Is a Korean Spring Around the Corner?

by Merci Llarinas-Angeles [1] (Solidarity correspondent, Peace Women Partners)

Since Korea’s Candlelight Revolution of 2016, the changes on the peninsula seem to herald a spring. Amid high hopes that the country, divided for over 70 years, shall now attain reunification, Koreans as well as peace – and justice-loving citizens of the world need to remember the April 3 People’s Uprising in Jeju and what it stands for.

“The 38th parallel doesn’t only exist at the 38th parallel [2]” 
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the April 3 Massacre and Uprising in Jeju. From April 3, 1948, to Sept. 21, 1954, Jeju islanders suffered through seven years and seven months of massacre as they stood up against the division of the Korean Peninsula that was enforced by the U.S. government and then – South Korean President Syngman Rhee.

Stigmatized for 50 years, those involved, including the killed, survived and families, were unable to speak out about such a great injustice. In 1978, the novel “Sun-I Samchoon” (Aunt Sun-I) and the work of other artists “allowing the dead to speak their grief [3]“ broke the taboo. On Jan. 12, 2000, the National Assembly passed the Jeju 4.3 Special Law, which launched a nation wide investigation. Its report officially labeled this period of massacre as an “incident.” Although a precise calculation of the dead and missing is difficult, the report estimated the total to be between 25,000 and 30,000 [4], about 10 percent of Jeju’s population.

Is spring just around the corner?
On May 1, I joined 40,000 people celebrating Labor Day this year in front of Seoul City Hall. Union leaders called for workers’ unity as the crowd chanted slogans in Korean. I could not understand their words, but the air electrified with the passion for workers’ rights, especially as workers sang “The Internationale” in Korean.

Participants of a Labor Day rally in front of Seoul City Hall on May 1. The banner on the facade of the Old City Hall Building roughly translates to, “Catkins are waving at us, it seems spring is just around the corner.”

The Filipino solidarity team of the Peace Women Partners and ISC staff walk along a Seoul boulevard during the Labor Day workers’ march.

After the rally, the workers marched across the boulevard from City Hall. I felt honored to march down streets where millions had walked with lit candles and forced President Park Geun-hye out of office in the Candlelight Revolution [5]. In the series of protests between October 2016 and March 2017, millions of candles lit across the streets of South Korea sparked changes on the Korean Peninsula, proving that the people have the power to steer the path of their country toward peace and justice.

On April 9, Park was sentenced to 24 years in prison and ordered to pay billions of won in fines [6]. A few days later,  Lee Myung Bak, who served as president from 2008 to 2013, was charged with bribery, power abuse, embezzlement and tax evasion. If convicted, he might face life in prison [7].

On April 27, South Korean President Moon Jae In and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed to formally end the Korean War, which technically concluded with a cease-fire, and establish peace on the Korean Peninsula. Seventy years after the Jeju Uprising and Massacre, South and North Korea now greet unity and peace.

Jeong Yoon-ook of the Citizens United Yongsan and the Justice Party shared [8] how the nationally televised Panmunjom summit scenes left a deep impression on Koreans. A North Korean had crossed the 38th parallel for the first time [9]. The Candlelight Revolution enabled President Moon to push for peace. Furthermore, Jeong Yoon-ook said that North Korea’s nuclear parity with the United States brought U.S. President Donald Trump to the negotiating table because they couldn’t simply negotiate based on good will; they must negotiate based on power.

Everyone I met in Seoul expressed hope that peace and unity might, at last, be achieved.

When will spring come to Jeju Island?
As part of the Jeju Dark Tour [10], I learned about Jeju’s painful history by visiting the 4.3 Memorial Museum and some of the villages where the massacres occurred, including Bukchon-ri, the Village of Widows. As I stood amid the village’s remnants, I pondered humanity’s persistent capacity for cruelty. On a single day in January 1948, the village was burned down, and 300 people, including mothers and babies, were massacred [11].

This painting by Kang Yo-bae depicts the Bukchon Massacre, when a mother was shot to death as her baby sucked breast milk from the dead mother’s body. It depicts the inhumane cruelty inflicted upon the people of Jeju Island during the April 3 Uprising and Massacre.

