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Literature of Memory Struggle

Photographs of Jeju islanders who were killed in 1948.

By Hyun Ki-young | April 3, 2020


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Many writers have unbearably painful or tragic memories of their youth and choose to become writers as if ordained by fate. Such memories lingering in the writer’s mind, as a residue of oppression and resulting chronic depression, likely had a decisive influence in their choice of occupation. Literature is freeing or liberating. The writer creates novels to liberate the oppressed self by escaping and transforming into one of the characters in the novel. If, for example, our psyche is distorted through oppressed concepts of sex, it may be liberated through the figuration of sex in novels. The memory of a tragic incident which I experienced as a child was suppressed within me. It was the memory of the Massacre which occurred in response to the April 3rd insurrection [on Jeju Island] in 1948. The brutality of the experience had made me stutter and I suffer still to this day from chronic depression. The pain of the Massacre persists among all Jeju Islanders, including myself. The collective inferiority complex suffered by most Jeju islanders and myself simply had to be relieved through literature. I felt that I had to somehow break away from the bondage of the Massacre to pursue my career in literary circles – my literary spirit could be released only when my spirit was free from all forms of subordination.


I decided to write a novel on that very subject, to relieve myself from the oppression I felt and to pay my debt to the victims of the Massacre. I had been away from my hometown since I left to attend college in Seoul. There, I was able to gain a better view of my hometown, just as one gets a better view of the forest only when away from the trees. For nearly thirty years, the Massacre was the worst taboo in Korean modern history. Only when I was able to gain distance from the source of the oppression was I able to witness my feelings surface from the obscurity of my subconscious. The Massacre, a taboo that no one dared to speak of, took the form of a gray cloud on a gloomy winter day, just like the clouds that weighed down heavily from the skies of my homeland Jeju. Sometimes, Jeju would look like a dark spot blotted out of the map, just like the 130 villages and hamlets burned to the ground and turned into ashes after being raided by the military and police. I felt sorrow and wrath stirring inside me and coming to life. I could not disassociate my homeland Jeju from the hurt that I felt. My homeland was a huge prison floating on a dark sea at the end of the world. A brutal massacre of an unseen and unheard-of scale was taking place on an island isolated from the world by the sea. Islanders were dying under the false charge of being insurgents or communists.


Those who barely survived became blinded by fear. The Massacre was a taboo no one was to speak of. Their lips froze at the mention of the incident. They were victimized so severely that the incident was internalized, taking root as second nature. The islanders developed a sense of inferiority, defeatism, and self-deprecation as well as a blind terror towards authority and ironically an absolute envy towards the central government. I myself felt similarly oppressed. In my short story “Tale of the Sea Dragon,” I write:


The scene of the nightmare, the years of haunting dreams, those were his hometown. It

represented everything he yearned to forget and discard. It was understood as the

direct opposite to happiness or making his way to the world.


Once I set my mind on the subject, it seemed like a crime to write about something else. I planned to write four or five short or medium-length stories on the Massacre before I returned to “pure literature.” I thus looked back to my homeland with a different perspective and I realized that it was not that different from assessing myself in an objective manner. To focus on my homeland and the tragic incident which occurred there as my subject matter was none other than to place myself, a particle of the scene, under intense scrutiny. It was a whole new way of looking at my homeland as well as myself.


I finally situated myself in the realm of taboo. Having been only a child of only six or seven years when the Massacre occurred, I had limited memory of the incident. I had my work cut out for me. I needed to conduct extensive research, which I found quite challenging. I looked for data at the National Library only to find records that were either unreliable or severely geared to the extreme right. I could not repress the sadness I felt when one day I found two years’ worth of newspaper articles omitted from the Jeju Daily rack. It seems that the Massacre was brutally deleted from modern history. Korean modern history was written by the winners. They recorded memories that pleased them, while stifling or crossing out those of the losers.


I concentrated on collecting eyewitness accounts in search of the truth [of the April 3rd Jeju Uprising] which was distorted as a pro-communist revolt. This was not as easy as I had thought. The collective memory of the people seemed to have been ruthlessly shattered by the policy to obliterate the memory of the incident from the people’s minds. Nearly three decades of policies to deliberately crush memories of the Massacre by successive dictatorships have frozen the lips of the islanders. The majority voluntarily killed the memories themselves since it was virtually impossible to live on without trying to erase the brutal scenes from mind.


