|People's Republic of Jeju Island 1945-1946
It is only in the last 20 years that the story has begun to be told of the post-WWII experiment on Jeju Island off the southwestern coast of Korea which saw Korean people building local democracy in support of an independent united Korea. By the late 1940s, that effort was defeated by the United States Army Military Government in Korea which had as its mission to prevent an independent united Korea from emerging because it would be left-leaning.
The battle continues today. In 2002, as part of its military alliance with the US, the Republic of Korea (ROK) government decided to build a new naval base on Jeju Island. Jeju people in various villages and across the island are resisting having the naval base built in or near their villages or anywhere on Jeju.
In 2007, the ROK government and military chose Gangjeong Village in southern Jeju as the location where they would construct the new base. The process was far from democratic and split the village. Many Gangjeong villagers opposed and took up to non-violently defend their community with their bodies if necessary from the construction of the naval base.
In the spirit of democracy and independence demonstrated in Korea in the immediate post-WWII period, the resistance to the construction of the new base has the support from the many Jeju people and has won support from progressive people and organizations on the Korean mainland and around the world.1
In order to understand the significance of the current struggle, it is helpful to look back to the period 1945-1946 when people on Jeju Island formed a successful governance based on local people’s committees.
Korea had been a single nation for at least 1,000 years with a continuous society, language and political system until divided after World War II. In 1943, a Korean exile publication wrote that “Koreans are of an old nation. When the ancestors of northern Europe were wandering in the forests, clad in skins and practicing rites, Koreans had a government of their own and attained a high degree of civilization.”2
Jeju-do is a 700 square mile island 50 miles southwest of the Korean Peninsula. It became part of the Korean nation at least as of 1394 when Confucian teachers were sent from the peninsula to educate the sons of Jeju officials so they could compete in the national civil service examination system.3
There was foreign influence on Korean society especially from China but never long lasting foreign domination. Koreans had turned back efforts by Japan in 1593 and 1597 to subordinate their country. Korea remained independent despite 500 years of efforts of bigger powers to dominate it. That is until Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 and the big powers acquiesced to the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910. Before and during the annexation, there was a continuous struggle for Korean independence. Besides attempting to integrate Korea into its empire, Japan used Jeju Island as an airbase for its bombing of Nanking China in 1937 and was going to use it as a major fortress to defend the Japanese home islands from the Allied assault that was expected as Japan began to lose WWII.
After the unconditional surrender of Germany on May 9-10, 1945, the defeat of Japan was anticipated especially with the buildup by the Soviet Union (SU) of 1.5 million military personnel readying for the declaration of war on Japan promised by the SU by early August 1945. The US had dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan by August 9. The SU declared war on Japan on August 10 and began its offensive on August 11. The surrender of Japan came on Aug. 15, 1945.
The ending of WWII was greeted by a majority of people all over northeast Asia with joy and relief. Immediately on Jeju Island, but also throughout the Korean Peninsula, activists began to plan and organize to replace Japanese rule and dominance. Groups of local people gathered quietly in most villages and cities of Korea and sought ways to replace the police and pro-Japanese administrators with people who had resisted Japanese rule. With over 60,000 Japanese troops and a Japanese sponsored government still in place on Jeju, people there were very careful. But on Jeju especially, there were many people able to organize.
Long Jeju Tradition of Social Activism
Jeju people have a long tradition of an independent spirit. Japanese rule after 1910 was met with occasional organized opposition. On Jeju, in 1926, there were demonstrations against ethnic discrimination by Japanese teachers.4 In 1931, there were large spread student strikes and protests when school authorities refused to grant diplomas to socialist students.5 When woman divers went on strike in 1932, socialist and communist and union activist gave them support and help.6 Organizations developed among dockworkers, farmers, and fisherman with occasional strikes and demonstrations. Many Jeju activists in that period and after organized and taught at night schools for adults and children. The Japanese authorities made every effort to prevent and punish these left wing activities. Every such action was met with police attacks and arrests. Many of the activists spent time in prison. Some immigrated to Osaka in Japan.
Perhaps 200,000 Jeju people at one time or another moved back and forth to and from Osaka, the foremost industrial city in Asia at the time. There they found jobs and, for some, better education than was allowed in Korea. Frequent ferries some organized by Jeju transportation cooperatives carried people to Osaka from 11 ports around Jeju. In Osaka, some Jeju people were active in labor organizing and Japanese socialist and communist organizations even in leadership positions.7
Some 60,000 people returned from Japan to Jeju within a short time of the Japanese surrender in August 1945. The experienced and educated returnees played an important leadership role in the emerging governmental structures on Jeju.
