Do You Know Kang Nam-ro, the District Chief?

Kang Chang-yoo, born in the village of Sangmo, Daejeong, in 1937.

Like a lotus flower that springs from a muddy pond.

Inside the Jeju 4 · 3 Peace Park is a section titled “The Righteous Wind in the Middle of Massacre. It introduces nine courageous people who risked their lives to prevent innocent people from being killed in the midst of massacres committed during the April 3rd Incident. They include Kim Ik-ryeol, chief of the 9th Regiment; Moon Hyung-soon, chief of police; Kim Seong-hong, district chief; Kang Kye-bong, a police constable; Ko Hee-jun and Kim Soon-cheol, members of North West Youth Association; Jang Si-young, a medical doctor; and police sergeants Jang Seong-soon and Park Jae-myeong. In May, 2019, we met with Kang Chang-yoo, chairman of the Daejeong History and Culture Study Society, at the senior center of Sangmo village in Daejeong township. The meeting was arranged upon his aggressive request, arguing that he needed to testify about Kang Nam-ro, the district chief. With most of the village elders deceased in the course of 70 years, Kang says any breath could be his last. Though he is 83 years old, he was able to articulate what Sangmo village had gone through during the 4.3 Incident with so much passion and brilliant recollection. He said the history of 4.3 cannot have closure until the painful part is felt without hiding the pain and the righteous part is cherished with great pride.
“Do you know Sir Kang Nam-ro, district chief of Sangmori?”
It is now time to answer that question.

Interview · photos · edited by Jo Jeong-hee, deputy director of the Investigation and Research Office, Jeju 4 · 3 Peace Foundation. <Editorial>

To remember Chief Kang Nam-ro.

I turned 83 this year. My resident registration says I was born in 1939, but in fact, I was born in 1937, and I was 12 when the incident occurred. I was born in Sangmo village. Fortunately, my family didn’t suffer much from the April 3rd Incident. It was because we had a great deal of help from Chief Kang. Perhaps that is the reason why the memory of him has never faded from my mind even after 70 years. In 2013, I was putting together the history of 4.3 with a dozen village elders and realized that all of us remembered how thankful we were for what Chief Kang had done for us. District Chief Kang Nam-ro — it is a name found nowhere in history but surely it is inscribed in the hearts of people from Sangmo village who survived the long period of misery caused by Jeju 4.3. I thought that one sentence that reads “More than 60 people were killed in Sangmo village, Daejeong, during the seven years and seven months of the Jeju Massacre from March 1, 1947, through to Sept. 21, 1954,” wouldn’t do justice to the 4.3 that befell Sangmo village. We began collecting the testimonies of the local elders about Chief Kang and published them in a local journal. Now that six years have passed, all those who remembered Kang Nam-ro have passed away — except for me. Even I am getting so old that any breath could be my last. When I’m gone, who’s going to remember the gratitude we felt towards Kang Nam-ro, the district chief?

The plowed field in front of the village shrine where about 40 residents of Hamo village were shot to death in public on Dec. 13, 1948. Local residents call this act of brutality as ‘forced surrender’, ‘substitute killing,’ or ‘public shooting.’

Her husband had already died. Why are you calling her out?
(*Part of the names omitted to protect identity)

On Dec. 13, 1948, a police detective surnamed Ko gathered all the villagers in front of the village shrine and said, “Come up to the front when your name is called. If absent, a substitute must come instead!” A wife for a husband, a son for a father, or a close relative for a brother, anyone had to fill in the place for the absentee. There was a guy named Kang ◯-sook* in our village. He was actively involved in the village’s affairs and a very smart man. His name was called out, but he had escaped the village long ago. Hearing the command calling for a substitute, his older sister Kang ◯-seon stepped out to take his place. When his sister was seen joining those whose names were called out, Chief Kang, who was in charge of the village at that time, protested against the command.

“A woman in a family belongs to her husband’s family once she gets married,” He said. “They are not brothers. How come you are asking her to substitute her brother?”

Hearing Chief Kang’s argument, Detective Ko sent her back, saying: “Fine then! Back in the crowd!”

A little later, the name Heo ◯-ryong was called out. He was long gone, so his wife Kang ◯-yeol answered the call instead. However, Kang protested again, saying: “Her husband had already died. Why are you calling her out?”

Detective Ko sent her back, saying: “If your husband is dead, you don’t need to come.”

