“From the top of the chinaberry tree, I watched my brother being shot to death
but I could not tell my mother.”

Kang Sun-a (born 1937 in Myeongwol Village, Hallim District current resident of Bonggae Village, Jeju City)

The woman, who was 12 when Jeju 4·3 broke out, does not remember how her dead eldest brother looked. She buried in her heart her third oldest brother who had cared for her always carrying her on his back, and her youngest older brother who she was so proud of for being so smart, all of whom died when she was 12. The woman never knew it would take 62 years for her to see her second oldest brother again, whom she met for the first time when she was five. “I tried, somehow, to live on, only to find myself so lonely without my family.”
This is the story Ms. Kang Sun-a told the audience at the 2020 Hansupul Haewon Sangsaeng Keungut [Shamanistic Ritual for the Consolation of Pent-up Hearts and the Mutual Rebirth of the Dead] in Hallim.

Interview by Cho Jung-hee, head of the Memorial Project Team
Photo by Kim Gi-sam

I experienced Jeju 4·3 at the age of 12

My home was located in Hadong of Myeongwol Village in Hallim District. I was 12 and a student at Myeongwol Elementary School. There were five of us in my family: my father, my mother, my older brothers Yeong-bo and Yeong-a, and me. My father was the only son in three generations of our family tree, and at first my parents gave birth to five children. There were four sons and one daughter, which is me. My eldest brother died when I was little. The second eldest brother was living in Japan during Jeju 4·3. I was the youngest of all and, honestly, blamed my parents for giving birth to me. I blamed them because I felt lonely and left out after the deaths of my family. While I was only 12, I knew for certain that Jeju 4·3 was an event in which so many innocent people were killed. Seeing one’s parents, brothers and sisters, and neighbors die as they watch is horrifying. It was something that one would never have imagined without experiencing it.

No to quota delivery!

There was a neighbor surnamed Yang. He was tall and handsome. He was wearing an armband and roamed around the village holding the national flag and saying things like, “Today, on the commemorative event for the March 1st Movement, we will shout out the slogans ‘No to Sweet Potato Quota Delivery and No to Barley Quota Delivery.’ Please join us!” I also visited the playground of Hallim Elementary School, hand in hand with my mother. At the time, the quota delivery was so severe that both the rich and the poor had to literally starve to meet the quota. We had to chop and dehydrate almost all the sweet potatoes we collected. The same went for barley. So, the quota delivery was something we were most afraid of. One day in the summer of the same year, my brothers Yeong-bo and Yeong-a and I visited my maternal grandparents for an ancestral rite. On our way back home, Yeong-bo was holding my hand and Yeong-a was carrying some food from the ancestral rite to give to our parents. On entering the village, we saw sheets of white paper covering the streets. “Yeong-a, take one of those home. We’ll read that out somewhere bright.” This was the beginning of Jeju 4·3. Every night, the white flyers covered the dark streets.

We trusted no relatives, not even brothers or sisters

My aunt was married to a man surnamed Jin in Dongburak of Myeongwol Village. Her sons were smart, cute, and handsome. The three of them worked at the Hallim Myeon [District] Office, and I saw them die in an olle [a neighborhood path] in my village. That was the first time, at the age of 12, that I saw a man kill another. How frightened and panicked I was, I just cannot say in words. How in the world could one do that? They killed the District Office employees for no other reason than being reactionaries. Could those government employees have sinned enough to be killed? That is still a mystery. My aunt’s family were not only grieving but also furious about the deaths of their three sons. That is why people were cautious about their relatives, brothers, and sisters.

