Entitled “Released after 60 years,” this work by Jeju artist Koh Gil-chun is a charcoal rubbing of clothes excavated from a mass grave of islanders killed during Sasam. Source: the Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation

By Christine Hong

Introduction: Jeju Sasam as Deimperializing Korean War History

The anticolonial Swedish writer, Sven Lindqvist, once remarked that to Americans, the Korean War could not but be an unreal war. Flying from Japan to the Korean peninsula, U.S. bombers “shuttled back and forth between base and target with as little disturbance as a trip on the Staten Island ferry” while massive aircraft carriers “circled around and around” with “no risk whatsoever of enemy attack.”[1] Long before drone warfare enabled remote destruction, the United States was at the triggering end of a technologically alienated kill-chain that devastated life and relations in Korea, yet left scarcely a trace in American public consciousness. In this first hot war of the Cold War, the asymmetry of imperial intervention, with the invading forces possessing absolute superiority in arms, ensured that the danger of war—and the burden of memory, where and when there were survivors—would be overwhelmingly shouldered by the Korean people.

Figure 1. Korean War-era photograph of USS John R. Craig, which received four battle stars for service in Korea and would subsequently be deployed in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Kim Jongmin.

Unresolved to this day, the unreal Korean War established a structural dynamic in which the United States has borne no accountability for its world-shattering military aggression and multi-generational legacy of violence in Korea. This de facto immunity contrasts with—and to some degree has been eroded by—the official steps taken principally in the past two decades by its ally, South Korea, including a truth-and-reconciliation commission, formal apologies, and legal measures, as a means of reckoning with its own responsibility for war crimes and massive human rights violations related to the Korean War. To no small degree, insistent U.S. disavowal of the ruthless counterinsurgency it waged in Korea enables the enactment of its contemporary military-imperial designs toward Asia and the Pacific, a region where Korea has historically served an indispensable function “as a facilitator or a delayer, a weakener or a strengthener” in the preservation of U.S. hegemony.[2] Here, we might recall that the mid-century anticommunist “police action” in Korea, which brutally quashed Korean attempts at democratic self-governance, consolidated the global dominance of the United States. If out of sight and out of mind, the war in Korea placed the United States on permanent war footing by establishing a vast architecture of imperial might, the national security state, the military-industrial complex, and the empire of bases encircling the globe. The Korean War thereby rehabilitated a U.S. economy that was geared toward total war in the wake of World War II. Yet despite its centrality to postwar U.S. militarism on the world stage, Korea surfaces as incidental to U.S. national history.

We might recall Barack Obama’s distillation of the Korean War’s significance in a July 27, 2013 speech, “Heroes Remembered,” at the Korean War memorial on the National Mall. That four million Koreans were killed, the majority of whom were civilians, went unmentioned in his commemorative speech. So, too, did the fact that the war, by hardening the U.S.-authored division of Korea, effectively separated one in three Korean families at mid-century, impacting an estimated 100,000 Korean Americans in the present. Also pushed to the margins in Obama’s remarks on the anniversary of the Korean War armistice, a day when peace activists in Korea and the diaspora annually call for a formal end to the Korean War, was the fact that the United States, in contravention of the 1953 Armistice Agreement’s recommendation that foreign forces withdraw posthaste from the peninsula, still maintains roughly 80 military installations and nearly 30,000 military personnel in Korea. It additionally rehearses annual joint war exercises with South Korea that simulate a nuclear strike on Korea, the “decapitation” of North Korea’s leadership, and a military takeover and occupation of the north. Leaving all this to the side and proclaiming Korea a “victory,” Obama maintained that the durable lesson of the conflict for U.S. “allies and adversaries” is that “the United States of America will maintain the strongest military the world has ever known, bar none, always.”[3]