Those called out by Detective Ko were dragged with their hands tied with rope like handcuffs and were shot to death. They were killed in the place of their families or relatives. I feel sorry for those killed, but Kang ◯-seon, the sister of Kang ◯-sook, and Kang ◯-yeol, the wife of Heo ◯-ryong, who were called out as substitutes, they survived all because of Chief Kang. When no one could stand up for them out of fear, the courageous words of Kang saved two innocent lives.

As the head of the village, I am responsible for everyone!

There is another anecdote about Chief Kang. One day, one of the villagers named Yoon ◯-ok found a sword near the military camp in a nearby village. She couldn’t report it to the authority right away and took it home with her instead. Her husband died before the 4.3 incident and she was living with her daughter. The police found out about it and took Yoon to a precinct in Daejeong. But not only did the police arrest Yoon, but they also looked for the village head. There were six neighborhoods in total in the two districts of Sangmo village. District 1 included Daedong, Seosangdong, Igyodong and Sanisudong, and District 2 included Seohadong and Junghadong. Yoon ◯-ok lived in Igyodong of which Heo ◯ was in charge. However, Heo couldn’t come forward as the village head because he feared of being killed if taken to the station. The police didn’t stop looking for the village head and Kang, who was the chief of District 1, stepped up as the village head and was taken to the precinct station with Yoon ◯-ok. He was interrogated just because he was supposedly in charge of the village. But the police couldn’t find anything on Chief Kang, who was innocent of any crime. Maybe they thought it was meaningless to go further in interrogating him, and they yelled, threatening: “One of you must die. Who’s it gonna be!”

Who in the world would volunteer to sacrifice themselves in such a situation? Both of them were tight-lipped and no one spoke a word. After constant coercion by the police, however, Chief Kang made the hard decision.

“Since I am responsible for everything involving the villagers, I will take the bullet as village head,” he said.

“Get out!” the police shouted and dragged him out of the station.

They were walking towards the clock tower in the north of the fork to the west of the front gate of what is now Daejeong Middle School and abruptly stopped to aim their guns at Chief Kang.

“Hands in the air! If you have any last words, spit it out!” they said.

“That my death would stop another villager from Sangmo village from being sacrificed for no reason — That is my wish as I am being killed,” he said.

Then the police laid down their guns that they were pointing at Chief Kang.

“Put your hands down!”

He narrowly escaped death like that.

Of course, Yoon ◯-ok was released with him. What if he said, “What have I done to deserve death?” Wouldn’t you think the police might have shot him without hesitation? His will to save his village people by offering his own life saved both of his and Yoon’s lives after all. Yoon survived 4.3 and passed away long after that incident. Chief Kang’s daughter, Kang Bok-soon, also remembered Yoon ◯-ok.

“You have no idea how hard it was to get eggs back then. Eggs are a dime a dozen now and people rarely eat them these days. I remember Jeong-son’s mother brought those valuable eggs, 10 of ’em I think, carefully packed like this. She came to thank my father for saving her and her daughter from death. For goodness sake…we lived in such a horrible time.”

Chairman Kang Chang-yoo explaining about Chief Kang Nam-ro in the biography section of Daejeongeup Journal.’

Responsibility was…another word for death.

At the time of 4.3, mountain villages were evacuated, and the residents were all removed to seaside villages. After the evacuation, they were issued citizenship certificates, without which they couldn’t go anywhere. The certificate was a pass and a security for life at the same time. To have it issued, you needed to stand a surety. Of those evacuated to another village, there were some who weren’t able to be issued certificates because it was hard to find sureties. But in our village, Chief Kang volunteered to vouch for them, saying: “Let me be the surety for all of them!” To be a surety for those removed from the mountain villages meant at that time that he was willing to take responsibility if anyone of them was associated with the SKLP (South Korea Labor Party) guerrillas or “the mountain people,” as they were referred to by the villagers. The surety must bear the responsibility. If anyone gets caught climbing up the mountain, feeding the guerrillas, communicating with them or what not, the surety would take responsibility. So, it was natural that you were to be careful about who you stood for as a surety. Taking responsibility at that time meant dying. Regardless, Chief Kang offered himself as surety for all of those forcibly removed to our village.

“Let me put my seal on it,” he said. “Let me stand as a surety for all.”

Elder Heo Seung-soo told me a story when he was alive.
One day, Detective Ko came to Chief Kang and showed him a list of seven villagers. He obstinately made an unreasonable demand, yelling: “Find these people!”
How on earth could Chief Kang find those youngsters who had already left the village?
“I can’t find these people right now. But if any of them joined the guerrillas or had any connection with the guerrillas, I will take responsibility.”
“Are you serious?”
“I sure am.”
Hearing Chief Kang speak with such certainty, Detective Ko couldn’t insist any longer and returned with the list. If Detective Ko started summoning villagers to question or torture them so as to find those seven people, the villagers could have spoken some names of others, possibly innocent people of the village who would have eventually been killed in the end. Back then, Jeju was under martial law, so they killed people like they were flies. At the end of the day, it was Chief Kang’s responsible actions and words that saved not only the seven people on the list but also everyone in Sangmo village.

