Seventy-three years ago, in April 1948, the people of the Korean island of Jeju rose up. The uprising — one of many that took place in the five years between the end of the Second World War in 1945 and the beginning of the Korean War in 1950 — was to become one of the most important chapters in a pre-war struggle for self-determination by Koreans south of the 38th parallel.
During World War II, Kim Il Sung, the great Korean communist leader and strategist, led a guerrilla army that chased Japanese colonizers south to the 38th parallel. The U.S. military, after dropping atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, exacted the surrender of Japan and occupied Korea south of the 38th parallel.
Japan was already on the verge of surrender at that time. There was no military need for the atomic bombing, the worst atrocity in the history of modern warfare. But Washington strategists wanted to use the circumstances as a way to send a warning to the USSR.
The Korean people of the south were in no mood to be recolonized after 35 years of terrible cruelty at the hands of their former Japanese occupiers. But that was the plan that had been hatched by the administration of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and then carried out by his successor, Harry Truman.
Nor was there a desire on the part of Koreans in the south to be separated from Koreans in the north. Korean society was unified for thousands of years, with no differences in language, customs or otherwise. The division was also part of Washington’s machinations.
In fact, at the close of World War II, there was widespread support for socialism, admiration for Kim Il Sung and a great desire to rebuild all of Korean society along socialist lines among Koreans living south of the 38th parallel.
People’s Republic of Korea
Immediately after Japan’s defeat and retreat, while Kim Il Sung and other socialist leaders were beginning to reorganize society in the north, a provisional government was formed by movement leaders in the south. The People’s Republic of Korea (PRK), as it was called, set up People’s Committees all over the south.
They called for land held by Japanese owners and collaborators to be seized and redistributed to peasants. They set out to establish equality for women, strong labor laws, an end to child labor, an eight-hour workday, and above all, independence and self-determination.
But the U.S. refused to acknowledge the PRK, and set up a U.S. military government, whose true goal was to crush the Korean people’s movement. Within a couple of months the U.S. had banned and forcibly dissolved the PRK. But that didn’t slow down resistance or quell the hunger for self-determination throughout the south.
Widespread and constant rebellions and strikes by workers, peasants and students were a huge challenge to the U.S. occupation government. As months and then years wore on, they were barely — and only through terrible, brutal repression — holding back a revolution that inevitably would have led to the reunification of Korea and an end to capitalist ownership and exploitation.
While trying to contain the movement, the U.S. military began to cobble together repressive forces made up of those Koreans who had collaborated with the Japanese — right-wing paramilitaries — and began to put together a South Korean army and put in place a pro-U.S. South Korean government.
Under cover of the United Nations, they set up an election that resulted in Syngman Rhee being “elected” in 1948. Rhee had lived in the U.S. for years and was selected as figurehead of the Korean government.
The Jeju Rebellion
It was this sham of an election that was the tinder for the Jeju Rebellion. The island was populated by about 300,000 people and was known to be a stronghold of communist and socialist sentiment. The organization and ideas put forth by the progressive PRK government had taken root on Jeju more than anyplace.
People’s movement leaders knew months before the scheduled election that a Rhee victory was inevitable and that it would mean the division of north and south. In April 1948, a series of events, in which protesters on Jeju Island were attacked and killed by police aligned with the U.S. occupation forces, led to an island-wide insurrection.
With hunting rifles and sometimes bows and arrows, the Jeju islanders’ insurrection lasted more than a year. Police buildings and other government institutions were all attacked and burned. Even though they were outgunned, the revolutionary side shook the U.S.-backed Korean forces.
It took the combined fire power of right-wing Korean gangs called the Northwest Youth League that had been recruited by U.S. operatives, and an army quickly cobbled together by the United States Army Military Government of Korea with Syngman Rhee as the nominal head, primarily made up of forces from Japan.
Though the U.S. occupation troops refrained from frontline battles, the occupiers provided aerial surveillance and were in fact the organizers of the counter-insurrection.
In early 1949, a division of the new U.S.-backed Republic of Korea army was ordered by Syngman Rhee and the U.S. military to attack the Jeju guerillas, but they mutinied instead. Mutineers fought against Syngman Rhee’s forces on the mainland and killed most of their commanders. Many were believed to have fought their way all the way to the north and remained there.
The Jeju insurrection was ultimately drowned in blood. The death toll was terrible — at least 10% of the island’s population, that is, some 30,000 people, were killed.
Jeju was not the last of Korean resistance to U.S. occupation. The Korean people’s struggle for self-determination and reunification is long, inspired and heroic. Like many chapters of Korean history, Jeju is seared in the memories of Koreans everywhere.
The entire history of the role of U.S. imperialism in dividing Korea, the grave threat that the presence of U.S. troops and weapons are to all Korean people, the deaths of millions of North Korean people at the hands of the U.S. military during the war — all of it flies in the face of the phony U.S. narrative of the Pentagon being needed to protect South Korea from North Korea.
Long live the heroic memory of Jeju! Korea is one!