Lee Sam-mun was born on Feb. 3, 1941, and his hometown was Hambagigul in Nohyeong-ri, Jeju-eup.

A homecoming 70 years in the making

My family history: Piecing together the memories of Jeju 4·3

Lee Sam-mun

Amidst the gusts of the massacre that swept over Jeju Island in 1948, Lee became the only survivor of his family, losing his mother, father, two older brothers, an older sister, and a grandmother to the chaos. When the guns finally stopped firing, people said peace was finally achieved. However, the then 9-year-old boy no longer had a place to return to or a family to be with. While wandering homeless through the streets of Jeju, Lee Sam-mun encountered a naval officer who took care of him like he was his own son. The officer, however, left the island promising to return for the boy. Resting on the officer’s pledge, Lee boarded a ferry to Mokpo where the officer was stationed. But when the Korean War broke out, he was left alone once again to walk where his legs would carry him. Eventually, he reached Songgong-ri in Sani-myeon, a rural village in the Haenam area. Lee, now aged 10, became a laborer for a man named Park Ho-bae. Nothing was more important than scratching a living. By the time his memory of home in Jeju was forgotten, Lee Sam-mun was reborn March 15, 1953, as Park Sam-mun, taking on the name of his employer and now foster parent.
“Excuse me, but my father passed away due to Jeju 4·3. I heard this place enshrines the memorial tablets of those who lost their lives during Jeju 4·3. Could I find my father’s tablet here by any chance? I don’t know his place of family register. But to my memory, I used to live in a place called Hambaegi when I was little. My father’s name is Lee Bae-geun.”
It was in July 2016 when I first met the man with two names during his visit to the Jeju 4·3 Peace Park. Lee Sam-mun, a 10-year-old boy when leaving Jeju Island 66 years ago, returned as a 76-year-old man, now surnamed Park. The only memories he had kept of Jeju were of “Hambaegi” and “Lee Bae-geun,” the names of his hometown and his father. With the two fragmented memories, we started putting together the puzzle, one piece at a time. <Editor‘s note>

Photographed and arranged by Cho Jeong-hee, head of the Jeju 4·3 Memorial Project Team

Hambaegi and Odorong

I lived in a small village called Hambaegi (another name of Hambagigul in Nohyeong-ri). We were a family of seven, including my mother, father, eldest brother, second eldest brother, elder sister, grandmother, and me. My house had a wide garden with mandarin orange trees. We also had a stable and a cow. I dimly recall that there was a well behind my house.
When Jeju 4·3 broke out, the military and the police entered the village in the daytime, while after sunset, lefties came down from the mountains. Because they set the neighborhood on fire and plundered villagers of their cattle and pigs, life became utterly unlivable. So, my family left and took refuge in the nearby village at a lower altitude, called Odorong. Supposedly, it was where my mother’s family lived. One night, my father, eldest brother, and elder sister were taken somewhere by the leftists.

The end of Jeju 4·3: I was one of the only survivors.

My mother, grandmother, second eldest brother, and I left to find another place to shelter. This time, we settled in a tented village created by the police. Before long, the police attempted to identify the lefties hiding in the village. My mother mistakenly reported herself and was shot to death. The police had ordered everyone with a family member living in the mountains to step forward, and my mother raised her hand, thinking the police had ordered those who had suffered a death in the family to the people in the mountains to self-report. I remember I sobbed the whole week after watching my mother summarily executed. On a day with heavy rain, my grandmother and I buried my dead mother and the remains of my father, eldest brother, and elder sister that relatives had discovered in the mountain. But now, I have no idea where we buried them exactly. Would their graves still be there? Later, my grandmother passed away, and my second eldest brother and I were the only ones left.

Park Sam-mun and his family are searching through the records of victims, aided by Cho Jeong-hee, head of the Memorial Project Team of the Jeju 4·3 Peace Foundation (left).

