By Youjoung (Yuna) Kim
The first object that visitors see when they enter the Jeju 4.3 (Sasam)[i] Memorial Park is a white memorial stone lying on the ground. A small signpost beside the stone reads, “Unnamed Monument,” and no other description is given. This blank white space symbolizes the ambiguities of what is referred to as Sasam: a storm of violence that overwhelmed Jeju, an island off the southern tip of the Korean peninsula, between 1947 and 1954. Jeju islanders find it hard to express the experience of this tragedy in a single word, although it is officially referred to as Jeju Sasam Sageon (“incident”) by the South Korean government. While the events of Sasam resulted in more than 30,000 deaths on the island and have a dark place in history, it remains difficult to precisely name, much less temporally demarcate, this period of violence. In this essay, I cast light on how Sasam continuously reverberates in the everyday life of Jeju islanders in order to demonstrate that the immense suffering of Jeju 4.3 is too burdensome in its weight for a word to convey.
While the events of Sasam became officially recognized as Jeju Sasam Sageon (translated as the “Jeju 4.3 incident” by the Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation in 2014) after the enactment of a Special Law in 2000 and the publication of the official investigation report in 2003,[ii] there continues to be much debate over what to call this violent period. In 2018, the official slogan of the Pan-Korean Committee on the 70th Anniversary of Jeju 4.3 was “Defining the Apr[il] 3 Incident and Giving History a [sic] Proper Name” (Heo 2018). To no small degree, the challenge of defining Sasam reflects the struggle of Jeju islanders to agree on a name for what they and their ancestors endured, and continue to endure. Over the years, Sasam has been called pokdong (폭동, “revolt”), hangjaeng (항쟁, “uprising”) or haksal (학살, “massacre”),depending on the speaker’s political stance.[iii] Scholars also have used different terms to refer to Sasam, including “rebellion” (Merrill 1980), “uprising” (Yang 2008; Ryang 2013), or “massacre” (Kim, S. 2019). According to Park Chan-sik (2007), the official term “incident” is used to indicate a general occurrence, and it furthermore carries legal weight in determining what exactly Sasam is, especially in deciding who can be recognized as a victim. The current Jeju 4.3 Special Law, for example, does not acknowledge members of armed dissident groups or key associates of the Jeju division of the South Korean Labor Party who were leaders of community protests against the U.S. military regime as victims. The legality of naming Sasam as an “incident” thus politically circumscribes what is understood as victimhood.
Yet, insofar as catastrophic knowledge of Sasam is woven into the fabric of life of people on Jeju Island, it takes social forms and expressions that require interpretive practices that exceed official prisms for understanding the suffering consequent to its violence. In the remainder of this essay, I seek to show the inadequacy of words with respect to the suffering that suffuses and radiates outward from Sasam. I do so by staying close to the ways in which the words and experiences of Koh Minja, a Jeju islander who experienced Sasam, exceed the genre of post-atrocity testimony, even as they were included in a collection of testimonies edited by the Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation. This series is bundled in eight volumes compiling 120 testimonies from 79 villages across Jeju Island. These testimonies were collected as part of the 1000 Testimony Collection Project, which the Jeju 4.3 Research Institute conducted for five years between 2004 and 2008 with subsidies from the Jeju Special Self-Governing Province. Although edited, the testimonies were transcribed in the Jeju language (제주어, Chejuŏ),[iv] not in standardized Korean, in fidelity to the interviewee’s own words. In the particular volume that contains Minja’s story, 15 survivors from 8 villages in the eastern side of the island bore witness to Sasam.
Although I do not have access to the original transcripts, much less to Minja’s subtle gestures, or the pauses and tones in her words when she was telling her story, below I attempt to translate an excerpt of her story as literally as possible:
My father was killed during Sasam. … I saw him shot to death when I went to a beach in Hamdeok to get water. … When I saw my father at first being handcuffed, I did not think of it seriously because I was only six years old. It was the beach where I played around, after all. … My father was asked to dig a pit with a shovel into the sand beach of Hamdeok where he would be killed. He stood in a line with a group of other people after digging and my sister told me, “They are going to kill him now.” I inadvertently saw what was happening without thinking much about dying and living back then. After around 30 minutes later, the group of people [including Minja’s father] were shot at once with the soldiers’ guns and the dead bodies all fell down.
If my father was just a man who could pretend to be dead, he could have stayed there still for a day or two and survived. But he raised his head probably thinking everyone was gone already and another bullet was fired into his right eye, which passed through his head.
