Visitors to the April 3 Peace Memorial in Jeju City’s Bonggae neighborhood commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Jeju Uprising in front of the white memorial stone in the memorial’s main building on Apr. 1. A notice next to the stone reads: “When the [Jeju Uprising] is given a proper name
While it is typical to reflect on the significance of major events every ten years, the 70th anniversary of the Apr. 3 Jeju Uprising this year is particularly significant. The first national commemorative event will be held on Apr. 7 at Gwanghwamun Plaza in Seoul, where the candlelight demonstrations which toppled the Park Geun-hye admininstration took place, while memorial altars will be set up in 20 locations around the country between Apr. 3 and 7. There is also a “relay campaign” being conducted by writers, actors and politicians. The Apr. 3 Jeju Uprising has long been a tragedy only for the people of the island, but now the effort to establish this as part of the contemporary history of the Republic of Korea is gaining traction.
The Apr. 3 Special Act was passed in 2000; President Roh Moo-hyun apologized on behalf of the state in 2003; and the Apr. 3 Incident was designated a national day of remembrance in 2014. Even so, many aspects of the Incident are still hidden and kept from view. One example is the suffering of the people imprisoned after the uprising, whose appeal for a retrial was heard by a Jeju District Court not long ago. Kim Pyeong-guk, an 88-year-old woman, said that she could only guess what crime she was charged with from the banner hanging in the courtroom that said, “Article 77, the crime of rebellion,” and that she wanted to restore her reputation before she died.
“I believed them when they said they would spare us all if we came down from the mountain, but then we were arrested,” one of the petitioners said. “They beat me and demanded to know what I had given the armed guerrillas. I told them I gave them two bushels of rice because I thought they would kill me if I said I hadn’t given them anything,” said another petitioner.
They were tried in an illegal military tribunal without lawyers; their charges were not read; and there was no written judgment. In this way, 2,146 people were incarcerated at various prisons around the country. Even that number was only revealed in 1999, when a register of imprisoned individuals turned up. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, a substantial number of those who had been imprisoned south of Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province went missing or were executed on the spot. Most of their families have never been able to even find their remains.
As the report produced by a government investigation says, the Apr. 3 Jeju Uprising lasted for more than seven years altogether: it began with a shooting in front of the Gwandeokjeong Pavilion on Mar. 1, 1947, continued with an armed uprising by the Jeju branch of the South Korean Workers’ Party on Apr. 3, 1948, and ended when access was restored to Mt. Halla in 1954. It is estimated that there were between 25,000 and 30,000 victims in total.
While some people were killed by the bands of armed guerrillas, it is thought that more than 80% were killed by government forces sent to put down the uprising. Killing about 10% of the population of Jeju at the time because of hundreds of armed guerrillas constitutes state violence that cannot be justified for any reason. The wounds were deep and lasted a long time. While there was an effort to investigate the incident soon after the April Revolution in 1960, after Park Chung-hee took over in a coup d'état the following year, the residents of Jeju Island were hobbled by anti-communist legislation and by guilt by association. It was taboo to even mention the Apr. 3 Jeju Uprising, and the residents suffered from paranoia about communists and trauma from their torture. Some of the Jeju residents who had fled to Japan never returned home until the day they died.
The Apr. 3 Jeju Uprising is a matter that cannot be tackled without understanding the historical circumstances following Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial occupation, including shots fired at demonstrators on Mar. 1, 1947; the general strike in the public and private sectors on Mar. 10 in protest of the shooting; and the fierce public opposition to the establishment of a separate government in South Korea. It is also necessary to understand the roles played by the administration of Rhee Syng-man and the US military government (USAMGIK), which viewed Jeju island through the lens of the Cold War. Even so, it is deplorable that even now there are people who use an ideological framework in an attempt to justify the government’s crackdown.
At the April 3 Peace Memorial in Jeju City’s Bonggae neighborhood, there is a white memorial stone that is still waiting to be engraved. This stone symbolizes the suffering of the Apr. 3 Jeju Uprising, which has been called any number of things – rebellion, incident, revolt, struggle and movement – but has yet to receive a proper name amid these conflicting viewpoints. President Moon Jae-in, as well as the other major candidates in the last presidential election, promised that the state would take responsibility for the incident and would seriously consider providing the victims with compensation and reparations. This may be the last ten-year anniversary in which the survivors can testify vividly about the incident.
This April marks the beginning of a huge push for peace on the Korean Peninsula. Finding a proper name for the Apr. 3 Incident – which occurred in the shadow of the early Cold War and which was stigmatized throughout the anti-communist period – is a task for us all this month, a task that we cannot delay any further.
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