On this day in 1948, the Korean province of Jeju was caught in a Cold War conflict and a civil war-like period of violence and human rights abuses, known as the Jeju Uprising and Massacre, begins.
The seeds of the uprising were sowed after Japan’s defeat in World War II, which saw American and Soviet troops occupy the southern and northern parts of the Korean peninsula, respectively. A prearranged agreement between US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin saw their occupation strictly separated at the 38th parallel.
The conflict heated up on 14 November 1947 when the United Nations passed UN Resolution 112 calling for a general election in the Korean peninsula under UN supervision. The Soviet Union, which was occupying the north, refused to comply with the resolution, so the UN Assembly adopted a new resolution calling for elections for a new regime in areas accessible to the UN Commission, mainly the US-occupied south.
Upon this news, Jeju erupted. Labor party leaders like the communist Workers Party of South Korea planned rallies on 1 March to denounce and block the upcoming elections scheduled for 10 May. Police reacted, killing six protestors and arresting some 2,500 more. The rebels planned retaliation. On 3 April 1948 they attacked 11 police stations, mutilated bodies, and burned polling centers for the upcoming election. The South Korean government sent 3,000 soldiers to reinforce the Jeju police, but several hundred soldiers mutinied, handing arms caches to rebels. 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. Most of all, however, they wanted a reunification of the Korean peninsula.
The demands were too much, negotiations fell through, and the conflict continued. On 25 June 1950, North Korea crossed the 38th Parallel and invaded the South. The South Korean military ordered a preemptive apprehension of suspected leftists across the nation. Thousands of people were detained in Jeju, sorted into four groups, A, B, C, and D, according to security risk. On 30 August 1950, the South Korean Navy instructed Jeju police to “execute all those in groups C and D by firing squad no later than September 6.” South Korean soldiers assaulted Jeju villages, executing men and raping women. When it was over, some 70 percent of Jeju’s 230 villages had been burned and some 14,373 people killed as victims of the targeted killing, according to South Korea’s Truth Commission. The estimated total death toll was as high as 30,000.
After the massacre, the South Korean government covered up the Jeju Uprising and Massacre, outlawing the Workers Party of South Korea and intimidating any who dared to mention the Jeju Massacre with beatings, torture, and prison sentences. A cave with remains from the massacre was sealed and the event purged from historical records. Thanks to the reinstatement of civil rule in the 1990s, however, the South Korean government has acknowledged and apologised for the suppression and massacre. Today, efforts are still being made to understand the scope of the massacre and compensate survivors.