Are only the shy supposed to suffer?

Let me tell you a story about my family and Chief Kang. Under the Japanese colonial rule, our village had to fill a quota delivery of cattle. Those confident and able to speak for themselves never had to offer a single ox, but the shy ones delivered two oxen and my family offered even three. Basically, they didn’t evenly allocate a fixed quantity to each stock farmer and took advantage of those who seemed unable to confront and protest against their unfairness. It was Kang ◯-won who was in charge of cattle delivery in Sangmo village. When asked to offer an ox for the third time, my mother and brother went to meet Kang ◯-won. “If you continue to ask the shy and quiet like us to offer oxen twice or three times, how do you expect us to get by?” Oxen were considered such a valuable asset at that time that one ox could be traded for a farm field. My mother begged, cried and burst into a rage, but it was of no use. Seeing our ox raised on a neighboring farm run by Heo ◯-ik, we couldn’t do anything because we didn’t have any power to wield. Chief Kang, hearing this, paid a visit to Kang ◯-won, the officer in question. “How can you do this!” he yelled at him for us. He also went to the town office to intervene, protesting: “You cannot allot the cattle delivery like this. This is against fairness for all! Only the shy are supposed to suffer? It needs to be fairly allocated, especially during hard times.” As Chief Kang taught youth Korean and Chinese classics himself by building a village school in Sangmo village, he was revered by many younger members of the village. Most of all, he would listen to the villagers who had been wronged and rolled up his sleeves for all people to redress injustices.

Chief Kang Nam-ro, may you rest in peace

The Korean War broke out when 4.3 had nearly ended, and most of the young were drafted into the military. Even Detective Ko, who viciously harassed the people in Sangmo village, enlisted in the 3rd Marine Corps. The 3rd Marine Corps was mostly composed of Jeju people. Detective Ko’s evil deeds during 4.3 left indelible scars on the villagers so that the young Marines from Daejeong even tried to kill him while serving.
By the time the war ended, Chief Kang had died from an illness. In 1953, he was only 49. He was too young to die. I still clearly recall the day when about a dozen young men who remained in the village came to the burial site of Chief Kang with a bottle of liquor to offer the deceased and paid condolences to him. “May you rest in peace, Chief Kang. Rest in peace, sir. Sir, we will pick up where you left off.” And their wailing ensued. The young, who shed tears at the funeral of Chief Kang, have all since died over the years and are now gone. Is it natural that history should be erased by time? Either the bitter memories of Detective Ko who put a lot of innocent people to death, or the grateful recollection of Chief Kang who saved his villagers by risking his own life — it’s a pity that over the past 70 years they too are now all gone.

The death of my three-year-old little brother

Shocked to see the blood on my hands, I kept shouting, “Mom, it’s blood! Blood! I’m scared. Let’s go home. Let’s go home.” When my little brother started crying, one of the soldiers spat vulgar language at us: “Son of bitch! You die now or later anyway,” and beat my brother’s head with a club he had been holding.

Even before my mother could try to stop him, I heard “Bam! Bam!” the sound of his skull smashed. And my little brother could no longer whine or cry. He lost consciousness, drooping down my mother’s back. In the end, without being able to receive proper medical treatment at a hospital, he died in March 1951, after years of suffering from the fluids having collected in his head.

Chief Kang Nam-ro’

To document Chief Kang

Isn’t it a fact that no one can be brought back to life once dead? You live a mortal life where you die once, no matter what kind of person you are or how far and high your power reaches. How could Chief Kang lay down his you-only-die-once life for someone else, not even a relative, without hesitation? As I mentioned earlier, I turned 83 this year. I, despite myself, have become one of the 10 oldest people in Sangmo village. When my generation who experienced 4.3 dies, how will our children remember it? They will probably learn of only a few Sangmo village victims of 4.3. Of course, remembering the horrendous deaths of 4.3 and consoling and commemorating the unjustly victimized must continue. But I hope that future generations will remember that there were people who had done the right thing for their neighbors, even in the darkest years, that there were people like lotus flowers that bloom in the mud. And I wish that the memories of Chief Kang Nam-ro are properly documented so that our children and grandchildren will learn not just the sorrows and pains from the history of 4.3 but the lessons to take pride in ourselves.