|▲ Graffiti is a way of communicating with people, and Koh Gill Chun chose a crowded area of Jungdeok seaside in Gangjeong to convey his message of protest against the construction of the naval base. Photo courtesy Koh Gill Chun
In this anniversary month of the massacre known as “Sasam,” Jeju’s people renew their commitment to peace.
This is one of the most defining events of modern Jeju society. According to social critic Kim Yu Jeong and others, it represents a deep cultural wound.
“The collective memory of Jeju regarding these events,” Kim states, “is one of mistrust toward others and an increased insularity.”
Jeju, now declared an “Island of World Peace,” has an extensive history of conflict. It has been invaded repeatedly. Forced to submit to peninsular Korea in 938 and fully annexed in 1105, the island was then ruled by Mongolia from 1273 to 1374.
During the subsequent 500-year Joseon dynastic reign, Jeju was a site of exile for political criminals. And for 200 years of this period, Jeju residents were not permitted to leave the island.
The Joseon era ended with the annexation of Korea by Japan in 1905 and full-scale occupation, which lasted 35 years, by 1910. As did the Mongolians, so did the Japanese see Jeju as an ideal site for a strategic military base, and Jeju was once again aggressively occupied.
By 1948, directly following liberation from the Japanese and in the midst of a tumultuous period of establishing not one but two governments in Korea, Jeju residents rose up to protest what they viewed as a long-term division of the nation by boycotting the unilateral election in Seoul.
They were labeled as Communists and suppressed by local police and national military forces which were allegedly backed by the U.S. government. Numerous villages were burned and civilians slaughtered, in a period that lasted the duration of the Korean war.
In light of Jeju’s long history of conflict, the society understandably distances itself from ‘outsiders.’
Decades of government suppression followed, resulting in the emergence of a nationwide movement for democracy by 1980. In this context Jeju’s ‘Sasam movement’ was born, for the purpose of achieving truth, reconciliation, and healing from these events.
Quite dangerous as it was to speak out at that time, many bravely did so, and today this movement continues.
In addition to several related research institutes and efforts by local artists, performers, writers, journalists, activists and politicians, in 2008 the Jeju April 3rd Peace Park was established (jeju43.jeju.go.kr/index.php?mid=EN).
In January of 2005, the central government officially declared Jeju an ‘Island of World Peace’. The International Peace Institute (www.jpi.or.kr/index_en.html) was developed with a focus on East Asian peace initiatives and a goal of becoming the central hub for the same, according to its president, former diplomat Han Tae Kyu.
Toward this goal, the Jeju Peace Forum was launched in 2001 as an international gathering on issues related to regional peace. Now an annual event, the 6th Jeju Peace Forum will take place this May and bears the title, “New Asia: For Peace and Prosperity” (jejupeaceforum.jpi.or.kr/eng).
The forum has expanded to include the issues not only of peace but also of economy, politics, and more, according to the director of Jeju Provincial Government’s Peace and Cooperation Division, Kim Sung Hoon. The division is a primary organizer of the forum.
“The Jeju Forum will be instrumental in the development of this entire region,” projected Kim.
The motto of the 6th forum is, “Community-building in East Asia,” and according to Han, the aim is to turn Jeju into “a mecca for world peace.”
Toward this end, Jeju also has an Ambassador Advisor for International Relations, Yu Ji-eun, who was appointed by the central government.
“We want to develop Jeju as a base for international relations,” reported Yu, “to help build relationships not only with our neighbors but with countries throughout the world.”
Peace on Jeju Island, however, has not been achieved.
“Many ‘Sasam’ issues are being solved,” according to prominent artist and political activist Koh Gill Chun. “But there is still a deep trauma in the minds of the people.”
When asked about the effects of that time on Jeju’s culture today, Oh Seung-kook, Deputy Secretary General of the Peace Park, deemed the influence “profound.”
According to Oh, “The traditional culture of Jeju disappeared at that time. We are still struggling to fully recover people’s minds.”
“‘Sasam’ will not be resolved,” further expressed Koh, “until Korea is reunified. Only then will that time be understood in context – as a protest of the Korean division.”
In addition to the ongoing effects of Sasam, for the past 4 years the villagers of Gangjeong, along with island and peninsular activists, have protested plans for building a naval base on that site.
The central government has given 7.8 billion won in compensation to village residents and proposes to build an ‘eco-friendly’ naval base as well as a commercial port for tourism. But villagers remain far from satisfied, and protests continue.
“It is nothing but systematic violence that cannot stand together with the Peace Island, and a behavior that dishonors the 4.3 spirits,” voiced Kang Dong-Kyun, mayor of Gangjeong Village People’s Council.
In the village, described as “broken” by representative Koh Hee Bum of local NGO Jeju Forum C (jejuforumc.net), family members and neighbors have fought heatedly with one another over this issue.
A significant connection exists between the current protests over the presence of a naval base on Jeju Island and that of the earlier tragedy.
“The wounds of ‘Sasam’ can be seen in the current extreme conflict over the naval base,” according to social critic Kim.
In a society traumatized and brutalized by the national military, the idea of a military base on the island which will house 25,000 troops is difficult for Jeju’s people to accept.
“Many people here [in Gangjeong],” echoed prominent political activist Choi Sung Hee, “connect the current struggle against the naval base to the Jeju 4.3 Uprising.”
According to trauma theory, the routine presence of military personnel in uniform presents a distinct possibility of emotional ‘re-traumatization’ for Jeju’s people. This risk is not only for the elders who directly experienced the earlier period of brutality but also for the subsequent generation, considered secondary victims.
Out of a dark past and a challenging present, Jeju’s struggle for peace continues.
Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist living on Jeju Island.