Exonerated Jeju Massacre prisoners fight to right Korean history

Some 2,530 Jeju Islanders were convicted in mass during courts-martial between 1948 and 1949 with 384 people sentenced to death and 305 people given life imprisonment.

By Darryl Coote
Exonerated former prisoners and Jeju Massacre victims, from left, Yang Geun-bang, Oh Hee-chun and Park Dong-su plan to sue the central government later this month for reparations for physical and mental anguish suffered their whole lives due to their wrongful imprisonment. Photo by Darryl Coote/UPI
Exonerated former prisoners and Jeju Massacre victims, from left, Yang Geun-bang, Oh Hee-chun and Park Dong-su plan to sue the central government later this month for reparations for physical and mental anguish suffered their whole lives due to their wrongful imprisonment. Photo by Darryl Coote/UPI

JEJU ISLAND, South Korea, Oct. 15 (UPI) -- As the few living survivors of a South Korean government crackdown that killed as many as 30,000 are clearing their names 70 years later, many are telling their stories for the first time.

They say millions in reparations can't erase a lifetime of stigma.


Yang Geun-bang, now 85, was among some 2,500 people wrongly convicted of insurrection during the Jeju Massacre. On Aug. 21, he and 17 other survivors were awarded a total of $4.4 million for their wrongful imprisonment decades earlier.

After being released from prison, the stigma forced Yang Geun-bang to move to the mainland for the next 20 years.

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"As a political criminal, no one treated me like a human," he told UPI in a recent interview, "especially on Jeju."

At 16, Yang was the youngest of 21 inmates jailed in a 35-square-foot cell at Incheon prison near Seoul. Their food was scant and their water unsanitary. Many were sick and beaten. Within a year, nine of them died.


"There were three people from my village in the same prison with me and one person died because of disease, and after my friend's death, I told myself that I had to survive and go back to my hometown. And even though my brothers and friends were dead, I had to survive," he said. "That was my motivation."

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Park Dong-su, 86, who was arrested in November 1948 and sentenced on the same day as Yang to seven years in prison, said the current court cases are about clearing their names.

"I didn't submit to the retrial for financial compensation," Park told UPI. "Restoring our defamation is the top priority for us. I didn't want to get the reimbursement. The money is not important. Righting the defamation is what's important."

Jeju April 3rd Incident

Now a popular tourist destination, Jeju Island was submerged in chaos from 1947 to 1954 when the newly formed South Korean government, backed by the United States, launched a violent crackdown in the name of suppressing a so-called communist rebellion.

On March 1, 1947, police opened fire on a crowd protesting the upcoming general election and celebrating national Independence Movement Day near Jeju City. Six people were killed and six others were injured, inflaming anger toward police, many of whom either collaborated with the Japanese during their occupation of the Korean Peninsula or had been recently sent from the mainland.


That anger culminated in a predawn attack on a dozen of the island's police stations by 350 leftist guerrillas on April 3, 1948, the date from which the massacre derives its Korean name -- the Jeju April 3rd Incident, or 4.3.

The worst of the killing began in the fall of 1948 when the South Korean military prohibited access further inland than 3 miles from the coast as the rebels were believed to be hiding in the island's mountains. "The Jeju 4.3 Incident Investigation Report," the government's findings on the massacre published in 2003, quotes the declaration, printed in a national newspaper, warning that anyone who defied the quarantine would be "recognized as rioters and be shot to death."

South Korea's first president and hard-line anti-communist Syngman Rhee, whose election that year was essentially boycotted by the residents of Jeju in opposition to the bifurcation of the peninsula, declared martial law on the island a month after the quarantine was enacted, handing control over Jeju to the military.

The military executed a scorched-earth policy that razed hundreds of villages and tens of thousands of homes, most by the end of 1949, as police, military and an extremist right-wing militia ferreted out so-called communists and their sympathizers while slaughtering common citizens along the way.


Accused of being a rebel

In the spring of 1949, Yang was having dinner with his older brother, sister-in-law and a cousin at his home in Waheul Village, southeast of Jeju City in the quarantine zone, when counter-insurgency forces stormed the house, jutting gun barrels through the windows.

His older brother ran and was shot to death before he had taken 10 strides. His cousin and his sister-in-law were also killed.

Yang was shot in the right thigh as he escaped to a nearby village.

Alone, hungry and wounded with nowhere to go, Yang eventually turned himself over to the police, who beat him and tortured him with electric shocks, accusing him of being a rebel who either participated in the April 3 attack or was affiliated with the group that did.

Yang was convicted by court-martial and sentenced to seven years in prison for insurrection.

When he was in prison, he thought he'd never leave and once released, he thought he'd forever be seen as a criminal.

"I was told I was a criminal by the court, so I couldn't think of being innocent," he said.

Justice and reparations

In January, Yang won vindication -- the Jeju District Court acquitted him, along with 17 other survivors. On Aug. 21, they were awarded damages.


