Kim Wan Mae is 95 years old, but she hasn't forgotten a tragic episode in her past--and South Korea's. In the thick dialect of Cheju, an island 85 kilometers south of the Korean mainland where she lives, Kim recalls the day when police stormed Pukchon village to root out communists. They came in 1949, she explains, nearly a year after South Korean authorities launched a bloody counterinsurgency against leftists on the island. Backed by right-wing gangs, South Korean police and soldiers torched homes, rounded up hundreds of suspected leftists and herded them into a field. All day, the invaders executed their captives--shooting about 480 men, women and children in what's now a small garlic patch. Kim escaped the firing squads by huddling in a schoolyard with the families of police and soldiers--the only locals spared. Survivors slept in a rice mill before returning the next morning to search for relatives. Kim lost both parents, her husband and a brother in the slaughter. "I saw the bodies," she says, squinting back tears. "One baby was still nursing at its dead mother's breast."
Today, Cheju is South Korea's top honeymoon destination. It boasts mild weather, delicious seafood and gorgeous beaches. But it was once a killing field. Beginning on April 3, 1948, South Korean authorities waged a scorched-earth campaign against the communist guerrillas--roughly 400 fighters armed with antique rifles and bamboo spears. Over the next year, the soldiers burned hundreds of "red villages" and raped and tortured countless islanders, eventually killing as many as 60,000 people--one fifth of Cheju's population. They committed these atrocities in plain view of the highest authority then in southern Korea--the U.S. military, which had occupied the peninsula south of the 38th parallel following the World War II defeat of Japan. The Americans documented the brutality, but never intervened.
Historians are just beginning to unearth Cheju's bloody secrets, which several South Korean regimes labored to cover up. Just eight years ago, President Roh Tae Woo's government sealed up a cave on Mount Halla where the remains of massacre victims had been discovered. Now that democracy has taken root in Seoul, the island's story is being told. Newly declassified documents from the U.S. National Archive, and oral histories compiled from witnesses and survivors on Cheju, paint an unsavory picture of the prewar Seoul regime. The evidence supports a new interpretation of the Korean War--that hostilities actually started well before Pyongyang's armies blitzed southward on June 25, 1950. "Americans remember it as a lightning bolt in the morning, like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor," says University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings, a leading authority on the war's origins. "In fact, the war began as a civil conflict in 1945--and still hasn't ended."
Cheju got caught in the vise of cold-war paranoia. Japan had abandoned its Korean colony in August 1945. By prior agreement, Soviet forces occupied the peninsula above the 38th parallel, Americans below. When the foreign armies arrived, they found left-wing people's committees active in most areas. Moscow and Washington were supposed to prepare Korea for national elections, to choose a united government. But as the cold war intensified, Korea polarized. A pro-Soviet regime emerged in the north, and in the south a U.S.-backed political group took control. Above the de facto border, communists loyal to Kim Il Sung persecuted Christians, rightists and Japanese collaborators. Below, conservative leader Syngman Rhee courted the same groups to consolidate power against the South Korean Labor Party, or SKLP. Rhee's machinations triggering several localized uprisings--the largest on Cheju. By late 1947, an estimated 80 percent of Cheju islanders were SKLP members or loyalists. As the American occupation commander, Gen. John R. Hodge, put it, Cheju was "a truly communal area peacefully controlled by the [local] people's committee."
It didn't last. To bolster his influence, Rhee sent police, soldiers and gangsters from the mainland. The most-feared newcomers were refugees from North Korea who constituted a paramilitary gang called the Northwest Youth. They were "hoodlums, criminals and thugs" recalls Lee Woon Bang, a former labor-party organizer. When Washington abandoned its commitment to organize all-Korea elections and instead announced a plan to hold balloting for a separate regime in the south, Cheju erupted. Labor-party leaders staged massive rallies to demand reunification. The police reacted, killing six protesters. Locals then formed a "people's army" and took to the hills. On April 3, 1948, rebels attacked police stations and government offices, killing an estimated 50 police. "A cycle of terror and counterterror soon developed," wrote Korean specialist John Merrill in a groundbreaking 1980 account of the uprising. "Police and rightists brutalized the islanders, who retaliated the best the could."
