International Scholarship on the Jeju Uprising and Massacre

This section introduces the work of John Merrill and Bruce Cumings, two scholars largely responsible for having introduced the English-speaking world to the Jeju 4.3 Uprising and Massacre. While that credit is admirable on its own, these two writers contributed valuable research that helped to challenge the false narrative that had been propagated by the state for decades.

Merrill’s “The Cheju-do Rebellion” was published in the Journal of Korean Studies (Duke University Press) in 1980 at a time when any mention of the massacre was strictly censored in South Korea under the dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan (1980-1988). The 60-page paper was the first thorough account of the atrocities committed by the state on Jeju and it is regarded as a seminal paper in the movement for truth and reconciliation. Merrill is also frequently cited throughout 2003’s “4.3 Incident Investigative Report,” which was written following the signing of the Jeju 4.3 Special Act that spearheaded the government’s current truth and reconciliation commission. Merrill is currently a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University and was formerly the head of the Northeast Asia Division of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

Cumings, a professor of history at the University of Chicago, is an award-winning writer and academic who has regularly written about the Jeju Uprising and Massacre throughout his career, starting in 1981 with the Volume 1 of “The Origins of the Korean War” (Cornell University Press). Jeju was then covered more extensively in Volume 2, published by Princeton University Press in 1990. Cumings’ work is best known for bringing attention to the unknown role of American power in various atrocities on the Korean Peninsula and elsewhere. Cumings is credited with having uncovered evidence of the direct involvement of the U.S. military in the atrocities that took place on Jeju 70 years ago.

The work of both of these scholars has shone a light on the truth of the Jeju massacre through decades of darkness.

The Cheju-do Rebellion

The Journal of Korean Studies, Volume 2 (1980)

by John Merrill

The Journal of Korean Studies, Volume 2 (1980)
Duke University Press
Excerpt pp.139-140 and pp.154-155

Cheju-do is known today mostly for its booming tourism, its hardy diving women, and its lush orange groves. Located some 50 miles below the southernmost tip of the Korean peninsula, and about twice that from the nearest landfall in Japan, the 700-square-mile island is dominated by the extinct volcanic crater of Halla-san, at 6,000 feet the highest peak in South Korea. Cheju-do is now an easy hour’s flight from Seoul. Visitors come and go, soaking up the local color and enjoying the spectacular scenery. Few of them know anything of its history, other than romantic guidebook tales of its founding in the union of three island men spewn from an underground spring and three women washed up from the sea. The story has a particular appeal to the many newly wed couples who have made the island the most popular honeymoon spot in South Korea. Yet discordant notes occasionally intrude: the ruins of wrecked temples on the slopes of the mountain, clusters of memorial tablets enclosed by stone walls, the foundations of an upland village now overgrown with brambles. For beneath the island’s natural beauty and newfound prosperity lies a tragic and bloody past.

The most appalling chapter in its history occurred little more than 30 years ago. Led by Communist guerrilla bands rushing down from Halla mountain, the people of the island rose up on April 3, 1948, in opposition to elections scheduled for the southern zone. Before it was over, a year later, the rebellion had claimed tens of thousands of persons as its victims. Whole villages in the interior of the island were laid waste, their inhabitants cruelly massacred or forcibly relocated to refugee camps along the coast. Only fragmentary accounts of this slaughter ever reached the outside world. Few relief efforts were undertaken. And for years the island languished in poverty and obscurity, ignored by the Rhee government¹ . It was only in the 1960s that it finally began to recover.

Despite its importance, the Cheju-do rebellion has been little studied. No more than a few paragraphs have been published on it in English, and no definitive treatment has yet been done in any language. Information on the rebellion is available mostly in scattered Korean accounts and in a large number of recently declassified American archival documents.

• • •

…A week after the [March 1] demonstrations, a crowd of over a thousand persons armed with rocks and clubs gathered in front of the [Jeongmyeong] jail demanding the release of prisoners. When the demonstrators began throwing rocks and pressed in on the jail, the police inside panicked and opened fire. Five persons were killed in the attack.

A general strike called on March 9 to protest the [Shooting Incident] paralyzed all administration on the island. The strikers demanded that the police be punished and purged of Japanese collaborators, that those injured in the incident be compensated and those arrested immediately released, and that the United States-Soviet Joint Commission be reconvened. None of these demands was met. Instead, the military government sent additional security forces to reinforce its control of the island. About 400 police were dispatched from the mainland to strengthen the local force of 300 men. More importantly, a large number of extreme right-wing Northwest Youth Group² members were brought in to help the police. Although it is not clear just how many were sent, a Communist source states that 800 were stationed in towns throughout Cheju-do.

These reinforcements came to the “red island” with many scores to settle. Only a half-year had passed since the bloody Taegu riots³ in which more than 400 police had been killed. The Northwest Youth Group, too, was composed of strongly anti-Communist refugees from North Korea whose members adopted terroristic methods to fight the [South Korean Labor Party] and to avenge themselves for being driven from their homes in the North. The group operated without even the minimal constraints that, in theory at least, limited the police.

