Jeju 4.3 Incident: Oppression and Rights

By (James) Sungbin Cho

Published Date: 2021 / 04 / 11

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Picture of camellia flower badges. Camellia flowers are used as a symbol of the Jeju 4.3 incident. (Author’s own photo)

On March 1, 1947, many people in Jeju island gathered around to commemorate the second anniversary of the revolutionary March 1st movement. This commemoration ceremony was led by ‘right wingers’ on Jeju island, who planned this as an event for the whole islanders. However, the U.S. military government - which at that period controlled the southern part of the Korean Peninsula, while the Soviet Union controlled the northern part - did not grant the street demonstration, in which Jeju islanders also planned for the event, during this ceremony. However, following the original plan of the event, Jeju islanders started their street demonstrations, which were supposed to be peaceful ones.

As about 30,000 demonstrators approached Gwandeokjeong, a place in Jeju city that was used for military training during the Joseon dynasty, one cavalry police’s horse hit a young child. However, the police did not do anything about the injured child, and mad demonstrators around the child threw some rocks as an expression of their discontent. As a response, the armed police force started to fire guns at civilians, killing 6 innocent people. Because of this so-called Jeju 3.1 incident, the public sentiment turned against the police and also the U.S. military government, who used their power to find the ones who led the demonstrations, not to settle down the incident and apologize for the injury of the child as the public anticipated. Becoming infuriated by the government and police’s decision, many islanders who ran the city hall, government offices, banks, schools, and companies started to exercise their right to strike on March 10. The government handled this situation by sending more police forces to the island, trying to handle people with physical force. On March 19, the police department claimed that the police’s shooting to the civilians was a just and right response and that this protest against the police was carefully planned with North Koreans and right-wingers, referring to Jeju island as the so-called ‘commie island’ or ‘red island.’ After that, one radical left-wing group called Northwest Youth League started to kill and commit terrors to the ones who struck as an attempt to ‘hunt down’ communists. By then, the government started to oppress Jeju islanders with the old conflict between ‘left wing’ and ‘right wing’ from the Cold War, directly harassing many innocent people on this isolated island. This marked the start of the Jeju 4.3 incident.

According to the Special Act on Discovering the Truth of the Jeju 4·3 Incident and the Restoration of Honor of Victims, this period of turmoil and oppression on Jeju is defined as “the incident causing civilians’ sacrifices in the process of armed conflicts and the suppression operations beginning March 1, 1947, to April 3, through to Sept. 21, 1954.” The main event of the 4.3 incident was the uprising that occurred on April 3, 1948. The armed people, whose resentment got intensified from the government’s oppression and conflict about the independent election of South Korea, attacked many police stations and the Northwest Youth League’s houses. Although the armed group and the government initially talked about the way to finish this peacefully, the government decided to respond to this uprising by using their hard power. As their negotiation about the uprising ended, the government accused armed people of the arson attack in Ora-ri, the incident that was actually executed by Northwest Youth League. The government spread this fake accusation by creating a documentary called “May Day on Cheju-Do.” The armed group continued to express their resentment by not participating in the election of May 10 as they thought that the independent election would hinder the unification of Korea. The U.S. military government considered this as a protest against the government, starting the massive massacre of Jeju islanders. After the South Korean government was established separately from the North Korean one, the government sent more troops on the island and killed every person on the island who was outside of the 5 km border from the coastline. This was intended to find out and kill those who hid in the central mountain range, exercising their “program of mass slaughter.” This oppression and massacre were out of control. The report of 4.3 incident estimates that the military killed about 30,000 Jeju islanders, wiping out about one-tenth of the Jeju population at that period, being an event that had the greatest number of casualties in Korean modern history except for the Korean War (“제주4·3| 제주4‧3의 역사| 피해실태|”). They did not properly inform islanders about the policy of 5 km from the coastline and even deceived people by telling them that they would not kill if they left Mt. Halla and lived along the coastline.

However, the massacre was not just a problem of the government. The armed group crushed many villages along the coastline, killing polices and left-wingers. The armed group also killed many people who did not support them, but they were just innocent people who did not want to get involved in violent acts and live a peaceful life. They had to undergo a painful time as the Korean War started in 1950. The uprising and massacre were settled down as the prohibited areas around the mountain range were opened to the public, marking the end of a painful 7 years of 4.3 incident.

After the period of chaos, people started to uncover the oppression of government and slaughters that occurred on the island. People demanded the investigation of the oppression and unjust behaviors of the government. Many movements were continued through the college students on Jeju and also in the field of media and literature. Authors started to write novels about the 4.3 incident and hardships that people had to confront, while the TV media produced a documentary dealing with the incident. On December 16, 1999, the Special Act that was intended to uncover the truth of the 4.3 incident and to provide governmental support to the victims of the 4.3 incident was established. Until now, many investigations around the island are happening to pursue the facts and truth of the incident.

The Jeju 4.3 incident is a clear portrayal of how the abuse of governmental power can influence ordinary citizen’s lives. It took many innocent people’s lives, who did not even participate in violent acts of the armed group. Their suffering increased as an implicit system was used during that period, meaning the family of the one who was killed by the military during the incident was also watched by the government and limited in social activities. Ones who could not endure the direct oppression of the government fled to Japan, which was the place that they desperately wanted to escape during the Japanese colonial era. The government oppressed people’s rights to live a secure life and to express their opinions. There were indeed some people who responded to the oppressive government physically and killed many, but the majority of the deaths during the incident were the ones of innocent people. It is imperative to remember that this oppressive act occurred on this beautiful island of Jeju and that the rights, liberties, and lives of many innocent people were taken by that. We are “endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood,” and this tragic event must not happen again in this world (United Nation).

Works Cited
“Background to the Jeju 4·3 Uprising and Massacre.” From Truth to Peace Jeju 4·3, Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation, jeju43peace.org/historytruth/fact-truth/factstruth-article1. Accessed 27 Mar. 2021.

“Fact&Truth.” From Truth to Peace Jeju 4·3, Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation, jeju43peace.org/historytruth/fact-truth. Accessed 27 Mar. 2021.

United Nations. “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations, United Nations, 10 Dec. 1948, www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights.

“제주4·3| 4·3의 진실찾기| 진상규명운동사|.” 제주 4.3 평화재단, 제주 4.3 평화재단, jeju43peace.or.kr/kor/sub01_02_01.do. Accessed 27 Mar. 2021.

“제주4·3| 제주4‧3의 역사| 제주4·3이란|.” 제주 4.3 평화재단, 제주 4.3 평화재단, jeju43peace.or.kr/kor/sub01_01_01.do. Accessed 27 Mar. 2021.

“제주4·3| 제주4‧3의 역사| 주요사건|.” 제주 4.3 평화재단, 제주 4.3 평화재단, jeju43peace.or.kr/kor/sub01_01_03.do. Accessed 27 Mar. 2021.

“제주4·3| 제주4‧3의 역사| 피해실태|.” 제주 4.3 평화재단, 제주 4.3 평화재단, jeju43peace.or.kr/kor/sub01_01_02.do. Accessed 27 Mar. 2021.

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