I was working as a high school teacher at the time and visited Jeju Island every vacation for two years. I had such a hard time gathering information from the witnesses (survivors) who obstinately refused to recount their memories. Even my close relatives chided me for opening an old wound and hesitated to cooperate with my research. One old lady couldn’t stop shedding tears as she held my hand, telling me how I resembled her son who had died in the Massacre. However, she also would not disclose her story, keeping it buried deep in her heart until the end. I had no other choice but to go back, sharing the tears with her. As I worked on my story, I hoped that I could express the inconsolable resentment, wrath, and fear of the survivors who lowered their voices, stammered, sighed, and cried. In the process of writing their heartbeats, blood, and sweat, I had a peculiar feeling of being able to identify with them, as if the tribulations endured by the protagonist in my story were mine. Many times I sat at my desk at night alone writing with tears flowing. I realized firsthand that literature is the only way one can indirectly obtain experience.


There was a photograph taken during the Cambodian civil war in which a young boy is staring into the camera at the top of a staircase by the front door. The house is half destroyed with bodies lying on the ground. Roland Barthes annotated this photograph, stating that the look in the eyes of the boy is what the dead had endowed him with to share with outsiders who have no idea what it is like to be at the scene. Through the eyes of the boy, the outsiders are able to witness the tragedy and the dead. I was the boy. It is the obligation of the survivors to tell the story on behalf of the dead. As a survivor of the Massacre, I was obliged to look at the world with the same expression of the boy in the photograph. To my surprise, my first work addressing the Massacre, Sun-i Samch’on (Aunt Sun-i), published in the summer of 1978, was well received. Writers are affected not only by the works of others but also by their own work. This is because the statement made through one’s work cannot be taken back and thus that exerts a firm grip on the author. A writer who has made a strong impression on the reader can seldom be free of the expectations or demand of his or her readers. Readers rooted for me and my efforts, and I answered by producing three more short stories on the subject. Then came the unbearable anxiety. Would I be able to remain unscathed after having written so provocative a message? I thought I was ready to face whatever it took, but the fear became real after the stories were out. I secretly prayed that the authorities would let my writing pass just this once, and I’d never write about that topic again.


But they did not. The publication of Sun-i Samch’on, a compilation of short stories on the subject seemed to have been the last straw and I was snatched away by the military secret service and taken to the basement of their headquarters. I was treated no different from a dog. The caning turned my body black and blue. My heart still beats at the haunting memory of torture. My body still recalls the fear and pain. The torture made it clear that the Massacre which took place thirty years before was still an important issue and I felt like the last victim of the incident. The bruise from the caning disappeared about two weeks later but the mental scar still lives on, victimizing me until this day. I was tortured for three days, day and night, incarcerated, and released after 25 days. I was arrested again several months later, this time by the police. About twenty days before the arrest, I knew I was being watched. Until the arrest, I felt like a sitting duck waiting to be caught. I was so anxious and fearful that I lost almost 8 kilograms. It seemed the police originally planned to press formal charges against me. However, the Massacre was no small issue and they feared they might attract unwanted attention by presenting the case in front of the court. So I was released and my book was banned from circulation.


After the incident, I became depressed and unsure of myself. I stopped writing for more than a year, relying on alcohol to soothe my pain and despair. Then one night I had a dream. A woman in mourning clothes appeared, admonishing me to get up and rise above the weight of my despair and continue the mission I was ordained to complete. The woman was none other than the protagonist in my own creation, Sun-i Samch’on.I realized that this fictional figure was alive within me. She had already been transformed into an entity in reality. Amazingly I was able to regain the strength to write again after I awoke from that dream.


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The Massacre was not limited to the armed uprising which took place on April 3, 1948 in protest of the establishment of a separate government in South Korea, excluding the north. It included the process of suppressing the uprising and the resulting massacre of at least 30,000 civilians by the military police. The foremost and imminent goal of the nation, at the time, was the abolishment of the demarcation line (separating Korea into north and south) and the clearing away of the evil legacies of Japanese colonial rule. Liberation from the Japanese, however, brought about another kind of occupation. The general sentiment among the people was that a new nation should be established by a united government, not by separate governments founded in South and North Korea. If Jeju Island was ever in any way culpable, it was perhaps that it was the most aggressive in expressing its opposition to a separate government.


One year before the Massacre struck, the islanders held a March First protest. This was, in a way, a precursor to the Massacre. On March 1, 1947, people organized an outdoor rally demanding the pull-out of American and Russian troops from the peninsula in order to achieve true independence. The (Korean) police under U.S. control fired at the protesters, killing six people and hurting ten others. The general strike subsequently launched by the islanders in protest of this atrocity was met not by an apology, but by brutal oppression. The entire island was accused of being pro-communist. It is well known that the police roundups, terror, and torture committed by the police under the auspices of the American Military Government resulted in many deaths, triggering the April 3, 1948 uprising.


