In the middle of December, I traveled to 제주도 (Jeju Island) with a a group of international coworkers. Jeju is an island off the southern tip of the Korean peninsula and has its own unique culture and history. Jeju Island is known for being a sunny, beachy, vacation paradise. However, tourism is most certainly not the whole history of the island.
The time we spent on Jeju was divided into two portions. The first two days we were there, we stayed in 강정 (Gangjeong), where the Korean government recently finished a navy base. The next three days we traveled around the southern part of the island learning about the 4.3 Incident which occurred during the military dictatorships in Korea after WWII.
4.3 History – Some facts
With the fall of Japan at the end of WWII, many Koreans were hopeful for Korea’s future. However, Korea quickly ended up under the control of US and Soviet powers in the north and south, dividing the country, which led to divided elections in north and south Korea, ultimately resulting in two different nations.
On March 1, 1947, in Jeju, a peaceful protest against a divided election turned violent when a police horse killed a small boy. Growing from that single protest, people in Jeju became more defiant against the political powers, and reinforcements were called in to quell the people. Tensions continued to grow, culminating in April 3, 1948, where a group of protestors burned 12 police stations. It is from the events on April 3rd, that “4.3” gets its name.
To suppress Jeju people, the government carried out a series of mass arrests, mass murders, and burnings, ruthlessly silencing the people. Due to the people’s defiance, Jeju Island was labeled a “red” (communist) island, which gave the government justification for their actions. By 1954, more than 30,000 islanders had died, which is about 10% of Jeju’s population.
Even decades after the killings stopped, due to a continued corrupt government, the people of Jeju were unable to talk about what happened. It was not until 2003 that South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun formally apologized for the atrocities committed in Jeju. Now, throughout the island there are memorials for the people who were killed or went missing. Multiple of which I visited during my time on Jeju.
*for more information about 4.3, Grace wrote an excellent and informative blog describing the details more. You can read it on her blog at: https://journeyswithgrace.org/2022/03/02/what-you-missed-in-history-class-a-brief-overview-of-jeju-island/*
Like the rest of Korea, Jeju is marked in unique ways by the events of the last hundred years. Sometimes in the US learning about history can feel disjointed from daily life, particularly when I have learned about wars and events that never touched US soil. Learning about the history of Jeju felt very different than that. It is history that is not removed from life at all. The stories we talked about were palpable.
However, it is also notable that while we spent time learning about the events and impact of 4.3, not every moment spent on Jeju was learning about sad or painful histories. Despite the fact that it was December (not swimming weather!), between the sunny days, pristine beaches, beautiful sunsets, and ripe tangerine orchards, there was ample time to soak in the remarkable beauty that Jeju has. As much as 4.3 is a part of the history and life of Jeju, the sun and wind and beauty is also a part of the story of what Jeju is.
Because of this, there was a unique completeness to the time I spent in Jeju. I feel like I learned the truth of the island more holistically than I usually learn history. I learned about the tragedy, and I put my foot in the vibrantly blue water. I came to understand why it is a large tourist destination; It is truly a beautiful place. There are so many interweaving stories that make up what a place like Jeju is.
At many moments while I was there I wasn’t sure whether to be mournful because of painful history, or release my inner child that was begging to climb rocks and play in the sand. And I suppose the answer is that I should do both. The lament of the injustice the people experienced and the celebration of the unique life of Jeju both feel necessary. The stories that we tell matter, and specifically, telling diverse stories is essential. This is not a new revelation, but the time that I spent in Jeju has solidified it in a new way. As learners of history, it is vital to weave narratives as complex and intricate as possible, with as much lament and as much celebration as needed.