At first, I thought they had made the white memorial stone because so many people were killed that they couldn’t identify the victims. But now I think the stone encapsulates the dilemma faced by the people of Jeju,” said Song Han-yong, director of the May 18 Research Institute at Chonnam National University, who visited the peace memorial on Mar. 10 while on a trip to Jeju Island with a group of former schoolmates.

“The white memorial stone seems to symbolize how the people of Jeju are unable to reveal the ambiguity of their feelings. It seems to convey how they don’t dare to talk about ‘state violence’ and how they’re not able to use expressions like ‘struggle’ or ‘massacre’ because the government and the right wing don’t like those expressions,” Song said.

The Apr. 3 Peace Park in the Bongae neighborhood of Jeju City contains headstones honoring those whose bodies were never found following the massacres on Jeju Island.
The Apr. 3 Peace Park in the Bongae neighborhood of Jeju City contains headstones honoring those whose bodies were never found following the massacres on Jeju Island.

Explaining the Apr. 3 Incident on Jeju Island

The Special Act on Discovering the Truth of the Jeju Apr. 3 Incident and Restoring the Victims’ Honor, which was made law in Jan. 2000 with the agreement of both the ruling and opposition parties, defines the Apr. 3 Jeju Uprising as originating in events that occurred on Mar. 1, 1947, and including the revolt that began on Apr. 3, 1948, armed conflict on the island that continued through Sept. 21, 1954, and the people whose lives were lost during the suppression of the conflict.

The Apr. 3 Jeju Uprising occurred after the division of the Korean Peninsula in the early phase of the Cold War, and it escalated in the confusion of the direct and indirect involvement of American troops and brutal atrocities by the military, the police and the Northwest Youth League as they were putting down the uprising.

The “Fact-Finding Report on the Jeju Apr. 3 Incident,” which was officially adopted on Oct. 2003 by the Committee for Discovering the Truth of the Jeju Apr. 3 Incident and Restoring the Victims’ Honor (the Apr. 3 Committee, for short) under the Office of the Prime Minister, describes the beginning of the Apr. 3 incident as follows. On Mar. 1, 1947, when South Korea was under the American military government (USAMGIK), police fired on a rally organized to commemorate the 28th anniversary of the Mar. 1 Movement and killed six people, including elementary students and young women who were watching a parade that was part of the rally.

Instead of punishing the people responsible for the shooting, however, the police declared the shooting to have been justified and started rounding up large numbers of people who had been at the rally. By Mar. 1948, more than 2,500 people had been detained and tortured or put on trial.

A Family member of those who died in the April 3 Jeju Uprising sits next to a stone monument inscribed with the names of the victims.
A Family member of those who died in the April 3 Jeju Uprising sits next to a stone monument inscribed with the names of the victims.

Other grievances were the heavy-handed rule of Yu Hae-jin, the island’s far-right governor; the cruel treatment that Jeju locals suffered at the hands of the Northwest Youth League, a far-right paramilitary group consisting of people who escaped from communist North Korea; and the death of two people while being tortured by the police in Mar. 1948. On April 3 of the same year, the Jeju Island committee of the South Korean Workers’ Party (SKWP) responded to these grievances by declaring it would “meet oppression with resistance” and launching an armed uprising avowing opposition to the South Korean legislative elections scheduled for May 10, which North Korea was boycotting.

The Apr. 3 Uprising began while the island was under American military rule, which lasted from 1945-1948, continued after the establishment of a civilian government in 1948, and lasted for seven years and seven months altogether, until a ban was lifted on accessing certain parts of Mt. Halla in Sept. 1954, one year after the end of the Korean War.

Some conservative organizations still refer to the Apr. 3 Jeju Uprising as a “communist revolt” or “rebellion” because of the SKWP’s armed uprising and its opposition to the legislative elections.

Although armed guerillas were responsible for civilian massacres and acts of arson during the uprising, it is undeniable that the majority of such incidents were carried out by government forces, including the police and the army.