“Mother!” – My youngest older brother’s last word

Yeong-a was 18, and, at 18, it was hard for him to know what was going on out there. He was doing really well at school, and that was all. The winter of 1948 was shivering cold. Yeong-a was coming down with the flu so he stayed at home. One day, he felt like going out for fresh air and went to see his best friend, Yeong-ho. But he did not come back after 9 p.m. At the time, there was a curfew, and after 9 p.m., we were supposed to be back home unless we wanted to be shot to death. Yeong-ho’s mother was the sister-in-law of my father’s cousin. So, that makes our families related. It was a difficult time, and Yeong-ho’s family wanted to treat him to dinner. That was how Yeong-a broke curfew.
My father, being the only son in three generations, was worried sick of his children. I wonder what would have happened if my father just stayed home. However, he went out to find my brother, Yeong-a. A sentry found him wandering and asked my father, “Mr. Kang, why are you out here?” My father replied honestly. “Yeong-a, my son, went out to Yeong-ho’s after coming down with the flu and is not back, even after curfew. I came out looking for him.” Long after my father came back home, there was the sound of my brother opening the front door. The front door of my house made a loud thumping sound whenever it opened. My brother called out for my mother. “Mother!” As my mother was opening her room’s door, suddenly, someone came following my brother and snatched him. That was the last I ever saw of Yeong-a.

Kang Sun-a is with her mother before leaving for a textile factory in Seoul.

Seeing my brother shot to death from the top of a chinaberry tree

There was a huge chinaberry tree in the yard of our house. I was fond of climbing it ever since I was young. My father even made a step stone so I could easily climb up. Hallim Elementary School is a little bit far from my home, yet I could see from the top of the chinaberry kids playing in its field on sunny days. The day was also very sunny when Yeong-a died. Some villagers were gathering around and saying that “there is going to be an execution today.” As I heard that, I quietly climbed up the tree. There was a line of people standing in the field of Hallim Elementary School. I saw many of them. And, even though I could not see his face, I knew Yeong-a was there. “Why are they lined up?” I thought. Immediately after, there was the sound of gunfire, “Bang! Bang! Bang!” and the people in the line collapsed. It was an execution. “Come down, little Sun-a, it’s all over. Come on down.” I pulled myself together hearing my mother’s voice, but I could still not move my body. I could not tell my mother that Yeong-a had collapsed under the gunfire. Yeong-a was taken by the police and shot to death on the field of Hallim Elementary School.

Kang Sun-a (front) stands with her coworkers at the textile factory.

My youngest older brother returned home as a corpse

The day my brother Yeong-a died, one of the brothers of my aunt’s husband, who lived in Jungdong of Myeongwol Village, came back alive. He was carried on the back of a man who worked as a horse herder
. We could not even recognize my relative’s face because he was beat up so badly that all of his entire body was swollen. At least he came back alive. He was beat, with skin ripped and bones smashed, almost to death, but not dead. He came back alive unlike my brother who came back in silence. That is what makes me feel mortified, and the feeling grows stronger even as time goes by. They say things like compensation, and clearing away falsified accusations. For what? They cannot bring back my dead brother who died at the age of 18. My father and my uncle were the only ones who could go pick up Yeong-a’s body because it was a time when we should watch out for misfortune. The two adults carried Yeong-a’s body on a stretcher. My mother was already losing herself when they came back. She burst out into the street, grabbed Mr. Yang by his collar and shouted, “It’s you or me!” My mother was grabbing the guy with such strength that I could not imagine her slender body could produce.
Yeong-a’s body was buried in a field called Yeodrang-bat by the village. Sometime later, when we went there to clear the weeds, the stone wall on the side collapsed and covered the grave. Eventually, we lost his tomb, too.

Third eldest brother found six years later

Another one of my brothers, Yeong-bo, was afraid of what would happen to him, after witnessing Yeong-a being shot dead for allegedly “making contact in the mountains” when, actually, he just went to a friend’s place. Yeong-bo went into hiding in the mountains. As the military and police burned down the villages of Geumak, Sanymyeong, and Sangdong and Jungdong of Myeongwol, the residents were evacuated or removed to where I lived, or to the villages of Ongpo and Hyeopjae. My neighborhood called Hadong in Myeongwol Village was the only place that was not burned. Our house was a three-room thatched-roof house. My maternal aunt’s family lived in the living room, while my father’s cousin and her family lived in the small room. My brother Yeong-bo could not come into the house easily as he could not trust the relatives. It was a time when we distrusted each other.
One night, Yeong-bo sneaked into the room where I and my parents were sleeping. My mother gave a white cloth to Yeong-bo saying, “Yeong-bo, please grab a long stick and tie this, wield it in front of people while you come back to the village. You cannot live in the mountain hiding like that forever. You’ll starve to death.” She begged.
Soon after, Yeong-bo really came back from the mountain, with the white cloth hanging on a wooden stick instead of the national flag. Exactly 20 days after he came back to the village, he came home. For a time it was quiet. Yeong-bo was not hiding nor was he captured.
In summer of the next year, I think it was in June by the lunar calendar ― If only that day could have passed without it, my dear brother Yeong-bo would be alive now ― a damn neighbor surnamed Kang ratted on my brother who ended up being killed. A policeman came to arrest my brother, a released mountain-based villager. At the time, Yeong-bo was out in the field working.
Without my brother, the policeman headed back empty-handed. But this Kang guy guided the police all the way to the field and let the policeman take Yeong-bo away. Six years passed before we found Yeong-bo’s body in Seodal Oreum, a hill in Moseulpo Village. He is buried in Gaetgeori Oreum along with others who died with him. Yeong-bo was engaged to a woman before he died, whom he never married or met again.

