The sole survivor of Teojinmok massacre during the Apr. 3 Jeju Uprising

Posted on : 2018-11-11 14:39 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Oh In-gwon survived an execution of villagers by firing squad at only 17 months old
Oh In-gwon
Oh In-gwon

There was a rattle of gunfire, and a group of people fell at Teojinmok Village of Seogwipo Township, on Jeju Island, which offers a clear view of Seongsan Ilchulbong, called “sunrise peak.” The screams were drowned in the thunder of the surf. A mother cradling a baby in her arms collapsed onto the sand. Bawling and covered in blood, the baby crawled away from its fallen mother (Hyeon Jeong-saeng, 25 years old). The police let loose another volley, unwilling to spare communists’ spawn, but the boy survived the massacre despite being shot three times. It was a miracle.

Oh In-gwon (72, Hwabok, Jeju City) who was 17 months old at the time, was the only survivor of the Teojinmok massacre on Feb. 1, 1949. On Nov. 5, Oh and I went to see a stone marker on the site of the massacre. Teojinmok was a place where many civilians were killed by the army and police during the Jeju Uprising, which began on Apr. 3, 1948. Many travelers walking along Course No. 1 of the Jeju Olle Trail end up visiting Teojinmok, an outstanding scenic site located on the Gwangchigi Coast. With his hand resting on the stone marker, Oh looked wordlessly out at Seongsan Ilchulbong.

The boy who miraculously survived being shot three times

Oh was born at Nansan Village, not far from Seongsanpo. “Pretty much everyone in Seongsanpo knows me as the boy that survived the massacre,” Oh said.

“I heard the details about my miraculous survival from my foster mother, grandmother and other older people around me,” Oh said. His foster mother personally witnessed the massacre.

Oh’s maternal grandfather, who lived in the same town, went out to Teojinmok the day after the massacre to look for his daughter’s body. “After finding her body, my grandfather buried her in the fields and also put up a gravestone. My grandfather probably couldn’t have expressed in words how it felt to have to bury his daughter with his own hands,” Oh said, his words trailing off.

Bullets hit Oh in three places – his left arm, his right arm and his chest. His left arm was hurt the worst, leaving a deep scar that’s still visible today, and he can’t fully extend his hand. The symptoms get worse in the winter, when his joints get stiff.

“I suppose it just wasn’t my destiny to die. I also figure that the soldiers’ aim wasn’t very good and that the bullets glanced off me. When several shots hadn’t killed me, the police decided I wasn’t supposed to be killed and gave me to a woman [his foster mother] who lived in front of Seongsanpo Police Station. They asked the woman to raise me until someone comes to claim me,” Oh said.

Oh said the police gave the woman some medication and food. She was a godsend to Oh, nursing him back to health and raising him. Until he graduated from middle school, he called her “mother” and frequently dropped by her house. The foster mother who treated Oh like her own son passed away about twenty years ago.

Oh’s father Oh Myeong-eon, the eldest son in his family, went to Seoul for his studies in 1941, at the age of 18. He ended up working at a restaurant that his uncle ran and then returned to Jeju around the time of Korea’s liberation. After Oh heard from his grandmother that his father had been a police officer, he inquired with the police to verify his father’s service. According to the records that Oh was given, his father was hired as an officer at Precinct 1 Police Station, under the Jeju Provincial Police Agency on Nov. 20, 1946, and served for over 100 days, until Mar. 12 of the next year. But the period after Mar. 13 was left blank in his record.

“I heard from my grandmother that my father had worked at Seongsanpo Police Station. The records say he was stationed at Precinct 1 Police Station, but I’m sure he was at Seongsanpo Police Station,” Oh said. No one knows what happened to his father after that. Oh’s grandfather couldn’t find his son’s body, but he put up a headstone on an empty grave, where he held ceremonial rites on his son’s birthday.

 visits the site where innocent civilians were massacred by police and soldiers at Teojinmok
visits the site where innocent civilians were massacred by police and soldiers at Teojinmok
Lost father’s remains found during Jeju Airport excavation

Oh longed to someday meet his father, if only in a dream. They were finally, miraculously brought back together at the very end of summer 2014. In 2009, Oh had taken part in genetic testing for family members of missing persons while remains were being excavated at Jeju Airport, one of the burial sites of April 3 massacre victims. One day in 2014, he was notified by the Jeju April 3 Peace Foundation that his father’s remains were among those uncovered.

