An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Survivors of a massacre in South Korea are still seeking an apology from the U.S.


More than seven decades ago, a rebellion broke out in South Korea while it was under U.S. military rule. South Korean authorities eventually stopped the violence, but it took nearly six years and cost some 30,000 lives, according to official estimates. To this day, unresolved trauma remains. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Jeju Island, survivors of the massacre are still seeking an apology from the U.S.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Throngs of tourists arrive at Jeju Island's airport. Pictures evoke the island's reputation as South Korea's Hawaii, with beach resorts, volcanic peaks and orange trees. Few visitors are aware of the grisly discovery investigators made near the airport's runways. A museum on the island details how between 2007 and 2009, investigators dug up nearly 400 sets of human remains. Yang Jo-hoon is the former chairperson of the nonprofit Jeju 4/3 Peace Foundation. The massacre is known in South Korea by that date. He says soldiers and police executed insurgents and suspected communist sympathizers and buried them at the airport. He says discussion of the massacre was taboo under military rule, which ended in 1988. The search for remains did not begin until 2006.

YANG JO-HOON: (Through interpreter) For 60 years, so many bodies lay next to the runway where planes take off and land every day. But we lived our lives as if they didn't exist. Thankfully, we were able to recover them when a democratic administration came in.

KUHN: After defeating Japan in World War II, the U.S. ended Japan's 35-year-long colonial occupation of Korea. But two years later, Jeju Islanders rebelled against the U.S.'s division of their country into North and South. They boycotted elections held only in the South, and they objected to authorities employing Koreans who had collaborated with Japanese occupiers. On April 3, 1948, rebels attacked police stations, triggering a harsh crackdown.

Yang Jo-hoon explains.

YANG: (Through interpreter) The U.S. justified the crackdown by connecting rebels to Soviet forces, which wasn't true.

KUHN: The violence came to Bukchon Village in 1949. Resident Ko Wan-soon was 9 years old at the time. After rebels killed two soldiers, Ko and other villagers were rounded up in a schoolyard. Ko remembers standing up to get a better look.

KO WAN-SOON: (Through interpreter) I was hit on the shoulder blade with a club, and I collapsed on the ground. I still can't raise this arm up high. A soldier yelled out something, and suddenly there was gunfire, and men's heads disappeared. As if on signal, machine guns started firing, too. (Imitates gunfire).

KUHN: She estimates that dozens of her extended family members were killed, including her 3-year-old brother, who was clubbed to death. Ko illustrates her memories of the events in drawings, which she shows to visitors.

KO: (Through interpreter) I've never received any personal apology. I've been bound by a system of guilt by association with the rebels and couldn't do what I wanted to do in my life.

KUHN: Ko has visited the United Nations and called on the U.S. to apologize.

KO: (Through interpreter) I don't need any money after all this time. The massacre happened when I was 9. I'm 83 now. What I need is a truthful human apology, a willingness to come and hold my hands.

KUHN: Victims, historians and journalists haven't found any evidence in U.S. archives that the U.S. explicitly ordered any of the killings on Jeju Island, or Jeju-do in Korean. But they believe U.S. military advisers on the island knew what was going on.

John Merrill is a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University and former State Department official.

JOHN MERRILL: The objective was to pacify Jeju-do, and we gave the orders in those days. On the whole, people didn't care very much how that pacification was done.

KUHN: A South Korean government survey found that police, soldiers and right-wing paramilitary groups killed 84% of the victims. Insurgents killed the rest. Part of the historical significance of the Jeju uprising, Merrill argues, is that it illustrates the underlying causes that led to the Korean War. The three-year conflict killed nearly 5 million people, and the Korean Peninsula remains a regional flashpoint.

MERRILL: Very few people considered the runup to the war and how it might affect the current situation.

KUHN: Many people are only aware of the immediate cause of the war, the North's invasion of the South in June of 1950. What they miss, Merrill argues, is that Jeju was one of many local conflicts between the political left and right within South Korea that escalated into war between two rival Koreas.

MERRILL: These were links in a chain of domestic political violence that led right up to the outbreak of the war itself.

KUHN: Kang Choon-hee is the vice head of an association of massacre survivors and their families. She says her father was detained and never heard from again. Her mother was beaten. And her baby brother, who was breastfeeding, was injured and later died.

KANG CHOON-HEE: (Through interpreter) Our entire village was burned down. But not just for my village's sake, but for the entire Jeju Island, the U.S. military should be held accountable and pay compensation.

KUHN: The victims and their supporters plan to hold a symposium in the U.S. to raise awareness of their cause, but they've had to postpone it due to the pandemic. While they may face an uphill battle for recognition in the U.S., Yang Jo-hoon says they've been making steady progress at home.

YANG: (Through interpreter) Although April 3 is a huge tragedy, the people of Jeju have overcome it and started a movement for forgiveness and reconciliation. I'm very proud of this.

KUHN: In 2000, a law was passed mandating an independent investigation into the uprising. Three years later, then-President Roh Moo-hyun apologized for the crackdown. Yang spoke while showing visitors around a vast peace park with monuments to the dead and missing. He takes us into an underground room containing a slab of black volcanic rock. A beam of light shines down on it from a skylight above.

YANG: (Through interpreter) Controversies about what April 3 was are still ongoing. This blank memorial lies here because there is no public consensus on the right name for the incident. We hope that this monument will be erected soon.

KUHN: It's variously described as an uprising, armed protest or just an event. The symbolism of the blank monument is that the incident remains buried without a name, but the task of naming has become easier as the light of truth-seeking and reconciliation now shines down on it.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Jeju Island.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.