The general strike in which almost all islanders joined speaks volumes of the communal nature of the island. The cohesiveness of the island community stems from a long history of fighting against outside forces that harmed the community. Jeju is a rocky island formed in the middle of the ocean from the ashes of volcanic eruptions. Its inhabitants are as strong and willful as the deep root of the weeds. Its barren soil forced all residents, including the upper class and the literate to labor in the fields in order to have three square meals a day. It was a poor community but the members were equal. This is how the islanders had developed a strong sense of community: their consciousness that they were in the same boat. The islanders who lived in a tight-knit society like the weeds intertwined in the barren soil faced two kinds of outside intrusions. One was the foreigners that invaded the island — the Mongolians, Japanese pirate raiders, Imperial France, and Japan. The other was the central government which had nothing to provide the islanders, but seized every opportunity to take away from the island. The politicians in exile, banished from the central government also played a role in this anti-central government sentiment. The Island was the disposal site for fallen politicians whom the central government wished to banish. So the island has had a long history of small and large-scale resistance against the central royal government which exercised severe discriminatory policies against the island while exacting an inordinate amount of tribute and harsh military obligations from the islanders.


Those who are oppressed and exploited tend to resort to Messianism. They long for a savior or a hero who will come to their rescue with a vision of new life and save them from misery. Islanders referred to such a hero as Jin-in, or “true man.” The crying lips of at least 10,000 aggrieved subjects were thought to be necessary for the far-away royal government to hear them out. This required extraordinary bravery since leaders of such insurgencies were invariably decapitated. The birth of a hero in the remote island suffering from discrimination amounted to nothing more than an insurrection that always ended in the execution of the hero accused of treason. The heroes whose lives ended in death were “true men” (Jin-in, 眞人) who sought to save the people by sacrificing themselves.


The uprising, therefore, was an extension of a tradition of resistance characteristic of the island’s history, not, as the ultra-rightists claim, a communist proletariat insurrection. The island, painted red by the extreme right-wingers, became the stage of indiscriminate massacre. What the islanders thought of as resistance in the traditional sense produced a totally different result from what it had in the past. Unlike the past in which the heroes’ lives were sacrificed in return for the deliverance of the people, the leaders in the April 3rd uprising faced a tragic situation in which they not only found themselves but also the people killed. The islanders were in a state of total shock as they unsuccessfully tried to make sense of the unfamiliar scene of massacre unfolding before them. At the time the Massacre was under way, the president of the United States was Truman and Korea’s ruling elite tried to deceive the people into thinking of Truman as the Messiah by translating literally his name as Jin-in (眞人).


The impact of the incident seemed as grave as the atomic bomb explosions on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The magnitude of the violence was such that at least 30,000 civilians, or one-ninth of the total population, were brutally murdered and 130 villages scorched. The Massacre took place as part of the strategic framework of U.S. policy. Can the United States profess innocence simply because it didn’t bloody its hands? The fact that the scene of genocide was void of U.S. presence and committed by Korean soldiers in American military uniforms and boots does not excuse the United States of the crime. War inevitably makes humans act more impulsively and instinctively. The United States took full advantage of such human nature and granted a so-called ‘license to kill’ even to the lowest-ranking snipers, bringing out human savageness to its maximum. Under the cloak of the Military Advisory Council, the United States remained invisible throughout the Massacre, hidden inside the warships that formed a blockade around the island, inside the landing ship tanks, and the Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) offices in Jeju County. They understood perfectly well that the most efficient way for the occupiers to quell an insurrection is to create a war among those under subjugation and to refrain from direct involvement in the bloodshed. The following is an excerpt from my short story “Steel and Flesh”:


Whose crime is this? The machine gun? The shooter pulling the trigger? The officer \

making the orders? The battalion commander who handed down the decision through

the walkie-talkie? The regimental commander? Or the U.S. Military Advisory Council?

Someone in the higher ranks? Who stands at the top of the commanding pyramid? Was

Truman really a “True man”?


Orders from the top were mechanically delivered to the lowest level. Mechanical thinking was void of any human element and everything was alarmingly simple — the mid-mountain areas were the base camp for the human and resource flow for the guerrillas. Therefore, everything, including human lives, had to be completely destroyed. Cold harsh steel machines automatically moved at the press of a button. The fingers that press the button need not bloody their hands. To them, the death toll is merely a statistic with hardly any scent of blood involved.


