Biden should visit South Korea’s Jeju April 3rd Peace Park

Associated Press/Ahn Young-joon
Visitors watch fish on display at Hanwha Aquaplanet on Jeju Island, South Korea, on Nov. 24, 2018. Today the island is a resort but in 1948 it was the site of a horrific massacre of thousands of civilians.

Among the world’s cities that forever will be associated with brutal massacres, one in South Korea remains obscure abroad: Jeju. Sometimes called the “Hawaii of Korea,” Jeju Island long has been a favorite destination for tourists and honeymooners.

But 70 years ago, it was the site of systematic and widespread slaughter of men, women and children by South Korean authorities under the auspices of the U.S. Army Military Government in Korea. The role of the United States adds a layer of complexity and controversy. And the specters of some 30,000 murdered have yet, after seven decades, to rest in peace.

The Jeju Uprising and Massacre is the biggest peacetime killing of civilians in post-1945 Korean history. It started as a small-scale, armed communist uprising on April 3, 1948. The government cracked down swiftly. What began as an operation to quell an uprising expanded into a wholesale vilification of Jeju inhabitants as “commies” and indiscriminate killings of civilians. The killings lasted for six years and included more than 800 children under age 10 and more than 3,000 women. Government forces burned entire villages. As such, the slaughter warrants study, remembrance and reconciliation.

There is such an opportunity. On April 1, Yoon Suk-Yeol, South Korea’s president-elect who takes office on May 10, became the first leader — either president-elect or president — from the conservative party to visit the Jeju April 3 Peace Park, a memorial park and museum that honors confirmed victims and tens of thousands who are unaccounted for. In the solemnity of the vast rows and columns of unnamed tombstones one can feel the weight of history and silenced agony.

On April 3, the 74th anniversary of the uprising, Yoon returned to the Peace Park. He said that his administration will do its best to heal the deep pain of survivors, build a better future together, and defend the values of peace and human rights. It’s a welcome development. To date, sustained denialism in South Korea and silence in the United States have blocked the path toward full truth and reconciliation.

Successive South Korean governments have enforced censorship and discriminated against the victims’ families. The United States, which, at the time of the outbreak had both de jure and de facto operational control over South Korea’s constabulary and the police, was complicit. Even after the formal establishment of the Republic of Korea on Aug. 15, 1948, the U.S. exercised de facto control over South Korea’s instruments of force until June 1949. During the most intense period of the killings and torture, October 1948 to March 1949, the U.S. Army Government in Korea (USAMGIK) ignored the widespread arbitrary killings, disappearance of persons, torture, and extensive destruction of property on Jeju Island.

Even today, many South Koreans remain in denial. In their eyes, South Korea’s first president, Syngman Rhee, could do no wrong. To them, Rhee was the founding father who withstood North Korea’s invasion in 1950 and won from the U.S. a defense treaty in 1953. And the armed rebels and communist sympathizers in Jeju deserved their fate, they say. 

Rhee, American-educated and anti-communist, was forced to step down in a nationwide student uprising after 12 years in power. His legacy, therefore, is that of the failure of democracy. As for his leadership in the Korean War, without the aid of the United States and the other 15 nations under the banner of the United Nations, Rhee’s Korea would have become the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, united and despotic under Kim Il Sung. In fact, in fleeing Seoul in the first days of the North’s invasion, Rhee had the Han River Bridge, the only road bridge across the river, blown up, thus abandoning fellow citizens north of the river.

That Rhee half-bullied and half-cajoled the U.S. into signing a defense treaty with South Korea is an achievement. But his role in the Jeju Massacre — which today would fall under crimes against humanity and possibly even genocide — clouds his legacy.  

This week, Yoon’s foreign policy special envoys, led by a former lawmaker and a former vice foreign minister, are meeting with American counterparts in Washington. Discussions on North Korea’s growing nuclear threat will top the agenda. But there’s also a chance for a quantum leap in public diplomacy. The South Koreans should inform President Biden of the Jeju Massacre and Yoon’s two recent visits to the Peace Park. They should suggest that Biden, on his next visit to South Korea, pay respects at the Peace Park together with President Yoon.  

In May 2016, when Biden was vice president, President Obama visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Some family members of veterans of World War II objected to the visit, but, together with then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Obama paid homage, saying the world must never forget what happened. “That memory allows us to fight complacency,” he said. “It fuels our moral imagination. It allows us to change.”

Next year marks the 75th anniversary of the Jeju tragedy. If Biden paid his respects to the victims, it would mark the dawn of a different chapter in U.S.-Korea relations. There would be little controversy in America, and South Koreans would embrace a visit to mitigate the deep ideological divide within South Korea. Further, history would judge that visit as moral, good and just.

Congress could follow suit. In 1908, Congress passed a bill allocating approximately half of the $25 million the U.S. had exacted from Qing China for the Boxer Uprising of 1899 and 1900. A multilateral coalition of nations, including the United States, sent troops into China to quell an armed xenophobic uprising directed against foreigners. China, in defeat, was forced to pay an indemnity of more than $330 million.

By making millions of dollars available for Chinese students to study in the United States, the U.S. stood on the right side of history. Likewise, if Congress were to pass a bill allocating funds to be made available to family members of Jeju Massacre victims who wish to study in the United States, the act would be remembered in perpetuity as good, moral and just.

As the world watches Russia’s sickening war crimes in Ukraine, cities such as Bucha, Irpin and Mariupol where civilians have been tortured and killed are becoming household names. Jeju, outside South Korea, has never been granted such recognition.

South Korea and the U.S. have the chance to give Jeju a new symbolic resonance as the island of peace, truth, justice and reconciliation. More than any official statements, an act of humility and respect would show the world that the bilateral alliance is, in fact, ironclad.

Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies and assistant professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, and faculty associate at the U.S.-Japan Program, the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. Follow him on Twitter @SungYoonLee1.

Tags Aftermath of the Korean War Biden Jeju Island Joe Biden Peacebuilding South Korea–United States relations Yoon Suk-yeol

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