Minja indicates that her father was dragged out of their house[v] without cause. A woman in her neighborhood revealed where Minja’s father, who was not part of the armed resistance, was hiding when she got caught on the road by government forces. At that time, according to Minja, people flagged any household with a male family member when they encountered police officers or soldiers. They were told their life would be spared only if they informed authorities where “mountain guerrillas” were hiding. It was only after the soldiers left that Minja’s family was able to retrieve her father’s body. Although she witnessed the search for his body, Minja still did not fully comprehend what was happening at the time. Not absorbing the fact that her father was dead, she even played with her friends on the day of his funeral. She probably thought her father’s funeral was another village event because he was not the only person who was killed.[vi]
In addition to what she witnessed as a child, Minja also provides an account of her troubled marriage to a man from a family shattered by Sasam as well as describes her estrangement at official commemorative efforts. I examine these “details,” which at first glance appear in excess of Sasam narratives, in order to challenge the masculinism and temporally restricted nature of Sasam testimony. By looking at how the shadow of Sasam looms over her marriage, I reflect on the gendered dissonance of Minja’s testimony and what it begins to disclose about the everydayness of Sasam. Her late husband, who died of alcoholism, lost his parents in the “Sasam Incident” (her words). When describing him as “living with drink,” she weeps. In her account, her husband would shout at her, “Have you lived my life? Do you know my feelings?” Thousands of times a day[vii] to the point where she got fed up, he reminded her that his parents and family had been killed. Even though Minja had herself witnessed her own father and others being massacred, her husband insisted that she could never fully understand his feelings. She says that sometimes he dreamed of his parents walking hand in hand and living comfortably with his younger siblings. He resented the fact that his parents had left him alone and uncared for. Seeking to jar him to his senses, Minja would say, “It was just a dream, not a reality.”
Her husband did not beat Minja, but he did hurl objects at her when he got drunk. At night, she often left her house thinking he would not be able to throw things at her if she went out. She wandered around her neighborhood wondering what kind of “fortune” (sarcastically meaning curse) had befallen her when she was out in the cold while everyone else was sleeping happily inside. She says no one really knew what she was going through, not even her neighbors. When the wife of her husband’s younger brother advised her to be at home instead and generously offer her husband understanding, Minja replied, “You would only understand it if you went through it. You are probably not bothered as much as I am.” Indeed, the troubles caused by her husband’s drunkenness only affected her, not other members of the family who did not live in the same house with him. Minja states her hardships cannot be fully expressed, and she managed to survive the suffering of her marriage by thinking, “Just this once, just this once,” over and over again billions of times.[viii]
Minja also mentions that although she attends the official commemoration ceremony at the Jeju 4.3 Memorial Park every year, she silently wonders what the purpose of this ritual is and whom it serves. She asks, “Not a year or two but a few decades have passed after Sasam and what is the need for this? … What need is there for the ceremony after all these decades have passed while ancestral rituals have been held at home?” She says, “I do not know if the purpose of the ceremony is about the restoration of honor or something. … Would the souls of those lost in Sasam even visit the ceremony?”
Minja’s personal story both comports with and departs from the ways in which Sasam has been commemorated. She does not use the word “massacre” to describe the ruthless killings carried out by government forces. Although she uses the term “incident” when mentioning the death of her husband’s parents, she does not use it in the temporally demarcated way that it is deployed by the official investigation report because her husband’s suffering manifested in distorting effects on her everyday life. Moreover, although she endured painful moments by thinking “Just this once” as a way of overcoming hardship, the recurrence of such moments effectively signaled the continuation of her suffering. In this regard, Minja’s experience of Sasam corresponds to “inordinate knowledge” (Cavell, 2010), knowledge that is not “mere or bare or pale” but is extravagant in its weight, interwoven with destruction, and embedded and secreted in our ordinary reality (Das, forthcoming). Amplified by her husband’s suffering, Minja’s knowledge of Sasam, while painful in all its aspects, is borderless like liquid and diffused in her life. It is an all-encompassing experience, blurring boundaries between the past and the present, and her body and the world where she lives.
The masculinization of Sasam history and memory, I contend, contributes to the marginalization of Minja’s experience. Minja’s husband asked for his own pain to be acknowledged without recognizing her tragedy. The responses of the wife of her husband’s brother only forced Minja to fulfill her role in an agnatic kinship structure by demanding her limitless tolerance for the torment her husband inflicted on her. The bureaucratic and formal memorial ceremony at the Jeju 4.3 Memorial Park, organized by the South Korean government, does not fully console her pain either because it does not capture her intimate relations to the souls of the deceased in her family. Minja’s life is filled with boundless “echoes of suffering” amplified by the imprints of the violence in her everyday life (Han 2012; Rechtman 2017).[ix]
It is important, at the same time, to acknowledge that Minja’s accounts are not a mere expression of passive oppression but entail the agency of a woman who marks a place in the record for her voice to be heard (Das, 2007). In an interview with the Hankyoreh (Heo, 2018), Park Chan-sik,[x] the chair of the Pan-Korean Committee, argued that “[t]here’s a sense in which we’ve been trapped in a frame of victimization and mass murder by state violence since [the] Apr[il] 3 Incident was institutionalized with the legislation of the Special Act. The people of Jeju at the time were not merely victims or the oppressed, but had historical agency.” Here, Park marks the agency of the islanders by highlighting their participation in the resistance against the U.S. military occupation and the division of the two Koreas. While such resistance narratives are worth noting, it should not be overlooked that women on Jeju Island rebuilt the villages destroyed by mass violence (Kim et al 2001; Kim, E. 2017), and comforted the afflicted spirits through rituals (Kim 2013). In Minja’s case, she makes her everyday life inhabitable through a gendered philosophy of survival that stems from the violence of Sasam while enabling her to resist its obliteration: “just this once.”
