Remembering the Jeju Massacre of 1947-49

Also known as the April 3 Incident, the Jeju Massacre is among the most horrific acts of state violence in South Korean history.

Remembering the Jeju Massacre of 1947-49

Photo: April 3 Incident memorial with the names of the victims. Credit: Jeju Peace Foundation.

The Jeju Massacre, or the April 3 Incident 4.3 사건, is among the most horrific acts of state violence in South Korean history. From March 1, 1947 to September 21, 1949, South Korea’s military and police under the Syngman Rhee 이승만 regime massacred as many as 30,000 civilians in the southern island of Jeju-do 제주도, on the suspicion that they were communists or communist sympathizers.

On March 1, 1947, local leftist activists led a strike against the police. To break up the demonstrations, police fired shots into the crowd and killed six civilians including a six year old child, leading to a heightened police and military presence and periodic clashes on the island. On April 3, 1948, some 350 militiamen of the Workers’ Party of South Korea 남조선노동당 attacked 12 of the 24 police stations in Jeju.

In response, the Rhee dictatorship declared martial law on the island and began indiscriminately destroying villages on the island’s mountain ridges, where it believed the communist insurgents were hiding. With the approval of the occupying forces of the United States, Rhee’s military and police destroyed nearly 60% of Jeju’s 400 villages and killed as much as 10% of the entire island’s population.

The South Korean government during the Roh Moo-hyun 노무현 administration tendered an apology for the April 3 Incident in 2003, following an official investigation. April 3 was established as a national day of memorial in 2014, but then-president Park Geun-hye 박근혜, a conservative, did not attend any memorial event.

On February 8, the National Assembly 국회 passed the Special Act on the Truth-finding and Restoration of Victims’ Honor Regarding the Jeju April 3 Incident 제주 4.3 사건 진상규명 및 희생자 명예회복에 관한 특별법, intended to provide a comprehensive response to the atrocity. The Special Act provides for official reparation, PTSD treatment, and a path to overturn any conviction under the military tribunal at the time.

Pursuant to the Special Act, the Jeju District Court 제주지방법원 overturned the conviction of 335 prisoners on March 16; there are 2,162 convictions remaining to be overturned. President Moon Jae-in 문재인 attended the memorial held at the Jeju April 3 Peace Park 제주 4.3 평화공원 along with Defense Minister Seo Uk 서욱 국방부장관 and the National Police Agency Chief Kim Chang-ryong 김창룡 경찰청장, marking the first time that the heads of the military and the police attended the memorial.

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