JEJU ISLAND, South Korea, March 8 (UPI) — Forty-five years ago this fall, a short story was published that would crack open decades of silence surrounding the infamous Jeju Massacre in Korea.
Hyun Ki-young, now 82, recalled in a recent interview with UPI how he was imprisoned and beaten for authoring the 80-page story, “Suni Samchon.” Reading it became a crime.
But its publication, now acknowledged as “the most important breakthrough” in unearthing the massacre, allowed Hyun and generations of Jeju residents to process the trauma.
“Writing a literary work was itself a means of pursuing freedom for me,” Hyun said. “I had this internal trauma that needed to be resolved and it was the trauma that I had felt since I was little and it was a trauma not confined to me but could extend to all of the Jeju people. And the entire Jeju people suffered from that trauma for more than 30 years by the time I decided to write this story.”
In the story, published in 1978, a Seoul businessman returns to his poor village in northern Jeju Island after eight years away to attend the annual memorial service for his grandfather. On arrival, he discovers that the titular character, a distant relative, had died by suicide.
She had suffered three decades in silence from pain she incurred, including the deaths of her son and daughter, during the massacre of 1947-54, widely known in Korean as the Jeju April 3rd Incident, or simply as Jeju 4.3.
Scholars and historians agree that “Suni Samchon” was the first public reference to the massacre and the fissure in the dam of government oppression that compelled survivors to speak of their trauma in whispers — if at all — out of fear of social ostracization, arrest or worse.
“Jeju 4.3 was something I wasn’t allowed to speak of, and as an intellectual, as a writer, I eat freedom to live,” Hyun, told UPI from a cafe in an old part of Jeju City near the Nohyeong-dong neighborhood where he lived as a child before the massacre.
The six-year conflict that followed Korea’s liberation from Japan and encompassed the Korean War killed some 30,000 Jeju residents, 10% of the island’s population. Most were slaughtered or summarily executed by government forces attempting to squelch a communist-led uprising over growing anger about police brutality, the U.S. occupation and elections that would bifurcate the nation.
Some 40,000 homes and roughly 300 villages were destroyed.
Most of the deaths and destruction occurred during the winter of 1948-49, when counterinsurgency forces executed a scorched earth operation.
Hyun credits his family’s move from Nohyeong-dong in the fall of 1947 with having saved his life as the village was among those devastated.
“However, we suffered from the tremendous trauma of PTSD,” he said. “We weren’t supposed to speak of it and we weren’t supposed to express our anger, and because I didn’t personally experience that massacre, I was exempt from that pent-up anger, which is why I was able to write ‘Suni Samchon.'”
The story is set on Dec. 18, 1978 of the lunar calendar, in the fictional West Village, which is a light disguise for Bukchon-ri — or North Village, in English — where exactly 30 years prior to the setting of “Suni Samchon,” horror descended upon its villagers.
On that day — Jan. 17, 1949 of the solar calendar — counterinsurgency forces rounded up the village’s roughly 1,000 residents into the field of the local elementary school under the pretext of hearing a speech.
After separating the families of military and police from those assembled, the counterinsurgency forces carted dozens of men at a time to a nearby farm, where they were executed. Pandemonium erupted in the school yard as their village was set ablaze and the counterinsurgency forces opened fire indiscriminately on those they had assembled there.
Survivors of the massacre have told UPI of being children and sitting on the ground of the school yard as they watched their fathers board trucks and of hearing the gunshots from a distance, not knowing what they meant.
As bullets rained upon them in the school yard, they ran from one side of the field to the other, they said.
The shooting began at 11 a.m. and ceased at 5 p.m., when the survivors attempted to return to the burnt husks of their homes through streets filled with dead and charred farm animals that had fled their pens.
One survivor recounted seeing a elderly neighbor who failed to make their way to the school yard hung and burning in the street outside her home.
With their homes destroyed, survivors were ordered to the nearby village of Hamdeok, where more than two dozen were killed the following day.
In total, 299 men, women and children died during what is now known as the Bukchon Massacre, making it the worst single incident of Jeju 4.3, according to “Jeju 4.3 Incident Follow-up Investigations Report I.”
