Massacre in Cheju Island revisited
– on legislation of “Cheju Incident of 3 April and Rehabilitation of Victims Law”
by Huh, Sang-su
An important enactment
Among some of the important legislation on human rights passed in the National Assembly last year stood the “Cheju Incident of 3 April and Rehabilitation of Victims Law” and the “Special Act on the Investigation of the Suspicious Death”. These laws were signed by the President and came into effect in April 2000.
Fifty two citizens who were pivotal in putting the six reform bills on the book attended the ceremony for the presidential signature. President Kim Dae-jung praised the legislation as a “monument to democratization” in a country which extends full guarantees of human justice, conscience, and human rights towards all its citizens. He also stressed that the laws should be respected in order for the objective of the legislation to be materialized. Needless to say, the bills had been approved by non-partisan support of the parliamentarians.
It can now be safely said that some important legal foundation has been laid for the establishment of truth with regard to civilian massacre and suspicious deaths under past dictatorial regimes. This is what many civic organizations, including human rights groups, have long called for. As some say “a road to truth and rehabilitation” has finally been paved.
The Cheju incident The above “incidents” have a common factor in being “crimes against humanity” as a result of violence of the state authority. In other words, those incidents bore the hallmark of inhuman crimes directly committed by the state. Being such a grave violation of the state obligation, the incidents have long been masked by a wall of silence and official red tape. However, people around the country have campaigned for the resolution of the incidents for over a decade, efforts which were joined by the official pledge of the current presidency to be a “human rights president”.
But the effect of the legislation will be most acutely felt by people in Cheju Island where approximately 30,000 innocent civilians fell victim to the unfounded labelling of them as “reds”, communist sympathizers. The relatives of the victims had had to keep low profile until only a couple of years ago. It is thus hoped that the new law will play a crucial role in building a peaceful island with a forward-looking sense. It must not be forgotten that the legislation is an outcome of a long-standing struggle by countless courageous people, including writers, journalists, religious, and civic leaders, at a time when even to raise such an issue was itself met with severe official reaction and censorship.
The incident of 3 April in 1948 was first and foremost a people’s move to reject division of the peninsula after World War Two. The island population refused to accept the view that outside forces were to interfere with the internal affairs of the newly liberated country. The state authority responded by using the ultimate form of violence to trample the people’s will. Moreover, the incident has been used as an example of the cost necessary in order to build a nation from scratch. But the legislation has laid those cold-war interpretations to rest once and for all. Now at least we are now on a platform from which to re-examine the incident on a fair and unbiased basis.
The 3 April incident has many dimensions: at the first it started as the people’s self-defence against the terrorism of right-wing activists which was followed by an armed uprising of a political faction of the native islanders. It is in this context that indiscriminate killings of innocent civilians took place. The island dwellers had opposed the proposal of unilateral general elections for the independence, not just on the basis of a left-wing stance, but of the general national sentiment of the times. The conflict between the militia and the government forces were magnified by an ensuing armed struggle.
The then Syng-Man Rhee regime used a now defunct colonial edict of public order to counter the uprising of the people’s militia. The proclamation of military rule on the island lacked any sense of legitimacy. On the whole the size and intensity of the militia operation were greatly exaggerated, to the extent that the principle of the rule of law was suspended outright on the island. A peace initiative was refused by the government, which opened the floodgates to arson and massacre. The authorities did not even bother to diminish the militia forces by conducting pre-assault measures such as launching psychological warfare. The result was a total dehumanization of the incident which included not only the victims and their relatives, but also the ground troops deployed. The survivors of the assault forces still suffer from extreme guilt and horror.
The whole process of healing the historical wounds, one form of which could be a rewriting of the textbook of Cold War period, must start by acknowledging that the vast majority of victims were innocent civilians. Only through this will the value of plurality and openness come true in this democratic era. Again, the effort to uncover the truth should be given a priority, by taking into account the objective assessment of the socio-political atmosphere of Cheju Island just after the Liberation, the activities of the “South Korean Workers Party”, and the grossly excessive response to unrest stirred by a minor political element.
As Johan Galtung, the eminent scholar on peace, said, the first step toward peace building must be the establishment of the truth. Without it the whole process of reconciliation runs the risk of falling foul to an inadvertant lack of substance. This carries more importance than merely adding to the healing process. Given the historical distortion that the division of the peninsula has brought to the political landscape of the nation, to find a real cause of conflict in modern Korea will be an extremely fruitful exercise for the rectification of the national psyche.
A few considerations
Then, how can we find “the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” of this tragic incident? The political environment for this historical cross-word puzzle is becoming favorable for truth seekers. For example, the truth behind the Kwangju Massacre has only come to light since the 1990s, to say nothing of the recent revelation of the civilian massacre in Nokun-ri by American forces during the Korean War.
The first step for the truth will be to hold the US government accountable for the series of incidents during the period of 1947 to 1948. This should include the making public the material containing the Cheju incident, which is still classified. Stephen W. Bosworth, the American ambassador to Seoul, referring to the incident for the first time as American official, told a press conference in December 1999 that his country had no responsibility for the incident. But as the historian Bruce Cummings indicates, America was directly and indirectly responsible for the whole repressive measures against Korean people during the three years after the Liberation. It is now being considered whether the case could be brought to an American court.
Second, the new statute refers to the word “victim” in a narrow sense, which only denotes those who fall victims of one kind of natural disaster or another. This prohibits the victims from seeking official reparation from the government. It remains to be seen whether this discrepancy can be corrected in the implementation process of the law.
Third, the law, although laudable in itself, does not provide for any concrete reparation or compensation mechanism. The government may have taken into consideration the burden that such a reparation would ultimately carry, the difficulty of establishing a legal procedure for selecting the reparee and, finally the financial implications of such a move.
Lastly, there is no provision whatsoever for punishment of the perpetrators or the deprivation of official prizes in relation to the “successful operation” on the island from the government’s perspective at the time. The identification of the perpetrators cannot be waived, since without that the whole talk of truth finding will make a mockery of justice.
There were two missions for the Korean people in the 20th century. One was to have national independence, and another to see democracy fully enjoyed by the people. Therefore, the enactment of the above laws should be used in order to further the matching aims of the nation. In this respect the law on Cheju Island is a small experiment towards overcoming the nation’s division and achieving national unity. That said, the present piece of stature will no doubt be a stepping stone to peace, human rights, and mutual prosperity. For that to come, the National Security Law, which in itself was a hasty response to the post-liberation political turmoil, should be abolished as soon as possible. The progressive demolition of the legal monument of the Cold War monument will eventually harness the potential of the nation to live through the harsh realities of international competition. It is hoped that the re-integration of the divided nation and the coexistence of the divided people will be facilitated by this small but significant piece of legislation. For this, escalated and concerted efforts of the civic movements are very much required to monitor the strict implementation of the law. The further revision of the act, if necessary, will have to be considered and actively called upon by all concerned activists throughout the country.
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