As of July 25, 2017, the last time that the Apr. 3 Committee reviewed the data, it found 14,234 victims (10,244 dead, 3,576 missing, 164 people with lasting trauma and 248 incarcerated) and 59,426 families of the victims. Among the victims, 5.4% (772) were 10 years old or below, while 17.3% (2,464) were between the ages of 11 and 20, which means that 22.7% of the total were 20 years old or below. 6.3% (900) of the total were at least 61 years old. These figures show that the residents of Jeju were indiscriminately slaughtered with no consideration for their age or gender. Government reports estimate that the number of casualties was between 25,000 and 30,000 people.

A family member of one of the victims of the Apr. 3 Jeju Uprising and Massacre bows in front of a headstone at the Apr. 3 Peace Park in the Bongae neighborhood of Jeju City.
A family member of one of the victims of the Apr. 3 Jeju Uprising and Massacre bows in front of a headstone at the Apr. 3 Peace Park in the Bongae neighborhood of Jeju City.

Behind the push for a proper name

In the preface to the government report, then Prime Minister Goh Kun wrote, “During the composition of this report, our focus was on discovering the truth of the incident and on restoring the honor of the victims and surviving family members, and we did not define the character of the Apr. 3 Incident as a whole or make a historical assessment about it. We regard that as a task for the historians of future generations.” In other words, the facts of the incident were determined, but defining its character was deferred for another time.

 was burned and became known as the “Lost Village.”
was burned and became known as the “Lost Village.”

This year, the Pan-Korean Committee on the 70th Anniversary of the Jeju April 3 Uprising and Massacre (the Pan-Korean Committee for short) came up with the slogan of “Defining the Apr. 3 Incident and Giving History a Proper Name.”

“While there will need to be a lot of social debate and consensus-building before the right name can be officially adopted, we can’t just keep the issue covered up like this. It may not be feasible to officially declare a proper name on a national level on the 70th anniversary, but we need to start reviewing and assessing the question of agency on the part of those who were demonstrating for an independent government in lead-up to the Apr. 3 Incident. That would represent a genuine beginning for the push for a proper name,” said Park Chan-sik, chair of the Pan-Korean Committee.

Park explained the background of the proper name campaign as follows: “There’s a sense in which we’ve been trapped in a frame of victimization and mass murder by state violence since the Apr. 3 Incident was institutionalized with the legislation of the Special Act. The people of Jeju at the time were not merely victims or the oppressed, but had historical agency. During the period after liberation, they were agents who were creating a modern nation-state, and they were part of the struggle and the fight to build a unified country. But to some extent this has been lost in the narrative during the past 15 years [since the government’s report was released].”

In Nov. 1948
In Nov. 1948

The Apr. 3 Incident has been previously referred to by the names of “revolt,” “struggle,” “uprising,” and “massacre.” “Revolt” was the official government view for nearly 50 years after the incident, and even today some conservative groups contend that the incident had the nature of a “revolt.” According to this viewpoint, the suppression of the Jeju residents was justified, though some innocent lives were lost during that process.

Progressive historians, on the other hand, define the incident as a “struggle” against unjust oppression by outside forces. A third perspective, driven by the desire to learn the truth and heal the wounds of the past, treats the incident as a “massacre” perpetrated by state violence. Recently, there have also been researchers into the causes of the incident who regard it as a just fight to protect the island community against oppression, injustice and corruption from the outside.

 about fifty residents of the village of Yeongnam near Seogwipo City were slaughtered trying to escape to the coast. Yeongnam
about fifty residents of the village of Yeongnam near Seogwipo City were slaughtered trying to escape to the coast. Yeongnam

Because of these various viewpoints, researchers agree that it will not be easy to reach a consensus on the proper name for the Apr. 3 Jeju Uprising, especially considering how long a period it covers. “When it comes to the question of the incident’s proper name, there is a gap between researchers and people on the ground. From the perspective of scholars, the incident was a ‘struggle.’ From liberation until the situation in 1948, it actually was a struggle, but from that point until 1954, it was not a struggle but a fight for survival, of killing or being killed. For that reason, it will take time to arrive at the right name. The white memorial stone leaves this open-ended,” said Yang Jo-hun, chair of the Jeju Apr. 3 Peace Foundation.