‘An old death’
In Hyun’s story, a pregnant Suni survives the slaughter, but her son and daughter do not. She spends the rest of her life tending to her farm field, finding the bones of those killed there, the rusted bullets that did the killing, and where she herself would also later die, leaving the narrator to remark that her death was “an old death that happened 30 years ago.”
Compared to the stories that survivors from Bukchon have told UPI over the years, as well as official government investigations into the massacre conducted in the last two decades, Hyun’s fictional retelling is surprisingly accurate given that “Suni Samchon” was written during an era when no one spoke of what they had experienced.
Hyun told UPI that he first learned of Bukchon in a women’s magazine that referred to the village’s absence of men. That sparked his curiosity about what had occurred there. But it would only be years later, while living in a cheap lodging house in Seoul, that he’d learn about the massacre.
“By coincidence, I had a high school friend who wasn’t my close friend in Jeju, but we came to share a room in Seoul and he was from Bukchon,” he said. “He’s who told me detailed stories about what had happened.”
Hyun explained that this was his first encounter with the Bukchon Massacre, without which “Suni Samchon” would have never been written.
Years later, after deciding to write about Jeju 4.3, Hyun contacted his former roommate, Bu Cheol-gyu, who had moved back to the island after graduating from university, and asked him for a tour of the village.
“But the thing is, the residents refused to give testimony,” Hyun said. “Mr. Bu tried to persuade them, but they still refused because they were so scared. Then I cried and pleaded with them and said, ‘A young writer is trying to write a story about what you have experienced. A young writer is trying to let the world know what had happened in order to appease the pent-up anger and if you resist, refuse to give testimony, how would you meet your deceased family members in the afterlife when you pass away?’
“And that is when I succeeded in persuading them to make testimonies. Of course, I knew what had happened and about the massacres at the time, but I didn’t know the details or the people there until I persuaded them.”
There was a brief moment after the massacre when talk of it was permitted.
The violence was committed under South Korea’s first president, the hardline anti-communist Syngman Rhee, who ruled the country until 1960. After that, a door briefly opened allowing Jeju residents to try and uncover the truth of the massacre. But that ended with the 5.16 military coup of 1961 by then-Maj. Gen. Park Chung-Hee.
According to “The Jeju 4.3 Incident Investigation Report,” a day after the coup, those investigating the massacre were arrested and handed lengthy prison terms. That June, a stone monument erected a year prior to honor the island’s dead was destroyed by police.
“After the 5.16 military coup d’etat, for some 20 years under military rule, debates concerning the incident were banned once more,” the investigation report states. “Under the framework of a newly promulgated anti-communist law, a new national security law and a system of guilt-by-association, no one dared to speak openly about the incident.”
‘I was shocked’
The silence was so pervasive that despite the massacre’s colossal impact, those on Jeju who were unscathed knew little to nothing of it, while mainlanders were wholly ignorant.
“My family was not related to any 4.3 victims, so I’d never heard about it,” poet and Jeju native Kim Soo-yeul told UPI in a recent telephone interview. “When I first read ‘Suni Samchon’ I felt that this was not our story but that of somebody else. I was shocked. I felt like this wasn’t a real story, how could this happen in Jeju?”
Kim Soo-yeul, a Jeju 4.3 poet who recently turned “Suni Samchon” into an opera, said he first read the story while attending Jeju National University in 1979. Kim Soo-yeul said that after he read it, he began to ask his fellow students and elderly people he knew about the massacre, but they kept mum.
“It was the era when we couldn’t speak freely,” he said. “We were forced to be quiet. That is why ‘Suni Samchon’ is worthy not only of literary value but also of historical value.
“The movement of finding the truth of 4.3. began with the publication of ‘Suni Samchon.'”
The government wanted to keep the truth of the massacre a secret because it blamed the deaths and destruction on the communists and their uprising. Victims on the island distanced themselves from the cause of their trauma out of fear of being labeled one.
“They were anti-communist and they viewed the Jeju 4.3 as a communist rebellion,” Professor Hun Joon Kim of Korea University’s Department of Political Science and International Relations told UPI in an email, referring to the government at the time.
In “Seeking Truth after 50 Years: The National Committee for Investigation of the Truth about the Jeju 4.3 Events,” Hun Joon Kim writes that the oppression was so complete that there was no public reference to the massacre for some 25 years, until “Suni Samchon,” the publication of which he described as being “the most important breakthrough” in unearthing the massacre and “the key moment in South Korea’s transitional justice history.”
