The Jeju (Cheju) uprising occurred on Jeju — a South Korean island 85 kilometers south of the Korean — from April 1948 to May 1949. Residents of the island had opposed to the division of South Korea and North Korea had held protests and a general strike since 1947 against United-Nations-sponsored elections and U.S. control over South Korea. The Workers' Party of South Korea — which had ties with the ruling communist party by the same name in North Korea — and its supporters launched an insurgency in April 1948, attacking police and militias tasked with violently suppressing the protests. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The conflict escalated after South Korean President Syngman Rhee declared martial law in November 1948. An "eradication campaign" against rebel forces in the rural areas of Jeju in began in March 1949 and defeated the rebels within two months. Many rebel veterans and suspected sympathizers were later killed at the beginning upon the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950. +

The Jeju uprising and extreme violence associated with it killed between 14,000 and 30,000 people (10 percent of Jeju's population). Another 40,000 fled to Japan. Atrocities and war crimes were committed by both sides, but historians have noted that the methods used by the South Korean government to suppress protesters and rebels were especially cruel.

According to Newsweek: “Today, Cheju is South Korea's top honeymoon destination. It boasts mild weather, delicious seafood and gorgeous beaches. But it was once a killing field. Beginning on April 3, 1948, South Korean authorities waged a scorched-earth campaign against the communist guerrillas — roughly 400 fighters armed with antique rifles and bamboo spears. Over the next year, the soldiers burned hundreds of "red villages" and raped and tortured countless islanders, eventually killing as many as 60,000 people — one fifth of Cheju's population. They committed these atrocities in plain view of the highest authority then in southern Korea — the U.S. military, which had occupied the peninsula south of the 38th parallel following the World War II defeat of Japan. The Americans documented the brutality, but never intervened. [Source: Newsweek, June 18, 2000]

Background of the Jeju Uprising

After World War II, Korea was divided between an American-backed government in the South and a Soviet-backed one in the North. Starting in the spring of 1947, a group of Jeju islanders rose up against police brutality and called for a unified Korean government.

According to Newsweek: “Cheju got caught in the vise of cold-war paranoia. Japan had abandoned its Korean colony in August 1945. By prior agreement, Soviet forces occupied the peninsula above the 38th parallel, Americans below. When the foreign armies arrived, they found left-wing people's committees active in most areas. Moscow and Washington were supposed to prepare Korea for national elections, to choose a united government. But as the cold war intensified, Korea polarized. A pro-Soviet regime emerged in the north, and in the south a U.S.-backed political group took control. [Source: Newsweek, June 18, 2000]

“Above the de facto border, communists loyal to Kim Il Sung persecuted Christians, rightists and Japanese collaborators. Below, conservative leader Syngman Rhee courted the same groups to consolidate power against the South Korean Labor Party, or SKLP. Rhee's machinations triggering several localized uprisings — the largest on Cheju. By late 1947, an estimated 80 percent of Cheju islanders were SKLP members or loyalists. As the American occupation commander, Gen. John R. Hodge, put it, Cheju was "a truly communal area peacefully controlled by the [local] people's committee."

“It didn't last. To bolster his influence, Rhee sent police, soldiers and gangsters from the mainland. The most-feared newcomers were refugees from North Korea who constituted a paramilitary gang called the Northwest Youth. They were "hoodlums, criminals and thugs" recalls Lee Woon Bang, a former labor-party organizer. When Washington abandoned its commitment to organize all-Korea elections and instead announced a plan to hold balloting for a separate regime in the south, Cheju erupted.”