Towards an Independent Korea
In mid August 1945, local people throughout Korea began to plan a takeover of village and city police and administration functions. In Seoul, as many as 5000 people gathered on August 16 to hear that a Committee for the Preparation for Korean Independence (CPKI) had been formed. Upon hearing this, organizers in Jeju City traveled around the Island informing the local organizers of this national event. Local committees began to call themselves branches of the CPKI.8
On Sept. 6, the Seoul CPKI held a convention which formed an embryo national government for Korea which they called the Korean People’s Republic (KPR).9 When they learned of this new government in formation, many local committees throughout Korea called themselves Peoples Committees (PC) of the KPR. In these early weeks of liberation there was no sense of a division of Korea. The universal goal of the PCs everywhere in Korea was for the replacement of Japanese colonialism and the emergence of a Korea independent of foreign interference or dominance. When Soviet troops arrived in Wonsan on Aug. 21 they removed the Japanese administration and accepted the chief of the local Peoples Committee as head of peace preservation in the city.10
The world learned during the Japanese Surrender Ceremony on Sept. 2 that the surrender of Japanese forces would be to Soviet forces north and to United States (US) forces south of the 38th Parallel but there was no clue at all that Korea could be divided. It was also known since the 1943 Cairo Conference that the Allies were committed to Korean independence. When the Allies inserted into the Cairo Declaration that the independence would be “in due course,” Koreans in exile translated those word to mean that independence would be a few days after Japanese surrender.11 The Korean translation was widely distributed in Korea.
US Military Government Arrives, Jeju Democracy Continues
On Sept. 8, twenty-one US warships arrived in Incheon harbor. The US military personnel were there to supervise in the name of the Allies the surrender of the Japanese Governor-General of Korea Abe Nobuyuki and the approximately 600,000 Japanese military and civilian personnel and their equipment and property south of the 38th Parallel. US General John Hodge commanded the US landing. The US party was met by an English speaking committee of the KPR to welcome it to Korea in the name of the people and newly emerging government of Korea. General Hodge refused to meet with them. His mission was to head the United States Army Military Government In Korea (USAMGIK) and he would not accept that there was already a newly forming government of Korea.12
The outburst of meetings and organizing that greeted the Japanese surrender came out into the open all over Korea as the Soviet troops advanced toward the 38th parallel and when the US accepted the surrender of the Japanese Governor-General on Sept. 12. On Sept. 28, the US Armed Forces In Korea (USAFIK) held a separate surrender of the Japanese troops and civil administration on Jeju. It took the US military until Nov. 18 to evacuate all Japanese military from Jeju.
But the local Jeju Peoples Committees did not wait that long. They began to take up the many problems caused by the Japanese colonial period, the return from Osaka of many people and the disruption of the economy. Young men were organized into peace preservation squads. An education campaign was launched. Schools were fixed up and 27 new ones began to be built.13 Japanese owned factories on Jeju were reorganized by their workers overseen by the PCs. The Committees had the respect and support from most villagers. Committee members were known in their communities from their long years as school teachers, union leaders and for resistance to Japanese abuses or for their organizing work in Japan.
On Sept. 22, the central Jeju-do Peoples Committee was formed in Jeju City with the head of the Farmers Guild and the Fishermen's Guide as its leaders. When the USAMGIK arrived on Jeju in the second week in November, it found that the Jeju-do Peoples Committee and all the village and county Peoples Committees were functioning successfully as a de facto government with popular support.14 The USAMGIK did not disturb or challenge this de facto government. This was unusual because the USAMGIK had as its mission to insure that a right-leaning government hostile to socialism emerged in Korea.15
For the rest of 1945 and much of 1946, the Jeju PCs cooperated with the USAMGIK and the military government gave support to the PCs. The PCs sponsored an island wide commemoration on March 1, 1946 of the 1919 uprising for Korean Independence without any trouble. Police and constabulary units joined in the celebration. When cholera broke out on the Island in June 1946, the USAMGIK gave equipment to the PCs and support to the PC peace protection squads to help contain the epidemic. The PCs collected taxes, ran factories and solved disputes that arose among the people.
The Jeju PCs were demonstrating that Koreans could govern themselves and remain friendly to the US military under the conditions of support from USAMGIK. The popular and participatory form of democracy that was evolving on Jeju was a good example of the steps possible toward a united independent Korea without need for US or SU occupation. The PCs included communists and socialists and activists who had the respect and support of the great majority of Jeju people. The PC de facto government of Jeju was left-leaning and so were the people of Jeju.16
End of Jeju Experiment
But this experiment in Korean democracy and independence took a turn for the worse when the USAMGIK helped Jeju become on Aug. 1, 1946 an autonomous province rather than to continue as a part of South Jeolla province. With provincial status came a new governmental level above the PC de facto government functioning on Jeju. This was part of the USAMGIK’s effort throughout Korea to replace the activist or socialist or communist leftist led PCs that expressed the dominant left-leaning spirit of the Korean people at the time of liberation.
