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The Jeju Uprising and the 2018 Peace Tour

Signs commemorating 4.3 and the ongoing struggle against military base construction in Jeju.

Jeong Eun Annabel We | April 6, 2020


April 3rd is a day of commemoration in South Korea for what is known as the Jeju Uprising against national division, militarism, and state violence. This article reflects on the significance of this date, based on my participation in a peace tour of 2018.

In late June of 2018, a delegation of activists, artists, and scholars visited Jeju Island in South Korea. Several South Korean academic groups, activist organizations, and schools organized the peace study tour to educate participants about the island’s past and current histories of resistance against state violence and imperialism. 2018 marked the 70th anniversary of Jeju island’s “4-3 Sakŏn” (4-3 Incident), alternatively known as the April Third massacre, or the Jeju Uprising.

Jeju, a tiny island off the eastern coast of southern Korea has a paradoxical reputation—one of the most beautiful islands on earth, a World Heritage site of unparalleled marine life and rock formations but also the site of some of the most brutal military massacres between 1947 and 1954 in modern history. This history was “buried” throughout much of the Cold War.

After Korea’s liberation in August 1945, the peninsula was almost immediately divided at the 38th parallel by the United States. The United States and the Soviet Union then occupied the southern and northern halves, respectively, from 1945 to 48. But liberation was also promptly followed by the formation of grassroots political organizations called the People’s Committees all throughout the peninsula. Although these committees flourished in the north, they were targeted for suppression in the south. Despite the division, those groups persisted, attempting to install democratic elections that reflected the people’s sovereignty. In this context, the April Third Uprising began under the U.S. military occupation in 1947 and lasted seven years until 1954. Police from mainland Korea shot at and killed civilians at a public gathering at Kwandŏkchŏng on March 1, 1947, on the anniversary of the movement for national independence (originating from the March First movement in 1919 under Japanese colonial rule). Events escalated quickly, leading to an across-the-island general strike on March 10, 1947. The U.S. military government in South Korea labeled what was a general protest of the murders as a “communist” revolt and deployed a paramilitary youth group called Sŏbukch’ŏngnyŏndan (Northwest Youth Group), which to this day many Jeju islanders consider a terrorist group. As torture, imprisonment, and murders ensued, U.S.-backed South Korean president Syngman Rhee planned a May 1948 general election in South Korea, which would have effectively solidified the national division against the wish of many Koreans. When Jeju islanders protested the election, as did many others on the peninsula, amid the ongoing paramilitary lockdown on the island, the U.S. military government in South Korea sent an army to Jeju to quell the protests on April 18, 1948. In August of the same year, Rhee’s government came into power in South Korea; in November, martial law was declared in Jeju, and the police and military committed massacres of many islanders who hid in the mountains. It is estimated that up to 30,000 people, or 10% of the island’s population, was killed. The uprising ended with trials of Jeju people in a military, rather than civilian, court, which was not legally justified.

Although the South Korean government has since retracted the charges and ruled the principals as innocent, many Jeju islanders continue to seek reparations and to make the U.S. government recognize its role in the massacres. Beyond the span of these 7 years of resistance, April Third Uprising demands the need to understand the larger context of militarism and struggle for sovereignty in Jeju, from Japanese colonialism (1910-45) to U.S. military occupation (1945-48) to South Korean government’s militarization of the island (1948-present). A site of long historical struggle of resistance against external military infringements, Jeju’s latest struggle (from 2007 onwards) has been over the construction of a huge South Korean naval base in the town of Gangjeong.

In this spirit, many events of the 2018 peace tour were planned to commemorate this history, and the tour addressed what has happened on Jeju since April 3, 1948 with the aim of connecting Jeju’s history to broader questions of South Korea’s relation to war, militarization, and the United States. During the five-day tour, over 40 participants visited the island’s sites that marked Jeju’s resilience as a community. I participated in the tour with the Overseas Organizing Committee, and our principal partner organizations in South Korea were the Human Rights Foundation Saram (인권재단사람), Institute for Korean Historical Studies (역사문제연구소), and People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (참여연대).


