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Seeing Jeju in Gaza

By John Eperjesi | December 26, 2023  

An earlier version of this article appeared as a guest essay in the Hankyoreh, December 15, 2023

Kang Yo-bae’s painting “Infant” (2007) depicts a moment when Han Ok-ja’s younger brother tried to nurse at his mother’s breast after she’d been shot by punitive forces during the April 3 Incident, not knowing she was dead. (courtesy of Kang Yo-bae)

One of the worst civilian massacres in 20th-century Asian history took place on Jeju Island at the dawn of the Cold War. On this “hauntingly beautiful island,” Bruce Cumings writes, “the postwar world first witnessed the American capacity for unrestrained violence against indigenous peoples fighting for self-determination and social justice.”


Since October 7th, a civilian massacre on the other side of Asia, in Gaza, has been unfolding, one that many scholars, journalists, and activists are calling a genocide. This humanitarian crisis can be compared to the Jeju April 3 Incident because Palestinians in Gaza have also been fighting for self-determination and justice, and against an Israeli military occupation, since 1967. We can see Jeju’s past in the unrestrained violence raining down on Gaza now.  


The US military occupation of South Korea began in 1945 when the World War II defeat of Japan ended 35 years of colonial rule in Korea. Frustration and anger at the military occupation built up slowly at first, then accelerated and exploded three years later on Jeju Island. John Merrill points out that, “Violent opposition on this scale to a postwar American occupation occurred nowhere else in Asia or Europe.”


Like Jeju Islanders at the inception of the Cold War, over the past fifty-six years, Palestinians in occupied Gaza have been routinely subjected to multiple forms of state violence designed to terrorize them into submission: beatings, torture, mass arrests, executions, interrogations, curfews, lockdowns, checkpoints, deportations, property destruction, financial sanctions, blockades, rations, quotas. In 2014, the Israeli Jewish “new historian” Ilan Pappé described life in Gaza as a form of “incremental genocide.” In 1987, the first Palestinian uprising, or “intifada,” began. This was a mostly nonviolent uprising, led mainly by women and inspired in part by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Gene Sharp.


Just as the entire population of Gaza is being punished for the October 7 attack by Hamas militants, the entire population of Jeju Island was subjected to state terror after an organized resistance of islanders rose up on April 3, 1948 in protest of police brutality and of pending United Nations sponsored elections to create a separate U.S.- backed state in the south.  In reprisal for what is today remembered as the April 3 Incident the US military government and the newly formed Republic of Korea (ROK) administered “collective punishment” on the entire island, a war crime prohibited by the Hague Regulations (1899) and Fourth Geneva Convention (1949), much as the U.S.-backed Israeli government is meting out to the general population of Gaza today.


Since the Hamas attack, killing an estimated 1139 civilians and Israeli Defense Forces soldiers, over 20,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed by the IDF of which 70% have been women or children under the age of 18.  In Jeju an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 islanders were killed, or one-tenth of the population, of which one-third were elderly, women, or children.  In Gaza almost “900,000 buildings have suffered severe destruction and damage from Israeli bombardments, including places of worship, hospitals, schools, and residential buildings,” resulting in displacement of 80 to 90% of the population of Gaza according to United Nations estimates. Those who have been forced out of their homes are now stuck in overcrowded shelters, makeshift tents, and open areas without enough food, clean water, proper sewage or sanitation. More people may end up dying from diseases – bloody diarrhea, jaundice, measles, meningitis, chickenpox, viral hepatitis – than from bombs and missiles, according to the UN Food Programme.  In Jeju, scorched earth campaigns destroyed ninety-five percent of mountain villages, and 80,000 to 90,000 villagers were forcibly relocated to internment camps along the coastline.  As in Gaza today virtually every family in Jeju was impacted by state violence.

Smoke rises from the vicinity of Khan Younis in southern Gaza, where the IDF has begun staging a ground war, on Dec. 6. (EPA/Yonhap)

In addition to unrelenting bombing of the civilian population, the Israeli government is using starvation as a method of warfare, which is prohibited by international law, leaving the entire population of Gaza at risk of famine. As Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant stated, “I have ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed. We are fighting human animals and we act accordingly.” Israel’s Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Arieh King said, “They are not human beings and they are not animals, they are subhuman and that is how they should be treated.” Asian peoples from Palestine in the west to Korea in the east, have often been subjected to dehumanizing stereotypes and slurs. In the United States, derogatory terms like “yellow peril,” “gook,” “sand nigger,” “raghead,” “chink,” “Jap,” “Nip,” “slope,” and most recently “China virus,” have historically enabled acts of racist hate, both big and small, both foreign and domestic, ranging from the massacre of civilians in the Philippines, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, to the brutal attacks on Asian Americans during the pandemic which gave rise to the #StopAsianHate movement.


Isaac Herzog, the President of Israel, views the massacre of civilians and destruction of Gaza as part of global clash of civilizations, “This is a war that is not only between Israel and Hamas. It’s a war that is really intended, really, truly, to save Western civilization.” The state of Israel, propped up with billions of dollars in military aid from the US, is proudly broadcasting the interrelated practices of racism, apartheid, settler colonialism, ethnic cleansing, and genocide which helped build western civilization, and viewers from around the world are horrified by what they are seeing.


Many people are turning to the late Palestinian-American cultural critic Edward Said to make sense of what is happening in Gaza. Like Said’s analysis of the intersection of racism and colonialism in Orientalism (1978), Discourse on Colonialism (1950) by the great Martinican poet, playwright, and politician Aimé Césaire, provides a historical context for understanding, and critiquing, the support for Israel by the governments of the Global North. When the United States was the only country to veto the UN Security Council resolution demanding an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza, I thought of Césaire’s words, “I make no secret of my opinion that at the present time the barbarism of Western Europe has reached an incredibly high level, being only surpassed–far surpassed, it is true – by the barbarism of the United States.” A barbaric form of American exceptionalism is thriving in the twenty-first century.  But I take heart that massive protests around the world are calling for an immediate ceasefire and for a free Palestine. In the US, many of these protests are being led by both Jewish and Palestinian groups and their allies


In 1953, the Armistice Agreement stopped the senseless killing of the Korean War, but the ceasefire was never followed up by a formal peace treaty. Unending war has resulted in massive military buildup, divided families, authoritarian governments, travel restrictions, sanctions, famine, and mandatory military service. Everyone on the Korean Peninsula, and indeed in the Asia-Pacific region, lives under the threat of a return to total war. There are plenty of hawks in the United States who would love to do to North Korea, and China, what Israel is doing to Gaza.


If the new cold war turns hot, the entire Korean Peninsula, both north and south, could be reduced to rubble while American bombers fly overhead, painted with the slogan, “Saving Western Civilization.”

John Eperjesi is a Professor of Literature at Kyung Hee University in Seoul.



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