Kim Yeon-ok shed tears during the 71st Memorial Ceremony for the Victims of Jeju 4‧3.
Kim Yeon-ok. The first time I met her was last March at a meeting of Jeju 4·3 victims.
My gaze caught Kim sitting alone in a group of Jeju 4·3 survivors who were accompanied by their daughters, sons, daughters-in-law, grandsons and granddaughters, with such happy looks on their faces as if they had been on a spring excursion.
“Are you alone here?” I asked.
“I have no one to come here with.” She said she always attends Jeju 4·3 events alone because she has never told her family about what she experienced during Jeju 4·3.
“I lived as a sinner all my life, was called a Donggwang Village rioter’s daughter or a communist’s daughter. My parents were killed under false accusation during Jeju 4·3, and I couldn’t even find their bodies. My children suffered dishonor and lived only in disgrace. It’s all because of me…”
How terrifying it must have been to lose her parents at the early age of eight? How exhausting it must have been to be all by herself? How sorrowful it must have been to feel the cold gazes of those judging you? Nonetheless, she is resigned to her fate, blaming herself for everything.
“When it rains, it looks like my own tears. When the wind blows, the sky looks troubled just like my own mind. When the sun shines, I wonder if I can smile even for one day… That’s how I’ve lived, comforting myself…”
She said she hasn’t spoken about her past because no one has ever asked her about it for the past 70 years. What is it that people did for the long period when a little girl grew to become a grandmother? I had to tell her, though belated, that she should be blamed for nothing, that she is just a victim, and that I’m sorry she suffered alone. And I really wanted to tell her how grateful I was that she continued to survive so honorably. I really wanted to show her how proud her children must be of her. And so I invited her to be the heroine of the bereaved families’ stories at the 71st Memorial Ceremony for the Victims of Jeju 4‧3.
Photographed and arranged by Cho Jeong-hee, deputy head of the Research Department, Jeju 4·3 Peace Foundation
One day, at dusk while we were just about to have our evening meal, it happened — my father packed blankets and the food we had cooked for dinner, and everyone, including my grandfather, grandmother and all of our neighbors, just quickly left their homes. Going downhill away from our village, my mother looked back. But my grandmother stopped her from looking behind, saying, “Don’t look behind. The whole house is on fire. All there is to see are flames. Don’t look at them.” The flames were burning our village furiously, and our feet sank in the snow with every step we took. After walking quite a distance, we went into a cave. When we took out the food we carried all the way from home and ate it with bare hands, someone said we had to run again. Even without finishing the food in our hands, we had no choice but to move to a different cave, shouldering all of the same luggage. After staying there for a few nights, we changed our cave shelter one more time. It snowed so heavily that the whole world outside the cave was covered in white snow. Being a seven-year-old kid, I could barely follow the adults, falling down to the snowy ground several times. We were all completely exhausted and fell asleep immediately after arriving in the new hiding place. Then there came a sudden noise, “Bang, bang, bang! Bang, bang!” I woke up, stunned at the gunshots, and saw some soldiers dressed in blue shooting their guns at us from the entrance of the cave.
The soldiers caught us and took us to the detention camp in Seogwipo. We ate the rice ball they distributed to us before sleeping. Waking the next morning, I saw that people were taken outside the warehouse where we were detained. My grandparents were holding my elder brother’s hands tightly, while my mother was carrying my little brother on her back. At that instant, my father squeezed my hands hard. He tried not to go out but the soldiers dragged him outside the building against his will. Mercilessly, the soldiers kicked and thrashed him while they dragged my father, all his limbs dislocated, outside. The moment I tried to follow him, wailing, someone yanked me from behind. I banged my head against the wall and passed out. When I woke up again, no one was left with me, not even my mother, my father, my grandmother, my grandfather, my elder brother or my little brother.
The six members of Kim’s family, including her grandfather, Kim Bong-eun; her grandmother, Lee Yeong-gun; her father, Kim Yeo-ok; her mother, Lim Jeong-ok; her elder brother, Kim Seok-jin; and her little brother who was not yet named, were all slaughtered at Jeongbang Falls in Seogwipo City on Jan. 22, 1949.
The Buddhist temple where Kim enshrined her family members’ tablets. (March 23, 2019)’
When I was only eight years old, I was left without any direct family members, and the wife of my grandfather’s elder brother carried me on her back outside the warehouse. She was a mute. At the time, she was raising tobacco on the hill near my village. The whole village was burned down, but fortunately, her hut in the hills was left unharmed. She washed my hair with water that she boiled with herbs such as tobacco leaves and wormwood. She also chewed wheat and pasted it on my skin to cure my wounds. I still have a baby’s fist-sized dent in the scarred area on my head, probably because it was not treated properly at the hospital. My head pounds, my ears ring and my shoulders ache, so I should take painkillers even now. Every time I can’t sleep due to pain, the memories of my father being dragged outside in front of my eyes come back vividly. Feeling great sorrow for my poor father and for myself, I mourn a lot.