Rebellions and Efforts to Establish Communist Units in South Korea

The United States military command, along with emissaries dispatched from Washington, tended to interpret resistance to United States desires in the south as radical and pro-Soviet. When Korean resistance leaders set up an interim "people's republic" and people's committees throughout southern Korea in September 1945, the United States saw this fundamentally indigenous movement as part of a Soviet master plan to dominate all of Korea. Radical activity, such as the ousting of landlords and attacks on Koreans in the former colonial police force, usually was a matter of settling scores left over from the colonial period, or of demands by Koreans to run their own affairs. But it immediately became wrapped up with United States- Soviet rivalry, such that the Cold War arrived early in Korea — in the last months of 1945. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

From August 1945 until January 1946, Soviet forces worked with a coalition of communists and nationalists. The Soviets did not set up a central administration, nor did they establish an army. In retrospect their policy was more tentative and reactive than American policy in South Korea, which moved forward with plans for a separate administration and army. In general, Soviet power in the Asia-Pacific region was flexible and resulted in the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Manchuria in early 1946.

Since the 1940s, from 12 to 14 percent of the population has been enrolled in the communist party, compared with 1 to 3 percent for communist parties in most countries. The Korean Workers' Party (KWP) was formed by a merger of the communist parties in North Korea and South Korea in 1949. The vast majority of KWP members were poor peasants with no previous political experience. Membership in the party gave them status, privileges, and a rudimentary form of political participation.

Once the United States occupation force chose to bolster the status quo and resist radical reform of colonial legacies, it immediately ran into monumental opposition to its policies from the majority of South Koreans. The United States Army Military Government in Korea (1945-48) spent most of its first year suppressing the many people's committees that had emerged in the provinces. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

This action provoked a massive rebellion in the fall of 1946; after the rebellion was suppressed, radical activists developed a significant guerrilla movement in 1948 and 1949. Activists also touched off a major rebellion at the port of Yeosu in South Korea in October 1948. Much of this disorder resulted from unresolved land problem caused by conservative landed factions who used their bureaucratic power to block redistribution of land to peasant tenants. North Koreans sought to take advantage of this discontent, but the best evidence shows that most of the dissidents and guerrillas were southerners upset about southern policies. Indeed, the strength of the left wing was in those provinces most removed from the thirty-eighth parallel — in the southwest, which had historically been rebellious (the Tonghaks came from there), and in the southeast, which had felt the greatest impact from Japanese colonialism.

In South Jeolla province, communist sympathizers were brutalized by the military dictatorship. Kim Young-sik, born in 1950, the year the Korean War began, said: "When I was growing up, you could get in trouble just wearing a red scarf."

Violence During the Jeju Uprising

In mid November 1947, the United Nations passed Resolution 112 calling for a general election in the Korean peninsula prompting the communist Workers Party of South Korea, and other groups to organize protests in March 1948 to demand reunification and block elections scheduled for May 10. Police killed six protestors and arrested 2,500 more. Locals then formed a "people's army" and took to the hills. [Source:, Newsweek]

On April 3, 1948 rebels retaliated and attacked 11 police stations and government offices, killing an estimated 50 police. Bodies were mutilated and polling centers for the upcoming election were burned. The South Korean government sent 3,000 soldiers to reinforce the Jeju police, but several hundred soldiers mutinied, handing arms caches to rebels. "A cycle of terror and counterterror soon developed," wrote Korean specialist John Merrill in a groundbreaking 1980 account of the uprising. "Police and rightists brutalized the islanders, who retaliated the best the could."

The government wanted a full surrender; the rebels, disarmament of local police, dismissal of governing officials, and a prohibition of paramilitary groups on the island. Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: The police and soldiers, joined by a right-wing paramilitary group from the mainland, responded with an extermination campaign, branding the insurgents as Communist agitators. The rebels fought back, raiding police stations, but vastly outnumbered and outgunned, the peasant army was eventually crushed. Also killed were large numbers of relatives and others considered sympathizers. During the crackdown, many rebels and villagers fled to the hills to hide in the island’s caves. Tales of brutality by government forces and paramilitary thugs are still recounted by islanders with both fear and spite, including the raping of women and requiring people to applaud as their relatives were killed. Soldiers are said to have forced a mother to walk around her village with the severed head of her insurgent son. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, May 28, 2019]