On the battlefield, it is impossible to disobey orders from the top. Under the circumstances that even innocent people such as children, old men, and women were the target of indiscriminate killing, the solders might console their guilty consciences by saying to themselves: “Exactly so, they are reds. They are but reds.”


It was actually quite simple — the Massacre, which killed at least 30,000 innocent civilians, erupted in the process of eliminating 200 or so young men who revolted (on April 3, 1948) without any proper weapons, armed only with their insuppressible wrath. There was at the time a saying “kill a hundred with one culprit” which meant if you killed one hundred civilians, there was bound to be at least one guerrilla among them. So is it the case that 30,000 civilians were brutally murdered to get rid of 200 guerrillas?


The United States and the ruling government colored eighty percent of the island red and called it the “Red Island.” Red at the time meant death. When I was tortured by the military secret service, they too called me a “red writer,” trying to frame me as pro-communist. But the only red they saw was the blood clot in my middle finger crushed by their torture. Had such an incident taken place in 1948, I would surely have been shot.


So many civilians were killed, branded as pro-communist during the Massacre which was dubbed the “Red Hunt.” This wasn’t necessarily limited to “hunting down the communist.” As was the case in the Massacre, “Red Hunt” is a somewhat ironic term which refers to the historical practice of framing innocent people as communists. The term borrows its form from the “witch hunt” of medieval times during which a huge number of women were branded as evil witches or deemed to have communicated with witches and were sacrificed in the name of religion. Modern times saw history repeating itself by once again sacrificing numerous civilians in name of ideology, falsely charging innocent people as communists.

Truman was head of the U.S. administration both in 1948, the year of the Massacre, and in 1950, the year of 6.25 War (Korean War). It was also in 1950 that “McCarthy’s tornado” took place in the United States. It seems that the term “Red Hunt” was frequently mentioned during the period of intense anticommunism called McCarthyism. Hundreds of government servants lost their jobs, while writers, artists and intellectuals were branded as communist sympathizers by ultra-rightists. But how different the “Red Hunt” in the United States was from that which had unfolded in Jeju — indiscriminate massacre of innocent lives.


“Hunt” is a term used for animals not for humans. “Rabbit hunt” or even “witch hunt” might make sense because a witch is not human. “Red hunt” must operate under the premise that communists are not human. When Spaniards ruined Mayan civilization in the 16th century and slaughtered the Mayan people, the Catholics granted themselves an indulgence in the heinous killings by deciding that the indigenous peoples were non-human — that they were closer to animals than humankind. To kill without any sense of guilt, the target must be either an animal or an inferior human, in other words, a savage. Such logic was behind the carnage perpetrated against Native Americans by the pioneers during the westward expansion of the United States to the Pacific coast.


The equation that communists were non-human was behind the Massacre. Communists were not “people of leftist ideology,” but inferior beings, or savages. Those who killed such “savages” were exonerated of any sin. The problem was, however, that out of the 30,000 victims, only a small number were pro-Communists while the majority were innocent civilians. Atrocity was committed under the name of civilization. In my short story “Steel and Flesh,” the following appears:


Oh, how mysterious, unbelievable, incomprehensible. It is truly a tragedy, unseen and

unheard of. How can humans so brutally crush fellow humans? Animals are rarely

slaughtered in such manner…. To destroy evidence, they poured gasoline and burned

the bodies which, they said, smelled much like burning pork. So did the murderers,

through the familiar scent of burning meat, confirm once again that what they had

slaughtered were indeed not human but animal? No, not at all. They left the scene in

haste, covering their noses with queasiness.


I had employed harsh terms to describe the cruelty of the Massacre. The beauty of camellias fallen upon the snow, for example, is used, in a distorted manner, to portray the image of decapitated heads soaked in blood tossed on the snow. Narratives used in documentaries were used instead of traditional methods of writing novels. I hoped to share with my readers the utmost sense of urgency of the indirect experience I acquired while conducting research and during the compilation process.


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I continued my exploration of the Massacre, which started with the production of literary works, by participating in organizations and campaigns. The quest for truth with regard to the Massacre was part of the democratization movement during the 1980s. The quest, which continued under intense fear [of repression], was a struggle against the conspiracy of concealment, denial, and distortion committed by the ruling government, and against indifference and cynicism by the general public. The democratization movement finally claimed victory in the 1990s after a long and difficult struggle. The campaign to shed light on the truth of the Massacre also bore fruit — the Special Law on the April 3rd Massacre was ratified by the National Assembly five years ago [on December 16, 1999]. It was truly a feat, a miracle for Jeju residents.


