Remembering the missing persons of Jeju April 3

Posted on : 2020-08-17 17:38 KST Modified on : 2020-08-17 17:38 KST
A total of 349 people have requested retrials of persons who went missing during massacre
Tombstones set up to commemorate persons who went missing during the Jeju Massacre in the Jeju April 3rd Peace Park. (Huh Ho-joon, Jeju correspondent)
Tombstones set up to commemorate persons who went missing during the Jeju Massacre in the Jeju April 3rd Peace Park. (Huh Ho-joon, Jeju correspondent)

The people who left Jeju Island during the events of the Jeju Massacre (also known as Jeju April 3) did not come back. The family members left behind on Jeju found themselves labeled “communists,” like a scarlet letter. Now a 100-year-old woman has set out in search of her children -- newborns at the time who would be in their mid-70s today -- and her husband. She is taking the question to the state to ask what became of her husband, father, and siblings.

On June 8, the second criminal division of Jeju District Court under the judge Hon. Jang Chan-su held an initial hearing concerning 14 people who went missing over seven decades ago while imprisoned for charges of rebellion and violation of Articles 32 and 33 of the Defense Security Act (communications to aid the enemy and espionage.) A total of 349 people have requested retrials for persons who went missing during the events of Jeju April 3 -- a scale without precedent in the history of South Korean retrials. In view of the large number of people requesting retrials, the court plans to select those who are capable of testifying with relative clarity for the trial, but no concrete schedule has yet been established.

Who went missing during Jeju April 3?

During the events of Jeju April 3, Jeju residents who went into hiding in mountain fields or took refuge renounced their allegiance (to communists) at the recommendation of authorities. Some people were captured by the military and police while farming in fields. They were interned in camps before undergoing military court-martial procedures -- a first round in December 1948 and a second in June and July 19149 -- and being transported to prisons on the mainland. The individuals were unaware of the charges or the length of sentences; some did not even know about the trials at all.

A list of prisoners discovered by the National Archives of Korea turned up identifying information and incarceration sites for a total of 2,530 people, including 871 from the first round of courts-martial and 1,659 from the second. Not including the 384 people who were sentenced to death and executed as a result of the trials, the others were placed in prisons all over South Korea. When the Korean War (1950-53) broke out, many of them were branded as “subversive elements” and massacred, or went missing when prisons were opened.

Kim Pil-moon, a 75-year-old whose father was among the missing, explained, “I heard from my mother that he had been sentenced to 15 years in prison in a court-martial in December 1948, when I was three years old, and that there had been no word about him after he was sent to Daegu Prison.”

On June 8, the family members of persons who went missing during the Jeju Massacre line up in front of the Jeju District Court for the first hearing of a retrial of the missing persons, who were arrested and imprisoned on false charges. (Huh Ho-joon, Jeju correspondent)
On June 8, the family members of persons who went missing during the Jeju Massacre line up in front of the Jeju District Court for the first hearing of a retrial of the missing persons, who were arrested and imprisoned on false charges. (Huh Ho-joon, Jeju correspondent)
Key issues in the retrial requests

The retrial requests are proceeding on the assumption that the missing individuals are no longer alive. For that reason, the petitioners and their attorneys have to prove the deaths of the people who went missing over 70 years ago. In cases where names or addresses differ, they have to prove that it is the “same person.”

“For some prisons, there are clear records showing that prisoners at the time were shot, but that’s not true for all of them,” explained Moon Seong-yoon, one of the attorneys handling the retrial request case. “Ahead of the trial, providing that the missing persons died is going to be key.” Based on an investigation report published by the South Korean government in 2003, the attorneys believe there will be no difficulties proving the deaths of prisoners in Daejeon and Daegu.

Moon added, “For the prisons for which there is no concrete information, we plan to focus on proving [the deaths] by emphasizing that tombstones have been set up for these missing persons at Jeju April 3rd Peace Park, that the family members have been holding commemorative rites for decades, and that there has been no news about them over the years.”

“Proving ‘same person’ status will not be a problem, since there are cases where missing persons deliberately gave false names and addresses out of concerns that their family members would suffer,” he said.

Lee Jae-seung, a law professor at Konkuk University, said, “During Jeju April 3, Jeju residents were illegally arrested and incarcerated in state facilities. If they subsequently disappeared, the burden of proof also falls on the state.”

How will the retrials proceed?

In a January 2019 retrial requested by survivors of incarceration, the result was a dismissal of charges -- amounting to an exoneration. In contrast, the latest trial involves spouses and direct relations of the individuals in question, who are not present to participate themselves. Only once the missing persons’ deaths have been proven can procedures begin on whether to hold a trial. The problem is that the former prisoners’ absence places limits on the ability to testify in court about the missing persons’ circumstances.

If the court does accept the conclusion that the missing persons have died, the following procedures are likely to be the same as those in the retrial for the surviving prisoners. In January of last year, the court hearing the retrial request submitted by 18 former prisoners ruled to dismiss the charges, effectively acquitting them. Its conclusion was that the very fact that they had been referred for trial without concrete charges being stated against them rendered the indictments themselves invalid.

Possible solutions?

If the plaintiffs are victorious in their retrial requests, the result is likely to be more retrial requests from other family members of missing persons. During the first hearing on June 6, the court even asked the attorneys about “what was happening with the National Assembly passage of the Jeju April 3 special act amendment” -- a question that was seen as stressing the need for parliamentary legislation. On July 27, three Democratic Party lawmakers representing constituencies in Jeju -- Oh Young-hun, Wi Seong-gon, and Song Jae-ho -- jointly sponsored an amendment to the Jeju April 3 Special Act that would compensate victims and invalidate the court-martial proceedings. The next question is whether the amendment will pass after being automatically scrapped after failing to go up for a vote before the 20th National Assembly.

“I look forward to this retrial request proceeding smoothly so that we surviving family members can purge our grievances,” said Kim Gwang-woo, chairperson of the Association of Surviving Family Members of Victims and Missing Persons from Jeju April 3.

By Huh Ho-joon, Jeju correspondent

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