According to Newsweek: “Kim Wan Mae is 95 years old, but she hasn't forgotten a tragic episode in her past... In the thick dialect of Cheju, she recalls “the day when police stormed Pukchon village to root out communists. They came in 1949, she explains, nearly a year after South Korean authorities launched a bloody counterinsurgency against leftists on the island. Backed by right-wing gangs, South Korean police and soldiers torched homes, rounded up hundreds of suspected leftists and herded them into a field. All day, the invaders executed their captives — shooting about 480 men, women and children in what's now a small garlic patch. Kim escaped the firing squads by huddling in a schoolyard with the families of police and soldiers — the only locals spared. Survivors slept in a rice mill before returning the next morning to search for relatives. Kim lost both parents, her husband and a brother in the slaughter. "I saw the bodies," she says, squinting back tears. "One baby was still nursing at its dead mother's breast." [Source: Newsweek, June 18, 2000]

“Cheju was largely pacified by the time Pyongyang launched its June 25,” 1950 invasion — formally starting the Korean War. “By one estimate, 70 percent of the island's villages had been burned, and more than 60,000 refugees clogged coastal towns. Immediately following the North's attack, however, the South Korean military ordered "preemptive apprehension" of suspected leftists nationwide. Thousands were detained on Cheju, then sorted into four groups, labeled A, B, C and D, based on the perceived security risks each posed. On Aug. 30, according to a written order obtained by NEWSWEEK, a senior intelligence officer in the South Korean Navy instructed Cheju's police to "execute all those in groups C and D by firing squad no later than September 6." "People say President Rhee planned to flee to Cheju just like Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan," says Yang Shin Ha, a 63-year-old resident of the town of Mosulpo, whose brother was killed after the order was given. "Rhee needed to clear the place out." Local historians estimate that about 2,500 islanders were executed in subsequent weeks.

Victims of the Jeju Uprising

According to Newsweek: “Villagers across the island were trapped in the middle. At Dongkwang, on Cheju's southern highlands, soldiers came to kill and burn because locals had reportedly fed area rebels. Kim Yeo Soo, now 71, fled with his family to a secret cave in the mountain. He recently returned to the hideout for only the third time since the war, searching for 15 minutes before locating its tiny entrance amid scattered boulders and scrub. "We lived here for two months," he says, pointing into a hidden fissure. "When the police found us we had to move." As they fled, his father was shot; he died two weeks later. Soldiers killed his brother in mid-1949. "If I had been caught, I would have been killed, too," Kim says. Below the cave, a small marble tablet under a banyan tree honors massacre victims as "pure and honest people" and blames government forces for reducing the hamlet to "a place of killing, tragedy and sad ghosts." [Source: Newsweek, June 18, 2000]

“Cheju islanders say every family has relatives who died during the fighting. At Tosan, Kim Yang Hak was just 8 years old when he lost his brother. It happened on the night of Dec. 14, 1948, when soldiers arrived by moonlight and gathered villagers together. They took away about 150 young men, and then "picked out about 20 pretty girls," Kim says. According to witnesses, the men were moved to a beach and executed four days later. Soldiers allegedly gang-raped the girls over a two-week period, then killed them. Kim's family retrieved their son's body from the beach and arranged a posthumous marriage for him and one of the murdered girls. "Both families buried them together and read eulogies for their souls," Kim remembers.

“Captured rebels endured brutal treatment. Kim Min Ju, 68, was caught after nearly starving to death on Mount Halla. "They attached electrodes on both my thumbs and ran the current until I fainted," remembers Kim, now a restaurant owner in Sakura, Japan. "They kept demanding that we identify our leaders, but I was too young to know anything." When he joined the SKLP-backed rebellion, it had been a popular movement, he says. But a year later, as guards moved him and other rebels to a ship bound for mainland Korea, he learned that local attitudes had changed. "People spit and threw stones at us," he recalls. "These were the same islanders who had previously encouraged us and given us rice."

