As if my life ended when I was 18…
I lived on, bearing the burden of my life.

Kim Jeong-chu (Born in 1930 in Hahyo, Seogwipo, now lives in Busan)

Kim Jeong-chu visits the 71st Memorial Ceremony for 4·3 Victims in 2019. (Photograph by Kim Hong-gu)

“I truly have no idea why I am a sinner.”
On Nov. 16, 2020, in Room 201 of the Jeju District Court, 91-year-old Kim Jeong-chu gave her final statement. “What have I done wrong?” she asked as her voice, bold and determined, trembled. For 70 years she lived with the burden of being labeled a sinner at the age of 18. Not a single word existed to comfort her fury and resentment. On Dec. 21, 2020, the court declared seven surviving convicts who applied for retrial, including Kim, innocent. It took 73 years to find them not guilty.

Interview and arrangement by Cho Jeong-hee, director of the Memorial Project Team

My life practically ended when I was 18

I am now over 90 years old, and what do you know – there are actually those who care for us. I was practically dead when I was 18. I still do not know what made me do my time for so long in prison at such a young age. It was a time I did not even want to think about ever again. So, I promised myself never to mention my past. I kept it to myself as I did not want to risk being shunned. That was why I hesitated when I applied for the retrial. As the trial went on and my name was in the newspapers and on TV, my siblings were surprised.

“Sis, why did you do that?”
“I do not know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know?”

I still do not have an answer as to why.

Are Josenjin (a derogatory Japanese term for Koreans) even human?

I am Kim Jeong-chu (金正秋), and the three letters of my name respectively indicate iron (金), uprightness (正), and the season of autumn (秋). I was born in 1930 and raised in Japan. My father ran a shoe factory in Naniwa-ku, Osaka. I heard the Japanese say, “Are Josenjin even human? If they really are human, flowers should bloom from the telephone poles.” Those Japanese people looked down on us who came from Joseon (Korea). But even those Japanese could not resist the power of wealth. The factory my father owned was huge. Naniwa-ku in Osaka was a district where wealthy people lived. There was a large train station called Imamiyaeki (今宮駅) near the factory, and many people from Joseon gathered there to work in the black market. If they were lucky, they would not be caught by the Japanese police. Yet, most were not that lucky. The Japanese police would not take the Joseon people who were caught to the police station but would instead take them to my home. And when they did, my father would bribe the police with some money. I do not know how much. Then the police would say, “Arigatou (ありがとう), Kaneoka-san,” meaning thank you Mr. Kaneoka, a name they used to call my father. The police would leave with the people who were supposed to be in custody free. There were many Joseon people who were helped by my father.

I had to board a ferry for a way back to Korea, following the airstrike in Japan

I graduated from an elementary school in Japan. The school was called ‘第二 小学校,’ or Elementary School No. 2. Teachers would say, “You’re a good girl for a Joseon child. You are also smart.” They liked me very much, but I never got to enter middle school. There were air raids every day, and I was not able to go to school with all the bombings. One day, a squadron of bombers came and devastated my neighborhood. That day, my father took our family to an underpass. There, my family spent three days. We covered ourselves with soaked blankets. When we came back up from the underpass, there were people burnt to death. It was probably that they were caught up in the narrow alleys surrounded by makeshift board houses. The dead looked as if they were skewered sweet potatoes. There were men and women, and young and old, all among the dead. I can still picture it clearly now. My home and the shoe factory were all burnt down. There was nothing left. I could not take even a single piece of clothing when I got on the Kimikayomaru (a regular passenger liner between Jeju and Osaka).

Kim Jeong-chu has an interview at her home in Mandeok-dong, Busan, in August 2019.

Eldest daughter to a family in Hahyo, Seogwipo

When I was 15, I came back to my family’s hometown of Hahyo along with my parents and my brothers and sisters. Only my eldest brother chose to stay in Japan because he cared much about his study. There were three brothers and four daughters in my family, and I was the second eldest of all. So, except for my older brother who stayed in Japan, I was literally the eldest child in the family. We lived in a thatched-roof house in Hahyo. The yard at the house was large. We had some land to cultivate. We owned cows and horses. We hired two farmhands, so the land we owned must have been wide. My parents were amiable with the villagers and were used to farming. My younger brothers and sisters began going to elementary school. I alone was the only one who did not know how to read or write, and I had no one else to play with. I wanted to learn, so I went to the old home of my mother. I learned how to read and write from one of my cousins and went to school in the evening. I also learned farming and diving for seafood. Time went fast, and I became 18.

The Register of the Convicted from the court-martial trial indicates Kim Jeong-chu as a criminal. The register records that she was sentenced to one-year imprisonment on Dec. 10, 1948.

A thumb mark she made changed her entire life

On a late evening in the winter of 1948, three young men from the village came into the yard of my home. “Come out, Kim Jeong-chu!” Not knowing anything about what was going on, I was taken to the village shrine. When I got there, my friends Hee-chun, Soon-hwa, and Yeon-soo were already there. We were sent to the Seogwipo Police Station. The people who were taken were put into cells in the station, except for me and Hee-chun who were seated in a hallway. It was there where we were interrogated.