A bowl of steamed rice: The last memory of my family

It was when I was eight and my second eldest brother had just graduated from elementary school. My brother used to walk to a school located within the walled downtown. After my grandmother’s death, I was sent to live with a relative called jageun halmeoni (little grandmother, referring to one’s mother or father’s aunt). My brother started working as an errand boy in a store that had a bicycle. I recall that I visited the store once to see him. One day when little grandmother held an ancestral rite — back then, I was given a bowl of steamed rice after the rite — I took the bowl of rice to my older brother. He happened to be out. Waiting for him, I ate it all up out of hunger, and my brother scolded me. It is the last thing I remember about my family from when I was little.

An encounter with a naval officer

After little grandmother passed away, I was sent to another relative’s near the Jeju Airfield. Even though peace had been achieved, we still suffered hardships in making a living. The Jeju Airfield, unlike the current airport site, was created on a dry field. The site grew mugwort well. When I plucked the plant and took it home, they boiled and mixed it with minor grains to cook a rice ball for me. But I always suffered from extreme hunger and could no longer live there. To my memory, I eventually left them to go looking for food. While roaming around the island, I met a naval officer whose name I still remember to this day — He was Kim Jong-gun, an officer dispatched to Jeju Island. Isn’t it weird? I hardly remember the names of my own family members. The memory of my brother’s and sister’s names are not clear and I barely remember my father’s name. However, Kim Jong-gun’s name is still vivid in my memory. Kim had a wife and a daughter who was of the same age as me. Gratefully, he took care of me like I was his own child. For a year or so, I lived with him and his family. He fed me and took me to church on Sundays. I considered him my father, but one day, he was assigned to a different region. Leaving Jeju Island with his wife and daughter, he put me in an orphanage.

Sent to an orphanage in Mokpo

Holding my orphanage teacher’s hand, I boarded a ferry to Mokpo. Supposedly, the naval officer told the orphanage that if anyone took me to Mokpo, he would come and find me. That is how I ended up in an orphanage near Yudal Mountain in Mokpo. Its name was — I don’t remember correctly — but maybe Gongsaengwon? In the new orphanage, I suffered the same old hunger. And before long, the Korean War began. After the outbreak of war, I wandered around the downtown area of Mokpo, in search of food. I remember that the North Korean People’s Army seized Mokpo around that time. In front of the Mokpo Station, there stands a building, a former Chohung Bank office. In the past, the site had a cave. I followed others into the cave to take refuge there. Soon, the North Korean People’s Army withdrew its forces, after which the war came to a lull. Coming out of the cave following the others, I was the only person who had no place to return to. So, I took a ferry, not knowing its destination. Then I reached the dock of Sanggong-ri, a small village in Sani-myeon in the Haenam region. Getting off the ship, I visited a lighted house after an aimless walk. I asked if I could get something to eat, and the residents said, “We are too busy threshing to serve you food. You’d better go to that big lighted house over there.” That is how I came to live in Park Ho-bae’s place. Park was rich and had sarangbang in his house. Sarangbang was a room for ilkkun (laborers) — formerly called meoseum (farm servant) — a room where ilkkun slept. In those days, ilkkun did not get paid for work. Instead, they were allowed to live in the sarangbang, served meals, and given two suits of clothes a year made with cotton from the farm. I received a few bags of rice, and that day, I started living in Park Ho-bae’s sarangbang.

Park Sam-mun, registered as having died with his father, touches his own memorial tablet in the Memorial Tablets Enshrinement Hall of the Jeju 4·3 Peace Park.

Registered as Park Sam-mun, Park Ho-bae’s son was born on March 15, 1953

At around 13, some three years after I started living in the sarangbang, Park Ho-bae called me and said, “I listed you on my family register as my son.” That way, I came to have new foster parents. Park, who raised me, was a public employee of the myeon office. He already had two sons and figured he could not register the new son as his eldest. Thus, I was born in 1953 according to my family register. The register reads, “Park Sam-mun, son of Park Ho-bae, born on March 15, 1953.” Only my family name was replaced, without changing my given name. Actually, I was born in 1941, so there is a 12-year difference. This is how I became Park Sam-mun, the name I have lived with since.

