Jeju Island mourns historic massacre victims amid controversy

Several people perform a memorial service for their deceased family member before a tombstone in the Tombstone Park for the Missing at the Jeju 4.3 Peace Park in Jeju City, South Korea on Monday. Photo by Darryl Coote/UPI
1 of 8 | Several people perform a memorial service for their deceased family member before a tombstone in the Tombstone Park for the Missing at the Jeju 4.3 Peace Park in Jeju City, South Korea on Monday. Photo by Darryl Coote/UPI

JEJU ISLAND, South Korea, April 3 (UPI) -- South Korea on Monday mourned the tens of thousands of Jeju islanders killed by government forces some seven decades ago during a memorial ceremony that was marked by the absence of President Yoon Suk-yeol and extreme right-wing protesters challenging the widely accepted history of the Jeju Massacre.

Thousands of island residents congregated at the Jeju 4.3 Peace Park for the 75th anniversary ceremony that honors the 30,000 Jeju islanders who were killed during the South Korean government's suppression campaign targeting so-called communists between March 1, 1947, and Sept. 21, 1954.


The tragedy is widely known as the Jeju April 3 Incident, or Jeju 4.3 in Korean, for the communist-led uprising that occurred on that day in 1948, which sparked the government crackdown in which Jeju residents were slaughtered.

At the park, located outside Jeju City, created in the 2000s to commemorate Jeju's 4.3 dead, bereaved family members held jesa memorial ceremonies and wiped clean tombstones of their loved ones in the cemetery for the 4,007 islanders who disappeared but are believed to have been killed during the massacre.


Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, who attended the ceremony in Yoon's place, read prepared remarks by the president, who vowed to "warmly care for the souls of the innocent 4.3 victims" and to "sublimate the value of freedom and human rights that you have cherished."

"The government is committed to restoring the honor of the 4.3 victims and their families," Han, reading Yoon's remarks, said before the memorial tables entrainment room, where the names of the more than 14,000 identified massacre victims are etched.

"The way to truly honor the victims and their bereaved families is to create a Republic of Korea where freedom and human rights bloom and to achieve greater prosperity here in Jeju based on universal values and the spirit of liberal democracy. The responsibility lies with me, the government and our people," he said.

Yoon attended the ceremony last year as president-elect, making him the first conservative leader to participate in the memorial but only liberal Presidents Moon Jae-in and Roh Moo-hyun have done so while in office.

A day prior to the ceremony, the presidential office said Yoon was not going to attend out of concern over whether it was "appropriate to go to the same event every year."


For decades following the official end of the massacre, the government blamed Jeju 4.3 on so-called communists. Islanders related to those killed were subsequently branded with the same label and have been denied government jobs, as well as facing harassment.

The South Korean government eventually accepted responsibility for the massacre and officially apologized to the people of Jeju following the passage of the Jeju 4.3 Special Act in 2000. However, conservative governments have seemingly kept the issue at arm's length.

Surrounding this year's memorial service are controversial comments made by North Korean defector and member of Yoon's People's Power Party Tae Yong-ho, who said while on the island in February that the uprising of April 3, 1948, was initiated by North Korean founder Kim Il Sung and his communist party.

The uprising was a predawn assault by a few hundred people that was the culmination of several factors, one of which was the division of the Korean Peninsula. The official government investigation report said there is "no concrete evidence that the events were direct by the instructions of the headquarters of the South Korean Labor Party."

Tae's comments were swiftly confronted by the local government and Jeju 4.3 bereaved family associations as attempts to distort the truth. However, following Tae's remarks, right-wing political organizations erected 80 banners around the island that parroted Tae's remarks.

A political banner that reads, "The Jeju April 3 Incident was a communist riot caused by Kim Il Sung and Namrodang against the founder of the Republic of Korea" is in tatters on March 23, shortly after it was erected in Seogwipo City, Jeju Island. Photo by Darryl Coote/UPI

Jeju City Mayor Kang Byung-sam told UPI in an interview that he was "scared" when he first saw one of the banners near city hall.

After they were erected, 59 of them were slashed to pieces, he said.

Two people have been apprehended over vandalizing the banners, which were taken down on Friday under the Jeju 4.3 Special Act that prohibits the dishonoring of victims, he said, adding that he expects lawsuits to be filed by the extreme right-wing groups against the local government for doing so.

Asked if city hall received any comments about the banners, he said that on one day alone a call came in every 3 minutes to complain about them.

Prior to the memorial ceremony on Monday, an extreme right-wing group associated with the Northwest Youth League, an organization of North Korean refugees who were deployed on the island during the massacre and blamed for some of the worst atrocities, had planned to hold a rally out front of the Jeju 4.3 Peace Park during the memorial ceremony.

"Every time a conservative government takes power, there are groups that criticize the 4.3 uprising," local reporter and author Heo ho-joon said. "This year, it has become more severe."


A van transporting three or four of the Seobuk members was confronted Monday morning outside the park by counter-protesters and bereaved family members who had to be separated from the vehicle by police.

Shouts of "shame" and accusations of truth distortion were hurled at those in the van, which eventually left the area, while police were bombarded with questions as to why they were protecting them.

"The Northwest Youth League needs to apologize to the victims of April 3. This is an absurd situation. We can't accept those kinds of actions," Yang Seong-ju, external vice president of the Association of Bereaved Families 4.3 Victims, told UPI as an explanation for why he was yelling at the vehicle.

Park Song-tae was paying her respects before her father's name etched into a stone monument within the park on Monday.

She told UPI she was born in 1947 and was 2 years old when her father died during the massacre. She has no recollection of what he looked like, she said.


Asked how she felt about the banners and the protests, Park said she was angry but was glad she had the park.

"It's really good to be able to find his name here, to remember my father," she said.

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