“Yang Yeo Ha's brother's was another victim” — after the Korean War formally started. “"He went to the police station as ordered," she says, "and when someone called another name similar to his, he answered." The mistake cost him his life. Yang, who is 73 and was a farmer, walks in a chilly drizzle to the spot where her brother is buried in a shallow mass grave — the largest yet discovered on Cheju — located at the eastern edge of the international airport. Like many survivors, Yang is reluctant to tell her story. In fact, the family only reported the grave's location last year, although they had known of it since shortly after the executions. "What's the need?" she asks. "Would it make him alive again?"

Covering up the Jeju Uprising

The existence of the Jeju uprising was officially censored and not revealed to public until around the year 2000. In 2006, the South Korean government apologized for its role in the killings and promised reparations. According to Newsweek: “Historians are just beginning to unearth Cheju's bloody secrets, which several South Korean regimes labored to cover up.” In 1992, President Roh Tae Woo's government sealed up a cave on Mount Halla where the remains of massacre victims had been discovered... Newly declassified documents from the U.S. National Archive, and oral histories compiled from witnesses and survivors on Cheju, paint an unsavory picture of the prewar Seoul regime. The evidence supports a new interpretation of the Korean War — that hostilities actually started well before Pyongyang's armies blitzed southward on June 25, 1950. "Americans remember it as a lightning bolt in the morning, like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor," says University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings, a leading authority on the war's origins. "In fact, the war began as a civil conflict in 1945 — and still hasn't ended." [Source: Newsweek, June 18, 2000]

Cheju's suffering didn't end after the Korean War. Successive military governments made the island a symbol of Seoul's vigilance against the North. Under strongman Park Chung Hee, giant characters blaring defeat communism were hung high on Mount Halla. For decades, the secret police coerced survivors to remain silent. Tourists were told nothing about the island's tragic history. "There are so many massacres [in Korea] to reevaluate, and Cheju is the largest," says Park Chan Sik, a lecturer at Cheju University.

Not everyone wants it opened. Retired general Chae Myong Shin, who served as a young officer on Cheju for five months in 1948, calls what transpired there "very sensitive" and "ideological." In his recollection, "brutality came from both sides. If there were communists in a village, it's possible their families were retaliated against. That's because families of police were also being sacrificed."

“Seoul is exploring ways to make amends.” In 2000 “under special legislation enacted by the South Korean Parliament, hundreds of government offices on the island began accepting wrongful-death claims from citizens. The goal: establish an accurate death toll as a possible first step toward family compensation. "Things are being done too slowly," complains Cho Jung Pae, 65, whose father was among those executed at Mosulpo in 1950. "The government needs to comfort survivors, restore our honor and cure our mental injuries." Nearby, a bulldozer levels the ground at a new memorial honoring his father and other executed prisoners. Now, perhaps, they can finally rest in peace.

Revealing the Jeju Uprising

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: It was only in 2000 that a law took effect requiring a formal investigation. In 2006, the South Korean government apologized for the indiscriminate butchering of innocent islanders in the name of fighting Communism. In 2008, the government opened a large Jeju “Peace Park” honoring the victims. At a government-built museum, thousands of names, including those of children, are inscribed in walls of black marble, helping visitors feel the scale of the slaughter. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, May 28, 2019

While the government has now acknowledged its culpability, victims’ families during the postwar decades lived with the stigma of being blacklisted as “reds” under the guilt-by-association system, and a pervasive system of political surveillance kept people from talking about the horrors they had witnessed. Even though the history now can be freely discussed, many island residents choose not to. The Jeju killings remain a sensitive topic in South Korea, which is divided over how to come to terms with its tumultuous modern history. Conservative activists still define the island’s uprising as “riots.” “Where I come from, if you talk about things like the way the government oppressed the Jeju people, you are likely branded as a ‘red,’ ” said Jang Soo-kyeong, 48, who took a recent tour of the island and lives in Daegu, a conservative city in mainland South Korea. “I wish we could discuss this kind of thing freely regardless of changes in government.”

