Among the cities of the world that will forever be associated with brutal massacres, one in South Korea remains obscure abroad: Jeju. Sometimes referred to as the “Hawaii of Korea,” Jeju Island has long been a favorite destination for tourists and honeymooners.
But 70 years ago, it was the site of a systematic and widespread massacre of men, women and children by South Korean authorities under the auspices of the US Army Military Government in Korea. The role of the United States adds a layer of complexity and controversy. And the ghosts of some 30,000 murdered people must still, after seven decades, rest in peace.
The Jeju uprising and massacre is the largest peacetime killing of civilians in Korean history after 1945. It began as a small-scale armed communist uprising on April 3, 1948. The government quickly suppressed it. What began as an operation to suppress an uprising turned into a massive vilification of Jeju residents by calling them “commies” and indiscriminately killing civilians. The killings lasted six years and affected more than 800 children under the age of 10 and more than 3,000 women. Government forces burned entire villages. As such, the massacre deserves study, memory and reconciliation.
There is such an opportunity. On April 1, Yoon Suk-Yeol, South Korea’s president-elect who takes office on May 10, became the first leader—either president-elect or president—of the conservative party to visit the April 3 Peace Park. of Jeju, a memorial park and museum that honors confirmed victims and tens of thousands of missing persons. In the solemnity of the vast rows and columns of nameless tombstones, one can feel the weight of history and the silent agony.
On April 3, the 74th anniversary of the uprising, Yoon returned to the Peace Park. He said his administration will do its best to alleviate the deep pain of survivors, build a better future together and uphold the values of peace and human rights. This is a welcome development. To date, persistent denial in South Korea and silence in the United States have blocked the way to full truth and reconciliation.
Successive South Korean governments have imposed censorship and discriminated against the families of victims. The United States, which at the time of the outbreak exercised both de jure and de facto operational control over the South Korean gendarmerie and police, was complicit. Even after the formal establishment of the Republic of Korea on August 15, 1948, the United States exercised de facto control over South Korea’s instruments of force until June 1949. During the most intense period killings and torture, from October 1948 to March 1949, the United States Army Government in Korea (USAMGIK) ignored the widespread arbitrary killings, disappearances of people, torture and mass destruction of property on the Jeju Island.
Even today, many South Koreans remain in denial. In their eyes, South Korea’s first president, Syngman Rhee, could do no wrong. For them, Rhee was the founding father who resisted the invasion of North Korea in 1950 and obtained a defense treaty from the United States in 1953. And the armed rebels and communist sympathizers of Jeju deserved their fate. , they say.
Rhee, an American-educated and anti-Communist, was forced to resign in a nationwide student uprising after 12 years in office. His legacy is therefore that of the failure of democracy. As for his leadership in the Korean War, without the help of the United States and the other 15 nations under the United Nations banner, Rhee’s Korea would have become the united and despotic Democratic People’s Republic of Korea under Kim Il Sung. . In fact, while fleeing Seoul in the early days of the Northern Invasion, Rhee blew up the Han River Bridge, the only road bridge across the river, thus abandoning his fellow citizens north of the river.
That Rhee half intimidated and half cajoled the United States into signing a defense treaty with South Korea is an achievement. But his role in the Jeju massacre – which today would amount to crimes against humanity and possibly even genocide – obscures his legacy.
This week, Yoon’s special envoys for foreign policy, led by a former lawmaker and a former deputy foreign minister, are meeting with their American counterparts in Washington. Discussions on the growing nuclear threat from North Korea will be at the top of the agenda. But there is also a chance for a quantum leap in public diplomacy. South Koreans should tell President Biden about the Jeju massacre and Yoon’s two recent visits to the Peace Park. They should suggest that Biden, during his next visit to South Korea, pay homage at the Peace Park with President Yoon.
In May 2016, when Biden was vice president, President Obama visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Some family members of World War II veterans objected to the visit, but, along with then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Obama paid tribute, saying the world must never forget what had happened. “That memory allows us to fight complacency,” he said. “It fuels our moral imagination. It allows us to change. »
Next year will mark the 75th anniversary of the Jeju tragedy. If Biden paid tribute to the victims, it would mark the dawn of a different chapter in US-Korea relations. There would be little controversy in America, and South Koreans would accept a visit to bridge the deep ideological divide in South Korea. Moreover, history will judge this visit as moral, good and just.
Congress could follow suit. In 1908, Congress passed a bill allocating about half of the $25 million the United States had demanded from Qing China for the Boxer Uprising of 1899 and 1900. A multilateral coalition of nations, including states United States, sent troops to China to quell an armed xenophobia. uprising directed against foreigners. China, defeated, was forced to pay compensation of more than 330 million dollars.
By making millions of dollars available for Chinese students to study in the United States, the United States has stood on the right side of history. Likewise, if Congress were to pass a bill allocating funds to be made available to family members of Jeju massacre victims who wish to study in the United States, the law would forever be remembered as good, moral and just.
As the world watches Russia’s sickening war crimes in Ukraine, towns such as Bucha, Irpin and Mariupol, where civilians were tortured and killed, are becoming household names. Jeju, outside of South Korea, has never achieved such recognition.
South Korea and the United States have the chance to give Jeju a new symbolic resonance as an island of peace, truth, justice and reconciliation. More than any official statement, an act of humility and respect would show the world that the bilateral alliance is, in fact, rock solid.
Sung-Yoon Lee is Professor of Korean Studies at the Kim Koo-Korea Foundation and Adjunct Professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, and Associate Professor at the US-Japan Program, the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University . Follow him on Twitter @SungYoonLee1.