Jeju, 1948: long-suppressed truths about a massacre

In the history of colonialism and war, there are many atrocities, many of which stay hidden for decades and more. One such is known as the Jeju 4:3 incident, on the island of that name off the south coast of South Korea, in the years just before the Korean War. A sub-tropical island, a tourist magnet within Korea, the honeymoon island for prosperous Koreans before foreign travel became more popular, and again now during the Covid-19 pandemic. I know about it only because the Jeju Peace Foundation 4:3 has done me the extraordinary honour of awarding me the 2021 Jeju 4:3 Peace Prize. In this post, I summarise the Jeju 4:3 incident; the next one will contain my remarks upon receiving the award.

April 3, 1948

Why 4:3? It’s the date of a small-scale uprising – April 3, 1948 – opposing the imminent division of Korea into two states without an all-Korea referendum. What happened next was an extended crime whose dimensions are hard to grasp: in an island with an estimated population of about 300,000, it is estimated that 25-30,000 people were killed, some 40,000 dwellings destroyed.

There are 14,533 confirmed victims whose names are known because, once their remains were found, DNA testing established their identities. Many of the dead were buried in mass graves, some left to rot in caves. One of the largest mass graves was found close to the runway at Jeju’s airport.

There is more work to do, more bones to find and, as DNA science continues to advance, among the bones that have been found, more forensic study to complete.


There’s always a background to this kind of event . Nothing comes out of the clear blue sky. I started this by referring to colonialism. Korea had experienced 35 years of it under Japanese rule from 1910. And there was war – World War 2, at the end of which Soviet forces moved into the North and US forces into the South.

Looking back, it seems strange that Korea, which was not a defeated enemy of the World War II allies, was nonetheless subjected to military occupation. The division of the country at the 38th parallel that was agreed then persists today.

And as well as the aftermath of World War, there was the onset of Cold War. The South was under US military government and Soviet forces controlled the North. The USA was preparing to hand power to a new South Korean leadership while, in the North, the USSR was getting ready to hand over to the Communist Party under Kim Il-sung. The Cold War meant there could be no all-Korea referendum on the country’s future. A December 1945 agreement between the USA and the USSR on a 5-year Trusteeship under the UN (opposed by an apparent majority of Koreans, who wanted full independence with no delay) was never implemented. As the division of the country began to harden, everything started to be seen through the lens of Cold War ideology.

Pre-4:3 incident

That’s the general context for what happened. There was also a chain of events that led up to April 1948.

March 1 marks the anniversary of the start of the independence movement against Japanese colonialism in 1919. On 1 March 1947, a rally gathered in Jeju to show support for independence. The people of Jeju appear to have been quite united and vociferous in the desire for independence. There were an estimated 30,000 people at this rally, 10 per cent of the island’s population; as rallies go, that is a very big turn-out.

As the rally was ending, a mounted police officer hit a young boy. Quite why is not clear. The police gave the boy no assistance and some outraged members of the crowd threw stones at the police. It was not the mounted police but other officers, stationed on a watch tower, who opened fire at the demonstrators. Six people were shot and killed, five in the back, which makes it hard to sustain the official account that police only opened fire because they were under attack.

In the following weeks, there was a general strike to protest the killings. It is estimated that some 95 per cent of workers in public services and trade went on strike, including 87 police officers.

Response to March 1947, building the road to April 1948

By the time the worst of the massacres on Jeju occurred, the South Korean army was in charge. So it is important also to understand the role of the US Military Government. Their response to the rally and killings on 1 March 1947 was simple: Jeju was an island of the Reds, 90 per cent of the people were Communist or Communist-leaning, and there needed to be a crackdown. Indiscriminate arrest and arbitrary imprisonment followed, with 550 people arrested during March, of whom 245 were detained. Over the course of the following 12 months, around 2,500 people were arrested.

And worse: a group of landowners and their families who had to flee from North Korea had founded the Northwest Korean Youth Association, a militant anti-left group. It was deployed to Jeju on the orders of the US military. The first few arrived with a new hardline governor in April 1947; by a year later, there were 760 on the island, armed and ready. Over the months after April 1948, a further 1,700 turned up.

Meanwhile, national elections were planned in South Korea for 10 May 1948. That would end short-term possibilities of national unification, weak as the grounds for realistic hope already were by then.

April 1948 uprising

On 3 April 1948 there were armed attacks on many police stations throughout South Korea, including on 12 out of the 24 stations in Jeju. They were opposing the forthcoming elections. The attacks were serious; in Jeju 14 police officers were killed. The escalation to much worse violence was not immediate, although there was a lot of heated, hardline rhetoric swirling around. But the Korean Army commander on the island met with one of the leaders of the uprising, a 23-year-old school teacher, and together they drew up and signed an agreement on a ceasefire, with the insurgent group laying down arms return for a guarantee of their safety.

