Jeju Island’s peace message – truth and reconciliation in Korea

Jun 21, 2023
Jeju map with South Korean national flag illustration.

Following the award of the Korean “Jeju 4:3 Peace Prize” to former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, it is good to note that Pearls and Irritations has taken up cudgels on the long-neglected question of the Jeju Island massacre of 1948 (articles by Heo Ho-joon and Alison Broinowski). And it is good to see Evans taking the opportunity of being awarded the Prize to call on the government of the US to cooperate in revealing and addressing its responsibility for the tragic events of 1948.

Only liberated in 1945 from the yoke of forty years of Japanese imperialism, Korea found itself divided into opposing north and south occupation zones. Paradoxically, the Japan whose aggression had laid waste much of Asia was treated by the US to an occupation that was commonly experienced as liberation, while Korea, supposedly liberated in 1945, was split and its southern half turned into a police state run by US nominees. At the founding of the United Nations, “Korea” was high on the agenda. How should the de facto division be resolved?

UNTCOK (United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea) was set up and tasked with advising on how to form a national government. As I wrote in my 1983 book [Cold War Hot War – An Australian Perspective on the Korean War] Australia played an important and neglected role. In January-February 1947 Australia, together with Canada, was adamant that no government should be set up “until UNTCOK and the General Assembly could consult representatives of both North and South” (italics added) and that the UN mandate could not be met by the establishment of separate governments. Then, however, under heavy US pressure, it shifted ground, accepted the US position and endorsed separate elections (in due course held on 10 May). That fateful UN decision was met by mass opposition that in Jeju flared into a rising that was met by savage repression, to which Evans now refers. North Korea followed shortly after South Korea in conducting its separate elections so that from late 1948 opposing regimes confronted each other, clashing from time to time till full-scale warfare broke out on 25 June 1950.

The late 1940s were pivotal years in the evolution of Australia’s post-war state as the Cold War gradually took shape. The newly appointed (1947) Secretary of Australia’s Department of External Affairs, John Burton, later referred to Korean policy as a marked by transition from the Australia that “followed policies based on United Nations principle … it had regard for fact and principle, and not strategic groupings,” to one in which principle gave way to expediency, “facts and even direct Australian interests were thrown aside and the guiding instruction was to ‘follow the United States’” (Cold War Hot War, p. 47).

Gareth Evans was awarded the 2023 Jeju Peace Prize primarily for his Jeju advocacy, but the general point he makes is that war crimes and crimes against humanity should always be exposed and responsibility assigned so that they not recur. To that one can only say, “Hear! Hear!” However, he refers only briefly to the multiple horrors and atrocities that followed the Jeju massacre, replicating its savagery through and after the war itself. Only by dint of successive democratic risings, in 1960, 1980, 1987, and 2016-7, was South Korea able to reject military dictatorships imposed and maintained by the US and to establish a thriving, if still inevitably imperfect, Korean civil democracy.

As for the UN, while it has never repeated its Korean experience of actually waging war, neither has it ever acknowledged responsibility for the war crimes committed before, during, and after the Korean War. In the investigations carried out in recent times by democratised South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, detailed accounts have emerged, so that we now know that in the first year of the war alone, about 100,000 people were massacred by “our” (i.e. US, South Korean and other, including Australian) forces under the UN flag. Many fell victim to carpet bombing, or the destruction of the infrastructure of daily life, including dams, dykes, and power stations, inflicted by “our” side. Many such incidents likely constituted war crimes. The most horrendous incident, the slaughter of around 7,000 people suspected of North Korean affiliation at Daejeon in the earliest phase of the war in July 1950, then simply blamed on the “Communists” of the North, was revealed much later, to have been committed by South Korean, therefore United Nations, forces. South Korea’s TRC Commission has shown admirable fortitude and moral clarity in righting the record and exposing multiple such crimes, committed and then covered up by previous Seoul governments.

For that, the South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission surely deserves recognition. It could serve as a model for countries like Australia that also grapple with their own war crimes. Beyond that, there is also a troubling level of criminal responsibility remaining to this day untouched: that of the United Nations itself, since this was a war conducted by and in its name (albeit that command and organisation of the war was placed in US hands, initially those of General Douglas MacArthur).

Finally, while Gareth Evans’s focus on the US responsibility for events at Jeju seven decades ago is to be welcomed, it is necessary to differentiate that cause from some of the others with which he has been associated through his long Australian and global public career. One study of the early phases of his public career draws attention to his support of the “special relationship” with Indonesia’s Suharto (dismissing criticism of a large-scale massacre of protesters in Dili in 1991 as “an aberration, not an act of state policy”) and to his support for one after another US-led wars from Afghanistan in 2001 through the war on terror (as head of the International Crisis Group between 2000 and 2009 and author and chief progenitor in 2005 of the doctrine of R2P (Responsibility to Protect) which has served as cloak for Atlanticist intervention across the global South (Tom Hazeldine, “The North Atlantic Counsel – Complicity of the International Crisis Group,” New Left Review, 63, May June 2020).

It was the failure under US pressure of the UN (with Australia playing a prominent role), to settle the Korean national question in 1947 that lead to the division of that country, which in turn led to the events of Jeju in 1948 and then to the war that from 1950 came to involve the UN, uniquely, as belligerent. Multiple crimes against humanity were undoubtedly committed, by South as well as by North Korea, and peace still today through the peninsula rests on a fragile cease-fire. For the still vexing “Korean question” to be settled will call not only for reconsideration of the US role in 1948 but also of the role of the United Nations, and within it, Australia, in the war from 1950 for which Jeju served as prelude.

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