“A letter from my grandfather that has been returned”

Hyeon Gong-hwa (born 1942, lives in Nohyeong, Jeju)

The late Hyeon Dae-jong, the grandfather of Hyeon Gong-hwa, lost his three sons due to Jeju 4·3. Both his eldest son and his middle son died of illness in Mokpo Prison and in Daegu Prison, respectively, and the youngest was executed at the Jeongtteureu Airfield. After Nov. 19, 1948, when Wollang Village burned down, all of his sons were killed. Was it fortunate that he could at least recover his eldest son’s body? As such, he buried all his three sons in his heart.
Hyeon Dae-jong had never told his eldest grandson, Gong-hwa, anything related to Jeju 4·3. To his grandson’s eyes, the man seemed to have completely forgotten the memory of Jeju 4·3. But Gong-hwa realized while organizing his grandfather’s belongings that his grandfather did not forget Jeju 4.3 but could not dare to speak of it because the wounds never healed. I met Hyeon Gong-hwa, Hyeon Dae-jong’s grandson who wishes to remove the pain of Jeju 4·3, which had been weighing on his grandfather for more than 70 years.

Photo and article by Cho Jeong-hee,
Deputy Director of the Memorial Project Team

The eldest son and grandson have to protect their hometown.

My hometown is Wollang Village. When it became difficult to live in Jeju during the Japanese colonial period, my grandfather moved with his family to Japan. He ran a paint company there and educated all three of his sons. In 1946, right after national liberation, my family returned to our hometown of Wollang Village. My maternal relatives, who had already settled in Japan, strongly dissuaded him from returning to Jeju. However, my grandfather and father were the eldest son and the eldest grandson in my family, so no one could resist my grandfather’s decision to return to his hometown. If only one of his three sons had stayed in Japan at that time… Grandpa wouldn’t have lost all three of them due to Jeju 4·3…

Wollang Village turned to ashes

On Nov. 19, 1948, my hometown of Wollang Village was burned down. Those soldiers that had suddenly stormed into the village set fire from door to door and shot at any resident they spotted. The flames swept through the village turning everything into ash, and leaving its residents with nowhere to go. It was the same with my family. Where could we go after losing our residence that had been used for 10 generations … “You go your own way. If we get caught together, everyone would be killed.” Following my grandfather’s will, my family was scattered. I didn’t know where my grandfather and my uncles were heading. I followed my father and mother down to Odorong in Iho Village.

My father’s body collected from Mokpo Prison

Life in Odorong was just so scary. Soldiers and police officers carrying guns searched the village from time to time, beating, killing, and capturing people. One day, the police told all the evacuees to gather in the school playground, and they picked out male adults and dragged them away. We didn’t hear any news about my father afterwards, who was taken that day. We kept waiting for my father to come back. Some time had passed and one day, less than a year after my father was taken away, a notice of his death arrived. It was a notification that my father died in Mokpo Prison. We couldn’t believe it. When did he get tried and when did he get taken to prison? And why, how did he die? We didn’t know anything. My mother, who urgently prepared money, put herself on a boat bound for Mokpo. My sister and I were too young to go with her, while my grandmother and grandfather were too old. And we didn’t know the whereabouts of my uncles. My mother took over my father’s corpse from Mokpo Prison and brought the body to Jeju in a coffin. It was not cremated, and the coffin contained the corpse. At first, she was denied the ability to load the coffin containing the body onto the ship. Fortunately, however, there was a young soldier on board the ship who was transferred to Jeju Island. When he heard about my mother’s situation, he helped her load the coffin on the head of the ship. My mother was eager to see the soldier again, but there was no way to find him.

May the newly betrothed love each other in life after death..

My father’s eldest brother was taken with his betrothed about a month before the wedding. In the end, neither of them came back alive. My uncle died of pneumonia [infiltration of the lungs] while serving a prison term in Daegu Prison. While he was in prison, my grandfather received a letter saying that his son was in critical condition, and he sent a letter asking about his son along with money to cover medical expenses. But we were notified that he eventually died. He was serving time in prison. How could he have been treated properly? The shock to my grandparents, who were notified that their eldest and second sons died in prison, was indescribable. To recover their second son’s body, we had to send someone to Daegu Prison this time. However, my grandfather gave up collecting the body because he didn’t dare to send his daughter-in-law alone again. Was it a lifelong regret that he couldn’t recover his second son’s body? My grandfather did not throw away any letters about his son, including the letters he wrote but were returned from the prison, a letter of notice of critical illness, and a death notice. It was also not known what happened to the lady who promised to marry my uncle after she was arrested. Later, we found out through records that she went missing while serving a sentence in Jeonju Prison. So, the two families discussed the situation and decided to marry them posthumously, hoping that the couple could love each other in life after death…

Daegu Prison Critical Condition Notice

Daegu Prison Death Notice

If only we had one family member to perform a DNA test…

My other uncle, who left us on the day Wollang Village was set ablaze, was shot dead at the Jeongtteureu Airfield. I don’t know how my grandmother heard about it, but she started to hold a memorial service for him, saying that her son had died. Now, I am holding the ancestral rites for my father and my two uncles. A few years ago, I was contacted to provide blood samples for DNA testing during the exhumation of remains at the Jeju International Airport. In the case of my youngest uncle, he didn’t have any children, he didn’t have any living brothers, and I was the only one who could provide blood samples. But since I’m his nephew, the chances of finding his remains are very low. I’m sure the excavated remains contain my uncle’s. It’s a pity that I cannot confirm it.

Family members left behind

After my father was taken by police in Odorong, Iho Village, my mother’s life became more difficult to endure. The police frequently took her on the accusation that her husband was not home. At the Dodu Police Substation, she explained, “My husband was taken by the police on the school playground.” No matter how much she pleaded, the police interrogation and torture would not stop. Would her heart become stronger after torture and hardship? My mother, a widower, had been a strong supporter of me and my sister and my grandparents throughout her life. But now that I think of it, I can’t even imagine how she felt when she received the notice of the death of her husband who had been taken by the police right in front of her eyes. How could I understand the feeling of a young wife who went to prison alone on a ship just with the hope to recover his body and to return with her dead husband? My grandmother, who died at the age of 94, never talked about her children that she had buried in her heart. My grandfather seemed to have completely erased his memory of Jeju 4·3. And us, the little siblings who naturally accepted their father’s absence … Looking back, the scars from Jeju 4·3 left on my family have never healed, and time has passed. For 70 years…

Hyeon Dae-jong wrote to his son, Hyeon Tae-hoon, who was serving a term in Daegu Prison, asking about his safety after receiving a notice that Tae-hoon was in critical condition. The letter was returned from Daegu Prison with the death notice.

“I sent a letter after receiving a notice that my son, Hyun Tae-hoon, who is serving a prison term in Daegu Prison, was in critical condition due to pneumonia. I am worried that he has not yet replied. How is my son’s condition? Is he alive? I’ll visit the prison today and pay all the medical expenses, so I sincerely ask you to do your best to treat my son. I’m also remitting 1,000 won, so please use it for the patient’s daily expenses. I’m so sorry that I have so many requests. Please forgive me.”