The Jeju tour of 2018 in fact marked the third in a series of Peace Study Tours organized by multiple South Korean, U.S., and U.K. groups of scholars and activists. The peace study tours were originally conceived by the now-dormant Alliance of Scholars Concerned about Korea (ASCK, http://www.asck.org). ASCK sought to intervene in the broader U.S. public’s views of Korea by transforming how U.S.-Korea relations and history were taught in higher education – work, which is being continued by others now. Likewise, the peace study tours aimed to change the U.S.-Korea relationship towards peace. The first peace tour took place in 2013 with a focus on war crime sites such as No-gun-ri where the U.S. army massacred civilians during the Korean War in 1950, and the second peace tour took place in 2015 with a focus on the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Bringing South Korean and overseas academics and activists together at sites of conflict, the peace study tour has provided an opportunity for its participants to plan future work grounded in a more critical understanding of the unending Korean War. Their aim has been to foster participants’ work in our respective arenas to achieve peace on the peninsula.


April 3rd is a day of commemoration in South Korea and throughout the Korean diaspora for what is known as the Jeju Uprising against national division, militarism and state violence. This article reflects on the significance of this date, based on my participation in a peace tour of 2018.


In late June of 2018, a delegation of activists, artists, and scholars, from the United States and South Korea, visited Jeju Island in South Korea. Several South Korean and U.S. academic groups, activist organizations, and schools organized the peace study tour to educate participants about the island’s past and current histories of resistance against state violence and imperialism. 2018 marked the 70th anniversary of Jeju island’s “4-3 Sakŏn” (4-3 Incident), alternatively known as the April Third massacre, or the Jeju Uprising.


Jeju, a tiny island off the eastern coast of southern Korea has a paradoxical reputation—one of the most beautiful islands on earth, a World Heritage site of unparalleled marine life and rock formations but also the site of some of the most brutal military massacres between 1947 and 1954 in modern history. This history was “buried” throughout much of the Cold War. After Korea’s liberation in August 1945, the peninsula was almost immediately divided at the 38th parallel by the United States. The United States and the Soviet Union then occupied the southern and northern halves, respectively, from 1945 to 48. But liberation was also promptly followed by the formation of grassroots political organizations called the People’s Committees all throughout the peninsula.


Although these committees flourished in the north, they were targeted for suppression in the south. Despite the division, those groups persisted, attempting to install democratic elections that reflected the people’s sovereignty. In this context, the April Third Uprising began under the U.S. military occupation in 1947 and lasted seven years until 1954. Police from mainland Korea shot at and killed civilians at a public gathering at Kwandŏkchŏng on March 1, 1947, on the anniversary of the movement for national independence (originating from the March First movement in 1919 under Japanese colonial rule). Events escalated quickly, leading to an across-the-island general strike on March 10, 1947. The U.S. military government in South Korea labeled what was a general protest of the murders as a “communist” revolt and deployed a paramilitary youth group called Sŏbukch’ŏngnyŏndan (Northwest Youth Group), which to this day many Jeju islanders consider a terrorist group. As torture, imprisonment, and murders ensued, U.S.-backed South Korean president Syngman Rhee planned a May 1948 general election in South Korea, which would have effectively solidified the national division against the wish of many Koreans. When Jeju islanders protested the election, as did many others on the peninsula, amid the ongoing paramilitary lockdown on the island, the U.S. military government in South Korea authorized the military suppression of the protests on Jeju on April 18, 1948. In August of the same year, Rhee’s government came into power in South Korea; in November, martial law was declared in Jeju, and the police and military committed massacres of many islanders who hid in the mountains. It is estimated that up to 30,000 people, or 10% of the island’s population, was killed. The uprising ended with trials of Jeju people in a military, rather than civilian, court, which was not legally justified.


Although the South Korean government has since retracted the charges and ruled the principals as innocent, many Jeju islanders continue to seek reparations and to make the U.S. government recognize its role in the massacres. Beyond the span of these 7 years of resistance, April Third Uprising demands the need to understand the larger context of militarism and struggle for sovereignty in Jeju, from Japanese colonialism (1910-45) to U.S. military occupation (1945-48) to South Korean government’s militarization of the island (1948-present). A site of long historical struggle of resistance against external military infringements, Jeju’s latest struggle (from 2007 onwards) has been over the construction of a huge South Korean naval base in the town of Gangjeong.


