Amazing food, nice weather, gorgeous landscapes, and a favorite destination for a weekend getaway; this is what Jeju Island in South Korea is mostly known for today. However, few are aware that this paradise is still overcoming a dark past. Before their island turned into a tourist magnet, Jeju inhabitants witnessed unspeakable horrors which continue to affect them to this day– 70 years later.
Jeju has witnessed much violence and strong military presence over the last century. During the Pacific War, the Japanese turned the island into a war base. They built countless military facilities across the island in order to be well-prepared for the final battle against the United States. At the time, many Koreans were made to work as forced laborers for the Japanese on construction sites. Citizens of Jeju also had to give up their food to the Japanese authorities to support their war efforts. Later, in 1945, Jeju island–due to its strategic location– became an important crossroad for US forces to hit the Japanese mainland. It was only in September of 1945, after their surrender, that the Japanese forces disarmed Jeju.
But the suffering didn’t end there. Korea went from being occupied by the Japanese to being placed under US control. When the Korean inhabitants of Jeju heard that elections would only be held in the South–thus reinforcing Korea’s division– they fiercely protested and planned on boycotting the elections which were scheduled for May 10.
Pro-independence activists were particularly active in Jeju and were treated with suspicion by the US forces and were perceived as people who supported a communist political ideology. The island was thus branded the ‘Red Island’ by the US military government and, later, the new South Korean government. It’s interesting to note, however, that, according to a survey conducted by the US military government, Jeju was the most educated area of the nation in 1947. Regardless of this, the authorities maintained their line of thought.
Angry about the government’s decision, on April 3, 1948, Jeju rebels attacked police units and right-wing paramilitary groups. As a result, local police–acting under the guise of U.S. Army Military Government– brutally cracked down on the protesters. Over the next six years, it is estimated that around 25,000 to 30,000 islanders, or about 10 percent of the Jeju population, were killed.
Then, in 1950, tens of thousands of young Korean men suspected to be communists were rounded up across the nation and executed in operations known as “preventative detention.” Jeju inhabitants were particularly targeted and around 132 men were executed in August. Families of the victims were unable to retrieve the bodies of their loved ones as the Korean military forbade the families access to the bodies for six years. Many elderly women who had male family members killed during that time subsequently suffered from PTSD and depression.
Despite–or perhaps because of– its military history, anti-militarism attitudes among islanders is still strong. In 2011, Jeju residents took to the streets to protests against the building of a US naval base on the island. Thousands of islanders took part and some even chained themselves to heavy machinery to halt construction or surrounded the base with kayaks. Many were particularly concerned about the damage the building of such a base would bring and to the environment, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Thus, it is clear that even decades after the horrors, the people of Jeju have not forgotten their painful past. What’s more is that this darker side of the island’s history has even made its way into Jeju’s tourism industry. Coined “dark tourism”, the island offers special tours to show visitors a different side of Jeju and to inform them about the island’s bloody past. The tour includes sights such as a former Japanese airfield, caves constructed during the Japanese occupation, the Jeju Peace Museum, the Jocheon Manse Memorial, and the Memorial Park.
However, after seventy years, the government is finally taking responsibility for what happened on April 3, 1948. President Moon became the second president ever–after Roh Moo-hyun– to offer the islanders an official apology during a visit to Jeju on Tuesday. He vowed the government would do everything possible to uncover the true facts concerning the incident and to restore the honor of the victims, continue work to retrieve the remains of the missing, provide compensation to survivors and set up a state-run trauma center. The ceremony was attended by 15,000 people, including government officials, heads of both ruling and opposition parties, survivors and family members of victims.
This story was originally published in The East Asia Report, under the Peninsula Report.
Remembering the 4.3 Jeju Uprising was originally published in The Peninsula Report on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.