Jeju is the largest island off the coast of the Korean Peninsula (1,848 km², population 621,550, cf Skye in the Scottish Hebrides, 1,656 km², population 10,000). It was the venue for both the Presbyterian Church in Republic of Korea (PROK) Pre-Assembly and 103rd General Assembly, both which I attended.
With beautiful beaches and mountains Jeju is a hugely popular tourist destination with over 10 million visitors a year which goes someway to explaining why Seoul-Jeju is world’s most crowded flightpath.
But PROK did not hold its Assembly there to take advantage of the tourist hotspots. This year is the 70th anniversary of Jeju 4.3 which refers to the uprising and massacre that took place between March 1947 and September 1954. [i]
On 15 August 1945 World War 2 ended and Korea was liberated from 35 years of Japanese colonial oppression. The country was quickly divided into North and South, a division that would be made permanent following the 1950-53 Korean War. The administration in South and the US military government wanted to establish a separate country but others wanted Korea to be unified with the North. Jeju islanders almost all supported the unification of the two Koreas.
On 1 March 1947 six marchers were killed at a ceremony marking the 1919 uprising for Korean independence. Police arrested some marchers further alienating the people of Jeju. It was on 3 April 1948 that things took a turn for the worse. There had been protests against the government and the planned south-only elections planned for May. Protesters had already been killed on that day there were attacks against the police. This led to a further crackdown as the police, backed by US military command, claimed the trouble was being stirred by communist sympathisers. In the coming weeks and months villagers were arrested, people emerging from hiding were shot and a “quarantine” operation was implemented where Jeju islanders were shot on sight.
The crackdown was brutal. Up to 30,000 people – 10% of Jeju’s population at the time – are thought to have been killed, almost all of them islanders. Incredibly no-one was allowed to speak about the massacre for nearly 60 years. No one has been brought to justice for giving the orders or carrying out the massacre. It was only in 2000 that a law was passed allowing reparations to be paid to survivors.
The government has also created a memorial to the victims. Jeju 4.3 Peace Park includes a wall of stone tablets engraved with the names of 14,000 victims identified so far; headstones and a monument to over 3,000 who were arrested, often on trumped-up charges, and executed; a sculpture of a woman and her baby who were found frozen to death as they tried to escape and hide from government forces; exhibitions and a film of the atrocities that occurred; and reconstructions of mass graves that have been discovered.
This year is the 70th anniversary of Jeju 4.3. The government is encouraging people to visit Jeju to find out more about this dark chapter in South Korea’s history. This is why PROK held its General Assembly here and why I have written this blog
While PROK and international partners were gathered in Jeju, the third summit meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was taking place in Pyongyang. They agreed to continue to pursue a complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Peninsula and conclude a peace treaty, among other important decisions.
In the South’s delegation was Rev Dr Lee Hong-jung, General Secretary of National Council of Churches of Korea which runs the Peace Treaty Campaign. Dr Lee’s inclusion is testament to his qualities and abilities and also recognition of the Korean churches’ long commitment to achieving sustainable peace on the Korean peninsula.
[i] More information on Jeju 4.3 can be found in a helpful booklet available to download at http://www.4370jeju.net/bbs/content.php?co_id=intro_en&me_code=40