“I just couldn’t believe it. It was only after having an expert explain it to me that I understood,” he said.

“I don’t know what to say. I finally found the father I had so longed to see, but it felt like my heart was being shattered,” he added, his voice trembling slightly.

“At first, I thought that if he was enshrined at the Jeju April 3 Peace Park’s remains center, the foundation would look after them,” he continued.

“But I finally had them placed in the family plot, thinking his grandchildren should know their grandchildren. Since the remains were uncovered, I’ve gotten rid of the empty grave and had a headstone installed.”

After some asking around, Oh’s grandmother finally found her then five-year-old grandson in Dec. 1951 and took him home. He grew up farming with his grandparents and was forced to quit his studies after middle school because of the family’s financial hardship. He ended up feeling lost.

“As a teenager, I wanted to go to school, but we didn’t have the resources, and I ended up going through a time of aimlessness. By eighteen, I’d lost my will to live. I decided I wanted to escape this world, so I went to Busan, determined to die. I also harbored a lot of resentment toward the world back then. I went around to different pharmacies until I had 18 sleeping pills, and I took them all at Yongdusan Park. When I came to, I was in a ward at Busan City Hospital.”


Living “boldly” after teenage suicide attempt and brush with tuberculosis

Having no shoes of his own, Oh snuck barefoot onto a boat and traveled to Jeju Port. From there, he called his family.

“I felt so jealous to see the kids who had parents. Unless you’ve experienced that pain, you just don’t know,” he said, his eyes reddening. Of his suicide attempt in Busan, Oh recalled, “I sensed how fate is a tenacious thing, and I lived very boldly after that.”

At 30, Oh met Kim Young-sook (now 65), the woman who would become his wife, and relocated to Jeju City. He took on whatever work came his way – doing almost every job under the sun. Oh showed off a rare smile as he pointed to his wife sitting next to him.

“If it weren’t for this person, I’d be dead already,” he said.

Kim, who worked as a nurse, explained that Oh “caught tuberculosis and had a few brushes with death.”

“When we had our oldest son, the matchmaker came and said I should divorce him before it was too late, but my mother said I had to save his life,” she recalled. “I personally gave him injections to treat him.”

As a boy, Oh had been frail. Others said it had been “because he lost too much blood as a baby.”

“I went through a great deal of psychological stress when I was growing up, and I wasn’t eating well, and I think that’s why I came down with a serious illness,” he said. “My wife saved my life.”

Oh’s face grew dark as he looked out at the peak of Seongsan Ilchulbong from Teojinmok.

“Whenever I come here, I find myself tearing up. I don’t do it when other people are around, but even now, if I’m alone and have drunk a glass of soju, I’ll cry my eyes out,” he said. “They talk about how you should bury it away inside and get on with life, but whenever I think about what happened at that time, the tears come.”

 Jeju Island
Jeju Island

On the road by Teonjinmok, the image of a camellia petal is inscribed in honor of the victims. Next to it is a sign raised in 2012 by the Seongsan township association of family members who lost loved ones in the massacre.

“The sand field of the Teojinmok shoreline in Seongsanpo is a site where innocent civilians from this region were taken by soldiers and police and brutally massacred during the Jeju April 3 incident in 1948,” it reads. “It is a place where victims ranging from infants on their mother’s backs to senior citizens over 80 years of age came to terrible ends, shot and stabbed with knives and spears. The screams still haunt us: fathers looking for sons, sons for their parents, wives for their husbands, husbands for their wives, nursing infants for their mothers. Upon this stone we now inscribe a camellia dedicated in their memory by all those who pass by here, wishing eternal rest for those 400 souls.”

By Huh Ho-joon, Jeju correspondent

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