It wasn’t until April 2018, 70 years after Jeju 4·3, when Kim Yeon-ok finally visited the hospital and received a medical certificate for the scar on her head so she could apply to register as a patient who was wounded during Jeju 4·3.
Living in Daegu was even more harsh than in Jeju. Called the “Jeju thing” instead of by my name, I had to work day and night and endure battering and maltreatment without reason, and hunger and cold. But one day, something unbelievable happened. My Daegu grandfather had a grandson named Kim Wondae, who was a middle school student. And he suddenly became blind. After failing to cure him at different hospitals, his family invited a mudang [shaman] who was known to be very skillful and held a gut [shamanistic ritual] performance. I still remember clearly what the mudang told Wondae’s family: “Because your family abused the poor girl so badly, the souls of her dead parents made your boy blind!” With the shaman’s statement, I could finally end my exhausting stay in Daegu. Half willingly but half reluctantly, I went to Busan Harbor to return to Jeju. While waiting for the boat, I heard someone near me speak in Jeju dialect. I approached the lady carrying her baby on her back and begged in Jeju dialect, sobbing, “Lady, please help me. Could you take me and give me any work? I’ll do anything you tell me to do.” I knew then that on returning to Jeju, there was no such thing as my home or family there, and I was so desperate… and scared at the thought that I should live alone, all by myself. After begging earnestly and stubbornly, I could finally go to Seoul. Until now, it feels as if my parents had sent me the lady I met at Busan Harbor, whom I later called Sunae unni [elder sister]. Sunae unni was from Hallim District and sold meat in the Yongsan Traditional Market. During the day, Sunae unni and I sold meat together. In the evening, we sold sticky rice cake and ice cream. On rainy days, we went to the Han River to wash clothes for wage labor… There is no job or physical labor that I have not tried.
Although I chose to live in Seoul as I couldn’t bear going back to Jeju, I never forgot my parents, not even once. I tried my best to not forget whose daughter and granddaughter I was, and to not show that I’m an orphan. I never had any school education, but I ironed my clothes neatly, wore a white collar blouse and loafers. I also tidied my hair in two braids, just as school girls did. When the time passed and I turned 18, people said I should find a good man and get married. It may sound strange, but it occurred to me that I had to find my husband in Jeju and live there so that I would not forget my parents. “I need to return to Jeju where there are people who remember that I am my parents’ daughter!” On making up my mind, I packed my bags without hesitation, and got onboard the ship for Jeju.
Kim Yeon-ok at the age of 18
My Yeosu uncle used to tell me: “Hey, Yeon-ok. I glued your parents’ paper spirit tablets on the wood panel, but they wouldn’t stick. I heard other families are experiencing the same thing. The paper is all taken off the panel because the deceased were killed in the sea. Don’t cook any fish for your parents’ souls. Don’t use any meat or fish when preparing for their ancestral rites.” It is not just my uncle’s wish but also my wish that I enshrined my parents and my grandparents in a Buddhist temple because they do not use meat, not even fish, for ritual ceremonies. I don’t eat fish at all. Since when I was little, I have tried not to eat any meat or fish, not even a small anchovy. My parents were thrown into the sea and eaten by fish. I cannot bear to eat any flesh.
What hurts me the most regarding Jeju 4·3 is that my parents and grandparents were thrown into the cold water of the sea. If they died on land, I could at least find their bodies to bury them. Even now, when the waves crash on the shore, it feels like my parents are trying to reach me with open arms, calling me, “my little Yeon-ok.” This forced me into the sea many times. Fortunately, there is heotmyo [tombs created without bodies] now. I am truly grateful to be able to trim the weeds around their gravesites. In fact, living here in Jeju was also very difficult. I lived as a sinner all my life, called a Donggwang Village rioter’s daughter or a communist’s daughter. The abuse and disregard targeting me was what I could endure alone. I have not even told my children where their maternal relatives are from or how their grandparents passed away. I couldn’t even say that something happened to them during Jeju 4·3. I think it is all my fault that my children suffered hatred and mistreatment because I was born in a bad village, because my parents died due to Jeju 4·3. Until now, I am very sorry for my children.
All my life, I have lived thinking only about when my mother died, when she was floating on the water, or things like that. I have never expected anyone to do anything for me. I don’t know what a little girl like me had on her mind when performing ancestral rites and visits to the ancestral graves for her parents. I had new shrouds for my parents made and burned them in front of their tombs, fearing that they might be still wearing their bloodstained clothes. Would my parents know how I care about them like this? I think that if Jeju 4·3 hadn’t occurred, if my parents were not killed under false accusations due to Jeju 4·3, I could have received a school education and have been proud of myself, without having to fall behind others. I still have that confidence in me. I think I could speak well just like people on TV and live confidently just like government employees. So far, I only feel longing for it… But now that you heard all of my life story, now that I spoke of all my sorrows, it seems like my sorrows are all resolved and I feel so refreshed.
The Heotmyo of Kim Yeon-ok’s family. The gravesite has three graves, including the joint grave for her grandparents, the joint grave for her parents and the grave for her father’s younger brother.