Yang Gyeong-sook lost her vision due to brutal torture duriing the Apr. 3 Jeju Massacre

Posted on : 2019-01-06 18:58 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Her refusal to confess saved the lives of her neighbors
Yang Gyeong-sook recalls the torture she endured during the Apr. 3 Jeju Massacre.
Yang Gyeong-sook recalls the torture she endured during the Apr. 3 Jeju Massacre.

“Tell the truth,” they demanded.

It was sometime in Dec. 1948, and special forces from the Sineom police branch in Aewol township escorted then 26-year-old Yang Gyeong-sook (now 96) to a thatched-roof home they were using as a police branch. They were police officers and police assistants from the Susan Village police branch. Yang was ordered to stand on a small box. Cradling her five-year-old daughter Kang Maeng-su in her arms, she laid the sleeping child off to the side and stood on the box. The special forces tied Yang’s clasped hands behind her back with rope and attached it to the house’s crossbeam. Someone kicked the box away, leaving Yang to dangle in midair with her arms bent behind her.

“Tell us the truth about the people who come to the ‘meetings’ at your house,” they insisted. “What did you give the rebels?” All the while, her brutal torture continued. As Yang dangled from the crossbeam, police on either side thrust their gun barrels toward her and struck her.

“If you don’t speak, you will die. Tell the truth if you want your daughter to live,” they said.

Yang recalls the events of the Apr. 3 Jeju Massacre and the torture she endured.
Yang recalls the events of the Apr. 3 Jeju Massacre and the torture she endured.

Yang lost consciousness, and her wrists were freed from the rope. At that point, another special forces soldier dragged her outside and placed a gun to her throat. After making several threats, he finally fired a blank round. Yang remained silent. The special forces finally released her, cursing her as “one tough bitch.”

Speaking in Susan Village in Jeju City’s Aewol township on Nov. 30, Yang never stopped crying as she recounted her experience during the events of Apr 3 Jeju Massacre. Seated next to her was daughter Kang Maeng-su, now 75, who looked on pityingly. Yang and her husband had been considered the “richest people in Susan Village.”

“In the village, they were said to be so rich that you couldn’t go anywhere without walking on the land of my mother’s family,” Kang recalled. “The house had a main building, an outer building, and an annex, and people from the neighborhood would come over a lot when I was growing up. There had been residents coming over at the time, and I heard my mother was taken away after one of them informed the police that people had been gathering at the house.” While Yang was being tortured, the police had insisted, “People have had meetings about going up into the mountains. Why won’t you speak?”

During the punitive forces’ frequent visits to the village, residents of Susan Village – close to the mid-mountain region – had had to take shelter. Yang herself would hide by wrapping herself in a straw mat standing on end in the house’s yard; sometimes she and her daughter would hide with other residents in a cave on the side of Mt. Halla, going without food for days at a time.

Yang with her husband
Yang with her husband

A second round of torture

Yang’s troubles weren’t over when she was taken to Shineom police branch. When the police officers burst into her house this time, they tied her hands behind her and took her to Sineom police branch. It was January 1949. The police tortured her, demanding to know whether she’d sent rice to the rebels and who had sent rice into the hills. The torture she suffered here was even worse than what she’d suffered at the dispatch station. As Yang stood facing them, they had her hold her hands out and clubbed them until her palms cracked and blood poured down, all the while telling her to confess. Yang’s hands swelled up and her fingers broke – but the torture didn’t stop. The scars from that torture can still be seen around her thumbs.

“They twisted my wrists while saying, this bitch should be killed for sending supplies into the hills,” Yang said as she wept.

“It was the last month of the lunar calendar [Jan. 19, 1949]. I guess they got tired of beating me because they tied me upside down on a big tree in front of the police branch and then thrashed the soles of my feet and poured water into my nose. I eventually blacked out. In front of the police branch, there was a bucket of water with ice on the top. The police broke the ice and dumped me, still unconscious, into the bucket. That woke me up, sure enough. Then they took me back to the tree and did the water torture and thrashed me again. I wanted to die, but my body kept going for some reason.”

The torture continued for five long days. Whenever the police demanded she tell the truth, Yang told them she didn’t know anything: “I can only tell you what I know!” They suspended her body from the tree with her hands tied behind her back, making her shoulders contort and her wrist bones pop out. The torture ruined Yang’s vision.

“When I was a little girl, the older women in the village would ask me to look for head lice because my eyes were so sharp. But after that water got in my eyes, I couldn’t see anymore. If the water had been clean, it wouldn’t have been so bad, but it was filthy,” she said. Yang can’t recognize people very well and has to guess who they are from their voice.