“Why are you girls here for?”
“We do not know.”
“Do you know a person called Oh?”
“Yes, it was Oh who asked us to go diving and gathering in the mainland. We made thumb marks on an application form.”

The interrogation ended. There was a person whose last name was Oh who was recruiting divers to work in the mainland. We were curious about the mainland, so we said yes and put our thumb marks down on the paper. But it turned out that Oh was executed by firing squad. Come to think of it now, that was what made all the turmoil. My thumb mark was the reason the whole time, I think.

Across the sea from Jeju

It was at the dead of night. We boarded a tugboat. The next thing I know, we were in Jeju-eup where we were taken to a house with a large yard. There were about 30 people sitting on the floor. They were beat with clubs or were hung upside down. The interrogation was very harsh. My memory is still clear even when I close my eyes now. The memory I do not want to think of again. It was fortunate that I and Hee-chun were not interrogated. “Stand up and start walking!” It was so dark a night that we could not even recognize our faces. We walked and followed all the way to the port of Sanji. There we boarded a ship: a huge ship. There were many people. There were even mothers carrying babies, but only the two of us, me and Hee-chun, were from Hahyo. No one said much on that ship. I saw a mother who threw the corpse of her dead baby into the sea. All the people who saw that with me lost the will to say anything. Just like that, we crossed the sea of Jeju.

Kim Jeong-chu after giving her final statement during her retrial on Nov. 16, 2020.

Imprisoned in Jeonju Prison

We reached Mokpo Port. Again, we had to walk to Mokpo Station after we got off the ship. We were carried aboard a train like luggage. The last stop we were taken to was a huge building made of brick. That was how I was imprisoned in Jeonju Prison. I could never know what was to become of me. I only thought to myself that “I survived.” It was strange but life in prison sometimes felt better than having been dragged here and there. When I was in the police station, there was only one meal per day, although it was no more than a lump of rice. In the prison, however, we were fed two times a day. Prison guards were also female, and they were nice to us. They sometimes wrapped the food they had and handed it over to us secretly. They often told us to study hard. Of course, it was not as if they were teaching us anything. We were put in prison cells for the entire time. There were many prisoners locked up in tiny cells, so it was very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter. Every other day, we were allowed to go outside to the field to take a walk in the sun. There was nothing else we could do. However, it was somehow better than being interrogated. After six months, a guard handed me a postcard. So, I wrote, “Dear mom and dad. Jeong-chu is here, alive, and I’m sorry.” I was able to deliver news about how I was doing to my family for the first time. My father wrote back to me. What he wrote was: “Be safe and come back.” That was it, and I could not hold back my tears. I was holding tight when I decided to get a hold of myself, but when I heard that from my father, suddenly I wanted to see my family, my father, my mother, and my little brothers and sisters. I cried.

Like the string of my jacket that was cut down

On the day I was leaving prison, I wore my white jacket and black skirt, the same outfit I wore when I came from Jeju. I was out of prison along with Hee-chun. Three days before my departure, a guard washed my clothes clean and dried them. The guard asked me to give her my jacket. I asked her why, but she insisted. A while later when she handed me back my jacket, there were new jacket strings. An officer back in Seogwipo Police Station cut the strings of my jacket with scissors. The cut was not clean and made my clothes ugly. I did not like it because it reminded me of how miserable I was. Could it be that the guard knew how I felt? Anyway, the addition to my jacket encouraged me to go back to my home. Just like how we got to the prison, we took a train and boarded a ship to get to Jeju from where we took a bus to Hahyo. When we were back in the village, it was dark at night. When I entered the yard of my home. My mother and father were staring at me silently. It seemed that they could not believe their eyes.
“Is that really you, Jeong-chu?”
“Father, it’s me, Jeong-chu.”
“Are you really back?”

“You were a prisoner.”

“Big sis, it’s been 70 years. How could you have endured all along without saying anything?”
“I’m the eldest daughter of this family. I’m the eldest.”

That was my only answer. I had to be very careful because of my family. I wanted no harm to come to them. I did not want them to feel depressed. I could hear people calling me “a prisoner.” That was why I had to leave my home and get on the ship of Arirang. I can still picture it now. I remember all the moments even now. Not that I knew anyone in Busan, but I wanted to start my life again in a city because I was used to living in a city like I did when I was in Japan. People in the city do not care about someone’s past. They only live for themselves. That was why I chose to live in the city, in Busan.

For 70 years living in silence in Busan

When I got to Busan, I never revealed that I had come from Jeju. I was so shameful about my imprisonment that I lived like a sinner. I could not go to my home in Jeju because I thought I had sinned, but I have truly no idea as to what I was guilty of. Why do I have to live apart from my family and live for 70 years in Busan? Why should I live in depression? What have I done wrong?
I wanted to erase all the memories in Jeju out of my life but every time I was in deepest troubles, my home Jeju was what came to my mind. “I lived out that time, and now I can overcome this!” That was how I lived on, bearing the burden of my life. That was how I lived on.