The 4.3. Incident Investigation Report described the massacre as a “violation of human rights by public power,” President Roh Moo-Hyun issued a public apology on Oct. 23, 2003. Despite the apology, the perpetrators were neither punished nor even identified. No proper acknowledgment has been given to the Jeju citizens who were killed while protesting war and division of their country. Instead they were just called “victims” and considered offenders against state power [12].

While the spirits of the past are not yet at peace, new wounds have been inflicted upon the people of Jeju Island. Despite public opposition, Gureombi Rock in Gangjeong Village was blasted and destroyed on March 7, 2012 to make way for the construction of a naval base. Since opening in 2016, 10 foreign warships [13], including American aegis destroyers and a nuclear submarine, have docked in Jeju. The U.S. nuclear submarine Mississipi entered Jeju on Nov. 22, 2017 [14], confirming that the naval base had been constructed for the United States to gain a military foothold in Northeast Asia. A proposed second Jeju airport, which could act as an Air Force base, will extend U.S. militarism in Korea and Asia.

When I visited Jeju in 2016 and joined the Grand March for Life and Peace, the base was almost finished, but the people did not give up. This time, I visited Gangjeong and walked along its riverbanks again. The military facilities are like concrete monsters slowly killing the local habitat. The villagers monitor the environmental pollution caused by the foreign military ships, which are ignored by the authorities.

While there are community members who may feel that all is lost because the base is operational, resistance continues. Gangjeong’s villagers have not given up. “Even though the base was constructed, we still sow the seed of peace [15].” On the sixth Anniversary of the blasting of Gureombi Rock, they sowed bean seeds in a garden near the naval base, sending the message that their peace action shall continue [16].

With their bodies facing toward the naval base, community members greet the dawn with a hundred bows. They hold a daily mass and form a human chain every day at noon in front of the base. Our PWP solidarity team joined the human chain and danced with the villagers. Where there is such celebration and strength in a struggle, victory comes. It will only be a matter of time and work.

All the photos were taken by the author during the Education and Solidarity Visit of the Peace Women Partners in South Korea from April 30 to May 11.

  1. I came on an Education and Solidarity Tour with two members of the Peace Women Partners. We visited Seoul and Jeju Island. Our stay in Seoul was hosted by the ISC.
  2. Quote from a deceased poet cited by Sun-Tag NOH…, Notes from the Artist, Forged into Collective Memory, Catalogue of the 25th Annual Exhibition of the April 3 Massacre and Uprising, p. 79 (Published by the Jeju Self-Governing Province.) .
  3. AN Hye-Kyoung, Speech at the Opening of the 25th Annual Exhibition of the April 3 Massacre and Uprising, Catalogue of the 25th Annual Exhibition of the April 3 Massacre and Uprising, p. 17 (Published by the Jeju Self-Governing Province.)
  4. Damage Report, The Jeju 4.3 Incident Investigation Report, Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation, December 2003, p. 455
  5. For a list of articles on the Candlelight Revolution, please check out:
  8. We met Jeong Yoon-wook to discuss the situation of Korea and the Philippines on May 2.
  9. The 38th parallel , which divides the Korean Peninsula roughly in half, was the original boundary during the United States and Soviet Union’s brief administration of Korea after the end of World War II. (Source:
  11. The Case of Bukchon-ri, Jocheon-myeon, The Jeju 4.3 Incident Investigation Report, Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation, December 2003, p. 503
  12. “What is the Jeju Uprising and Massacre?” Memorial Committee of the April 3 Uprising and Massacre, March, 2018. P. 36
  13. Among the 10 warships, 6 are from the US, 2 each are from Canada and Australia
  14. “A Symposium for the Denuclearization of Jeju”, Gangjeong Village Story, February-March 2018, published by Gangjeong Village in Jeju, South Korea, p. 1
  15. “The 6th Anniversary of the Gureombi Rock Blast”, Gangjeong Village Story, February to March 2018, published by Gangjeong Village in Jeju, South Korea, p. 3
  16. Ibid