Kang Sun-deok (born 1940 in Bonggae, Jeju City)

Byeong-saeng visited me in my dream and said,

“I’m ready to go now. Give me my baby.”

Biseol, a symbolic statue of a mother and her daughter, stands in the Jeju 4·3 Peace Park.

Biseol, a symbolic statue in the Jeju 4·3 Peace Park, represents a woman named Byeon Byeong-saeng and her 2-year-old daughter who died in the snow during Jeju 4·3.
“Byeon Byeong-saeng. Family register name: Byeon Byeong-ok. Aged 25. Shot to death with her daughter, Kang Yeong-ja, by counterinsurgency forces on Jan. 6, 1949, on Gamundari in Bonggae Village.”
I met Kang Sun-deok, a patient who suffered from sequela of wounds due to Jeju 4·3. The formerly 9-year-old girl, whose head injury during Jeju 4·3 left her left arm disabled, has now become a silver-haired woman of 81 years of age who would rather be dead than have to live a life with only one arm. Still, she cries tears of grief for the loss of her eldest brother and his wife, and not for her arm.
“My eldest brother was named Kang Yong-su, and his wife was Byeong-saeng.”
It was my first encounter with a family member of Byeon Byeong-saeng. In March, Kang Sun-deok, accompanied by her two daughters, visited the Jeju 4·3 Peace Park. Facing the statue of her sister-in-law and her niece for the first time, Kang stood silently for a good while.

Kang Sun-deok, accompanied by her daughter, visit the Jeju 4·3 Peace Park in March 2020.

Interview and arrangement by Cho Jung-hee, head of the Commemorative Project Team, Jeju 4·3 Peace Foundation
Photography by Kim Gi-sam, photographer

Where should I move to ensure my baby lives?

I’m from Bonggae. My mother had six sons born within a year after each other, but all of them died. I heard measles was a common cause of death in the past. Although six were born, every one of them ended up dying. It appears that my mother and my grandfather thought, “Should we move somewhere else to let the next baby live?” and they wandered to different places, as an itinerant vendor does. In the end, they reached Deureusengi, located between Doryeon and Hwecheon. That’s how I was born in Deureusengi. I was born in 1940, and this year, I’m 81 years old.

A daughter who became famous, a baby who was unlikely to grow properly

“Oh, my dear! How did I father such a daughter? Have you seen another baby do this? I’ve never seen a baby like her. She’s not going to grow to be ours after all, so why should we register her?” I became famous soon after my birth, for I rarely cried nor whined for food when hungry. I was easy to care for as I even went to the tongshi [a local traditional pit toilet] alone to take a pee at the age of 4. Besides, I had a very pretty face. But as you know, if a baby is too lovely, samshin halmang [a local mythical elderly goddess of life and childbirth] would take her early. It appears that my father thought I was too lovely to be his child. He did not list me on the family register even after I grew for some years, which eventually worried my mother. “Oh, no, your father said you were unlikely to grow properly. And due to the current situation, you really failed to grow properly. My prettiest baby became like this!” My dear mother. Whenever she broke into tears over my injured body due to Jeju 4·3, tears also filled my eyes.

My eldest brother and his wife, Byeong-saeng, called me “Baby”

“Baby, come over here.” My eldest brother used to call me “Baby” for I was the youngest. He always put me on his lap, and he carried me on his back to play and to ancestral rituals. He said, “This jar is for sale. It’s a pretty jar. It’s the best jar my family has. It’s also smart.” I was so little that I didn’t know what was pretty or smart. But while on his back, I could just feel that he really adored me. “Byeong-saeng, where’s Baby?” “Oh dear, I don’t think we (my family) can live without her.” My eldest brother and his wife, Byeong-saeng, adored me as if I were their own child. I really miss the time when they called me “Baby.” To talk about my childhood, it only makes me sad and I start to cry. Still, I remember that my life was filled with joy then. Later, my friends said, “Sun-deok wouldn’t even care about us if she didn’t have her arm injured.” They said it just for fun and I laughed with them. But when back home, I felt sorrow, thinking that they may have ignored me, a one-armed defect. I wasn’t destined to live my days in tears… Only if I didn’t lose my arm. Only if I didn’t lose my eldest brother. And it’s all because of what happened then.

