“Sacredization” for What Purpose? – Questioning the Jeju 4·3 Historical Sites Maintenance Project
Chairman, Federation of Artistic & Cultural Organizations of Jeju
[Jeju 4·3 Art Festival held an on-site art performance at Darangshi Cave in April 2022.]
Jeju, an island of memories
Jeju is an island of memories. The April 3 uprising and the subsequent massacres (Jeju 4·3) engraved memories of resistance and tragedy throughout the very land of Jeju. The transfer of memories regarding Jeju 4·3 was also a critical task in the truth-revealing movement. Along with the movement to uncover the historical truth of Jeju 4·3, efforts have also been made to share and pass down the local collective memories. Since the early days of the truth-revealing movement, projects have steadily been carried out to identify the sites of uprising and the places of massacre, while recording the factual history. Despite these efforts, however, substantial issues have been raised concerning the absence of comprehensive and systematic management of the Jeju 4·3 historical sites.
In this regard, it is noticeable that a comprehensive management plan for Jeju 4·3 historical sites was established in 2019. The comprehensive management plan suggests the need to create commemorative spaces by “spatializing” and “enculturating” memories, pointing out that the historical sites of Jeju 4·3 need “to be reborn as vibrant learning centers for human rights and peace that can elevate a sense of peace and human rights within young generations.” It is significant, though belated, that the latest plan noted the delay in promoting maintenance projects that were proposed in the 2005 Master Plan for the Comprehensive Maintenance of Jeju 4·3 Historical Sites and the Exhumation of Victim’s Remains.
However, there are still areas that need to be supplemented. First of all, it is necessary to refine the matters suggested in the 2019 comprehensive management plan in more detail. The comprehensive management plan presents the order of priority in promoting projects, while emphasizing the need for consistency of information boards and the need to install commemorative sculptures and small-scale memorial halls. Although the plan presents the direction for the public management of memories, it regretfully reaffirms the legitimacy of the formerly suggested ultimate goal and reason for preserving the historical sites.
In particular, it is necessary to be precise about the suggested need for commemorative spaces, such as small-scale memorial halls. Marking the 30th anniversary of the excavation of victims’ remains in Darangshi Cave, discussions have taken place concerning “sacredization” of the area around the cave. Under these circumstances, various public opinions need to be gathered on whether the construction of memorial spaces such as sculptures and small-scale memorial halls is the ultimate goal of maintaining the historical sites.
The newly established local administration under Governor Oh Young-hoon seeks a qualitative shift in the truth-finding movement by pledging to give Jeju 4·3 a legitimate name, instead of the current incomplete term. However, the proposed project of “sacredizing the historical sites” is still likely to be limited to the tangible results of building small-scale memorial halls without systematic measures for operation and management. Given that the term “sacredization” presupposes the irreversibility of memory, if importance is placed on that “sacredization,” it will be highly probable to lose the purpose of preserving historical sites, that is, the public management and intergenerational transfer of memory, especially the public diffusion of the present value of Jeju 4·3.
A shift from the taxidermied memories toward the present memories
The memory of the April 3 uprising and the subsequent massacres is not limited to certain regions. All over the very land of Jeju are the sites of historical scars, with Jeju a wailing witness. The memory of Jeju 4·3 was a specific experience based on place. Individual places known as historical sites are also places of shared memories of experiences.
In this regard, the Jeju 4·3 historical sites should be the sites that help people remember Jeju 4·3 and the legacy of memory that helps confirm the present discourse and value of Jeju 4·3. The term “sacredization” evokes the necessity of preserving the historical sites and the urgency of maintaining them, and this is why we should not cage the memory itself “in the time of the past.”
In 2022, a project was promoted to build a memorial tower near Jeongbang Waterfall, the massacre site that resulted in the largest number of victims in the areas south of Mt. Halla, but was canceled due to opposition from nearby residents. This indicates the need for discussions on another level concerning the direction and goal of maintaining the Jeju 4·3 historical sites.
