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Early Cold War Genocide: the Jeju 4.3 Massacre and U.S. Responsibility

Jeju City Peace Park with headstones marked “unknown” (by Heo Ho-joon, Hankyoreh)

By Kim Jongmin | April 4, 2020


The “Jeju 4.3 Incident” occurred during the administration of the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) when the United States occupied the southern area of Korea below the 38th parallel. To put matters simply, the incident grew out of a shooting by Korean police of villagers who were participating in a March 1, 1947 rally commemorating the March 1, 1919 nationwide uprising against Japanese colonialism. Six people were killed. In response, on April 3, 1948, the Jeju branch of the South Korean Labor Party, in opposition to U.S. plans for elections in the southern zone to form a separate government in the south, led an armed resistance against repression by police and rightwing organizations. The resistance movement (occurring in and around the area of Mt. Halla on Jeju Island) lasted for seven years and seven months, finally ending on September 21, 1954 with the lifting of the ban forbidding entry to Mt. Halla. Tragically, countless lives were lost due to the punitive measures used to suppress the resistance.


The Jeju 4.3 Incident not only is of great importance within Korean modern history, but also holds global significance. During the Second World War, the United States and the Soviet Union were allies, but after the war ended, their alliance was replaced by a Cold War that came to shape a new world order. It was this developing global tension that colored the U.S. response to Korean developments, leading it to play a decisive role in the eventual suppression of the Jeju resistance.


Jeju Island was, because of its geographic location, a strategic military base in Northeast Asia. In order to keep U.S. forces from the Japanese mainland during the Second World War, the Japanese government placed some 60,000 troops on and fortified various locations around Jeju Island. If Japan had further delayed its surrender to the United States, Jeju might well have paid a higher price, becoming a place of combat between Japanese and U.S. forces as was the case in Okinawa.


Japan’s criminal war effort came to an end with its surrender on August 15, 1945. Its surrender also ended the country’s 35 years of colonial rule over Korea. However, with liberation came occupation: the northern side of the 38th Parallel was occupied by the Soviet Union, while the southern side, including Jeju, was taken over by the United States. The Korean peninsula thus found itself torn in two.


This situation lasted for approximately three years. The division hardened when, on August 15, 1948, the Republic of Korea was established south of the 38th Parallel. Less than a month later, on September 9, 1948, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was established in the north. As an inevitable outcome of this development, a three-year war between the South and the North began on June 25, 1950. The war ended with the country still divided. 


One reason that the Jeju April 3rd Incident is of great significance to Koreans is the sheer number of casualties that resulted from the repression, second only to the number of lives lost during the Korean War. In its report, “Jeju April 3 Incident Investigation Report,” the National Committee for Investigation of the Truth about the Jeju 4.3 Incident determined that armed resistance forces numbered only 350. However, the number of lives lost due to the repression was estimated to have reached 25,000 to 30,000. This total represented one-tenth of the entire Jeju population at that time. At the same time, the report found that some 180 soldiers and 140 police were killed. If we compare the number of innocent civilian victims to the soldiers or policemen who lost their lives, we can easily surmise how recklessly the suppressive measures were administered. Of all who died, ninety percent were killed by soldiers and police. Children under the age of 10 (5.8%) and adults older than 61 (6.1%) account for 11.9% of the total number of victims reported by the April 3rd Incident Committee. The number of women killed totaled 21.3%. In short, a massacre of unarmed civilians was committed on Jeju Island in the name of governmental authority.


The Korean army and police force showed extreme brutality and cruelty beyond human imagination during their “scorched earth strategy” towards the Jeju population, which started in the middle of November 1948 and lasted approximately four months. The great majority of deaths occurred during this annihilation operation. Soldiers laid siege to all the mountain villages, set fire to every house and slaughtered everyone in sight regardless of age or gender.