Hyun’s story, Hun Joon Kim wrote, had “a significant impact” on underground student movement circles and social activists and helped cultivate the period of 1978 to 1987 as one of preparation during which scholars and activists worked to uncover memories of survivors, create discourse on the massacre and hold secret memorial services.
Student activists “sometimes first learned about the 4.3 through this short story, or sometimes they studied this story together in their underground meeting and some decided to pursue the 4.3 as their lifetime mission,” Hun Joon Kim said.
The story was published by progressive Changbi magazine in September 1978, near the end of the Park Chung-Hee administration. It first had an impact on Korea’s intellectuals and students in Seoul before spreading to Jeju and the rest of Korea — but only after Changi published it in a collection of Hyun’s short stories on Nov. 15, 1979.
Changbi told UPI in an email that with the story having been published 45 years ago, “there is currently no one in the head office who can testify” about its publication. But Hyun said they were able to publish “Suni Samchon” unscathed because the Park Chung-Hee administration was a pro-U.S. dictatorship and Changbi’s publisher, Pak Nam-chung, was an U.S.-educated elite.
Hyun, however, was less fortunate.
“That was when I was arrested and taken to the military intelligence agency,” he said.
Hyun was detained days after his short story collection was published. His detention is now well known, as he was tortured and beaten over three days by National Intelligence Service officers who threatened him to never write about Jeju 4.3 again.
He was so severely beaten that he remained in prison a month afterward to give his cuts and bruises time to heal, he said.
His book was subsequently banned, which had the adverse effect the government had hoped for: It grew in popularity.
“People Xeroxed it, and copied and copied and copied it and distributed it over and over,” Hyun said. “The publishing of the book was a crime itself and reading it another. So that is how my book had an influence over the entire process.”
After being released from detention, Hyun decided to become more involved in the Jeju 4.3 truth movement. He established the Jeju social issues discussion council that consisted of young students who had also experienced imprisonment under the Park Chung-Hee administration.
The council members held Jeju 4.3 memorial ceremonies in Seoul for three years, before the movement spread to Jeju and the island’s national university.
“That was the beginning of the Jeju 4.3 movement,” he said.
An official apology
The ban on “Suni Samchon” was never officially repealed but dissolved around 1994 amid South Korea’s democratization movement, he said.
Ten years after that, following extensive government-led research, President Roh Moo-hyun officially apologized to the people of Jeju for the massacre, accepting responsibility for the deaths and destruction on the island on behalf of the South Korean government.
“The government will support the construction of the Jeju 4.3 Peace Park and the immediate restoration of honor to the victims,” Roh said in his speech on Oct. 31, 2003.
This moment is viewed by survivors as the end of the guilt-by-association system and the final, destructive blow to the dam of silence, allowing Jeju residents to speak of their trauma, dead relatives and their personal histories without fear.
“Our memory was killed by the government. The government tried to erase our memory of 4.3,” poet Kim Soo-yeul said. “I had lived while we were killing our memory of 4.3 and we suppressed the memory of 4.3 by ourselves.
“Hyun Ki-young was courageous and he thought we shouldn’t bury the memory anymore,” he said. “We were able to have courage because of ‘Suni Samchon.’ ‘Suni Samchon’ was a call for artists and writers to spread the story and reveal the truth of 4.3.”
In Bukchon-ri, on the site of Ompangbat, the former farm field where people were executed during the Bukchon Massacre, there is a monument to “Suni Samchon.”
Pages from the book are etched into large tombstones that are haphazardly laid upon one another on the ground, symbolically representing how the bodies of those killed there more than 70 years ago were left.
It is something of a dark tourism attraction and is included in the government’s Bukchon-ri Village Jeju 4.3 Trail, along which there is a memorial hall where one can now learn of the village’s tragedy.
“A writer inevitably writes his fate,” Hyun said. “It’s just the same as a mountain climber who decides to climb the mountain and when asked why, he says because there is a mountain. If I am asked why I write about Jeju 4.3, then I would say because there was this overwhelming instance that I encountered and I had no choice but to write about it.
“I never expected any of the results that were to come.”