While Yang was being tortured, she wasn’t allowed to eat a single meal. Carrying her bawling granddaughter (Yang’s daughter) on her back, Yang’s mother would prepare food and take it to the police branch. She didn’t give the food to Yang, though, but to the police officers, as she begged them to spare her daughter’s life. Other villagers who’d been arrested and detained before Yang had been executed by firing squad. While Yang was being tortured, she assumed she was next to be shot, but eventually she was let go.

“I think my mother gave them some money to let me go. If not for my mother, I couldn’t have survived,” Yang said as tears welled up from inside.

 her mother and father
her mother and father
Saving Susan Village through her silence

Despite the torture, Yang refused to tell the police anything. She wouldn’t give them the names of the people who’d fled into the hills or who were sending them rice and other supplies. She was afraid that all the people in the village would be slaughtered.

“When the police at the station told me to give them the names of the people who had gone into the hills, I chose not to tell them. What would be the point of staying alive if my confession resulted in the deaths of all those people? No matter what they said, I was determined that I would be the only one to die. If I’d told them what I knew, it would have doomed a lot of people. So I only said, I don’t know. If I’d said all the names, Susan Village would have been done for.”

Because Yang kept her lips sealed despite the torture, the villagers’ lives were spared. “Just three years ago, an old man in the town who ran into me told me that he owed his life to my mother. If my mother had squealed with the hope of saving her own neck, the whole village would have been turned into a morgue,” said Yang’s daughter Kang, who grew up hearing stories about the Jeju Uprising from her mother.

“When I went back home, the people of the village came by and thanked me for not revealing their names,” Yang said. When the villagers were building stone walls, they told her to stay inside and get better. Yang has been suffering the aftereffects of the torture her whole life.

 and her husband’s younger brother in a photograph taken on Jan. 20
and her husband’s younger brother in a photograph taken on Jan. 20

A little brother goes missing

Sept. 27, 1948, was the day when the ancestral ritual was performed for Yang’s uncle, and it was also the day her youngest brother was seized by the police. Since the police had been assigned to patrol the village, Yang’s mother thought they should get the ritual out of the way before it got dark, so they performed the ritual around sunset. But right in the middle of everything, the police burst in and took away Yang’s youngest brother (Yang Chang-beom, 20 at the time). They never saw him again. There were rumors going around that the police had taken Chang-beom to Hagwi, where he had been attending school, and tortured him there.

Five days later, in early October, Yang’s other younger brother (Yang Chang-hui, 23 at the time) heard the rumors about Chang-beom. He dropped by the family’s house to say he’d be seeing a friend and then left, never to be heard from again. Both of Yang’s younger brothers were taken by the Jeju Massacre. The loss of her two sons and the torture of her daughter was too much for Yang’s mother to bear, and she died of a broken heart at the age of 55.

During the Japanese colonial occupation, Yang’s two younger brothers had been sent to a village nearby to study at elementary school, while they stayed in a rented house. Yang and her mother would carry rice to the house and prepare rice and side dishes for the two boys. The oldest of the two was an intellectual who had studied in Seoul and Tokyo, with the family selling land to put him through school. After Korea’s liberation from colonial control, he’d gotten the young people of Susan Village together to teach them how to read Korean.

“Thinking about my younger brothers makes me want to lie down and cry. I would gladly die if only one of them could have lived,” Yang said as she began to weep again. Yang had lived in Japan for three years before Korea’s liberation. Her husband (Kang Jae-ik) had been making a decent living at an office job in Tokyo. After liberation, Yang and her husband boarded a ship bound for Korea with their eight-month-old daughter on what they thought would be a short visit home. Yang’s husband went back to Japan ahead of his family right before passage by ship became impossible. Yang never saw her husband again.


On Apr. 3 of each year, Yang visits the Jeju April 3 Peace Park. “My mother can’t see very well, but whenever she visits the park she makes a beeline for the stone marker for her missing younger brothers. It’s remarkable how fast she is – I can’t even keep up with her when she heads for that marker,” said Kang, her daughter.

During the Apr. 3 memorial ceremony on Apr. 3, 2018, Yang sat down next to first lady Kim Jung-sook, wife of President Moon Jae-in. Yang is also planning to visit the April 3 Peace Park this coming Apr. 3.

This tiny woman who stayed silent under torture to save the lives of her fellow villagers is a hero of the Jeju Uprising. “That was an awful time to live through. If things had gone even a little differently, I would’ve been dead. Who would have known that the Jeju Uprising would bring me such suffering.”

By Huh Ho-joon, Jeju correspondent

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