The 1948 Cheju-do Civil War

Wolcott Wheeler

Some crimes are too terrible to be forgotten. From August 21 to 25, the Cheju April 3 50th Anniversary Pan-National Committee sponsored an international scholarly symposium at the Cheju Youth Hostel in Cheju City on the South Korean island of Cheju-do. The keynote speaker was Dr. José Ramos Horta, the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize laureate from East Timor.

As a whole the conference focused on Cold War human rights abuses in South Korea, Taiwan, and Okinawa that were backed or perpetrated by the U.S. government. But the main object of the conference was to bring world attention to one of the darkest yet least-known chapters of postwar Asian history-the horrific genocide of 30,000 innocent civilians on Cheju-do between 1948 and 1949. In the space of one year, fully ten percent of the island's total population of 300,000 was massacred- literal Roman decimation. Privately the governor of Cheju told American intelligence at the time that 60,000 were killed.

This mass murder, in the guise of an anti-Communist civil war, was undertaken by the South Korean army, the Cheju-do police, and the U.S. military, which directed the counterinsurgency operation, providing military advisers, naval and air support, and U.S. ground troops. Prof. Bruce Cumings of the University of Chicago, America's foremost authority on contemporary Korea, is the scholar in the United States who has been trying to notify the American public about the 1948 genocide in Cheju-do. In 1990 he wrote in Volume II of The Origins of the Korean War, published by Princeton University Press:

"Other evidence demonstrated active American involvement in attempting to suppress the rebellion: daily tutoring of counterinsurgent forces, interrogating prisoners, and using American spotter planes to ferret out guerrillas. One newspaper reported that American troops interceded in the Cheju conflict at least one instance in late April [1948], and a group of Korean journalists charged in June that Japanese officers and soldiers had secretly been brought back to the island to help in suppressing the rebellion."

The last assertion is shocking indeed, and represents an obvious violation of Article Nine of the Japanese Constitution.

What triggered off this bloodbath?

Following the end of World War Two, Cheju-do, like much of South Korea, was governed by democratic people's committees. In October 1947, General Hodge, the U.S. Occupation commander, informed a group of visiting American Congressmen that Cheju-do was "a truly communal area that is peacefully controlled by the People's Committee without much Comintern influence."

All was quiet on the island until March 1, 1947, when police fired into a crowd of nonviolent demonstrators who were celebrating the anniversary of the Korean people's 1919 mass demonstrations against the Japanese occupation. Six people were killed, many wounded, and a general strike resulted.

At the time Cheju-do's Governor was Hae-jin Yu, a mainlander noted for his contempt for the local islanders and their growing postwar political independence; the U.S. Army Counter-Intelligence Corps (CIC) described him as an "extreme rightist" who was "ruthless and dictatorial in his dealing with opposing political parties."

He called on South Korean dictator Syngman Rhee to send in cadres of the Northwest Youth Group, an extreme right-wing paramilitary vigilante organization comprised of refugees from the North with a vendetta against Communism, who began an increasingly brutal and arbitrary campaign of repression and intimidation against the islanders. In late 1948 the CIC warned the Northwest Youth Group about their "widespread campaign of terrorism" against the island's population.

On March 1, 1948, police arrested 2,500 young people who were protesting the separate elections in South Korea then taking place, designed to cement the partition between North and South Korea. Shortly thereafter, the body of one of these young political prisoners was pulled out of a river; he had been tortured to death. This outrage triggered a widespread insurrection on April 3 that quickly became a full-scale agrarian revolt. Eleven of the island's 24 police stations were attacked, roads and bridges were destroyed, and telephone lines were cut.

This was the jaquerie of a starving peasantry armed with little more than bamboo spears, whose sole demand was for political democracy and a little more rice. In 1948 unauthorized grain collections were five times 1947 levels. After landlords took 30% of the peasants' produce, an additional 48 to 70% was seized as government taxes or "contributions" to local officials. This was a society so poor that wooden shovels were used, because iron was so scarce.