During the 2020 Hallim Hansupul Haewon Sangsaeng Keungut, Kang Sun-a attends the “On-Site Testimonial,” hosted by Cho Jung-hee, head of the Memorial Project Team of Jeju 4·3 Peace Foundation

Inspectors chased me even in Seoul

I felt helpless and afraid without my brothers as I aged. I felt like there was no one left to protect me. By the time when I became 20, I had no money, so I decided to work in a textile factory in Seoul with my friends. My father blamed himself for being unable to protect his four sons. He seemed to have believed in his fortune, which, to him, lacked blessings upon his children. He was afraid of losing his youngest only daughter. He was crying while he was sending me to Seoul, saying, “Sooner the better. I know it won’t be easy, but spend some time in Seoul and come back safe.” So, my friends and I rented a room near a textile factory in Seoul where we lived.
But there was an inspector who kept coming and asking questions. He was investigating my second eldest brother who was in Japan. He thought that my brother was in Japan for an ideological cause. I first saw my second eldest brother when I was five and told the inspector so. I told the inspector that there was nothing wrong with my brother. The inspector did not seem to believe it, but I had nothing to be afraid of because there really was nothing wrong! Yeong-beom, my second eldest brother, lived in Japan and did not once return home to Jeju even when he died. There was a message from him before he underwent cardiac surgery. He wanted to see the face of his youngest sister one last time. That’s when I went to Japan to see him face to face. That was the second time I saw Yeong-beom, in 62 years, and that was the last time I saw my brother.

Kang Sun-a still uses the bucket her father gave her.

Father’s bucket

I lived in Seoul for six years and then came back to Jeju. I got married late, at the age of 25. My father, who lost his sons, gave my husband a wholehearted welcome to the family. After five years of my marriage, my husband developed a scrofula. Nowadays, the disease is somewhat easier to treat, but back then, it was serious. My husband wasn’t allowed to eat certain types of food such as hairtail, mackerel, pork, or eggs. My father was worried sick about my husband. He went down all the way to Ongpo Village in Hallim District, bought 20 kg of damselfish, pickled it, and came back home with this red bucket full of fish. He traveled from Hallim to Bongareum where we lived. After all those years, I could never throw this bucket away as it makes me think about my father who cared for us so much. Now, the bucket has gone old, lost its colors. And I don’t have the lid anymore. But I always keep the bucket full of rice as I think about my father.

The pain of parting is like burning in fire alive

My parents lost two of her sons due to Jeju 4·3. They all died because of hwabyeong [a Korean somatization disorder]. Even when working in the field, my mother, frustrated and angry by the fact that her sons were killed for no reason, took her clothes off whenever she thought about her lost babies, her sons. It was too heavy for her, and the heat was too much to take on. Every time she did that, I told her, “Mother, please put your clothes back on. Neighbors are going to laugh at you.” Then, I would hug her and we would eventually cry together. That was how we lived on. How resentful would it be to lose innocent family members, both as a sister and as a parent? Some say that “When a husband dies, his wife takes it like the fall of a country, when a family has to live a life of separation, they feel like they are being burned alive, and when a baby dies, its parents bury their dead child in their hearts.” I myself lost my first baby after I got married. It was an early death, but I came to realize how my mother felt. The pain, as one would say, was like burning in a fire alive. It was like ripping apart my heart and all my organs, and my mind is left with nothing but ashes.