What You Missed in History Class: A Brief Overview of Jeju Island

Jeju Island is a volcanic island located off the southern tip of Korea. Today the island is a popular vacation destination known for its beautiful beaches and volcanic mountain.  However, Jeju island has a dark past, including the Jeju 4·3 Uprising and Massacre.  In 1945, Korea was liberated from Japan.  Later it was announced that Korea was to be divided along the 38th parallel with the Soviets occupying the north and the US occupying the south.  However, many Koreans believed that they should govern a unified Korea and that foreign influence (The Soviets & US) would only lead to escalating tensions and eventually war.  The Jeju Islanders opposed the division of the Korean peninsula and protested the first general election on May 10, 1948, that would officially divide Korea on the 38th parallel.  The United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) ruled Korea until the election in 1948.

On March 1, 1947, Jeju Island commemorated the Independence Movement to 1) celebrate national independence and 2) protest the upcoming election that would officially divide the country by electing the newly formed “South Korea” leader.  During the celebration, a young boy was trampled by a mounted police officer; the boy eventually died.  The crowd began to follow the officers and throw stones.  The officers, believing the celebration was becoming a riot, fired on the citizens and twelve civilians were shot and six died.  Evidence showed that they were all shot in the back as they were running away from the police.  

Mounted police officers of the U.S. Military government make their way through a crowd on the mainland. Photo Credit: JEJU 4·3 Peace Foundation. “Http://jeju43peace.Org/.” From Truth to Peace Jeju 4·3, JEJU 4·3 PEACE FOUNDATION, 2018, http://jeju43peace.org/.

After the shooting, Jeju Island went on strike; shops closed, students didn’t go to school, employees didn’t go to work, they demanded the execution of the officers who fired on the crowd.  The government justified the officers’ actions by claiming that all the protestors were communists.  In response to the March 1 Shooting, the government commanded more police to the island and the Northwest Youth Association (a right-wing paramilitary group) to police the islands.  Tensions continued to grow, and on April 3, 1948, 350 islanders attacked 12 police stations in opposition to the first general election.  As a result, the government declared Jeju “an island of reds” and believed there was nothing wrong with killing them since they were communists.  In reality, the people of Jeju just wanted a unified Korea and were not communists at all.  

Citizens of Jeju Island in 1948. Photo Credit: JEJU 4·3 Peace Foundation. “Http://jeju43peace.Org/.” From Truth to Peace Jeju 4·3, JEJU 4·3 PEACE FOUNDATION, 2018, http://jeju43peace.org/

In the fall of 1948, it was announced that anyone living more than five kilometers from the coast of Jeju island would be treated as hostile. an enemy, and communists and would be shot on sight.  It was impossible for the citizens living in the mountains to leave their farms and villages.  Then, on November 15, 1948, martial law was declared on Jeju, and a scorched earth policy was implemented.  The military burnt down entire villages destroying resources, infrastructure, and homes as they looked for “communists.” The military blocked the paths to the coasts, making it impossible to escape; if any villagers were found, they were shot and killed.  The Jeju Islanders attempted to hide in the mountain caves, forming communities to help each other survive.  Unfortunately, they were usually found and executed by the military.  The government, which had deemed the entire island communist, refused to negotiate with the citizens.  This reign of terror continued for many years.  By 1954, more than 30,000 islanders had died (about 10% of Jeju’s population), and 95% of inland villages were destroyed, resulting in 60,000 refugees.

After 45 years, in 1992, a survivor of the April 3 incident (4-3) informed researchers and the media of the location of one of the caves that villagers used in an attempt to hide from the military. Inside Darangshi cave, archeologists found the bodies of 6 men, 3 women, and 2 children.  It was determined that the cave was set on fire by the military, and all 11 individuals suffocated to death.  This discovery forced the government to admit what had happened on Jeju Island.  Prior to 1992, the government denied the incident. 

“Researchers in 1992 examine Darangshi cave for the first time since 1948 when 11 people were killed inside by government forces. Photo courtesy Kim Gi Sam”
Kim, Angela. “Darangshi Cave Unearths Yet More Jeju Massacre Tragedy.” JEJU WEEKLY, Hee Tak Ko , 23 Mar. 2012, http://www.jejuweekly.com/news/articleView.html?idxno=2483.

In 2003, South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun issued the first formal apology for the atrocities that occurred on Jeju island.  The United States government has still not apologized for the role they played on Jeju island. In 2003 the government published the Jeju 4·3 Incident Investigation Report which supports the investigation, exhumation, and excavation of massacre sites located on Jeju Island. They are still exhuming bodies today, with over 400 victims discovered. A remarkable DNA sampling program by the Seoul National University’s Department of Forensic Medicine, has allowed 33% of these victims to be identified and returned to their families. In 2008, the Jeju 4.3 Peace Park was opened to remember the victims of the 4.3 incident.

2008 exhumation of victims at the Jeju airport. Photo Credit: JEJU 4·3 Peace Foundation. “Http://jeju43peace.Org/.” From Truth to Peace Jeju 4·3, JEJU 4·3 PEACE FOUNDATION, 2018, http://jeju43peace.org/.

In 2005, the South Korean government declared Jeju an “Island of Peace” because of its tumultuous history.  Shortly after declaring Jeju an Island of Peace, it was announced that a Naval base would be built on the island.  96% of locals voted against its construction for many reasons: 1) Jeju is an island of peace and should not be home to a military base. 2) The Gangjeong coast was designated an Absolute Conservation Area to protect its wetlands, endangered species, and soft coral reefs.  3) The site of the base was Gureombi Rock, a sacred location for generations, where Islanders gathered, prayed and presented ritual food.  In 2009, the Governor nullified the designation as a Conservation zone and blew up this sacred area and proceeded to construct the naval base on the previously protected area.

4) many people saw the push of the construction of the base as a US-driven policy and not in the interest of South Koreans’ defense.  Technically, the base is Korean, but due to the “Mutual Defense Treaty” signed by the US and South Korea after the Korean Conflict, the US has permission to use Korean military bases as their own.  The US has a vested interest in having a military presence on Jeju due to its strategic location.

To learn more be sure to check out Jeju 4.3 Peace webside or this video TRAGEDY IN JEJU: Behind a National Triumph

2 thoughts on “What You Missed in History Class: A Brief Overview of Jeju Island

  1. Grace, thank you for writing about this horrible incident in Korean history. It’s just another example of governments not always acting in the best interest of their citizens, and sometimes even murdering innocent people because it’s easier than finding solutions to problems.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s