For residents of the island, the history is deeply personal. Some families married their daughters to soldiers, police officers or anti-Communist vigilantes for survival. The rebels murdered relatives of police officers, as well as villagers who collaborated with soldiers. Islanders, often after torture, informed on their pro-insurgent neighbors. “Relatives of victims and perpetrators still live in the same village,” said Kang Ho-jin, a Jeju native. “Old villagers know who killed whom.”

Many survivors have refrained from discussing the era even with their children. Interconnected through centuries of marriage, these older islanders wanted to end the vicious circle of hate begetting hate. “They believed that if all the truth were known, it would sow discord in the village,” Mr. Lee said. Some victims’ families remain fearful of a backlash and worry that if conservatives returned to power in Seoul, they would again suppress efforts to investigate.

Younger residents of the island, however, can be more eager to explore, and expose, the past. The great-grandfather of Kim Myong-ji, 27, a Jeju native, was killed by government forces. But rather than hiding this family history, Mr. Kim is now an organizer of one of the tours that lay bare the past. “I wanted to trace my great-grandfather’s life and why he had to die,” Mr. Kim said. “I want to raise the awareness of what happened in Jeju.”

Jeju Uprising Tourism

Reporting from Bukchon on Jeju, Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “The soldiers descended upon the village, torching its homes and corralling residents into a schoolyard. After screening out relatives of military members and the police from the gathered crowd, the soldiers divided those remaining — men, women and children — into groups of 30 to 50, and dragged them away. When the shootings were over in Bukchon, South Korea, 300 bodies, clad in traditional white clothes, were strewn across a nearby farm patch and rocky pine grove, looking “like so many freshly pulled radishes,” as survivors of the attack on Jan. 17, 1949, described it. Seventy years later, a tour group arrived in Bukchon to look solemnly at the small graves of the infants killed that day. After decades of a strictly enforced silence, Jeju Island, where this and many similar atrocities took place, is now inviting visitors to learn first hand about one of the ugliest chapters in modern Korean history. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, May 28, 2019

“During these painful explorations of the island’s grim history, visitors occasionally meet survivors like Ko Wan-soon, 79. “When my infant brother cried on the back of my mother, the soldier slammed him in the head twice with a thick club,” Ms. Ko said, recalling what happened at the Bukchon school ground. “It’s good that we can now talk about these things.” These so-called “dark tours” reflect a growing freedom under the government of President Moon Jae-in to revisit the abuses perpetrated when South Korea was governed under a dictatorship.”

After the Korean War, Jeju “became the country’s top tourist destination, with millions of visitors attracted by the scenic beauty and folk culture found around Bukchon on the island’s northern shore: old hackberry trees bent and twisted by the wind, jade-green coastal waters and so-called sea women diving for abalones and octopuses. The new tourists are seeking a different experience. “Jeju is no longer the tourist destination I used to know,” said Lee Hang-ran, 32, a schoolteacher from mainland South Korea, after visiting Bukchon.

“During the crackdown, many rebels and villagers fled to the hills to hide in the island’s caves. As part of the tours, visitors crawl into some of these pitch-black rock shelters, using their smartphones for light. Rusting bullets and fragments of earthen utensils used by the fugitives are still found in these claustrophobic, bat-infested caves. Visitors can also see mass grave sites where hundreds of people, mostly relatives of the insurgents and others deemed leftist, were rounded up and executed as part of an effort to remove a potential fifth column at the outbreak of the Korean War in the early 1950s. “They usually chose promontories, waterfalls and sandy beaches for execution sites because it was easier to dispose of bodies there,” said Lee Sang-eon, 56, a Bukchon native who lost four relatives and recently volunteered to give tours around his village.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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