On Jeju, Korea’s island of ghosts, the dead finally find a voice


70 years ago, an estimated 30,000 people were massacred in an anti-communist blitz on today’s vacation island of Jeju. Now, fingers point at America

Go Wan-soon won’t forget the day the soldiers came. Then nine years old, she was sitting in her home in the seaside village of Bukchon when troops burst in. Go, her mother and three-year-old brother were herded outside at bayonet point. Houses were going up in flames. They were dragged to the yard of the elementary school, which was ringed by soldiers.

“It was crowded, full of people,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘Why so many? What is it?’” Many people, she noticed, were holding hands.

Fearfully, Go sat behind a low wall. When her little brother wailed, a soldier smashed him over the head with a stick. “He went very silent.” Then Go heard the ripping sound of automatic gunfire. People toppled to the ground.

She “crawled like an ant” through a nightmare. “I saw a bloody leg, I saw a baby on top of a mother’s breast, looking for milk, but the mother was already dead,” she said. “Heads were separated, all the bodies were mixed together, the soil was dark with blood – it shone in the sun.”

Go sheltered in a narrow street. “All the houses were burning, ashes were flying around,” she said. An old woman sat in front of her blazing home, her hair on fire. Soldiers appeared. Go heard the click of rifle bolts, then a jeep pulled up. A voice ordered, “Cease fire!”

The troops departed. The village had been attacked in revenge for the death of two soldiers, killed nearby in an ambush by partisans.

In the smoldering ruins, “bodies lay scattered like radishes in a field,” Go said. Among the dead lay her aunt, breasts and belly ripped open by bayonets.

She was instructed to cover cadavers with blankets “so crows would not peck out their eyes.” Go, now 79, paused in her account. “When I remember, it breaks my heart.”

In the months that followed, there were more traumas. Her uncle “disappeared” – she heard soldiers had tied rocks to his body and hurled him into the sea. Her little brother died from the after-effects of his head wound. Go almost died of starvation in the ruins.

And at night, she heard of spectral encounters. “People said they saw a white skirt, a white top – there were ghosts,” she said. “I could not go to some places, I was so scared.”

Bukchon was, in fact, just a small part of a much wider tragedy. Goh is one of the last witnesses to what Koreans today call “Sa-Sam” (literally “4:3” or April 3rd), the biggest – but probably least known – massacre in recent Korean history. Up to 30,000 people were killed on Jeju Island amid a murderous counter-insurgency campaign in 1948-49, prior to the Korean War, which started in June 1950.

Asia Times Online for more

Comments are closed.