In the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (adopted by the United Nations General Assembly) of 1948, genocide was defined as being in direct violation of the spirit and purpose of the United Nations. It clearly defined genocide as a heinous crime against international law to be punished by the civilized world. However, on Jeju Island in 1948, the basic principle of this law, as set forth by civilized society, was totally ignored. The very government authority which should have upheld the law violated it, slaughtering its own citizens. This illegal slaughter of unarmed civilians and the indiscriminate murder of children and the elderly was an egregious human rights violation.


The responsibility for such heinous actions lies with President Rhee Syngman and the USAMGIK. President Rhee was the top-ranking official of the South Korean armed forces and clearly bore responsibility for what happened. While some might question the culpability of the USAMGIK, I want to show why it is also responsible for the massacre of civilians.


First of all, the shooting incident on March 1, 1947 by the police, the indiscriminate arrests and torture that happened afterwards, and the April 3, 1948 armed uprising against police oppression all happened during the period in which the USAMGIK administered the southern region of the Korean peninsula, including Jeju Island. In addition, USAMGIK officers directed the suppression plans, in concert with the onsite Korean regimental commander in Jeju, to ensure that the independent elections in the south scheduled for May 10, 1948 would be carried out successfully.


It is true that the massacre of civilians, the result of the months-long scorched earth strategy, took place after the establishment of the Republic of Korea. Therefore, some might assert that the USAMGIK had no direct responsibility for the massacre. However, immediately after the government of the Republic of Korea was established, President Rhee Syngman and U.S. Lieutenant General John Hodge (of the USAMGIK) signed an Executive Agreement – “Concerning Interim Military and Security Matters during the Transitional Period.” According to this agreement, even though the government of the Republic of Korea was established, the USAMGIK would continue to have operational control over both the army and the police of the Republic of Korea as long as U.S. forces remained in Korea.


The direct control of the ROK armed forces and police by the USAMGIK established by this agreement was no mere formality. According to a secret USAMGIK report, U.S. Brigadier General William Roberts sent a letter to the [ROK) Minister of National Defense on September 29, 1948 stating that “Operational control of the Korean constabulary still rests with the Commanding General USAFIK [U.S. Armed Forces In Korea], and it is of paramount importance, therefore, that all orders pertaining to operational control of the Constabulary be cleared with the appropriate American Advisor, prior to publication.” Furthermore, in a U.S. Army intelligence report dated November 27, 1948, U.S. General John B. Coulter commented that “Sufficient progress is delivered by the Advisory Committee under the supervision of Chief of the U.S. Military Advisory Committee Roberts. The members are all stationed in Korea.”


Moreover, it took action by Brigadier General Roberts to put into effect the martial law decree on Jeju Island that was announced by Rhee, without legal authority, on November 17, 1948. The Korean officers hesitated to take action until Roberts authorized it in communications with the ROK Chief of Staff of the Ministry of National Defense on December 1, 1948. It was under the decree of martial law that the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians was carried out and mountain villages were set on fire by Korean soldiers. Roberts lauded this action as “highly successful” and requested that the Korean soldiers involved be recognized and praised widely in speeches by President Rhee and other government officials.


According to an American account of a massacre that happened in one village: “On February 20th 1949, a delayed report indicates that 76 rebels from Dodu-ri were executed by the Min Bo Dan [Peoples Protective Corps), who used spears in the performance of these executions. Five women and numerous children of middle school age were included in the group. National Police and the Korean Army Military Police supervised the operation. <Comment> Four members of the KMAG [Korean Military Advisory Group) witnessed by chance, the execution of 38 of the rebels and counted 38 already dead when they arrived.”


This “comment” on the report is revealing. While it is true that the KMAG advisors could do nothing about the 38 people already executed, at the very least, they could have taken action to stop the other 38 from being slaughtered. However, the additional executions were recorded only as something that was accidentally witnessed.