• • •

Originally published in the The Journal of Korean Studies, Volume 2 (1980), pp. 139-197, Duke University Press.

1 Rhee Syngman, the first president of South Korea (1948-1960).

2 Referred to in this book as the Northwest Youth Association, the Seobuk Cheongnyeondan is also sometimes translated as the Northwest Youth League.

3 Known today as the 10.1 Daegu Uprising or the Autumn Uprising of 1946, this revolt against the USAMGIK’s policies spread nationwide and has not been fully investigated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Korea.

The Origins of the Korean War

Volume 2, The Roaring of the Cataract, 1947–1950.
Princeton University Press. 1990.

by Bruce Cumings

Excerpt pp. 252-256

Before 1950 no place suffered the political conflicts of liberated Korea like Cheju. During the Korean War no place was more quiescent. But then no place so deserved serenity. Cheju had its war earlier, a war over the people’s committees that was a harbinger of the conflict to come, and that best expressed its civil and revolutionary character. Cheju is a magnifying glass, a microscope on the politics of postwar Korea, for in no place else were the issues so clear and the international influences so tangential as in the peasant war on this windswept, haunted, magnificent island.

The effective political leadership of Cheju until early 1948 was provided by strong people’s committees that first emerged in August 1945. The American Occupation preferred to ignore Cheju rather than do much about the committees; it appointed a formal mainland leadership but let the people of the island run their own affairs. The result was an entrenched left-wing, having no important ties to the North and few to the [South Korean Workers Party¹] on the mainland. In early 1948 as Rhee² and his American supporters moved to institute his power in a separate southern regime, the Cheju people responded with a strong guerrilla insurgency that soon tore the island apart.

Before Rhee came to power, silenced his officials and blamed the rebellion on alien communist agitators, Koreans in the Military Government attributed the origins of the insurgency to the tenure of the Cheju committees and subsequent police terrorism. An official investigation by USAMGIK Judge Yang Won-il conducted June 1948 found that “the People’s Committee of Cheju Island, which was formed after the Liberation … has exercised its power as a de facto government.” He also found “the police have failed to win the hearts of the people by treating them cruelly.” A Seoul prosecutor, Won T’aek-yun, said the troubles began through official incompetence, not “leftist agitation.” Lt. Col. Kim Ik-yol, commander of Constabulary units on the island when the rebellion began, said that the blame “should be paid entirely at the door of the police force.”

• • •

Governor Yu³ had filled national police units on the island with mainlanders and north Koreans, who worked together with “ultra rightist party terrorists.” Some 365 prisoners were in the Cheju city jail in late 1947; an American investigator witnessed 35 of them crowded into a 10-by-12-foot cell. “Direct control of food rationing” had also been placed in the bands of “politicians” presonsive to Yu, who operated out of myon (township) offices. Unauthorized grain collections had been five times as high as official ones in 1947.

When Americans interviewed Governor Yu in February 1948, he acknowledged that he had utilized “extreme rightist power” to reorient the Cheju people, “the large majority” of whom were leftist. He justified his by saying that “there was no middle line” in the Island politics; one supported either the Left of the Right. He said the police controlled all political meetings, and would not allow the “extreme leftists” to meet. Although the author of the survey called for Governor Yu’s dismissal, Ge. William F. Dean decided in late March not to do it.

• • •

The people of the island bore the worst of the Cheju violence. American sources thought that 15,000 to 20,000 thousand [sic] islanders died, but the ROK official figure was 27,719. The North said that more than 30,000 islanders had been “butchered” in the suppression. The governor of Cheju, however, privately told American intelligence that 60,000 had died, and as many as 40,000 had fled to Japan; officially 39,285 homes had been demolished, but the governor thought “most of the houses on the hills” were gone: of 400 villages, only 170 remained. In other words one in every five or six islanders had perished, and more than half the villages were destroyed.

Over a six-month period in 1949, 2,421 guerrillas had been killed and 4,630 captured, according to KMAG sources; but only 230 rifles were recovered, indicating that the figures included many island peasants. Most Cheju islanders have appalling atrocity stories to tell, if one can get them to talk. A Korean who comes from one of the few wealthy families on the island, now living in the United States, related to me an incident that he had witnessed in 1949 in which thirty to forty guerrilla suspects were roped together and placed on a barge, dragged offshore, and then shoved into the ocean. He thought that this was not an isolated case.

1 The South Korean Workers’ Party (SKWP), also known as the Workers’ Party of South Korea, was a communist political party that was active from 1946 to 1949.

2 Syngman Rhee, the first president of South Korea (1948-1960).

3 Jeju Governor Yu Hae Jin, who was known as an extreme right-leaning politician, governed the island from April 1947 to May 1948.