The Truth about Cheju 4.3:

Chapter 4: The Prime Cause of the Uprising: Part 1

Gen. Kim Ik Ruhl

History books and war records hitherto available cite false or highly speculative causes of the Cheju 4.3 incident. It is often passed off as a mere Communist revolt. There are several reasons why such false or incorrect information has not been corrected and permitted to be passed off as facts by our government.

One of the reasons is the official keepers of the Cheju 4.3 archives are afraid of being exposed as the real offenders, should they open up the archives and let the truth come out. These officials fear retribution if the facts are made public and their misdeeds and crimes are exposed for all to see. Another reason is that some of the key participants have risen to high positions and become powerful political figures.

Yet another reason is the incompetence and cowardice of the Cheju elite. Even though these people know the whole truth, they are afraid to step forward and press for justice for their fellow islanders. They have opted to keep their mouth shut in order to save their skin.

Most of the officers of the 9th Regiment who witnessed the incident, who could have revealed the truth, were killed during the Korean War. Even though I was in command of the 9th Regiment, I was not free to tell the truth until recently when I retired from the army. So I was one of the reasons why the truth has not been told.

According to the intelligence I had at the time of Cheju 4.3, its primary cause was extremely simple and it could have been resolved in a few days. I believed that the uprising could be put down quickly with few casualties and submitted a detail plan of action and intelligence data to Lt. Col. Mansfield, the US military governor of Cheju at the time. Since the American intelligence had similar information, Col. Mansfield approved my plan.

My plan met with initial success and it appeared that the uprising would be over in a few days. But certain events prevented me from completing my plan and the uprising grew into a full-scale "Communist" rebellion and resulted in death of over 30,000 Cheju residents.

At the beginning the US military and I agreed that the primary cause of the uprising was the lawless terrorism of the Northwest Youth League. Their wanton violence against the innocent islanders enraged them into a violent reaction. This tense situation was aggravated by the inept actions by the police who in fact sided with the terrorists, thus feeding more fuel to the inflammation. The uprising had nothing to do with Communism or any other political ideology.

The US military and I agreed that the rebels had no organized means to fight the police force and therefore, our plan was to:

(1) Make the 9th Regiment in charge of the suppression,

(2) Insert the army units between the combatants as a neutral party (the rebels initially did not attack army units), and

(3) Arrest and punish guilty parties after a suitable cooling period. This strategy was approved by the US military.

The strategy was based on the following intelligence data. After Liberation, several millions of our compatriots fled North Korea after suffering months of Communist terror acts. These anti-Communists came to South Korea seeking freedom. Some of the refugees formed the Northwest Youth League and actively worked to spread anti-Communist ideology and anti-North information.

Photo: 'Northwest Youth' gangs in Gen. MacArthur's service.

The US military provided aids and sent these refugees to various villages for resettlement. About 100 of them were sent to Cheju where they were sent to remote villages for food and shelter. Because of their strong anti-Communism, many of these youth were recruited into the army, police and government.

The islanders initially embraced these fellow countrymen warmly, but as time went on, the refugees managed to alienate their hosts. Many of the refugees were homesick and roamed the island aimlessly and refused to hold down any steady job. They went from village to village seeking free meals, drinks and sex.

This is where the problem started. These youth ignored the island mores and went after the female residents for sexual pleasures. They caused problems in village after village. The irate villagers found the police to be close friends of the violators and thus reluctant to arrest their friends. Reports to the police were often covered up or discarded.

Day by day, such incidents increased in frequency and the anti-Northwest Youth sentiment grew among the populace. The islanders felt that the mainlanders once again betrayed them. They took in and cared for the refugees on instigation of the mainlanders and the very refugees turned against their hosts.

When I took over the 9th Regiment, I learned that the mainlanders were treated in the same way as the Japanese occupiers were by the Cheju people. To the Cheju islanders, all mainlanders - the police, the military and the Northwest youth, belonged to the same despicable genre. The refugees were not safe in villages that had no police presence. Such was the intensity of the islanders' hostility toward the Northwest Youth League members.

The immediate cause of the uprising was economic in character. The mainlander disrupted Cheju islanders' sea trade. Since the Japanese colonial days, Cheju islanders operated fleets of small ships that ferried goods between Japan, Korea and Cheju. Many Cheju residents lived in Japan (Osaka was popular among the Cheju émigrés) and sent consumer goods to their folks back home. Several Cheju-owned boats were used for the shipments. In addition, these boats picked up cheap goods at various Japanese ports and sold them for profits at Korean ports.

After Liberation, hundreds of thousands of the Korean émigrés returned home on these boats. The boats ferried the returnees as well as their belongings. During the rule of the US Military Government in Korea, consumer goods were in short supply in Korea and the returnees brought the goods from Japan. Merchants from Seoul went to Pusan and Cheju and bought up the goods for resale on the mainland for high profits.

Now the problem was that the Northwest Youth members muscled into this lucrative trades. As the animosity towards the youth grew, the refugees could not get free meals or drinks from the locals any more and they had to find some other means of surviving. They and the police began to confiscate the Japanese 'contrabands' from the locals.

Since the days of the Japanese occupation and the three years of the US military government, Cheju ports were in effect free trade ports. Trading ships were free to come and go. The Cheju ports crawled with would-be smugglers of Japanese products and merchants looking for deals. The ports were busy and prosperous. The police and the Northwest Youth members hijacked contraband shipments from the locals and secretly sold them to the mainland merchants.

These acts were not directed by the US military. They were local acts of self-preservation by the police. Since the police itself was involved in these crimes, there was no agency on the island that could stop this piracy. The mainland police overseers welcomed the financial windfall and looked the other way. Many became wealthy.

The piracy by the police and the refugees scared away trading ships from Cheju ports. The traders moved to Mokpo, Pusan and Yosu, and the Cheju's lucrative trading business dried up, thanks to the Northwest Youth and the police. This forced the police to send out the Northwest Youth members in search for 'hidden contrabands' all across the island. The youth gangs had the authority to search any house and any place for the "contrabands".

The islanders were turned off and refused any contact with the police and the mainlanders. Any islander talking to a mainlander or a policeman was suspected of being an informant. The security situation got much worse in 1948. The animosity between the islanders and the mainlanders reached the breaking point. The atmosphere was skin to the peak days of anti-Japanese movements during the Japanese occupation.