In its decision, the court said their convictions were invalid "because of the breach of due process of law."

Yang Dong-yoon, president of the Jeju 4.3 People's Solidarity organization, which has been conducting research on Jeju Massacre prisoners since 2013, said the trials were illegal as the accused were sentenced without knowing their crimes, without representation and without a legal framework as Rhee's declaration of martial law was also unlawful.

The government report on the massacre supports Yang Dong-yoon's claim, stating that it's still unclear "whether the strong repressive operation carried out under martial law was justifiable and whether martial law was legal."

Some 2,530 Jeju Islanders were convicted in mass during those courts-martial between 1948 and 1949, with 384 people sentenced to death and 305 people given life imprisonment, according to the government's report.

"The judgment was inappropriate," Yang Dong-yoon said. "The judge called the arrested person's name and told them they were sentenced for one or five or even 10 years. They were imprisoned for no reason and without knowing what their crimes were."

'I never had a trial'

According to a summary of Yang Geun-bang's testimony submitted to the court during the retrial as evidence, he said he wasn't informed of his sentence until arriving at Incheon prison, some 275 miles by boat from Jeju.


"I told a prison guard that I never had a trial and he said, 'You were sent here by a trial by document,'" Yang Geun-bang said.

Oh Hee-chun, one of Jeju's famed haenyeo, or female divers, was arrested in October 1948 on suspicion of being a member of the island's branch of the Workers' Party of South Korea.

She said she was deceived into adding her name to the communist party's registry believing she was putting her name to a list of haenyeo wanting to move to the mainland to work.

Oh said she doesn't remember a trial, only that someone called her name and said she was sentenced to one year in prison.

She was 16 then, imprisoned for 10 months. But the consequences lasted decades.

"After prison, it was worse," Oh told UPI, adding that no one in Jeju specifically confronted her about her past "but I could feel it."

No one wanted to marry her, she said, but as the first-born daughter it was her responsibility to start a family "and I married a man I didn't like."

"In prison, we were all treated the same but in society, I was unconfident and couldn't say what I wanted to say," she said.


In 2000, following decades of activism by Jeju residents, the South Korean government passed the Jeju 4.3 Special Law that spearheaded a formal investigation into the massacre that became the government report. Along with uncovering the island's buried history, the law aimed to remove shame from the victims and their families who had been tarnished by decades of slanderous claims of being communists and rebels that prevented many from revealing their trauma.

"Everyone is free to testify about the Jeju 4.3 Incident," the law states. "No victims will hold an unfavorable disposition for being the victims or the bereaved of the Jeju 4.3 Incident."

Oh, now 86, kept her imprisonment a secret from everyone, even her children until she was forced last year to reveal the truth because of the court case.

Now she regrets not having told others her story as her memory is fading.

"I could have talked more so that I could have regained my honor," she said in a summary of her court testimony. "Now I have a chance to talk about that, but now I can't talk about it because I can't remember."

The ramifications of being labeled a criminal go beyond the social, Yang Dong-yoon said, adding that it made it difficult for the survivors to acquire decent-paying jobs, barred their children from government positions and their sons from fulfilling their mandatory military service.


Even living in Paju, near the border with North Korea, about as far away from Jeju as one could get on the southern half of the peninsula, Yang Geun-bang's criminal record followed him.

"I couldn't get a job, so whenever I opened a business a cop always made something up so I'd go bankrupt," Yang said, according to his testimony summary. "My three sons couldn't do their military service, so they couldn't get jobs. My first son finally got a good job ... but cops kept coming to see him so he was fired."

Reversing the defamation

Yang Dong-yoon said it took courage for the survivors to come forward in their 80s to challenge their decades-old convictions. And he said they did not do it for the compensation but to right history's wrongs.

Clearing their names is just the beginning, Yang Dong-yoon said.

Later this month, the recently exonerated prisoners are submitting a new lawsuit seeking compensation from the central government for the mental and physical anguish they experienced, not just while in jail but for what they suffered their whole lives afterward.

Yang Dong-yoon said their courage has persuaded 11 more former prisoners to come forward, and eight of them plan to make a request next week for a retrial in order to challenge their decades-old convictions in court.


When he started conducting research into former prisoners of the Jeju Massacre, they were able to find 40 who were still alive.

Since then, many have died, including two who were involved in the recent exoneration lawsuit. Now, there are only 27.

But there could be more, Yang Dong-yoon said.

Once these court cases are completed, his organization will work to annul all prison sentences imposed under martial law -- to the living and the dead.

"This is not only their problem," Yang Dong-yoon said, referring to the exonerated former prisoners. "There are about 25,000 to 30,000 victims of the Jeju April 3rd Massacre and it is Jeju's history so all Jeju citizens wish and hope to make things right and to restore their honor."

Rosa Yang contributed to this report.

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