I felt it was my duty to pay a visit to the April 3 Peace Park. I feel that, since I was having fun at many of Jeju’s attractions, I should also learn about Jeju’s painful past.
The April 3 Peace Park has an exhibition which documents the events leading up to the Jeju Massacre, the Jeju Massacre itself, and the aftermath.
Even though the Jeju Massacre is often referred to as the ‘April 3rd Incident’, named after the island uprising which started on April 3rd, 1948, but the murders were carried out from 1948 to 1954. During the Jeju Massacre, about 30,000 people, 10% of Jeju Island’s population in the late 1940s, were murdered. An investigation conducted by the South Korean government in 2000 found that 80% of the murders were carried out by agents of the South Korean government.
Upon learning this, one might assume that the South Korean government had made mass murder an official policy. But Syngmann Rhee, the president (i.e. de facto dictator) of South Korea probably never decided ‘I want to kill 30,000 people on Jeju Island’. Rather, a combination of fear, pride, and ignorance on the part of the South Korean government caused them to eventually murder tens of thousands of Jeju islanders.
After Japan withdrew from Korea, Jeju residents organized their own people’s committees, which for a while were the only government on the island. The U.S. Military initially cooperated with the People’s Committees, and nothing seemed to be amiss.
However, the U.S. hastily appointed Japanese collaborators to many of their old posts, and the Jeju people were a bit angry that the people who had oppressed them during Japanese rule were in a position of power again. There were also other little problems building up, increasing the islanders’ frustration.
Then a police officer opened fire on a crowd, killing three people, including a 10-year old boy and a woman carrying a baby. This caused the island to erupt into protests.
Of course, the police officers weren’t going to admit that they provoked the protests by mistreating people and killing and 10-year-old boy. So they claimed that the protests were stirred up by Communists and North Korean sympathizers.
The exhibition points out that though the U.N. declared genocide on the basis of race and ethnicity to be wrong and illegal, they excluded oppression on the basis of political ideology, because the world powers wanted to root out people with the wrong political ideology by oppressive means.
That said, most Jeju islanders were not particularly interested in political ideology. They were mainly interested in having a decent life.
The South Korean government sent a right-wing youth militia from north-western Korea to Jeju Island. These were young men who had escaped from North Korea under the rule of Kim Il-Sung, and many had seen their family members tortured, raped, and murdered by agents of the North Korean government, and thus passionately hated communists. Since they were told that Jeju Island was a hotbed of communism, they were inclined to police the islanders harshly.
Jeju islanders responded by forming their own militia to defend themselves from an increasingly violent government, which unlike the majority of the islanders, was ideological, and pro-communist.
On top of that, there was a presidential election happening – only in South Korea. The Jeju islanders considered this election illegitimate because, first of all, it was only in South Korea, and the Jeju islanders feared that a split election would lead to a permanent split between South and North Korea, and there was only one candidate on the ballot – Syngman Rhee. Thus the vast majority of Jeju islanders abstained from the election, further angering the South Korean government.
The police and military on Jeju Island started executing anyone who they believed was supporting the islanders’ militia or who was a communist, and then executed their families. Sometimes they killed all of the residents in a village, including children. For example, everyone in Bukchon Village was murdered.
The investigation started by the South Korean government in 2000 found that most of the people who were murdered did not directly support the militia, they were simply innocent bystanders.
The island’s militia was not innocent. The South Korean government’s investigation found that it only murdered 80% of the victims. Some of the other 20% were murdered by the island’s own militia. They sometimes targeted villages which they considered to be pro-government, and executed civilians, including women and children, in those villages.
There were officers in the South Korean military who were morally opposed to murdering the islanders, who sometimes refused to obey orders to kill civilians, and who advocated finding peaceful solutions to the disputes. They were dismissed.
The U.S. military – which was heavily focused on suppressing communism – supported the South Korean’s actions on Jeju Island. It encouraged the South Korean military for promoting the ‘tough’ officers – i.e. the officers which murdered the most civilians, and encouraged the South Korean military to remove ‘soft’ officers – i.e. the officers who were opposing to murdering civilians.
Many Jeju islanders fled, mostly going to Japan, and this is why there is a relatively large population of Jeju islanders in Japan today. I think it says something about the South Korean government that, in spite of all of the ways Japan had mistreated Jeju island and the fact that Japan was a war-torn country immediately after World War II, the Jeju islanders still felt safer in Japan.
The exhibition is not merely a description of the facts – it is also full of works of art, such as the one shown above, which process the emotional trauma of the massacre.
For decades after the massacre, it was illegal to mention it in South Korea, and people were tortured and put in prison if they tried to discuss it. Only when South Korea transitioned to democracy did it become legal to talk about the massacre. In 2006, the president of South Korea, then Roh Moo Hyun, visited Jeju island and apologized on the behalf of the South Korean government.
There is also an exhibition about genocides around the world, with particular emphasis on the Holocaust in Europe.
Outside, there are even more works of art, as well as grave markers, and an altar for praying for the victims’ souls.
I think the April 3rd Peace Park offers an important lesson. People tend to think that great crimes have great, sinister masterminds behind them. However, many great crimes do not have sinister masterminds behind them. Many great crimes start as smaller crimes which escalate as people do not want to back down or admit they were wrong.