The incidentalization of the indiscriminate counterinsurgent violence that characterized the Korean War is perhaps nowhere more on display than in South Korea’s careful use of the nondescript term, “incident” (sageon), in belatedly admitting its early Cold War slaughter of Jeju islanders. During a time of supposed peace under the authority of the U.S. military government, South Korean forces laid waste to Jeju because the islanders dared oppose U.S.-backed separate elections in southern Korea. Their concerns that these elections, which took place on May 10, 1948, would cement Korea’s division came to pass when, in a betrayal of the democratic process, the Syngman Rhee puppet regime, which restored pro-Japan collaborators and commanded no mass support, was catapulted, with U.S. military backing, to power. This reactionary backdrop is essential for understanding how Jeju, which by dint of geographic location had suffered under the Japanese colonial heel, was brutally crushed by the American imperial boot. Under U.S. command authority, South Korean forces, including the Northwest Youth League, a fascist paramilitary group, carried out the genocidal campaign. Through scorched-earth tactics, the base of Mt. Halla, at the island’s center, was transformed into what the writer Kim Sok-pom has described as “a vast…wasteland,” with “fields of barley, millet, mulberry, and such, paddies, graveyards with generations of buried ancestors, bamboo thickets, old trees with long histories, fields, forests, and meadows” irretrievably burned to ash.[4] By fall 1954, as the counterinsurgency wound down, the numbers bespoke their own grim tale. Thirty thousand islanders out of a population of almost 300,000—in other words, a tenth of Jeju’s population, the overwhelming majority of whom were unarmed men, women, children, the elderly—had been slaughtered, and entire villages had been annihilated. By contrast, only 320 soldiers and policemen were killed.

It was through this sustained campaign of white terror that Jeju, tagged as communist because islanders rose up against Korea’s externally imposed division for national independence, was transformed into a “Red” island, saturated with the blood of its people. Known to Koreans as Sasam (or “4.3”) in reference to the April 3, 1948 armed uprising against police repression, the revolt and ensuing “brutal massacre of an unseen and unheard-of scale” have been ideologically localized as a sequence of events specific to Jeju, “an island isolated from the world by the sea,” obscuring their far-reaching import relative to the Korean War as a profoundly dirty, unending imperialist war.[5] Scrutiny of Sasam thus begins to disclose the methods and the logic of U.S. counterinsurgency, not only in other guerrilla suppression campaigns on the Korean mainland but more globally in the U.S. subfascist reliance on native proxies. In the U.S. deployment of “Korean soldiers in American military uniforms and boots” to Jeju, Sasam raises the problem of how to represent a prime mover that, throughout the Cold War, eluded center-stage figuration.[6]

As South Korean novelist Hyun Ki-young, a Jeju native who was tortured during the U.S.-backed Park Chung-hee military dictatorship for daring to write about Sasam in his fiction, asks in his short story, “Steel and Flesh”:

Whose crime is this? The machine gun? The shooter pulling the trigger? The officer making the orders? The battalion commander who handed down the decision through the walkie-talkie? The regimental commander? Or the U.S. Military Advisory Council? Someone in the higher ranks? Who stands at the top of the commanding pyramid? Was Truman really a “True man”?[7]

He concludes: “The fingers that press the button need not bloody their hands.”[8] The Americans who directed the slaughter and whose gasoline was used in the incineration of vast swaths of Jeju “weren’t so in the dark about the situation,” as zainichi Korean author Kim Sok-pom writes in his historical novella, Mandoku yūrei kitan (1970, The Curious Tale of Mandogi’s Ghost); as his narrator muses:

From the decks of their battleships, pipes slanting down from their mouths, perhaps they said something like, “Hmph, nothing to worry about. That smoke burning up the sky is no volcano erupting. That, ha, they’re just burning up the island where all those little bugs live.” Perhaps they spoke as if they had come to exterminate some bugs on one lonely little island in the corner of the East.[9]

Yet more than an invisible hand behind the scenes or “mere witnesses” on the sidelines, the United States, as Sasam public historian Kim Jong-min points out in his essay in this forum, bears responsibility for actively perpetrating genocide against the Jeju people.[10]

