South KoreaWar and peace are ever inseparable. This island off the
southern coast of Korea has been officially designated Peace Island by South
Korea's National Assembly. These days the island is as good as the lawmakers'
word. It recently held a peace forum to commemorate the first anniversary of the
Pyongyang meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea.
President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea was
there in person and notables including former President George Bush and Mikhail
Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader, were present via video. This year is also
the 10th anniversary of another peacemaking meeting here. In 1991 Mr. Gorbachev
met with President Roh Tae Wu of South Korea, setting in motion Moscow-Seoul
diplomatic relations and hammering another nail into the coffin that is the
North Korean regime.
Peace in other forms is all around.
Koreans and some foreigners come here on vacation to play golf, enjoy the mild
climate, relax on the beaches and eat the tangerines that grow in profusion. Or
they may struggle up Mount Halla, the extinct volcano at the center of the
island, the highest mountain in South Korea.
They may just sit around enjoying the
green and basalt scenery and unpolluted air of this unindustrialized volcanic
chip 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the mainland. Or they may ride the sturdy
ponies brought here by the Mongol invaders who arrived in the 13th century and
stayed for a hundred years.
It is not certain how much slaughter the
Mongols brought with them. But this century war has brutalized Cheju perhaps
more than any other province of Korea.
The Cheju Uprising of 1948-1949 followed
liberation from Japanese occupation and preceded the war begun by Kim Il Sung
against the South in 1950. Between 10 percent and 30 percent of the island's
then population of 300,000 were killed and thousands more fled to Japan. Even by
20th century standards, this was a major bloodbath.
But while Koreans now agonize over the
deaths in the Kwangju Uprising in 1980 and Americans repent for the military
killings of unarmed civilians at Nogun-ri in the early days of the Korean war,
the Cheju massacres of civilians have received little attention in Korea and
even less abroad. For a long time discussion of the episode in Korea was
deliberately suppressed and even now written references are not numerous.
The reasons are not hard to find. The
U.S. military government was still nominally in charge when the uprising began
and seems to have turned a blind eye to whatever means were used to suppress
"bandits." But unlike Nogun-ri, the South Koreans cannot now lay the bloodshed
at the American door. Their government and forces were responsible.
The uprising was as much a local peasants
and leftists' revolt as anything directed from Pyongyang. It began in reaction
to efforts of the governor sent from Seoul to suppress the People's Committee,
which had coexisted with the Americans since 1945 but was a threat to the
rightist forces of Syngman Rhee. Mr. Rhee came to power with U.S. backing in May
1948 elections, which were delayed in Cheju.
The uprising's scorched earth suppression
was the work of the South Korean police and army and also of pro-Rhee gangs,
headed by the Northwest Youth League comprising refugees from the Communist
North. Killings of suspected leftist civilians and destruction of villages went
on for more than a year. They peaked after the Rhee government formally took
control with the establishment of the Republic of Korea in August 1948.
The tragedy is a reminder that another
now peaceful volcanic holiday isle, Bali, was the scene of the worst massacres
of Indonesia's "Communists" in 1965-1966. Cheju doesn't have the artistic
attractions of Bali. But it is a unique place at the heart of northeast Asia,
Korean but different because of its distance from the mainland, its Mongol
heritage and proximity to Japan. Warm and cold ocean currents meet in the
surrounding waters. Fukuoka and Nagasaki are closer than Seoul. Shanghai is only
slightly further away.
Geography and past violence have bred a
commitment to peace. Cheju is destined to be the venue for innumerable
North-South meetings on the long road to Korean reunification. It is here too
that there must be a meeting of Chinese, Korean and Japanese minds if this
region is to avoid conflict when the United States is no longer the arbiter.
But beware one potential new source of
conflict. Don't ask the way to Jeju, as Seoul now insists it be spelled. Stick
to Che as in check and Ju as in judo.