Because of Jeju 4·3, because of the turmoil

One day, my eldest brother said, “Soon, there will be turmoil. Let’s sell our house and buy some rice.” So, my family sold our residence in Deureusengi and rented a small empty house in our hometown, Bonggae. After we returned with only bowls and foodstuff, the dreaded turmoil occurred. You know what? They told us to just move down to Maenchon (Doryeon) to survive. Not knowing the reason, and not knowing where to live, we hurriedly moved there as if we were being chased. Then, they took only people from my hometown and killed them. My innocent elder sister was taken away and even my eldest brother suddenly disappeared. We thought, “Oh, no, we cannot all die. To live, we must at least go back to the village up there!” So, we came back to Bonggae. If we hadn’t returned, would my arm be unharmed and would my sister-in-law, Byeong-saeng, and her daughter be alive? Even though the olle uldam [neighborhood walls] flashed with sparks from the bullets, and even though our house was on fire, we should have just sat there to die. We shouldn’t have run to the mountain. No matter which death we chose, we had to live a life of death anyways.

Kang Yong-su, Kang Sun-deok’s eldest brother, is brought to a court-martial trial. He was sentenced to life in prison on July 1, 1949, and disappeared while serving his term at the Mapo prison. ― “The Court Martial List of the Convicted Prisoners (1949)”

A spoon stuck in a big brass bowl of rice

First, we hiked to Gamundari. It was where the Jeju 4·3 Peace Park was created. We moved to Geochin Oreum, then to Jeolmul Oreum, then to Bamnanggol, and then to Shianneul. As the counterinsurgency forces kept chasing us, we couldn’t stay in one site for long. We hiked the mountain in December of the lunar calendar and until March the next year, there was probably no place we didn’t visit, if located at higher altitudes of Bonggae. When hiding, nothing belonged to me or to anyone else. If anything caught my eye, I took it. That was the only way to survive. Still, on traditional holidays, people each contributed a handful of rice, which they produced out of nowhere, and cooked a big brass bowl of rice. Sitting in a circle around it, they stuck a spoon of their own into the fluffy grains to perform the ancestral ritual. The horror of our lives was such that even a disease would be scared away. Back then, it didn’t feel cold despite only wearing a piece of galjeoksam [local cotton jacket dyed with unripe persimmon] and a pair of galjungi [local cotton pants dyed with unripe persimmon]. Even when walking around barefoot in the snow, not a single person caught a cold. Oh, dear, how did we live during that unbelievable era.

A painting of a big brass bowl of rice by Kang Sun-deok.

My lost left arm

“You go first and move over to that field.” “No. I’m going to go with you, Mom.” Alas, I should have waited quiet and still. Why on earth did I try to tease my mother? I pretended to peek at her taking a pee by flippantly standing up on a nearby rock. At that moment of all things, “Bang!” we heard a gunshot. “Ouch!” Stunned, I missed my footing when stepping down from the rock, and fell backward. “Thump!” With the sound of my head hitting something, “Argh!” I cried with a wail of pain. “Oh, no, keep quiet. Keep quiet. I hear gunshots. Quiet, quiet. We’re going to die. Stop crying, stop crying.” With fear that my sobbing would be heard, my mother quickly covered my mouth with a cotton cloth. Soon after hitting the rock, a lump on my head grew to the size of a pine cone. If she got rid of the stagnant blood in my head, by using a twig, of which many could be found in the highland area, would it have made a difference? While we were hiding, probably a part of my brain melted due to the blood, and the nerve became damaged. The pine cone-sized lump disappeared, but eventually, my left arm became disabled, like this.