To return, here, to Obama’s revisionist framing of the war: if the Korean theater was cast, in his account, as a site of American “gallantry” where “often outgunned and outnumbered” U.S. troops performed hitherto unrecognized “shining deeds,” this forum’s focus on Sasam requires, by contrast, the centering of the perspectives of those who were ruthlessly vanquished, with survivors and their descendants coerced into silence for several decades and the island subjected to remilitarization even in the present.[11] These perspectives materialize or gesture toward not only an existing social world that was and continues to be violently destroyed but also a vision of a world-to-come—a unified, self-determining Korea—that has yet to come into being. “It is one thing to accommodate the memory of the innocent victim,” Hyun Ki-young points out, “but quite another to reinstate the memory of the loser as the prevailing social memory.”[12] Against recuperative imperial framings of the so-called forgotten war that center the heroism of U.S. forces, Sasam recalls the vision of a people who fought for Korea’s decolonization and self-determination and whose island was indiscriminately laid to waste as a result. In this regard, Sasam bears deterritorializing narrative potential.[13]

The duration of Sasam’s sweeping violence gives the lie to the Korean War’s imperial periodization, both its contested “first-shot” date of June 25, 1950, which confers all blame on North Korea for “aggressing” the 38th parallel, and its supposed culmination on July 27, 1953, when the armistice signed by the United States, North Korea, and China brought active hostilities but not the war to a close. In this respect, the April Third uprising and ensuing massacre require backdating and extending the Korean War’s periodization beyond its usual sanitized timeframe. They render imperial temporality out of joint. Sasam, which challenges the Korean War’s temporal parameters, and Jeju, which is not counted among its known battlefronts, are thus necessary omissions to an imperial narrative of the war as a heroic sacrifice by U.S. fighting forces who rushed to democracy’s defense only to be denied a proper homecoming for their service. Insofar as it serves as a mnemonic to indiscriminate civilian death as the result of past counterinsurgent violence, April 3, as a recurring date, unsettles commonplace understandings of what has been “forgotten” about the so-called forgotten war.[14] Yet by calling attention to anticommunism’s unreconstructed reach into the present, Sasam conjures forth the longue durée of the Korean War as an enduring structure of violence. As a testament to what historian Bruce Cumings has described as “the American capacity for unrestrained violence against indigenous peoples fighting for self-determination,” Sasam discloses the war’s dirty truths: the mass lethality of U.S. Cold War anticommunist anti-guerrilla campaigns andthe collateralization of Jeju as part of a neo-Cold War U.S. policy of encircling China.[15] As an analytic of Jeju’s past and present, Sasam clarifies the durable ideological utility of Korea’s division as a tool for U.S. military-imperial policy in the larger region.

For several decades, the U.S.-perpetrated genocide of the Jeju Islanders was shrouded in deathly silence. Throughout the Cold War, an ideological cordon sanitaire, enforced through brutal state repression,was drawn around Jeju, relegating survivors to “a kind of living death (sarainnŭn songjang).”[16] The history of white terror on an island off the southernmost tip of Korea would thus remain largely insular, unthawed until the South Korean democracy movement succeeded in bringing the era of U.S.-backed military dictatorships to an end. In the mid-1990s, during my first visit to Jeju, an elderly woman who was sweeping outside an inn where I was staying inquired where I was from. I explained I was Korean from the United States. She paused before posing a question: did I notice there were few elderly men around? Perplexed, I conceded that I hadn’t seen many. “They were killed,” she stated. When I echoed what she had said back to her as a question, she muttered softly, turned away, and went inside. Only much later would I begin to grapple with the terrible truth of her words.