The USAMGIK decided for October 1946 to create under its control an Interim Legislative Assembly (ILA) only in the US zone. Everywhere else but on Jeju leftists were prevented as a matter of USAMGIK policy from participating.17 Many Koreans chose not to participate in what they saw as the beginning of the division of Korea. On Jeju, leftists were allowed to and did participate and won the election to be delegates to the ILA.
After the election, uprisings broke out in protest to the direction in which the USAMGIK was taking the southern zone of Korea. Jeju people did not join these uprisings but in the long run suffered tremendously from the antagonism that was sown by the USAMGIK policy goals. The USAMGIK had as its mission to prevent a Korean government friendly to socialism or communism or leftism in general.18 That mission required that the left-leaning majority of the Korean people had to be diverted. Right-wing forces began to emerge when they saw that the USAMGIK was taking a more and more anti-left stance. They now saw there would be a place for rightwing power if the USAMGIK succeeded in achieving its policy mission.
As March 1, 1947 approached, the USAMGIK on Jeju prohibited any meetings or demonstrations to again commemorate the 1919 Korean independence movement against the Japanese. In defiance, meetings were held in schools. When the Jeju police were ordered to break up the meetings the gatherings soon turned into protests against the south-only ILA and for independence based on the March 1, 1919 spirit.19
Six demonstrators were killed that day in Jeju City. A very substantial general strike followed. The USAMGIK brought a right-wing governor and youth groups and mainland police and constabulary forces onto the island. The suppression of the Jeju people began. Within a year there was all out warfare between the Jeju supporters of a united and independent Korea and the USAMGIK. The tragic result was the cruel death of between 30,000 and 60,000 Jeju people and the continuing division of Korea.20
The USAMGIK accomplished its mission of creating in Korea south of the 38th Parallel an anti-communist government and the Jeju people were cruelly punished for defending the local democracy and the goal of Korean unity and independence.
The Jeju people deserve to have this story told. In 2003, the then president of the ROK, Roh Moo Hyun apologized and accepted ROK government responsibility for the wrongful death of many victims. In January of 2005, the ROK government officially declared Jeju an ‘Island of World Peace’. The people of Jeju also deserve an apology and compensation from the US government for its ultimate responsibility for the punishment that Jeju suffered.
The construction of a new naval base appears to many Jeju people as a violation of the designation of Jeju as an Island of World Peace. The naval base if constructed would not enhance the chance of Korean unification or peaceful and friendly relations among the nations of Northeast Asia including China. The fight against the naval base construction is reviving the fighting spirit of the Jeju people and again puts them in the forefront of seeking a united, democratic, peaceful Korea.
Note on Sources
1. Meade, E Grant. American Military Government In Korea. New York: Kings Crown Press, 1951.
This book covers the 1945-1946 occupation by the USAMGIK of South Jeolla Province including Jeju-do. Meade was a participant in the military government in South Jeolla (Cholnam) Province in southern Korea during the early months of the occupation (p. viii). He wrote the book based on his experience and careful study before the outbreak of hostilities in June 1950. He documents that the objectives of the occupation over rode any expression of popular democracy. He makes many observations that occupation and democracy were fundamentally opposed. See in particular pp 185-186 and 189. He documents for example that in the ILA election in Oct 1946, the left was systematically barred from participating (see pp 164-165). He was basically pro-American but observed that the great majority of Korean people were left-leaning.
2. Merrill, John. “The Cheju-do Rebellion.” Journal of Korean Studies, 2 (1980): 139-197.
Merrill, John. Korea: The Peninsula Origins of the War. Newark, Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 1989.
Merrill does good scholarly work in his Masters degree at Harvard 1975 and PhD at the University of Delaware around 1979 showing the centrality in Korea of a conflict between the left and right wings. He basically used US intelligence sources to try to see what was actually happening in Korea.Like Meade, Merrill accessed that at liberation Koreans were mostly left-leaning.