Traces of Sasam like these sharpen our recognition of the existence of violence that permeates the everyday life of Jeju islanders, prompting us to ask, in searching ways, what it means to live under the shadow of this past atrocity.
Youjoung (Yuna) KIM is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. She was born on Jeju Island and grew up in a family whose kinship is marked by the violence of Jeju 4.3. Before undertaking her doctoral studies, she worked as a researcher and a coordinator at Jeju 4.3 Research Institute and participated as a research assistant in a collaborative project, Political Apologies Across Cultures, conducted by Tilburg University, the Netherlands. For her research project, she is interested in how the violence of Jeju 4.3 is ingrained in the everyday life of the survivors and their descendants. Her research also explores the ways in which the U.S. military occupation took place on Jeju Island and how the violence is indexed in the U.S military archives.
This article was developed from a section of a presentation paper for the workshop, “Kinship, Gender, and the State in the Shadow of War: The Korean War in Comparative Perspective” at Johns Hopkins University in February 2020. I thank Clara Han for convening the workshop. This article benefited from the detailed comments by Christine Hong ─ I owe her gratitude for her insight and intellectual engagement.
Note: I use the McCune-Reischauer system for Korean terms except the words with conventional spellings in English. Names are given in Korean order with the surname first unless the person’s name has been reproduced in Western order in an English-language publication.
[i] I only use the numbers, 4.3, when referring to the name of an organization or the corresponding law, or when directly quoting phrases, “Jeju 4.3,” from other sources.
[ii] According to the Jeju 4.3 Incident Investigation Report (Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation, 2014:50), “Jeju 4.3 Incident” is the official title designated by the Special Law for this period, which defines it as “a disturbance which occurred on March 1, 1947, and developed on April 3, 1948, and as a following, armed conflict and suppression until September 21, 1954, during which many Jeju citizens were killed.” The original report was signed by the Prime Minister in 2003 and translated into English by the Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation in 2014.
[iii] For further discussion on the contested name of Jeju 4.3, see Park, Chan-sik. 2007. “The Public Recognition and Description on Jeju 4.3” (4.3의 公的 인식 및 서술의 변천), Journal of Korean Modern and Contemporary History (한국근대사연구), Vol. 41, p.170-197.
[iv] Jeju language is designated as “critically endangered language” by UNESCO in 2010. While there is an ongoing debate on whether it should be classified as a language or a dialect, I choose to use Jeju language as it is written in the volume that contains Minja’s testimony. For more discussions on the politics of the naming, please see Cho, Taerin. 2014. “Jeju language and Jeju dialect, political linguistics of naming” (제주어와 제주방언, 이름의 정치언어학), The Korean Language and Literature (한국어문학회), 126 (December), p. 117-35.
[v] The testimony indicates Minja’s father went “behind” and hid (U-li a-pŏ-chi-to twi-e ka-sŏ sum-ŏs-tang, 우리 아버지도 뒤에 가서 숨엇당). I checked with one of the interviewers who stated that Minja’s father got caught when he was hiding behind the house. I thank Kim Eunhee for her confirmation.
[vi] In Minja’s village, Seonheul (선흘), about 200 residents were killed by the government forces in late November 1948.
[vii] Minja’s words: “Ha-ru-e-do su-ch’ŏn pŏn-ssik” (하루에도 수천 번씩)
[viii] Minja’s words: “Na-ga I-bŏn-man I-bŏn-man Hŏ-on ke ŏng-man pŏn-ŭn nŏm-ŏ-su-ta” (나가 이번만 이번만 헌 게 억만 번은 넘어수다)
[ix] I would like to note that I am not approaching Minja’s experience of Sasam according to a trauma model of repressed memory. Rather, I have attempted to trace the imprints of violence in Minja’s social life, especially in her kin relations. Her experiences of Sasam embedded in her everyday life are not remnants of traumatic memories that can be handed down intergenerationally. For critiques of the trauma-based models in the context of the Korean War, please see Han, Clara. 2020. Seeing Like a Child: Inheriting the Korean War. New York: Fordham University Press. and Baik, Crystal Mun-hye. 2019. Reencounters: On the Korean War and Diasporic Memory Critique. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. For more discussion of the examination of kinship, marked by the Korean War, please see Kwon, Heonik. 2020. After the Korean War: An Intimate History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
[x] The chair of the Pan-Korean Committee cited here should not be confused with the person with the same name mentioned earlier.