This forum in The Abusable Past seeks to extend the unsettling power of Sasam, which shimmers not only with counterinsurgent violence but also a people’s long struggle for national self-determination and genuine independence. Published to commemorate Sasam’s seventy-third anniversary, this forum features essays written by established and emerging writers, historians, and scholars (the celebrated novelist Hyun Ki-young, the major Sasam researcher and public historian Kim Jongmin, and the feminist anthropologist Yuna Kim); a video excerpt of a multi-video installation by a visual artist (the feminist multi-media artist and scholar Jane Jin Kaisen); interviews with a dancer and musician and an activist and artist (the feminist performance artist Dohee Lee and the anti-base and anti-militarism activist and artist Choi Sung-hee); and a solidarity zine created by an anti-imperialist collective of diasporic Korean youth in Oakland, California (Hella Organized Bay Area Koreans, or HOBAK) and curated by Hyejin Shim. Only two of the contributors, Kim Jongmin and Choi Sung-hee, currently live in Jeju. Although Jeju-born, several, including Hyun Ki-young, Jane Jin Kaisen, Dohee Lee, and Yuna Kim, are part of a growing Jeju diaspora on the Korean mainland and in North America and Europe. The sway of their writing, research, artwork, oral history, and political education make clear that the history of Sasam can no longer be dismissed as insular to Jeju alone. As the Taiwanese theorist Kuan-Hsing Chen has contended, decolonization is a dialectical movement that “cannot be completed without a corresponding deimperialization movement in the imperial center,” a movement that as a priority must confront imperialism.[17] Through the circuitous transits of empire, Sasam has, in this forum, come home to roost in the United States.[18]  

The contributions to this forum further disclose critical lines of continuity between the past and the present, namely, the historic April Third uprising and the ongoing people’s struggle against the imposition of the nominally “ South Korean” navy base on Gangjeong, a village along Jeju’s southern coast, that has been sacrificially subordinated to contemporary U.S. geostrategic designs for containing China. As anti-base activist, Jeong Seon-nyo, has pointed out, “The people who took power then [the era of Japanese colonial rule] are the right-wing today. There is a direct influence from Japanese colonialism, 4.3, the Korean War, up to the Jeju Navy Base.”[19] Insofar as U.S. intervention in the Korean peninsula in the wake of Japan’s war defeat meant the rehabilitation of pro-Japan collaborators as reliably anticommunist partners, the rightist power structure that persists to this day reflects South Korea’s failure to decolonize.

Then as now, the destruction of land, life, and relations in Jeju has taken the form of South Korean state suppression, even as it is unthinkable outside U.S. military priorities. As longtime anti-base activist Choi Sung-hee observes in this forum, the “essence of the struggle is the same” in that “both April Third and the anti-navy base movement represent struggles against a foreign power and the central government dominating and controlling the island people, regardless of the islanders’ will.”[20] Furthermore, then as now, the North Korean “threat” has been wielded to justify the militarization of the island through the undemocratic construction of a base that the U.S. military, in keeping with the terms of its mutual defense agreement with South Korea, can use at whim and at will.

Figure 2. Anti-base artwork near Gureombi rock, Gangjeong. Source: Save Prof Yang and Sung Hee Choi of Jeju Island Facebook page.

Indeed, one of the structural consequences of the Korean War’s irresolution has been the opportunistic seizure of Korea’s division to neutralize democratic resistance. In March 1948, the U.S. journalist Hugh Deane predicted how red-baiting would tragically play out in southern Korea: “North Korea will be accused of sending agitators and military equipment south of the 38th parallel and the Korean problem will be made to look as if it were simply southern defense against northern aggression.”[21] Although the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps uncovered “no evidence of North Korean personnel or equipment” in the rebel infrastructure in Jeju, the police “blam[ed] agitators from North Korea for the trouble.”[22] Ironically, many of the fascist thugs in the Northwest Youth League deployed to crush the uprising in Jeju were, in point of fact, originally from the north, having fled or been dispossessed by North Korea’s socialist revolution. It was the members of this anticommunist paramilitary organization who wreaked mayhem on the island, slaughtering thousands of people. Fast forward to the recent past: in a 2013 speaking tour of the United States, Jeong Young-hee, Gangjeong tangerine farmer and then-Chairwoman of the Women Villagers’ Committee to Stop the Naval Base, stated:

The government ignores our cries and instead permits violence by police, the navy, service workers (so called “security”) of big corporations such as Samsung and Daelim while treating local residents as if they were criminals. …During the process of struggle, Gangjeong villagers and activists have become labeled criminals. Do you know that hundreds of villagers (approximately 400) have become criminals just for opposing the naval base construction project? We are citizens of the country, but they say we are pro-North Korea, left-wing, just for opposing the project.[23]

In this way, the past structurally reverberates in the present. As Jeju native and Oakland-based dancer, choreographer, and educator Dohee Lee observed a decade ago, “the construction of [the]base is once again destroying the land and people. Drills cut into ancient volcanic stone and families, neighbors and villages divided again. Sixty years. It still continues.”[24]


Christine HONG is Associate Professor of Literature, director of Critical Race and Ethnic Studies, and co-director of the new Center for Racial Justice at UC Santa Cruz. She is the author of A Violent Peace: Race, Militarism, and Cultures of Democratization in Cold War Asia and the Pacific. Along with Deann Borshay Liem, she co-directed the Legacies of the Korean War oral history project. She serves on the board of directors of the Korea Policy Institute, an independent research and educational institute, and she is the co-editor of the journal of Critical Ethnic Studies.

[1] Sven Lindqvist, The History of Bombing (New York: The New Press, 2001), 127.

[2] Kang Jeong-goo in Christine Hong, “The First Year of Peace on the Korean Peninsula,” Foreign Policy in Focus, October 11, 2012.

[3] Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at 60th Anniversary of the Korean War Armistice,” July 27, 2013.

[4] Kim Sok-pom, The Curious Tale of Mandogi’s Ghost, trans. Cindi L. Textor(New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 33-34.

[5] Hyun.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Kim Sok-pom, 34.

[10] See Kim Jongmin’s “Early Cold War Genocide: the Jeju 4.3 Massacre and U.S. Responsibility” in this forum.

[11] Ibid.

[12] See Hyun Ki-young’s “Literature of Memory Struggle” in this forum. Emphasis added.

[13] On the significant number of zainichi Koreans with Jeju forebears, see Sonia Ryang, “Reading Volcano Island: In the Sixty-fifth Year of the Jeju 4.3 Uprising,” Asia-Pacific Journal 11:36 (2013).

[14] Although the “forgotten war” was used to describe the war as early as 1951 in American media, it emerged as the banner under which U.S. veterans have rallied for historical recognition.

[15] Bruce Cumings, “The Question of American Responsibility for the Suppression of the Chejudo Uprising,” paper presented at the 50th Anniversary Conference of the April 3, 1948 Chejudo Rebellion, Tokyo, March 14, 1998.

[16] Henry Em et al., “Coda: A Conversation with Kim Dong-Choon,” The Unending Korean War special issue, positions: asia critique 23:4 (2014): 843. See also Hyun Ki-young who writes, “For nearly thirty years, the Massacre was the worst taboo in Korean modern history,” in this forum.

[17] Kuan-Hsing Chen, Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010), 200.

[18] The phrase “transit of empire” is Jodi Byrd’s. See Jodi Byrd, The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

[19] Kaia “Curry” Vereide, “Planting Seeds of Consciousness Outside the Naval Base: Interview with Jeong Seon-nyeo,” Rock! Paper! Scissors! Tools for Anarchist + Christian Thought and Action 2:3 (2020), ed. Seth Patrick Martin.

[20] See “Over 5,000 Days of Resistance: An Interview with Anti-base Activist Choi Sung-hee on the Gangjeong and Jeju Struggle for Peace” in this forum.

[21] Hugh Deane, as qtd. in Cumings.

[22] Cumings.

[23] Jeong Young-hee, “Constructing Peace: Voices of Resistance from Jeju Island,” UC Santa Cruz, May 6, 2013.

[24] Dohee Lee, “Why Do We Need Myth” artist statement.