“We also have to take into account the feelings of the family members of victims of guerilla bands, which appear to represent fewer than 10% of all the victims. No matter how small this percentage may look, the guerillas clearly were in the wrong, too. I don’t think we’ll be able to arrive at the proper name until a century has passed and we’re able to look at the Apr. 3 Incident from the perspective of history, rather than individuals or families, as we do with the Donghak Peasant Movement. But I’m not opposed to researchers referring to it as a ‘struggle,’” said Kim Jong-min, a former expert member for the Apr. 3 Committee.

“This has to be dealt with differently in the public sphere than in the area of personal opinions. In the public sphere, it’s clear that we have to actively push for a proper name, which is the slogan we’ve chosen for the 70th anniversary. But getting the public to approve the campaign for a proper name will be extremely difficult. At first, the Donghak Peasant Movement was called a ‘disturbance,’ then a ‘revolution,’ and eventually became known as a ‘peasant war.’ It took nearly a century for the incident to get its proper name,” said Park Chan-sik, a historian who also serves as the director of the Jeju Studies Research Center.

 which is the first village south of Mt. Halla
which is the first village south of Mt. Halla

Seo Jung-seok, a professor at Sungkyunkwan University and an authority on contemporary Korean history, emphasizes the sense in which the Apr. 3 Incident was a struggle. “The very fact that it’s called the ‘Apr. 3 Incident’ prevents us from understanding it completely. For political reasons, it was difficult to highlight the struggle-related aspects of the incident, and to some extent people wanted to just move on and stick to the approach of the Apr. 3 Special Act. I don’t think we can say there was a proactive effort to find the right name,” Seo said in an interview with the Hankyoreh.

“The causes of the Apr. 3 Incident are very important. It’s all in the government report, but the misbehavior of the mainlanders who flooded into Jeju after the Mar. 1 Movement rally, the misrule by the American military and frustration over Korea’s inability to become a unified independent state even several years after liberation ultimately exploded in the Apr. 3 Incident,” he continued.

“Another operative factor was the strong sense of being victimized by the Northwest Youth League and other groups. It’s in this sense that the incident has the character of a struggle. Furthermore, the Apr. 3 Incident lasted much longer than other incidents. If struggle was not a major component of the incident, it couldn’t have lasted that long. So far, we have had to focus on discovering the truth and restoring people’s honor, but moving forward, [research] needs to go a step further,” Seo added.

Ravens gather on the headstones of victims of the Apr. 3 Jeju Uprising and Massacre at the Apr. 3 Peace Park in the Bongae neighborhood of Jeju City.
Ravens gather on the headstones of victims of the Apr. 3 Jeju Uprising and Massacre at the Apr. 3 Peace Park in the Bongae neighborhood of Jeju City.
Yang Jeong-sim, who earned her doctorate through studying the “Apr. 3 Struggle,” emphasized that the name of the incident “needs to express the diverse nature of the incident to bring together the current and future generations, just as the incident remains relevant today.”

“We need to remember that the Apr. 3 Incident was not just a time of pain – which is represented by the memorial park, the day of remembrance, the historical sites and the excavation of bodies – but also a time when the common people were passionate about a better world and establishing an independent state,” Yang said.

“The massacres by the armed guerilla bands should receive an appropriate amount of attention. But I’m not sure if it’s right to connect that with the question of what the incident’s proper name is. Underlying the incident was not the insurgency of one part of the population but rather the aspirations of the majority,” said Park, the director of the Jeju Studies Research Center.

“While these aspirations may represent a legitimate struggle, that would obviously be hard to accept from the point of view of the family members of those who were slaughtered by the guerillas. So we need to bear in mind that this might take some time. But we mustn’t let the historical cause for which the people of Jeju were fighting be covered up or let the entire Apr. 3 Incident be subsumed by the frame of victimhood. There can be no further delay of shedding light on the original reasons and motivations for the Apr. 3 Incident and on the history of the agency of the masses,” Park concluded.

By Heo Ho-joon, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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