The repressive right-wing government of South Korea, ruled by Syngman Rhee, responded by fielding an all-out scorched-earth war of attrition against the peasant rebellion. Enlisting the aid of the U.S., they made Cheju-do America's first military intervention in postwar Asia, our first Vietnam. The counterinsurgency tactics employed were strikingly similar to those used in Vietnam. As a body, the peasantry, the guerrilla's' support base, was pulled out of the highlands surrounding Mount Hallasan in the center of the island, and in a move worthy of Vietnam's "Mad Dog" Samuel Huntington, placed in "strategic hamlets" (i.e., concentration/resettlement camps) along the coast.

Survivors' accounts are unrelenting in their horror. According to testimony collected by Kim Chong Min, a reporter for the Cheju People's Daily, victims were stripped naked in public squares and forced to have sex, after which they were executed. Soldiers and Northwest Youth gangs forced young men to have sex with their mothers-in-law before their execution. Family members of those about to be executed were forced to watch the killing and clap their hands and shout "man-se" (Korean for "Hurray!").

Villagers were herded into open fields to watch "bucking" and "slapping" games where young women were forced to ride on their fathers-in-law, who were made to crawl on their hands and knees; young men were forced to slap their grandfathers, and vice versa. The villagers of Suh-hung-ri witnessed a woman forced to carry her son's severed head. In November 1993, the people of Buk-chon-ri published a list of their dead. Of the 412 killed, 409 were executed by the military without trial. Verified reports of massacred villages abound.

By official count, 39,285 homes were destroyed. Of the island's 400 villages, only 170 remained at the end of the war, meaning half of Cheju-do's villages were wiped out. An estimated 40,000 islanders fled to Japan, where many settled in Osaka. The refugee community there keeps the memory of this evil, grisly war alive.

"Killing this many civilians in wartime is a major war crime," Jung Hae Gu of the Korean Politics Research Institute wrote. "Killing this many innocent civilians in peacetime is an unforgivable crime against humanity."

In a paper Prof. Cumings presented in Tokyo this year on March 14 entitled "The Question of American Responsibility for the Suppression of the Cheju-do Uprising," he wrote, "By the end of 1949, 300 of the Northwest Youth had joined the island police, and 200 were in business or local government: 'the majority have become rich and are the favored merchants.'"

One wonders how much of the island's wealth and power remains in bloodstained hands. Much gore must underlie those sprawling manicured golf courses and luxury resort hotels that are being used now to attract the international tourist trade.

When I visited the island in May 1996 on a research trip, all the islanders I questioned denied any knowledge of a war on the island, except the Curator of the Cheju Provincial Folklore and Natural History Museum, Mr. Dong Seop Kim, who photocopied a U.S. military intelligence report in Korean on the Cheju-do insurgency for me. It was akin to visiting Okinawa and having everyone say, "No, the Americans were never here in 1945."

I learned of the Cheju-do genocide by accident, while watching the superb TV documentary Korea: The Unknown War, co-authored by Bruce Cumings and jointly produced by the BBC and PBS, which aired on the eve of the Gulf War in February 1990, and the story has haunted me ever since. For informing me of the August 21-25 symposium, I must thank Mr. O-kyun Kwon, a South Korean friend of mine who is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the City University of New York, who shares my interest in the Cheju-do story.

The Cheju April 3 50th Anniversary Pan-National Committee is to be greatly congratulated for striving to make this story better known to the world at large, and it is hoped that with the death of the Cold War, we will recognize that many unforgivable acts were committed in the name of anti-Communism around the world.

With the new openness of the current reformist regime in South Korea, many of the brutal political crimes committed by Syngman Rhee and his followers, with the blessing and support of the United States, are coming to light, of which the Cheju-do holocaust is the most shocking. It is wonderful that these atrocities are finally being exposed.

But the question remains: will any of the surviving officials in South Korea, Cheju-do, and the United States responsible for these abominations ever be brought to justice, or will the murders of those 30,000 innocent people on the sunny, tragic island of Cheju-do between 1948 and 1949 forever go unpunished?


A Princeton graduate and former screenwriter for Columbia Pictures, Wolcott Wheeler specializes in the secret history of postwar Asia. He has written on Asian matters for The Japan Times, OCS News, and the Yomiuri America, as well as academic journals.

A resident of New York City, he is currently researching a work of fiction about the 1948 Cheju-do civil war. A Japanese translation of this article appeared in the November 6, 1998 issue of OCS News, America's largest Japanese-language publication. You can contact Mr. Wheeler at wwheeler@greenpoint.com.


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