The Korea Times
Dismembered under Taegukgi
On the sunny plains of southern Jeju Island sits a graveyard enclosed by a loosely stacked fence of black volcanic stones. The grave mounds, about 100 in all, are unmarked save for a stone obelisk bearing the Korean flag, the Taegukgi.
The graves are unnamed not because we don’t know who was buried here, but because upon death they were dismembered and it was impossible to match the body parts, six years later when their families were finally able to retrieve the bodies.
Inspired by places like this, last June a flurry of “clickbait listicles” hit the Korean expat blogosphere, encouraging ghost tourism to Jeju.
Under titles such as, “These are South Korea’s 8 Most Haunted Locations,” “Spooky Korea: 10 Haunted Places to Chill Your Bones” and “13 Spookiest Places In Korea That Will Give You
The Creeps,” they listed Jeju Island alongside an abandoned mental hospital, Yeonpyeong Island which North Korea shelled in 2010, and Lotte World’s “Ghost House.” They cite the Jeju April 3 Uprising and Massacre (4.3 or “Sa-sam”), which began April 3, 1948, lasting through the 1950-53 Korean War until Sept. 21, 1954.
“The result, terrifying ghosts are said to haunt this popular vacation spot,” writes one of these shameless sites.
“With such history, it is not a surprise that the townspeople claim to witness hundreds of ghost sightings referring to the anguished past that this island has suffered,” wrote another, asking: “With mul gwisin (water ghost) roaming around in the beautiful sea of Jeju, are you brave enough to take a dip in the sea? Or visit Hallasan mountain caves where massacred bodies were discovered?”
But Jeju Island is not “one of the spookiest places in Korea,” and 4.3 is not just some ghost story.
That mass graveyard, Baekjoilsonjiji (the graveyard of 100 ancestors), holds the remains of 132 villagers killed Aug. 20, 1950, in the name of “preventive detention,” accused of being communists. Some massacre victims may have been, while most merely opposed Korea’s division, and the killings also targeted women and children.
Their deaths were at the hands of forces aligned with what we typically consider the “good guys” of the Korean War. Korea following liberation from Japan was a chaotic place, and similar massacres were carried out by both sides on the peninsula up until and during the war. But Jeju is another story, where 30,000 people, or 10 percent of Jeju’s population, are estimated to have been subject to this genocide.
Those who survived had to stay silent, lest they too be branded as “reds.” Many survivors went on to fight for the South in the Korean War, anxious to prove their loyalty.
Following the short-lived April Revolution of 1960, a statue was built at Baekjoilsonjiji. But after Park Chung-hee’s military junta seized power on May 16, 1961, the statue was dismembered. It now sits in pieces inside a clear case at the graveyard. To this day, the Taegukgi is visible at every site, monument and stage related to the 4.3 victims, signaling these were good South Korean citizens who deserve the acceptance and mercy of the state.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of this horrific incident. Yet today, the events of 4.3 are all but forgotten, and mere acknowledgment is still often considered controversial.
A few survivors remain, having endured decades of neglect and silence. Jin A-young stood as a symbol of survivors who were silenced, as her chin had been shot off leaving her deformed and in pain until her death in 2004.
Go Wan-soon, now 80, still recalls having survived mass executions by machine guns that killed most of her village. Her still loud voice fills an auditorium without the assistance of a microphone, and she says this is the best time of her life now that she can speak out, before recounting the horrors she faced at age nine. Sometimes the survivors can see ghosts as a result of post-traumatic stress.
When I first heard about Jeju Dark Tours offering tours to massacre sites, I was initially apprehensive, recalling last year’s clickbait articles. Dark tourism often can be exploitative, just like poverty tourism and disaster tourism.
But this nonprofit NGO is here to spread the word with government backing and the help of related civic groups. It has welcomed reporters and others from all around the world to visit the sites and pass on a message from the past, one that is not just for modern-day Koreans but for all of humanity.
Now, 70 years later, as the last remaining living memories of the April 3 massacre are finally coming out, how will we remember?