Where are Byeong-saeng and her daughter?

After I injured my head, my mother carried me on her back for a long time. Where on earth did my sister-in-law, Byeong-saeng, and my niece go? For how much longer could my mother alone endure the life of taking care of her 14-year-old son and her 5-year-old grandson, and carrying her 9-year-old little girl? In the end, we hiked down the mountain to sneak into an empty house. Well, we were immediately discovered by the counterinsurgency forces. Battered with rifle butts so horribly, my mother knelt down and begged them to kill her instead of us, desperately pleading, “Please kill me! Please kill me!” After the murderous battering, we were taken to the Dori (Gyorae) detention facility. Then, a person in charge came and gave us two rice balls, saying, “You must have suffered a lot.” Doubtful, my mother just sobbed, thinking, “They’re going to kill us. It’s going to be a worse death than a death in the mountain.” Beside her, my nephew Geun-ho and I rushed to eat the rice ball. And starting from the next day, it was incredibly comfortable. We were hit by no one and we didn’t starve nor feel cold. “Here, take this for your baby. We left it from our meal.” I still remember the person in charge of the detention facility who shared his anchovy side dish with us. “Why, we should have stayed here.” My mother, now having no worries about death, burst into tears looking at my left arm, dangling from my shoulder.

“They’re carrying rioters.”

One day, they loaded up a vehicle with a crowd of people detained in Dori and sent them to the former Oriental Colonization Company. I was just excited to be riding a car for the first time in my life. Who cares where it was heading? Then, there appeared the sea and people were washing radish there. I was preoccupied with the scenery of the sea, and suddenly, the radish washers spoke badly about us. “They’re carrying rioters. They’re carrying the creepy rioters.” They kept pointing their fingers to us. I used to sing along like this, “The rioter is you and the flea is Deokgu,” as that is what I thought they were yelling at us. But I didn’t even know what a rioter was. I just thought, “Lee Deok-gu is said to be very strong and smart. Does he skip around like a flea?” But they called me a rioter. Why are we rioters? From then on, I couldn’t enjoy the scenery. I lowered my face and couldn’t say a word. When we arrived at the former Oriental Colonization Company, it seemed so crowded as if everyone in Jeju had been gathered there. Nevertheless, it was fortunate to see my elder sister again, who had been taken from Maenchon. Still, we heard no news of my eldest brother. But my goodness! We heard that his wife, Byeong-saeng, died with her baby in Gamundari, on the very first day we hiked to the mountain!

Byeong-saeng visited me in my dream

Once released from the former Oriental Colonization Company, we came back to the village. As soon as we returned, my mother went to find the body of Byeong-saeng. After burying her and her baby, who had been shot to death, in Gamundari, we lived waiting to hear any news of my missing eldest brother. One night, after I had turned 12, Byeong-saeng visited me in my dream. She was holding her baby in her arms and said, “Mother!” while standing at the entrance of my house. “Oh, dear, you are here!” I was so glad to see her that I ran out to greet her. She just smiled. “Can your baby walk now?” I asked. Her second child, my niece who died in Gamundari, was an infant when she died and was unable to walk. When Byeong-saeng put the baby on the floor in my dream, I clapped my hands, with my disabled left arm, to call my niece. “Come here. Come here.” Then the baby walked to me with a pretty smile and I cradled her in my arms. Byeong-saeng said, “I’m ready to go now. Give me my baby.” And when I was 17, she visited my mother in her dream this time. She said, “Mother, when my son, Geun-ho, turns 14, please move my grave to a different site.” “Oh, sure, I will.” My mother woke up, surprised. The next year was my nephew Geun-ho’s 14th birthday. We unburied Byeong-saeng, who had been buried in Gamundari, and reburied her in Hwecheon. Given that she has not visited us in our dreams ever since, she must be comfortable there, right?