Villagers across the island were trapped in the middle. At Dongkwang, on Cheju's southern highlands, soldiers came to kill and burn because locals had reportedly fed area rebels. Kim Yeo Soo, now 71, fled with his family to a secret cave in the mountain. He recently returned to the hideout for only the third time since the war, searching for 15 minutes before locating its tiny entrance amid scattered boulders and scrub. "We lived here for two months," he says, pointing into a hidden fissure. "When the police found us we had to move." As they fled, his father was shot; he died two weeks later. Soldiers killed his brother in mid-1949. "If I had been caught, I would have been killed, too," Kim says. Below the cave, a small marble tablet under a banyan tree honors massacre victims as "pure and honest people" and blames government forces for reducing the hamlet to "a place of killing, tragedy and sad ghosts."
Cheju islanders say every family has relatives who died during the fighting. At Tosan, Kim Yang Hak was just 8 years old when he lost his brother. It happened on the night of Dec. 14, 1948, when soldiers arrived by moonlight and gathered villagers together. They took away about 150 young men, and then "picked out about 20 pretty girls," Kim says. According to witnesses, the men were moved to a beach and executed four days later. Soldiers allegedly gang-raped the girls over a two-week period, then killed them. Kim's family retrieved their son's body from the beach and arranged a posthumous marriage for him and one of the murdered girls. "Both families buried them together and read eulogies for their souls," Kim remembers.
Captured rebels endured brutal treatment. Kim Min Ju, 68, was caught after nearly starving to death on Mount Halla. "They attached electrodes on both my thumbs and ran the current until I fainted," remembers Kim, now a restaurant owner in Sakura, Japan. "They kept demanding that we identify our leaders, but I was too young to know anything." When he joined the SKLP-backed rebellion, it had been a popular movement, he says. But a year later, as guards moved him and other rebels to a ship bound for mainland Korea, he learned that local attitudes had changed. "People spit and threw stones at us," he recalls. "These were the same islanders who had previously encouraged us and given us rice."
Cheju was largely pacified by the time Pyongyang launched its June 25 invasion. By one estimate, 70 percent of the island's villages had been burned, and more than 60,000 refugees clogged coastal towns. Immediately following the North's attack, however, the South Korean military ordered "preemptive apprehension" of suspected leftists nationwide. Thousands were detained on Cheju, then sorted into four groups, labeled A, B, C and D, based on the perceived security risks each posed. On Aug. 30, according to a written order obtained by NEWSWEEK, a senior intelligence officer in the South Korean Navy instructed Cheju's police to "execute all those in groups C and D by firing squad no later than September 6." "People say President Rhee planned to flee to Cheju just like Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan," says Yang Shin Ha, a 63-year-old resident of the town of Mosulpo, whose brother was killed after the order was given. "Rhee needed to clear the place out."
Local historians estimate that about 2,500 islanders were executed in subsequent weeks. Yang Yeo Ha's brother's was another victim. "He went to the police station as ordered," she says, "and when someone called another name similar to his, he answered." The mistake cost him his life. Yang, who is 73 and was a farmer, walks in a chilly drizzle to the spot where her brother is buried in a shallow mass grave--the largest yet discovered on Cheju--located at the eastern edge of the international airport. Like many survivors, Yang is reluctant to tell her story. In fact, the family only reported the grave's location last year, although they had known of it since shortly after the executions. "What's the need?" she asks. "Would it make him alive again?"
Cheju's suffering didn't end after the Korean War. Successive military governments made the island a symbol of Seoul's vigilance against the North. Under strongman Park Chung Hee, giant characters blaring defeat communism were hung high on Mount Halla. For decades, the secret police coerced survivors to remain silent. Tourists were told nothing about the island's tragic history. "There are so many massacres [in Korea] to reevaluate, and Cheju is the largest," says Park Chan Sik, a lecturer at Cheju University.
Not everyone wants it opened. Retired general Chae Myong Shin, who served as a young officer on Cheju for five months in 1948, calls what transpired there "very sensitive" and "ideological." In his recollection, "brutality came from both sides. If there were communists in a village, it's possible their families were retaliated against. That's because families of police were also being sacrificed."
Seoul is exploring ways to make amends. Last week, under special legislation enacted by the South Korean Parliament, hundreds of government offices on the island began accepting wrongful-death claims from citizens. The goal: establish an accurate death toll as a possible first step toward family compensation. "Things are being done too slowly," complains Cho Jung Pae, 65, whose father was among those executed at Mosulpo in 1950. "The government needs to comfort survivors, restore our honor and cure our mental injuries." Nearby, a bulldozer levels the ground at a new memorial honoring his father and other executed prisoners. Now, perhaps, they can finally rest in peace.