Written by Marissa Lynn
“Persecution of ordinary farmers.”
“Careful government cover-up.”
“Sixty years in exile.”
These are just some of the phrases my co-teacher used when I first learned about the 4.3 Massacre. In the face of Jeju’s dark past, I struggled to rationalize that the island known as the Hawaii of Korea, a romantic honeymoon destination and weekend get-away from caffeine-driven, workaholic Seoul, was ravaged by a bloody conflict pre-dating the Korean War.
During the post-colonial turmoil and the subsequent division of the Korean Peninsula, Jeju was branded a “Red Island.” The U.S. military dispatched police and youth troops called the seochung to suppress strikes and perceived communist activity across the island. The troops terrorized and tortured Jeju civilians. On the morning of April 3, 1948, members of the Namro Party rose up against the brutality, initiating an era of violence. The forests around Hallasan, Jeju’s famed volcanic peak, became a battleground between the seochung and leftist groups. After learning that the majority of casualties were Jeju people with no political affiliations, I was interested to see how the events that took place between 1947 and 1954 contribute to the Jeju narrative and fit amongst the geologic formations, diving women and biting gusts of salt-infused air that Jeju is known for today.
The answers came when I least expected it. As I reached across the dinner table to dip a crackling piece of horsemeat in gochujang[1. A pungent fermented Korean condiment made from red chili, glutinous rice, fermented soybeans, and salt] – a Jeju specialty – at a family gathering, I remember hearing “4월3일[2. April 3 in Korean].” Wanting to reaffirm that my elementary Korean language skills had not deceived me, I raced to the calendar on the wall. My finger hovered over the previous Thursday, the ominous date of the Jeju Massacre. My entire extended host family nodded in unison.
“Sixty-four years,” stammered a great aunt. “Sixty-four years in Japan. Jeju was my home but I couldn’t return out of fear of imprisonment or death.”
Between 1947 and 1954, many people fled to Japan to escape the violence in Jeju. My host aunt was among those who sought sanctuary abroad. Unable to return to Korea or obtain Japanese citizenship, she has been living country-less for over 60 years. Beginning in the early 2000s with President Roh Moo-Hyun’s apology to the Jeju people, she has made a yearly pilgrimage to Jeju to mark the tragic anniversary of her flight. Hopefully it’s partially cathartic to return to see the beautiful cherry blossoms, symbolic of new beginnings, blooming around the 4.3 Memorial near her family home and attend the annual memorial services. This year was especially significant as the South Korean government finally recognized 4.3 as a national memorial day after 66 years of blindness and disregard. But memorials, government recognition and truth commissions will never fully compensate for the 66 years of family gatherings she has missed.
My host family is fortunate — separation is better than lingering uncertainty. Many Jeju people will never know what happened to their loved ones. Countless fathers and grandfathers, the majority of which were farmers with no political agendas or violent motives, were lost in the struggle. 3,429 tombstones dot the hillside beside the 4.3 Memorial marking the 3,429 victims that were never found[3. Jeju 4.3 Peace Park, www.jeju43peace.or.kr].
“One night he didn’t come home,” my Fulbright co-teacher stated as casually as if she was describing cooking dinner. “My mother remarried and hardly mentioned it.”
As we walked around the 4.3 Memorial on a drizzly Sunday morning, both of us knew that one of the nameless tombstones belonged to him. Neither one of us spoke, but the truth hung heavy in the rain-soaked air. Stopping in front of the metal frame of a tree with colorful paper leaves for visitors to leave their impressions, I scribbled a quick message:
To the sons and daughters of Jeju lost and never found. You are not forgotten.
I received a quick nod from my co-teacher as I placed my note on a low-hanging branch of the tree. She announced in an emotionless voice, “It’s time to go, Marissa.” I knew that this was the same stalwart demeanor that Jeju people have projected for the past 66 years, yet that nod contained a hint of something else. It was subtle, but a dose of appreciation and healing came from sharing a family burden.
For many Jeju people, the 4.3 Massacre is a historical burden — a hardship borne amongst the survivors and descendants. It will remain a burden until the incident is given a historical definition. While historians have worked to discern the seeds of the conflict, a large tombstone lacking an inscription at the entrance of the 4.3 Memorial reminds us of the ambiguity surrounding the event. “Massacre,” “incident,” “uprising” and “violent counter-insurgency” have all been used to describe the years between 1947 and 1954. The contradictory nature of these names is a result of the 50-year government cover-up and the fierce repression of information related to the event. But now that the dead have been tallied and the government recognizes 4.3 as a national memorial day, we should call it what it was: a massacre.
With the word “massacre” in mind, I return to that crowded kitchen filled with members of my host family gathered to say goodbye. These are the survivors. This is what it means to share a tragic history. The clock ticks loudly on the wall announcing the passing of yet another hour that no one seems to recognize. The young children sleep peacefully in the corner, their bedtime long since passed. We have a long drive ahead of us. The sinuous 516 road which passes over Hallasan and connects Jeju City and Seogwipo is dangerous late at night, but we are not ready to leave just yet. Each moment is precious. One night a year is all we have.
Marissa Lynn is a 2013-2014 ETA at Seogwipo Middle School in Seogwipo, Jeju-do.