Another U.S. intelligence report states: “The 9th wages reasonably successful warfare against the rebels, but simultaneously to stamp out all resistance, it adopted a program of mass slaughter among civilians in the hill villages avowedly on the premise that all the people were furnishing aid and comfort to guerilla troops.” This report thus accords the 9th regiment of the ROK Army responsibility for the program of mass slaughter. But it is not right that U.S. personnel recorded the slaughter as if they were mere witnesses. The United States was in fact controlling all military actions with dispatches to all parts of the Korean military and was therefore directly responsible for the slaughter.


It is also important to consider the timing of the scorched-earth campaign. For example, why did the U.S. Army urge the ROK Army to carry out the scorched-earth strategy starting in November 1948 and for approximately four months? In order to get to the bottom of the matter, it is necessary to examine both the political situation on the Korean peninsula as well as the intensifying Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.


After the end of the Second World War, the U.S. government inaugurated a global turning point with its announcement of the “Truman Doctrine” on March 12, 1947. The Cold War was spurred on by the Truman doctrine, which called for the complete blockade of socialism. This decision made the question of when the United States should withdraw its armed forces from Korea an especially important one. It may seem paradoxical that the withdrawal of the U.S. Army from Korea was even discussed at the beginning of the Cold War. However, U.S. policy at the time was primarily focused on blocking the Soviet Union. The Korean peninsula was viewed as a secondary concern.


A serious disagreement ensued between the U.S. State Department, which argued for a long-term placement of U.S. troops in South Korea, and the U.S. Department of Defense, which argued for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. The U.S. State Department emphasized the importance of the Korean peninsula as a hard-fought ideological battlefield. For its part, the Department of Defense put low value on the Korean peninsula, arguing that it could not afford to maintain troops there in light of the overall reduction in the size of the military that was taking place in the aftermath of the war. The Far East Command—under the control of Douglas MacArthur in Japan—agreed with the Department of Defense.


The Truman administration faced the problem of resolving two competing issues: building a barrier to communism in South Korea and withdrawing its armed forces. Truman eventually set the terms of U.S. policy toward South Korea in two national security documents, NSC-8 and NSC-8/2.


Here is a brief timeline of events highlighting the importance of those documents to the U.S. decision on when to withdraw U.S. forces from Korea:

  1. April 8, 1948: The U.S. President approved NSC-8 and tentatively decided to withdraw the U.S. Armed Forces by the end of December 1948.

  2. September 15, 1948: The U.S. Armed Forces in Korea began to withdraw secretly.

  3. September 19, 1948: The Soviet Union announced that it would withdraw its armed forces from North Korea by the end of the year.

  4. November 12, 1948: John J. Muccio, the U.S. special envoy, called for postponing the withdrawal of the U.S. Army, arguing that South Korea was experiencing great instability because of the Yeosu-Suncheon Rebellion (a rebellion of ROK soldiers against the government of Syngman Rhee).

  5. December 12, 1948: The UN General Assembly recognized the Republic of Korea as a nation and called for an immediate withdrawal of armed forces by the United States and the Soviet Union.

  6. December 17, 1948: The U.S. Department of State asked for reconsideration of the NSC-8 directive to withdraw the U.S. Armed Forces in Korea by the end of December.

  7. December 25, 1948: The Soviet Union announced that it had completely withdrawn its armed forces from North Korea.

  8. March 23, 1949: The U.S. president approved NSC-8/2, which called for postponing the withdrawal of the U.S. Armed Forces in Korea until June 1949.

  9. June 30, 1949: The U.S. Armed Forces in Korea were withdrawn, leaving the military advisory group.

After looking at the above timeline, it is clear that the Yeosu-Suncheon Rebellion led to the postponement of the withdrawal of the U.S. Army from Korea. Also, we are able to discern that the scorched-earth strategy (launched beginning in mid-November 1948) was ongoing while the U.S. State Department was again arguing for postponement of the December deadline for U.S. withdrawal established by NSC-8.


With this as background, we can now better understand why the U.S. military participated in the scorched-earth strategy, and why it commenced the latter in mid-November. First of all, the State Department had asserted that the USAMGIK should continue to stay in Korea, emphasizing the strategic importance of the Korean peninsula. However, as the year-end withdrawal date approached, the State Department could have chosen to encourage the brutal attack against the resistance on Jeju in order to get the job done before the end of the year.