In this spirit, many events of the 2018 peace tour were planned to commemorate this history, and the tour addressed what has happened on Jeju since April 3, 1948 with the aim of connecting Jeju’s history to broader questions of South Korea’s relation to war, militarization, and the United States. During the five-day tour, over 40 participants visited the island’s sites that marked Jeju’s resilience as a community. I participated in the tour with the Overseas Organizing Committee, and our principal partner organizations in South Korea were the Human Rights Foundation Saram (인권재단사람), Institute for Korean Historical Studies (역사문제연구소), and People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (참여연대).


The Jeju tour of 2018 in fact marked the third in a series of Peace Study Tours organized by multiple South Korean, U.S., and U.K. groups of scholars and activists. The peace study tours were originally conceived by the now-dormant Alliance of Scholars Concerned about Korea (ASCK, http://www.asck.org). ASCK sought to intervene in the broader U.S. public’s views of Korea by transforming how U.S.-Korea relations and history were taught in higher education – work, which continues in other forms. Likewise, the peace study tours aimed to change the U.S.-Korea relationship towards peace. The first peace tour took place in 2013 with a focus on war crime sites such as No-gun-ri, where the U.S. army massacred civilians during the Korean War in 1950, and the second peace tour took place in 2015 with a focus on the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Bringing South Korean and overseas academics and activists together at sites of conflict, the peace study tours have provided an opportunity for its participants to plan future work grounded in a more critical understanding of the unending Korean War. Their aim has been to foster participants’ work in our respective arenas to achieve peace on the peninsula.


Tour Details and Highlights


The tour began with a full-day symposium in which scholars and activists discussed the past, present, and future of April Third massacre’s significance. The symposium covered the historical silencing of survivors’ voices in South Korea, how Jeju people have sought to heal themselves, and how state violence continues on Jeju, most glaringly in the imposition of the South Korean naval base in Gangjeong village. The highlight of the symposium was the group exercise led by the activist/Gangjeong jikimi (protector of Gangjeong) Ttalgi. How far were groups willing to go to protect the symbolic island (towels) they were asked to stand on? When “the state” came to displace them, only one out of about seven groups was able to stand their ground. The exercise revealed the difficult nature of the fight that Gangjeong villagers had faced. Since the first announcement that a naval base would be installed in Gangjeong, local and international protest has interrupted the construction through various tactics. Yet, in spite of this ardent protest, the base was completed in 2016, inflicting great environmental damage on the area. The struggle of Gangjeong people exposes Jeju’s subjection to state surveillance and violence in the past and present because of its strategic location.


The second and third days of the tour consisted of visits to multiple April Third memorial sites around the island, led by staff of the Jeju Dark Tour NGO. At all sites—the communal cemetery at Seoddal oreum and the “lost village”—the extent of loss that the local community experienced was palpable. At the Daejong elementary school, soldiers rounded up the villagers in the schoolyard and fired shots at them; at the children’s graveyard, we paused to recall the children buried there who were killed in the elementary school shootings. Yet these sites of massacres, in spite of the violence enacted there, were so quietly mundane that they made one think of the prevalence of violence on Jeju and how the surviving residents chose to deal with it, which sometimes meant enduring silence while living alongside neighbors who were complicit perpetrators of this violence. After learning about this history, we moved on to another site, Seoddal oreum, where the villagers initiated a lawsuit against the South Korean government and succeeded in gaining recognition and compensation.


On the last day of the tour, we visited Gangjeong, the most striking part of the tour. We joined the daily rally that Gangjeong activists continue to hold and learned more about the history of their resistance and the more recent developments for the villagers in living with the military complex situated within the village. Although protests have always been peaceful, over 600 people have been arrested. Indeed, the Moon Jae-in government has not relieved Gangjeong people of their hardship, even as it, by way of comparison, has enacted reconciliatory measures on the issue of the April Third massacre. Confronted with the spectacle of a U.S. Aegis warship in the waters off Gangjeong, we could deduce that the base, though constructed by the South Korean military, serves U.S. military needs. Indeed, it is too large for the ships in South Korean navy but is suitable for aforementioned large U.S. Aegis warships. Sitting at the southernmost tip of South Korea, the base is, geographically speaking, better situated for U.S. actions against China rather than for the purported aim of South Korean defense against North Korean attack.