From the perspective of victims’ families, it could have been embarrassing to be faced with the resistance of residents in nearby areas. According to the media reports at the time, there were largely two reasons for the resistance of residents. One was their sentiment against building a memorial tower on a food-specialized street that attracts many tourists; and the other was the unsatisfactory procedure that failed to consult with nearby communities when establishing the memorial tower construction plan.
It is not appropriate to attribute the opposition to the memorial tower construction to being a result of residents’ misunderstanding of Jeju 4·3 or of local selfishness. As the 2019 comprehensive management plan pointed out, many of the historical sites are privately-owned land, thus requiring consultation with landlords on the maintenance and preservation of the sites. The plan also clarifies that land purchases require legal procedures. Should the historical site maintenance project be centered on bereaved families, cases such as the failure to build the Jeongbang Waterfall Memorial Tower will highly likely recur at any time. The fundamental reason for the Jeju 4·3 massacre lies in the damage to democratic values, the “people’s right to self-determination.” This is why the U.S. Army Military Government and the Rhee Syngman administration must be held accountable for the unprecedented massacre. The “anti-communist ideology” was a means and purpose of hegemonic power. Focusing only on the tragic aspect of the massacre, you cannot question the root of violence that enabled the massacre. This gives a reason for the present value of Jeju 4·3 to be different from the consolation for sadness that honors “death” itself. Governor Oh Young-hoon mentioned the appropriate naming of Jeju 4·3 for the same reason, and discussions have long taken place on holding the U.S. responsible for the massacre because of the local community’s reflections as to the root of that violence.
Sympathy has been achieved concerning the need to pass down the memory through the preservation of historical sites. Still, there have been insufficient discussions on what to commemorate and what memories should be shared. These limitations are revealed in the local government’s Ordinance on the Preservation and Maintenance of the Jeju 4·3 Historical Sites. The basic principle of managing the historic sites is to “keep the sites intact”. It stipulates that restoration and/or maintenance are allowed on inevitable occasions (Article 3). It also recognizes the responsibility of residents for the preservation of the original historical sites (Article 6). However, it presents the necessity of residents’ efforts to preserve the archetype of the historical site, while failing to mention what these efforts are aimed at. The absence of discussions on the ultimate goal and value of preserving historical sites inevitably leads to the absence of institutional considerations on how to manage and resolve the confronting values of implementing various development projects and preserving historical sites.
To paraphrase, the Jeju 4·3 historical site maintenance project needs to take the form of restoring the sites, which are of shared memories. It should not only provide consolation for the damage caused to the victims by state violence, but also become a locus of discovery that actively summons the present value of Jeju 4·3. That would be the beginning of diverting Jeju 4·3 from a taxidermied memory toward a contemporary one.
A place of memories where greater democracy is practiced
We should not blame only nearby residents as the reason for the cancellation of the Jeongbang Falls Memorial Tower. The disconnection of memory and the damage to the place was first begun by the state and local governments. It was in 2003 that the Seobok Exhibition Hall was built near Jeongbang Waterfall, the site with the greatest number of people slaughtered in the areas south of Mt. Halla. Obviously, the intention of building the Seobok Exhibition Hall, a cultural tourism development project promoted by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in 1999, was to attract Chinese tourists. It was also the Seogwipo City government that declared the nearby area as the Chilsimni Specialized Food Street (2008). This is why we should not just blame the front-and-rear relationship where attempts were made to honor the memories of Jeju 4·3 after the sites of shared memory were damaged to a substantial extent.
How should we honor local memories and how should local times be remembered? The current controversy is caused by the absence of philosophy. If the present value of Jeju 4·3 should be the “practice of a greater democracy,” the maintenance of the related historical sites should also be a process of actively practicing the same value. Likewise, efforts to secure budgets for urgent tasks, such as city or province-registered cultural properties and academic surveys, should not focus on the transmission of “taxidermied memories” that only remember atrocious deaths. We have to actively discuss the present value of Jeju 4·3, while utilizing the discussions as venues for democratic practice that enables more participation of local community members. Efforts should be made to share present, living values, rather than preserving dead memories. To this end, a public-private cooperation organization needs to be established to practically guarantee everyone’s participation. If established, the organization should not be a superficial body that takes advantage of experts’ “advice” as a shield against procedural legitimacy, as it does in the present.