3. Son, Kyengho. “The 4.3 Incident: Background, Development, Pacification
1945-1949, PhD thesis, Ohio State University, 2008, accessed Nov.3, 2011, http://etd.ohiolink.edu/view.cgi?acc_num=osu1213294785
Son is a Christian and an officer in the ROK military. In his dissertation he takes up to thoroughly trace what he interprets as communist activity in Korean history and in particular on Jeju Island. He read the ROK Report on the 4.3 Incident and the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He found that the Jeju communists had no contact with the Soviet Union or northern Korean communists and there was little adherence to the mainland SKLP. He shows the popularity of left, socialist and communist activists in Jeju and the fight against them. Son argues that the mainland Korean people went from favoring communism at the time of liberation to being anti-communist a year or two later but that the people of Jeju did not make this change. His search for communists turns up a very long range socialist sentiment in Jeju starting in the early 1920s and among the Jeju people who went to Osaka.
4. Cumings, Bruce. The Origins of the Korean War (Volume 1): Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes 1945-1947. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981.
Cumings, Bruce. The Korean War: A History. New York: The Modern Library, 2010.
Cumings is a first class scholar seeking to understand the reality from many angles and many details. He seeks to understand the roll of US policy in the events he studies.
5. Ko Chang Hoon. “Presentation about US Government Responsibility in the Jeju April Third Uprising and Grand Massacre.” Harvard University Jeju 4.3 Conference, April 24-26, 2003, accessed Nov 3, 2011, http://wcms.cheju.ac.kr/island/index.jsp?siteID=20061212114229289062&menuID=20061216182145137035&contentID=20061218143024491678&action=view
Ko writes that his essay is a case study of the Jeju people's resistance against policies of American military rule between 1945-1948, which caused the grand massacre of 1948-1949. He provides details of the relation between the people and the PCs and the actions of the PCs that built that relation.
6. Henderson, Gregory. Korea: The Politics of the Vortex. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1968.
Henderson sees the politics of Korea as a vortex, a strong atomizing pressure interfering with political coherence and strength. His analysis is this vortex is a product of an unbroken history of homogeneity and strong centralization. He shows that the US military occupation added to this problem especially with its unwillingness to allow independent Korean political activity when such activity had a left-leaning direction. See Chapter 5, “The Gates of Chaos”, especially pages 125-131.
Cumings, Bruce. The Origins of the Korean War (Volume 1): Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes 1945-1947. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981.
Cumings, Bruce. The Korean War: A History. New York: The Modern Library, 2010.
Gwon, Gwisook “National and International Protests Challenge Naval Base Construction on Jeju Island, South Korea: Hunger Strike Precipitates a National and International Movement," The Asia-Pacific Journal 9:33(2), (2011) accessed on Nov. 7, 2011 http://japanfocus.org/-Gwisook-Gwon/3589.
Henderson, Gregory. Korea: The Politics of the Vortex. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968.
Ko Chang Hoon. “Presentation about US Government Responsibility in the Jeju April Third Uprising and Grand Massacre.” Paper presented at the Jeju 4.3 Conference at Harvard University, April 24-26, 2003, accessed Nov.3, 2011, http://wcms.cheju.ac.kr/island/index.jsp?siteID=20061212114229289062&menuID=20061216182145137035&contentID=20061218143024491678&action=view
Meade, E. Grant. American Military Government In Korea. New York: Kings Crown Press, 1951.
Merrill, John. “The Cheju-do Rebellion.” Journal of Korean Studies, 2 (1980): 139-197.
Merrill, John. Korea: The Peninsula Origins of the War. Newark, Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 1989.
Nemeth, David J. The architecture of ideology: neo-Confucian imprinting on Cheju Island, Korea. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1987.
Son, Kyengho. “The 4.3 Incident: Background, Development, Pacification
1945-1949.” PhD diss., Ohio State University, 2008, accessed Nov. 3, 2011, http://etd.ohiolink.edu/view.cgi?acc_num=osu1213294785.
Stueck, William and Boram Yi. “‘An Alliance Forged in Blood’: The American Occupation of Korea, the Korean War, and the US–South Korean Alliance,” Journal of Strategic Studies, 33:2, 2010, 177-209.
The author and Ronda Hauben want to thank the following people who made themselves available on short notice to help them learn the story of the Jeju people: Todd Thacker, Song Jung-hee, Darryl Coote and Kim Soo-yang of the Jeju Weekly; President Jang Jung-eon and Deputy General Secretary Oh Seung-kook of the Jeju April 3 Peace Foundation; Huh Ho-joon journalist with Hankyoreh; Kim Chang-hoo, Head of Jeju 4.3 Research Institute; Yang Jo-hoon, journalist and chief staff member of the Task Force for the Report of the 4.3 Committee, Jessica Koh and Yeong-seon Koh. We also thank Chung Hyun-back for her help.