A man tends to a headstone in the Tombstone Park for the Missing at the Jeju 4.3 Peace Park in Jeju City, South Korea. Each tombstone is etched with the name of an islander who went missing and is presumed to have died during the Jeju Massacre. Photo by Darryl Coote/UPI
JEJU ISLAND, South Korea, Sept. 26 (UPI) -- South Korean researchers investigating a bloody decades-old government put down of a communist revolt on Jeju Island say they have for the first time identified remains of a Jeju Massacre victim killed on the mainland.
Some 30,000 Jeju Islanders are estimated to have been killed in the Jeju Massacre of 1947-1954 when the newly formed South Korean government of President Syngman Rhee launched a merciless purge of the sub-tropical island's communists, ensnaring mostly locals in the ensuing bloodbath.
During the massacre -- known as the Jeju April 3rd Incident, or simply Jeju 4.3 in Korean -- hundreds of islanders arrested and wrongly convicted in mass military courts martial were shipped to the mainland to serve their sentences and are presumed dead.
On Monday, the Jeju Special Self-Governing Province and the Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation confirmed that remains excavated in the southwestern city of Daejeon, where prisoners were executed with the outbreak of the Korean War, belong to one of these victims -- Kim Han-hong.
"This is a significant moment for us," Ban Youngkwan, who managed the identification project as leader of the investigation and research team at the Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation, told UPI in a telephone interview Tuesday.
"We knew that there were many people who were dragged to the mainland and killed there, but this is the first time that we have physical evidence."
Kim was a 26-year-old resident of Jeju's northeastern Bukchon Village, where on Jan. 17, 1949, counterinsurgency forces rounded up the village's roughly 1,000 residents into the field of the local elementary school.
The men were then carted to a local farm and executed. The village was burned, and the forces opened fire on those they had assembled at the school.
Survivors where then ordered to travel to the nearby village of Hamdeok where more than two dozen were killed the following day.
In total, 299 people were killed, making the Bukchon Massacre the worst single incident of the seven-year atrocity.
Among Bukchon's dead was Kim's grandfather, Ban said, explaining that Kim had survived by fleeing the village, but he later turned himself in to the authorities during a period of so-called amnesty that saw many Jeju islanders who had escaped into the woods of the isle's mid-mountain region reluctantly come out of hiding.
Like many who surrendered, Kim was arrested. He was charged with being a spy, and on July 4, 1949, tried along with hundreds of other people in a military court martial, sentenced to seven years in prison and sent to Daejeon.
At the start of the Korean War, inmates and those rounded up on suspicion of being potential communist sympathizers were executed at the Daejeon prison.
"It was preemptive," Ban explained.
As the North Korean army made its rapid southward advance down the peninsula, the Rhee government feared the prisoners would defect when the cities in which they were imprisoned were captured.
"So, they gathered all so-called political prisoners in one site and then they killed them," he said.
A total of 1,441 remains of those killed at the Deajeong site between June 28 and July 17, 1950, have been excavated, with 70 of them having undergone DNA testing.
Ban told UPI that Kim's son had donated a blood sample in 2018, which made the positive identification possible. Kim's grandson had also donated blood, "so double confirmation has been made," he said.
Ban said Kim's son died two years ago, but his daughter-in-law and grandson have been notified his remains have been found.
"They were relieved and they were happy about that, but they also wished their father had survived until now, and he would have been very happy about that," he said.
Kim's remains will be cremated on Oct. 4 following a ceremony attended by bereaved family members, and other Jeju 4.3-related organizations.
The remains will be flown to Jeju the next day when officials, including Jeju Gov. Oh Young-hun, will participate in a repatriation ceremony.
"It is very meaningful to confirm the identity of one of the missing April 3 victims for the first time," the governor said in a statement.
"We will further expand genetic identification projects to identify missing persons in Gwangju, Jeonju and Gimcheon as well as discover and identify remains in the province through cooperation with other local governments."
Ban explained that they intend to have another 130 bodies from the Daejeon site tested before the end of this year for a total of 200.
According to figures from the Jeju government, 413 remains of missing Jeju Massacre victims have been discovered on the island so far, with 141 having been identified.
With the identification of Kim's remains, there are now 142, it said.
According to the Jeju 4.3 Peace Park, more than 4,000 Jeju Massacre victims remain missing.
Within the park -- which is located outside Jeju City and created in the 2000s for the island to honor the memory of the Jeju 4.3 dead -- there is a cemetery where most of the missing victims have a tombstone etched with their name, including Kim.
Though he is no longer missing and his ashes will be enshrined with other victims at the park, Ban said the tombstone will remain so his family has a place to pay their respects.
The goal, he said, is to see that the remains belonging to each name etched on those tombstones are found.
"That's our ultimate goal," he said, explaining it may not be realistic given how many decades have passed, "but we will try out best."