The Killing of Women in the Jeju 4-3 Incident

Guest writer Hyun Soo from South Korea shares a gripping story of the killing of women in the Jeju 4-3 incident. 

Background

The Jeju 4·3 incident is a massacre that took place from 1948 to 1951 in Jeju island, located at the far south of the Republic of Korea (ROK). The ideological conflict between the communists and the capitalists sparked off the communists’ protests against the US Military Government in South Korea, to which the authoritarian regime responded with brutal suppressions and killings.

The women’s experiences in Jeju 4·3 incident were stories that had become the ‘forgotten remainders.’

Since the beginning of 21st century, there have been numerous studies conducted to investigate the Jeju 4·3 Incident. However, only few have conducted a gender analysis. The lack of a gender analysis is especially problematic in that women’s experiences of the incident differed significantly from that of men.

Soldiers prepare to shoot leftist protestors

 

Sexual Violence

Women experienced extreme level of sexual violence during the 4·3 incident. The main culprit was the Northwest Youth League (NYL), an extreme-right paramilitary group supported by the ROK authoritarian regime. The NYL was infamous for its massacre of leftists during the 4·3 incident as well as its suppression of the leftist protestors’ female relatives and lovers.

Many women were raped by the NYL in exchange for the safety of their male families.

For example, a woman named Chung was forced to have a sexual intercourse with an NYL member to save her fiancé, Hong’s life. However, as soon as Hong became free, another NYL member arrested him with the condition that Hong would be freed only if Chung married him instead of Hong. Hong pleaded to his families and neighbors to make Chung marry the NYL member, crying that there would be “no more offspring” for his family if he died. Therefore, Chung was forced to marry the NYL member even though she did not wish to do so.

A woman looks at the corpse of her husband.

 

There were many more incidents of sexual violence during the 4·3 incident. In a practice known as cheonyeotobeol, meaning virgin hunt, women and girls were raped for hours before they were shot to death. At times, women were even forced to have a sexual relationship with their father-in-law in public. Bruce Cumings, in his book “The Korean War,” documented that one NYL member, after raping a woman in public, put a grenade in her vagina and exploded it.

Rebuilding the Jeju Community

One of the largest impacts of the 4·3 incident was the loss of men in Jeju society. After the NYL left the Island, there were almost no men left at all in many Jeju villages. Therefore, the role of rebuilding the Jeju society as well as earning household income had to be taken solely by women.

 Jeju women began by actively rebuilding female communities by gathering seafood. In a system called “hakkyobadang,” Jeju women set an area in the ocean where seaweed was produced the most and collected them together. Another system called “banjangtong” allowed Jeju women to collect seafood in many more areas in the ocean and thus expanded their joint labor system.

Through these systematical efforts, Jeju women endeavored to reconstruct their hometowns.

By selling the seaweeds, they restored houses and village roads that had been filled with ruins. They also repaired school buildings so that their children would be able to go to school and learn again. Moreover, Jeju women restored ‘village community farm,’ where they established joint projects to collectively grow crops such as sweet potatoes.

Jeju women collect seaweed.

 

Exclusion from History

Jeju women played distinctive roles from men during the 4·3 incident. However, the mainstream discourse on the incident is still silent about women’s narrative and their active involvement in the event. What are the reasons behind the exclusion of women from the history of the 4·3 incident?

Confucianism and Patriarchy 

Patriarchy was deeply rooted in Jeju society in the 1940s. This came from Confucianism, a social and ethical philosophy from China that had been reinforced on Jeju island for a long period of time. One of the most prominent ideologies of Confucianism was the subordination of women, which lowered many women’s economic and social statuses in the society through customs such as inheriting most, if not all, of the property to the male descendants.

The patriarchal ideology of Confucianism, in fact, was the basis of many witnesses’ attitudes in describing their experience of the Jeju 4·3 incident. While the male witnesses’ stories on the 4·3 incident were mostly about themselves, the female witnesses talked about what had happened to their brothers, fathers, and sons. Even when women did discuss their own experiences, they rarely talked about their experience as sex slaves.

There was one woman in Jeju island that mentioned her experience of sexual violence; yet she refused to elaborate on the details, saying that “it was a shameful experience that one cannot dare to talk about.”

Another factor that led to the exclusion of women is the male-centered approach in the historical research of the 4·3 incident. In numerous documentaries on the 4·3 incident, men were in charge of witnessing the incident while women took the role of merely staying silent. Moreover, many historians recorded the incident based on men’s perspective and experience with the assumption that men’s experience can be generalized as the experience of all Jeju people.

War stories are [often] all about men.

Feminist historian Gerda Lerner explains this tendency by arguing that history is created through selective choice of memory. While some experiences are written down and are chosen to be remembered, the remainders become forgotten.

Additional Reading

To learn more about the Jeju incident, you can read Hyungin Han’s article here. 

Hyun Soo is based in South Korea. 

 

 

 

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