This is, however, just the beginning. Although discussing the memory of the losers and victims is now to some extent allowed, it will take much longer to quell opposition from the ultra-rightists and to replace the official memory with the truth. It is one thing to accommodate the memory of the innocent victim, but quite another to reinstate the memory of the loser [as the prevailing social memory]. It is perhaps impossible for the time being. This is precisely why the struggle to remember the Massacre must continue. Unfortunately, the Massacre is too quickly fading away from the psyche of the general public. No sooner had the incident recovered its shine from the darkness than it lost its glitter. Just as the buzzwords of the 1980s such as “history,” “the people,” and “the populace” faded away, the Massacre also faces the danger of disappearing from people’s minds, caught up in a short-circuited materialistic society. The atrocity committed during the incident has yet to be identified before fading into oblivion.


The entrance at Auschwitz still bears the following message: “There is one thing more fearful than Auschwitz. It is that mankind might forget.” It is an epigram warning of the possibility of history repeating itself, whether it be for individuals or for the entire society that chooses to forget. In Beloved by Toni Morrison, the term “rememory” appears. Rememory is a word to emphasize the meaning of memory, or the behavior of continuously trying to remember. Sethe, an escaped slave and mother, lives with the ghost of her dead baby daughter. Beloved signifies the importance of re-remembering the painful past, racial discrimination, and cruelty. The ghost and its character enable such an intense subject matter to be presented in artistic form. I remain envious of Morrison for possessing such extraordinary powers of artistry.


In retrospect, the sorrow of the Massacre was far from the delicate and profound sadness often expressed through “pure literature,” but rather a fierce and painful sorrow amid heaps of bodies, blood, and crying. One can easily understand why Theodor Adorno argued that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Literature has a bad tendency of evading social issues and harsh reality in favor of fantasy, romance, and fiction. Literature favors melancholic sadness which humans can tolerate. It is therefore difficult to find literature that deals with dead bodies, blood, screaming, cries, or formidable pain. Readers also instinctively shun such novels. Sorrow and misfortune are allowed only when they are part of overall happiness in a novel. Daniel Defoe shied away from the plague and the dead bodies he witnessed and wrote fictional tales such as Robinson Crusoe, as did Montaigne who was able to concentrate on his Essais without uttering a word on the religious wars which entailed merciless slaughter. Then again isn’t it human nature to try to look at the bright side? Who wants to deal with a world of dead bodies anyway? Isn’t it a fact that the survivors of the Massacre themselves keep trying to forget the dreadful memory?


Even if this is the case, it would be impossible not to mention such horrific incidents in literature. As Roland Barthes put it, this is because the living are endowed with the inevitable responsibility to reveal the truth for the dead, no matter how painful and fearsome the experience is. The living owe it to the dead to enable the dead to declare their bitter grief. The responsibility lies especially heavy on writers. Literature should not look the other way from blood, crying, dead bodies, or sheer hell simply because they represent a world totally different from that which we call art and beauty. So what if our work becomes non-literature, even anti-literature? If we as writers embrace the view that the pen is an obligation as well as a right, the survivor of a horrible incident and outsiders observing the scene alike shall not hesitate to speak their minds and show interest in the hidden truth.


Hyun Ki-young is a Korean novelist who was born in Jeju Island. He made his literary debut in 1975 when his short story “Father” received the top award in the Dong-a-Ilbo Spring Literary Contest. His works include his celebrated story Sun-i Samch’on, originally published in 1978 and republished in a new English translation as Aunt Suni by Asia Publishers in 2012; Byeonbang-e Woojineun Sae (Howling Crows on the Border, 1983); Majimak Taewoori (The Last Horse Herder, 1994), a collection of short stories that was awarded the Oh Yeong-su Literary Prize in 1994; Asphalt, a collection of short stories that received the Shin Dong-yeop Literary Award in 1986; Baram-taneun Seom (Windy Island, 1989), a novel that received the Manhae Prize in 1990; and Jisang-e Sootgarak Hana (One Spoon on this Earth, 1999), a novel that was distinguished with the Hankook Ilbo Literature Prize in 1999. He served as the chairperson of the National Literary Writers Association and as the president of the Korean Culture and Arts Foundation. He was the first director of the Jeju 4.3 Institute and a representative on the committees that organized the fiftieth, sixtieth, and seventieth anniversaries of the 4.3 incident. In recognition of his critical and courageous role in unveiling the truth about the 4.3 incident through his fiction during the military dictatorship era as well as his tireless efforts to ensure that this history is not forgotten, he was awarded the third Jeju 4.3 Peace Prize in 2019.

#HyunKiyoung #Jeju43 #JejuMassacre

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