Three days later on 1 May, a village was burned down. The US military filmed it happening from both ground and air and made it into a documentary film. Though left-wing insurgents were blamed, it has now been established that the arsonists were members of the Northwest Korean Youth Association. Likewise on 3 May, a group of civilians was attacked by a small force that at first appeared to be the insurgents but has since been confirmed to be made up of police officers.

The US Military Government then dismissed the local Korean Army commander who had signed the peace agreement and replaced him with a hardliner. The US authorities’ attitude was summed up by the officer dispatched to take command in Jeju at about the same time: “I’m not interested in the cause of the incident. My mission is to repress it.”

Quarantine and massacre

In August 1948, the Republic of Korea came into being with its capital in Seoul. In September, in the North, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea followed suit, with Pyongyang as its capital. Neither government was in the slightest bit democratic, even if the government in the South could claim the mandate of an election. The road to massacre had now been constructed.

In October 1948, the new South Korean Army commander in Jeju imposed quarantine on the whole island except for a 5 kilometre wide strip around the coastline. What did quarantine mean? Not that people couldn’t leave or enter (the usual meaning) but that they could not be there in the first place. They had to vacate all of that area of Jeju – the whole of the island bar the 5km strip; if not, they would be imprisoned or killed.

The massacre started. Five months of attacking villages, stealing livestock, imprisonment, rape, killing, torture. That five month period saw about 20,000 people killed. Every village and town in Jeju lost somebody. Many lost hundreds.

The violence continued after March 1949. An amnesty announced that month brought 8,000 out from their hiding places in the hills. They were promised freedom but were interrogated, many were detained, and 2,000 of them were killed. In July 1950, after the Korean War had started, the authorities killed a further 2,500 prisoners from Jeju.

It ended with the totals recounted above: At least 14,533 and probably up to 30,000 people killed, 40,000 homes destroyed.

Suppressed truth eventually emerges

The story that the government and the US military told was simple: massive left wing uprising, probably abetted by Northern infiltrators, heroically resisted by the infant, democratic state.

It was a story, of course, that made no sense to the people of Jeju.

But truth will often come out, even if belatedly. Kim Sok-Peom, a Korean novellist writing in Japanese, authored Death of a Crow in 1957, the first novel about the Jeju 4:3 incident. He has followed up with other essays and novels including Hwasando.

In 1987, democracy started in South Korea. It still took time for the truth to come out. In the early 1990s, when human remains were discovered in a cave and could be identified as victims, it seems that Korean intelligence services put on pressure to ensure there would not be a proper funeral. But through the 1990s, there were journalists and writers investigating and reporting and as democracy put down roots in South Korea, the urge to bring the truth into the open got stronger.

In 2000, President Kim Dae-jung signed into law a measure setting up a commission to establish the truth. There has been one follow-up investigation and there will be another.

Yes, the truth often comes out.

This year a special law has been passed to investigate and establish the truth about what happened in Yeosu-Suncheon in October and November 1948. Around 3,000 people were killed (of whom from 400 to 2,000 were civilians) and over 5,000 homes were destroyed as the South Korean Army suppressed a mutiny by 2,000 soldiers. The committee of inquiry will refine the statistics and explore motives and responsibility for the Army’s actions. The mutiny that set Yeosu-Suncheon’s tragedy in motion was the refusal of soldiers to go to Jeju and join in the repression there.

Peace park and reconciliation

After the commission of inquiry completed and published its report on the 4:3 incident, a Peace Foundation was set up and a Peace Park was created.

The park covers 40 square kilometres and includes a museum, memorials including one for the as yet un-named victims (pictured), and the foundation’s offices. Before the pandemic, the Peace Park was getting 450,000 visitors a year.

Successive South Korean Presidents have offered apologies to the people of Jeju for what happened. There has been no such apology from a US President. There is, of course, no question, more than 70 years later, of holding senior US officials criminally responsible for the atrocities perpetrated on their watch, by forces whose commanders they appointed, implementing policies they shaped, just as the Korean Army leaders of the time cannot be tried and punished. Time and mortality have intervened. But a recognition that a great wrong was done and that the USA could have prevented it had its leaders and representatives so chosen – such an apology would help healing among the bereaved families of Jeju and it would signal that the USA has moved on from a time when it was thus casual with the lives of certain other nations.

Apology is actually a great thing. One of the projects run by the Jeju 4:3 Peace Foundation brings together very elderly surviving police officers who took part in the massacre with bereaved families for conciliation and forgiveness. To bring peace on both sides.

Analysis & commentary on world issues

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