Homecoming in 66 years

I was around 10 years old when I left Jeju. Now that I turned 76 this year, it took 66 years for me to return. Through those years, I’ve thought that someday I might visit my hometown. I’d better go visit, I thought. Since all of my family members died during Jeju 4·3, I knew that there would be no one left to greet me. It was my idea that if the lot for my house, the field, or the village all disappeared, then I would try to find the school my brother went to. I continued to work as a farmer in Haenam until I moved to Seoul at the age of 24 to become a technician at a dye house. Later, the industry experienced a downturn, and I came back to Mokpo where I have since lived. If I had known the Jeju 4·3 Peace Park was established, I would have visited here earlier. In fact, it would have cost me only a few 10,000 won bills to take a round trip to Jeju to visit any time I wanted.

Park Sam-mun met his father’s female cousin in his hometown

If only I could find my parents’ graves

To this day, I have never met anyone who was looking for a person named “Lee Sam-mun.” That is why I thought that none of my relatives on Jeju Island knew that I was alive. Today, it is overwhelming to see the memorial tablet inscribed with my name, placed next to my father’s in this park. It appears that no one has ever thought that a 9-year-old kid survived after all his family members died during Jeju 4·3. Therefore, it is not important that my memorial tablet is mistakenly placed here. Rather, I am truly grateful that somebody discovered the damage my family suffered, including my father, mother, elder brothers, elder sister, and grandmother, and prepared the tablet with great care. Still, if I’m allowed to wish a little more, I would like to discover my parents’ burial sites and offer some alcohol in memorial tribute. I would like to show them that Sam-mun, their youngest son, grew and lived well. If only I could find my parents’ graves, I would like to turn back the clock to those days when I used to play in my home yard in Hambaegi, and to have a good cry. Probably, it might resolve my pent-up sorrow a bit.

Park Sam-mun performs an ancestral rite for his parents

After the interview
On Oct. 30, 2016, Park Sam-mun visited Jeju once again, this time with his son and daughter-in-law. The now old man shed tears in front of his parents’ graves in Seogam, located in Wolsan-maeul, Nohyeong. Since his first homecoming that July, Park has pieced together his fragmented and long-forgotten memories of Jeju 4·3, in search of his family’s history. Aided by the Jeju 4·3 Peace Foundation, he learned that his relatives had reported to the government what happened to his family. He also learned that they had attempted to find him in the years following Jeju 4·3, but eventually failed and had him registered as a missing victim. The journey of looking for Park’s relatives led to discovering his father’s female cousin who remembers little Lee Sam-mun and a neighbor of his family in Hambagigul. The research also confirmed that his relatives registered his younger second-cousin as the stepson of one of his elder brothers and had him take over the responsibility of managing the graves of Park’s parents and grandparents as well as their ancestral rites. Based on these findings, Park submitted an application to cancel his registration as having died during Jeju 4.3 to the central Jeju 4·3 committee. The subsequent investigation revealed that Park Sam-mun and Lee Sam-mun are the same person, and his registration has been cancelled. Now, Park has one last piece of his puzzle, that is to register himself as a bereaved family member. Fortunately, the national government had allowed additional reporting on the victims of Jeju 4·3 and their bereaved families from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2018. According to the Enforcement Decree of the Jeju 4·3 Special Act, the registration of a victim’s bereaved family member requires both a certificate concerning one’s immediate family and a complete copy of their family registry, which together prove that the person is a victim. With Park Sam-mun registered as Park Ho-bae’s son, it remains doubtful whether a copy of Park’s family registry would allow him to be registered as a bereaved family member of his birth family, all of whom passed away between 1948 and 1949. Hopefully, Park will be able to complete the puzzle with the final piece and recover his family history that has been lost due to Jeju 4·3.