Moreover, the naval base devastated Gangjeong’s natural environment. To make way for the base, Gureombi, a natural rock formation along the shore, was blown up with dynamite. At the time of our visit, six warships had come in, some leaving behind large amounts of waste. At one point, nuclear waste was left untreated for a week in Gangjeong; the Jeju government didn’t have any radiation detectors and it took some time for Jeju University to treat the nuclear waste. Gangjeong’s sea used to be a lively dolphin habitat, but dolphins have long since left.


Interestingly, Gangjeong activists endeavor not only to inform visitors like us about these issues but also to educate military workers, including soldiers. Construction workers and soldiers have confessed to their prior ignorance of Gangjeong’s history, but after talking with the activists, felt compelled to vote in secret for political representatives who support the Gangjeong people’s cause. The island continues to be militarized. For example, the construction of the second airport in Jeju, begun in 2018 and projected to finish by 2035, amounts to the building of a second airbase against the wishes of many islanders.


Conclusion


The tour left a mark on all of us: we witnessed the pain of Jeju people’s daily struggles with militarization on their island. In my conversations with the activists from South Korean organizations, I learned that a major challenge to anti-militarist activism in South Korea partly lies in the faltering attention span of the media and concerned individuals. Once a military project reaches an irrevocable point, the media, both global and national, move on to other sites. Gangjeong has suffered such inattention, adding further injury to its wounds. What we need to remember about April Third Jeju Uprising, then, is that even as militarization is a process that is ongoing, so, too, is the resistance on the ground. Ongoing resistance in Gangjeong is closely linked to activism in other sites, such as Sosongri where Terminal High Altitude Area Defense installation, an American anti-ballistic missile system, has been deployed, and the planned site of the second airport in Jeju. Those of us outside of South Korea need to remember and honor such efforts on the ground.


In 2018, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Jeju April Third massacre, the South Korean government under Moon Jae-in issued an apology to the Jeju people. In the past, the progressive administrations of Ro Moo-hyun in 2003 and Kim Dae-jung in 1996 had likewise issued acknowledgments (although Kim described Jeju April Third massacre as caused by communist rioters), while the conservative administrations of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye did not. In January 2019, the South Korean Supreme Court reversed the martial court decisions that found Jeju civilians “guilty” and decided that eighteen people from the April Third incident were innocent.


However, the South Korean government has yet to issue reparations. Professor Huh Sangsoo, who studies the issue and has visited the United States to discuss this matter with members of the U.S. Congress, says that the U.S. government needs to address its role in the April Third incident as well as Korea’s national division. Korean and American scholars, activists, and community members continue to raise U.S. and South Korean public awareness about Jeju, akin to efforts made with regards to the ongoing Korean War. Scholars of the Jeju April Third massacre have been making the case for why the United States needs to address its responsibility and issue reparations.


Understanding the Jeju April Third massacre/uprising is a critical part of the broader effort to bring peace to Korea, especially as we are reminded this year of another tragic benchmark, the 70th anniversary of the ongoing Korean War. As we advocate for the signing of a peace treaty to finally end the Korean War and press for reconciliation between South and North Korea, please take a moment today to remember those who endured April Third.


Jeong Eun Annabel We, Ph.D. Rutgers University, New Brunswick, has written on the larger issue of militarization in the Pacific incorporating discussions of Jeju and the Yemeni refugee crisis that coincided with the above Peace Tour (“The Transpacific Tempest,” Cultural Dynamics 31.4 (Nov 2019): 375-398). She thanks the South Korean activists and scholars who organized the tour, and the Jeju residents and activists for their spirit and generosity. Dr. We was one of several members of the NYC group Nodutdol for Korean Community Development (www.nodutdol.org), who joined the 2018 Peace Tour. Nodutdol works to educate about the need for peace and reunification of the Korean peninsula in the broader context of de-militarizing the Asia-Pacific as well as addressing issues of inequity and racial injustice in the US.

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