Ko Chun-ja, born in 1941 in Osaka, Japan, moved to her family’s home of Jeju in 1945 at the age of five. In December 1945, she lost her father, and the madness of Jeju 4‧3 a few years later took away the lives of her maternal grandmother and two uncles. Ko’s mother saw her mother (Ko’s grandmother) shot to death but had to hide the fact that she was the daughter of a victim. From that day on, Ko’s mother could not sleep well at night because the stress was much too intense and suffocating. Even in the winter, she had to open the windows to be able to sleep. She would hug little Chun-ja nearly every night as she cried. Her mother thought that if she had not come back from Japan, her husband, her mother, and her younger brothers would not have been killed in vain. For Chun-ja, her mother’s sorrow and tears are all she can now remember about Jeju 4‧3. This is the story Chun-ja said when she visited Jeju in April 2015 for the 67th Memorial Ceremony for the Jeju 4‧3 Victims.
Interviewed and arranged by Cho Jung-hee, expert advisor for Jeju 4‧3 Additional Truth-finding Group
I was born in 1941 in Higashinari-ku of Osaka, Japan. My family returned to Jeju in 1945 before national liberation. Japan was at war at the time, and my father, a factory worker, often said, “Even if I die, I want to die in my hometown.” Maybe it was the escalating number of air raids in Japan that made him want to return to Jeju. It made me worried. ‘Can we travel across the sea to Jeju during war?’ Yet, my entire family of six (including my mother, father, my older brother, and the two younger brothers of my mother) safely reached Busan. From Busan, we got on another ferry that took us to Jeju. We settled down in Samyang Village, Jeju District, my parents’ home village. At the time, my maternal grandmother and my father’s relatives lived in Samyang, but we did not have a house nor a field of our own. So, we had no choice but to become tenants and work for a living. It was a difficult time. Within three months of our arrival, Korea was liberated. In December the same year, my father passed away. It was just like he always said, “Even if I die, I want to die in my hometown.”
I was about five when we moved from Japan to Jeju. Three years after, as I turned eight, I enrolled in Samyang Elementary School. I began school in March, and Jeju 4·3 happened in April.
Before it happened, I saw people talking in whispers, and, when I would go near them, they would stop talking. I felt that something was wrong. To think back now, it was because of my uncles. I could not see my uncles at that time. They were nowhere to be seen.
When my uncles disappeared, my mother told me and my older brother not to roam about outside. One night, I saw a signal fire. My mother said, “Hurry up! We should run away!” She fetched and carried me on her back, holding my older brother’s hand. We ran to the rocks on the coast. It was dark, but we could see thanks to the starlight. There were others who were running away, and one seemed to have been shot in the leg. We could not help them because there was no time. I saw the village burn, engulfed in red flames and smoke. Pigs cried out as their pens were destroyed. Soon, I heard hurried footsteps. I thought, ‘Maybe they are running away after setting our village on fire and stealing our food?’
The next day, my mother sneaked into our home and brought some food to me and my brother. Maybe our home was not burned. She carried a basket of sweet potatoes with her, and we fled a bit farther from the village. The hiding place was near a cliff. The water was deep, and the sound of waves was loud. I suspect that it was somewhere between Sinchon and Samyang Villages. It was too cold to sleep in between the cracks of rocks, but we could not make a fire because we could not risk being found. Every night, my mother embraced me and my brother. That was how we were able to stay alive in the cold. We relied on a basket of sweet potatoes for food.
A lecture in a Korean Christian Church in Ikuno-ku of Osaka, Japan, in March Ko Chun-ja gives a testimonial under the theme of Jeju 4·3 Based on My Experience.
After our village was burned, my grandmother felt something was amiss and buried valuable items such as aluminum tableware that my uncles had brought from Japan in the ground. But the valuables were found, and a rumor that my uncles, who had disappeared at the time, intended to take those things to the mountain began to spread. My grandmother was already getting much attention because of her sons’ disappearance, and now the situation worsened. So, my grandmother could no longer stay at her home and went into hiding inside the gulmuk [a fireplace] at her relatives’ house.