Secondly, given that the State Department urged for postponing the withdrawal, citing the confusion in Korea caused by the rebellion of the Yeosu-Suncheon Rebellion, it is likely that U.S. military authorities would have also felt impatient about eliminating any “obstacles” to its plan to pull out by the end of December. That the U.S. military authorities asserted the need for a speedy withdrawal while emphasizing “the resolution of the 14th rebellion incident” supports such an assumption.


Finally, the U.S. Military Administration, and especially the Military Advisory Committee, which would have been responsible for current affairs in the ROK, would also have wanted to resolve all issues within Korea before the final withdrawal of U.S. forces.


At the core of the dispute surrounding the U.S. Army withdrawal by December 1948 was the question of “whether the Southern government had enough autonomous power to serve as a barrier against communism.” U.S. military authorities had to persuade the State Department that the Rhee regime was strong enough to perform this task on its own. Following this, the USAMGIK spearheaded the effort to smoke out any communists within the Korean armed forces along with the suppression of the 14th Regiment rebellion and deployed extremist right wing youth organizations along with the police and army forces to get the job done. The scorched-earth strategy that spanned out from the middle of November 1948 in Jeju coincided with the need to pacify all resistance before the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Korea scheduled for the end of the following month, a deadline that was later pushed back to June 1949.


However, as the June 1949 deadline for withdrawal of U.S. troops approached, President Rhee grew nervous because the arms and economic support he had expected were not materializing. When President Rhee toured Jeju on April 9, 1949, he said that his government and the Americans were gravely concerned about Jeju and that he would make sure that relief supplies would be distributed soon.


Rhee’s remark about American “concerns” was perhaps due to the desire and intention of the United States to make Korea into an anti-communist nation. This is amply revealed in the clauses of the “[U.S.] Korea Assistance Act.” President Truman had emphasized the importance of Korea as the last bulwark against communism in the Far East region and requested $150 million from the U.S. House of Representatives to assist Korea in this regard.


In spite of long resistance and opposition by the Republicans, the “Korea Assistance Act” was passed in a secret meeting of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on June 30, 1949. However, the House of Representatives passed the law only after adding a provisory clause which stated that aid for Korea will immediately cease if any form of coalition government is established in Korea with one or more members of the Communist Party. On the next day, President Rhee portrayed this decision as “anti-communist conditional aid for Korea” at a cabinet meeting.


These are the key factors, all of which stem from the Cold War division of Korea by the U.S. and Soviet Union, that ultimately led to the tragic mass massacre on Jeju Island following the end of the Second World War.

 Kim Jong-min served as a permanent representative of the Jeju 4.3 70th Anniversary Business Association, a member of the legal support unit of the 4.3 Victims Advisory Committee, and as a special member of the Prime Minister’s 4.3 Truth Clarification Committee. While working as a reporter for first the Jeju Daily from 1987 to 1990 and then the Jemin Daily from 1990-2000, he simultaneously worked as part of a news collective specializing in coverage of the 4.3 incident. The special coverage group’s articles were published as 4.3 Speaks, volumes 1-5 (1994-1998). The sixth volume was published in the Jemin Daily in 1999. As a member of the Prime Minister’s Truth Clarification Committee, he published The Jeju 4.3 Fact-Finding Report (2003), The Jeju 4.3 Incident Casebook, volumes 1-11 (2001-2003), and The Jeju 4.3 Incident White Paper: Reconciliation and Co-existence (2008). By conducting deep and lengthy investigation and research into the 4.3 incident, he co-authored “The Jeju 4.3 Peace Memorial Hall Exhibition Panel Statement” (2008), “The Jeju 4.3 Incident,” “The Jeju Cultural Symbol,” “4.3 Speakers,” and the Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation’s Jeju 4.3 70th Anniversary: From Darkness to Light.

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