On April 7, organizations seeking justice for the April 3 Jeju Uprising and Massacre in 1948 held a press conference in front of the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. The Association for the Bereaved Families of the April 3 Victims, the Memorial Committee for the 70th Anniversary of the Jeju April 3rd Uprising and Massacre, and the Pan-National Committee for the 70th Anniversary of Jeju April 3 organized the joint press conference to call on the U.S. to issue an official apology for the role of the U.S. Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) in the state repression and genocide that occurred over a seven-year period from 1947 to 1954. 200 people including the families of victims, Jeju residents, and peace activists also demanded a full investigation of the U.S. military to uncover the truth on U.S.’ involvement in the massacre. They attempted to deliver a letter containing their demands to the U.S. Embassy but were turned away by the police guarding the building. They subsequently staged a sit-down protest in front of the building to demand the U.S. accept their letter.
Tuesday April 3, 2018 marked the 70th anniversary of the April 3 Jeju Uprising and Massacre. In April 1948, guerrilla fighters in the southern island of Jeju waged an armed struggle against the U.S.-backed Korean police and right-wing paramilitary groups. More than 30,000 Jeju residents — 10% of the island’s population at the time — died at the hands of government forces and right-wing paramilitary groups. At the time, the U.S. military occupied the southern half of the Korean Peninsula and controlled all police, military and government forces in the south.
Seventy years later, the families of the fallen victims, the people of Jeju, and activists for peace are still seeking justice and demanding the U.S. acknowledge, apologize and take responsibility.
(Video by ZoominKorea)
The root of the April 3 Jeju Uprising can be traced back to Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonialism. After decades of struggle and resistance, the Korean people liberated themselves from Japanese colonial rule in August of 1945 — only to be occupied again by foreign forces. The United States took control of the southern half. Set on permanently dividing the Korean Peninsula, it decided to hold a separate election in the southern half to install its own puppet, Syngman Rhee, as president.
In the name of “democracy,” the U.S. decided to install a puppet dictator through whom it could grow its influence in the region. Not all people, however, approved of the U.S. intervention. Those who opposed protested, carrying on the spirit of the liberation movement against colonial Japan. They challenged the U.S.’ plan to force the separate election in May of 1948.
March 1, 1947
On the anniversary of the March 1st Movement to resist Japanese colonialism, residents of Jeju Island mobilized a rally to denounce the U.S-planned election. In an attempt to control the dissidence, the police force fired indiscriminately into the crowd and killed six civilians, including a young child, a mother and her baby.
(Jeju 43 Resistance Memorial Hall Animation | Production: Floating Island / Client & Distributor: Odoltogi, Jeju)
In response to the violence enacted by the U.S. military-controlled government, the Jeju Chapter of the South Korea Labor Party (SKLP) staged armed protests, burning down polling centers and attacking police stations. Jeju residents also staged general strikes targeting both private and state-owned companies. Over the next year, the U.S. military ordered the arrests of over 2,500 Jeju residents suspected of being communists.
U.S. Anti-Communism and Right-wing Extremism
The U.S. justified the suppression of dissidents in Jeju by framing it as a part of the “battle between democracy and communism.” It also enlisted the help of a violent, right-wing Korean paramilitary group called the Northwest Youth League. U.S. military advisers provided training and logistical support for the suppression of rebellions.
In late 1947, at the advice of American Counter-Intelligence corps, anyone identified as leftist or sympathizing with communism was targeted as “terrorist” by the governor of Jeju Island and the Northwest Youth League. One unnamed former U.S. military adviser was quoted as saying, “My duty was to suppress the rebellion and wipe out the communists. We conducted several mop-up operations across Jeju Island.”
April 3, 1948 and Beyond
The struggle of Jeju residents culminated in a mass rebellion on April 3, 1948. Guerrilla fighters of SKLP led the uprising against the police and right-wing paramilitary forces. They attacked police stations and burned down polling centers to prevent the election and denounce the U.S.-controlled government of Syngman Rhee. The SKLP Women’s League led residents into the mountains to keep them from being physically threatened by government forces to vote in the election.
In the early hours of April 3, three hundred-fifty guerrilla fighters attacked twelve out of the twenty-four police stations on Jeju Island. In the weeks leading up to the May 10 election, the guerrillas dismantled election offices and disrupted all communication about the election by cutting telephone lines and blocking access to roads and bridges. Due to their resilient efforts, the election result in Jeju was rendered null and void. Months later in July of 1948, however, Syngman Rhee was installed as the president of South Korea.
In response to the guerrilla opposition, the U.S. officially declared Jeju as “red island” and ordered all residents identified as associated with communists to be hunted down. This order was referred to as “the red hunt.” The struggle against the so-called “red hunt” was not a one-day ordeal. It lasted seven years, during which the police and right-wing paramilitary forces claimed tens of thousands of lives.
On November 17, just four months after taking office, Rhee declared martial law on Jeju Island. He then ordered the South Korean military to enact its “scorched earth” strategy against the guerrilla fighters still resisting the authority of the newly-formed South Korean government. The Rhee government deployed the martial law army and made a proclamation to the Jeju residents that anyone caught within the Chungsangan area would be identified as a “rioter” and killed immediately. In a five month period, 95% of the Chungsangan Village was burned down, and the villagers who were able to survive and escape were forced to take refuge in the mountains.
The U.S. used anti-communist propaganda to justify its mass repression and genocide on Jeju Island. Its media conjured up baseless stories about Soviet influence behind the Korean uprising against U.S. military presence. In January of 1949, the New York Times published an article claiming that Soviet submarines were near Jeju Island to give aid to the so-called leftist rebellion. On April 9, 1949, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea John Muccio claimed Soviets infiltrated Jeju to wage “terrorist attacks.” There was no conclusive evidence, however, to back up such claims.
Breaking Fifty Years of Silence
For decades, the historical record of the Jeju Uprising and Massacre was buried deep along with stories of the thousands of people killed at the hands of the U.S.-backed right-wing South Korean police. It was more than fifty years later when South Korea passed a special law to mandate the government to investigate the truth behind April 3. In 2003, former President Roh Moo-hyun issued an official apology to the people of Jeju: “Due to wrongful decisions of the government, many innocent people of Jeju suffered many casualties and destruction of their homes.”
The apology, however, has yet to be followed up with any substantive action that meets the demands of the families and supporters of the fallen victims. Organizations like the Association for the Bereaved Families of the April 3 Victims, the Pan-National Committee for the 70th Anniversary of Jeju April 3 Uprising and Massacre, and the Jeju Council have been at the forefront demanding justice and proper reparations from the parties responsible for the massacre. In October of 2017, they launched a petition campaign to gather 100,000 signatures to call on the U.S. to take responsibility for its role in the violent military repression against the people of Jeju.
According to The Hankyoreh, the Pan-Korean Committee on the 70th Anniversary of the Jeju April 3 Uprising and Massacre presented ten demands:
- A government investigation to uncover the truth behind the uprising and subsequent U.S.-backed crackdown;
- Institutionalization of reparations for victims, surviving families and communities;
- Passage of a law to uncover the truth behind people imprisoned through illegal trials and restore their honor;
- Preservation and maintenance of historical sites;
- Creation of a permanent system for collecting reports on victims and surviving families;
- Excavation of the remains of the missing;
- Creation of an institution to help survivors and their families to heal from trauma related to the massacre;
- Passage of a law to prevent defamation and misrepresentation of the uprising;
- Investigation of U.S. responsibility; and
- Officially designating an appropriate name for the uprising.
By ZoominKorea staff