One day, the police stormed the house where she was hiding. They were not looking for my grandmother, but she ran away to the coast because she did not want her relatives to be harmed for hiding her. Eventually, she was caught, taken to Samyang Police Substation, and shot to death in a nearby field. My mother was worried about her mother and followed the police all the way to the substation as she saw my grandmother from a distance being arrested. My mother watched her mother be shot to death. After that, she went into the substation and said, “I am a neighbor to this village. I can take care of the body. It might stink.” The police allowed her to do so, and my mother carried her mother’s body back home. Even when she was carrying the body, she didn’t cry because it may raise suspicion among the police that she was a family member of the deceased. My mother gulped down tears while she carried her dead mother.
One day, we heard news about the older of my two uncles. We were told to visit Jeju District where he was detained. My mother took me to a detention center next to a dock in Jeju District. It was built with concrete and was dark and gloomy inside the visiting room. We could not pay him a visit empty-handed, so my mother put boiled millet and barley in a small brassware bowl and took it with her. My uncle said, while eating the meal, “I am being transferred to a detention center on the mainland.”
It must have been so frustrating to hear that her younger brother was leaving. He was nowhere to be found for some time and was to leave immediately after their reunion. My mother could only say things like, “Um, hmm,” with her eyes full of tears. She could not make a noise, because she was choking. All she could do was shed tears. A while after my uncle left, news came of his death. When my mother’s cousin went to claim his body, there was a bottle next to it. Inside the bottle, there was a letter to the family. The content of the letter helped identify that the body belonged to my uncle. My family moved his body back to Jeju and gave him a funeral.
We also heard news about my younger uncle. He was shot dead. My mother went to look for his body, and she found it along with several others in a pit. I think they made the victims dig the pit and killed them afterward. Though the bodies had already gone so bad they were unrecognizable, my mother was able to find my uncle’s body by the belt he was wearing.
Ko Chun-ja and Chairman Oh Gwang-hyeon of the People in Osaka Who Remember Jeju 4·3 society at the 67th Memorial Ceremony for the Jeju 4‧3 Victims
The first thing that comes to me when I think about Jeju 4·3 is my mother suppressing her feelings. She never cried out loud, but her eyes were always full of tears. How sorrowful must she have been? She must have been torn apart. She never cried during the day, at least not in front of others. She couldn’t. However, at night, almost every night, she hugged me tight and cried.
After all that has happened, my mother made her living by making gat [a Korean traditional hat]. Whenever I was helping her work, she would talk about the past. “We never should have come back from Japan. Had we stayed in Japan, we would not have gone through all this. Your father, your grandmother, your uncles could have lived. You would not have lived such a hard life here.” She was filled with such despair and sorrow.
My mother passed away at her age of 88. Until she died, she always left the window open even in winter. I would say, “It’s cold outside. You should close the window.” However, she would just say, “I feel like I’m suffocating.” The anger, stress, and sorrow of losing her family in vain seemed to have left deep resentment in her heart.
Due to Jeju 4·3, I could not go to school full-time and I gave up going to school because of how difficult life was. Instead, I learned dressmaking and ran a dress shop. That was when I met my husband and got married. I followed him to Japan. But I always craved to learn. After my children grew up, I decided to study again. So, I entered a school for female adults. I studied for three years and entered an evening middle-school course in Higashinari-ku when I was 65. After nine years of study, I am now in the first 1st grade of high school.
Learning gives one confidence and the strength to stand up. I am thankful, always, for this current peace in society that has given me the chance to learn. I am grateful because it gave me the ability to write Jeju 4·3 Based on My Experience. I only hope that my writing can offer some comfort to those who have experienced a loss in their life to cruel hands.
※ The memoirs of Ko Chun-ja, Jeju 4·3 Based on My Experience, won the 39th Buraku Liberation Literature Award in the documentary category in Japan. Her writing is included in the 680th Special Issue of Buraku Liberation, published by Haebang Books (June, 2013). Ko Chun-ja also spoke during “The Gathering of Lectures and Testimonials” at the Korean Christian Church in Osaka, Japan, on March 29, 2020, held by the Association of the Bereaved Families of Jeju 4·3 Victims in Japan and the People in Osaka Who Remember Jeju 4·3.