Jeju Uprising / Jeju Massacre
Jeju Island is the largest island in the southernmost part of South Korea. The South Korean military and police launched a scorched earth operation to break down the communists on Cheju Island. The brutal suppression by the Korean government against armed rebellion in Jeju lasted during the period of April 3, 1948, to Sept. 21, 1954. The massacre began in April 1948 when up to 80,000 civilians – many of their family – were slaughtered by ROK troops. The killing reached a crescendo before North Korean forces invaded in June 1950.
At lease 30,000 people were killed in a horrific massacre on Jeju Island, including newborns, pregnant women and the elderly. The killings took place over a span of seven years wiping out around ten percent of Jeju's entire population at the time.
Jeju Island, also known as the ‘Hawaii of Korea,’ is a world heritage site known for its fields of yellow canola flowers in full bloom, the bright turquoise color of the ocean, numerous waterfalls, and natural wonders such as the fortress-like Seongsan Ilchulbong cliff with thousands of volcanically formed cones rising out of the ocean.
Jeju is a strategically located island that US Army reports described as a “hotbed of Communism” and a “cancer of the troubles in South Korea”. After the Japanese surrender, workers had seized all 72 of the chemical and manufacturing enterprises on the island. By late 1946, the new Workers Party of South Korea (WPSK) — a fusion of the South Korean wing of the CP and two other organisations — had won control of the local people’s committee, which largely consisted of farmers and fishermen.
Bruce Cumings, a professor at the University of Chicago who shed light on American involvement in the massacre, wrote that Jeju Island was unstable because “direct control of food rationing has also been placed in the hands of politicians responsive to Governor Yu Hae Jin, an extreme rightist.” Yu was known to be dictatorial in his dealing with opposing political parties and “unauthorized grain collections have been five times as high as official ones in 1947.”
When tens of thousands rallied in Jeju City on 1 March 1947 to mark the anniversary of a 1919 revolt against Japanese rule, US forces ordered South Korean police to open fire, killing six people. An island-wide general strike broke out against the killings. The US brought in hundreds of additional police and a squad of nearly 1000 fanatically right-wing youth who had been displaced from North Korea.
In 1948, Jeju was the site of a violent pro-communist protest movement against the U.S. allied South Korean government that grew into a separatist uprising. Pro-communist demonstrators held rallies to oppose a May 10, 1948 election that would affirm the division of Korea between the communist North and capitalist South. On April 3, 1948 rebels attacked police stations, killed officers, and burned polling centers for the upcoming election.
The guerrilla attacks had begun on April 1 and by April 3 the rebels had seized 11 police stations and barracks resulting in 50 dead policemen, the jails empty of prisoners, and the capture of most of the island's police firearms and ammunition. Simultaneous attacks were launched against the fascist youth gangs and police stations across the island. These won broad support; even the provincial governor went over to the side of the insurgents. The constabulary, which was not targeted by the guerrillas, was armed with Japanese Army rifles but lacked ammunition so was powerless to stop the killings. The six-man American Army liaison team was restricted to their headquarters in Jeju City. The so-called massacre delayed Jeju participation in the national elections from May to September.
The government in Seoul declared martial law to suppress the insurgency. Thousands of police and pro-government militias from the mainland took part in a widespread and brutal crackdown that lasted until the end of the Korean War. A significant number of the early casualties were political prisoners--largely communists--arrested on the mainland and transferred to prisons on Jeju as unease over the bellicose intentions of the North rose throughout the country.
A 2003 South Korean government truth commission report found government forces responsible for widespread atrocities, including burning down 70 percent of all villages on the island and killing more than 30,000 people, or 10 percent of the island’s population.
Critics of the South Korean government’s role in the Jeju conflict also hold the United States accountable as well. They accuse the occupying American military power of either directly supporting or allowing the crackdown. The U.S. military has denied any involvement in the atrocities committed on Jeju Island.
A movement led by the Memorial Committee for the 70th Anniversary of the Jeju April 3rd Uprising and Massacre, based in Jeju, pins much of the blame on the US. American military officers, led by Lieutenant General John Hodge, commander of the American occupation, exercised control over the South at least until Aug. 15, 1948, third anniversary of the Japanese surrender, when Syngman Rhee was elected. After that, the Americans still had operational control over the South Korean armed forces.
The South was not prepared to counter the invasion by North Korea even though indications of turmoil on the Peninsula were revealed through the spread of insurgency sparked in the Jeju islands.
The Jeju insurrection and crackdown remains a controversial subject in South Korea. Some conservative advocates argue the tragic loss of innocent civilians was justifiable in a time of war, and to prevent the spread of communism.
The more liberal perspective focuses on the atrocities committed by government forces, and downplays the communist leaning of the insurgents, instead referring to them as freedom fighters who stood against the division of the Korean peninsula.
For decades the South Korean government suppressed and censored information about Jeju’s dark history. There were even cases where the descendants of the participants in the uprising alleged they were discriminated against in gaining employment, and where authors who wrote about the incident were imprisoned.
Official estimates for the more than four-year struggle tallied some 12,000 insurgents killed by government forces with about 2,000 teachers, local officials, police, and army constabulary killed by the rebels. There is speculation that non-combatant civilian casualties might double those numbers.
In 2003, after a long silence, the Korean government officially apologized for its role in the massacre, but victim advocates also have demanded compensation. In 2006, President Roh Moo Hyun officially apologized for the massacre by designating Jeju the “Island of Peace.” And on 03 APril 2019, the vice minister of defense, Suh Choo-suk, visited the memorial space set up at Seoul's Gwanghwamun Plaza to pay respects to the victims. "We are extremely sorry. We will do our best to join the government's efforts to find truth, restore the honor of the victims and heal the wounds of the bereaved families."
Earlier the defense ministry itself delivered an official apology and acknowledged the sacrifices of Jeju's residents. A ministry official said the defense ministry agreed with the legislative act recognizing that civilians were killed in civil disturbances and armed conflicts with the military that began on the 3rd of April, 1948. That law was enacted in 1999, but problems still linger regarding compensation for the victims and the bereaved families.
National Police Agency Commissioner General Min Gab-ryong also expressed his condolences to the victims and their families at a civilian-led commemorative ceremony in downtown Seoul. Min, who is the first police chief to attend a commemorative ceremony for the Jeju Uprising, said the police will look back on its history and become a force for democracy, human rights and the welfare of the people.
During the government's formal ceremony on Jeju, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon promised that the Moon Jae-in administration will continue to search for the truth behind the incident and restore the honor of Jeju residents until they are content.
The survivors, too, have suffered immense trauma, after being labeled communists, and being forced to stay silent about it for decades. "The government should promptly restore the honor of those falsely accused and get rid of this grudge that's held against their decendents."
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