Workers Hammer No. 244
Imperialist mass murder in Korea
The 1948 Jeju massacre
The following article first appeared in Workers Vanguard (no 1143, 2 November 2018), newspaper of the Spartacist League/US.
“All exits to the sea, all roads, and all exits from villages were blocked. Under the command of Colonel John Mansfield, the Fifth Korean Constabulary Regiment and the National Police swept across villages searching for weapons and ‘any suspicious characters, organizers, and Communists.’
All civilians were stopped on the road or in villages and herded together
. Between April 27 and May 6, the island of Cheju was sealed off from the outside world and suffered an ‘orgy of slaughter’.”
— Su-kyoung Hwang, Korea’s grievous war (2016)
Seventy years ago, in April 1948, South Korean forces under the control of the US Army launched an anti-Communist massacre on Jeju (Cheju) Island off the south coast of the Korean peninsula. Their aim was to eradicate all opposition to the brutal military dictatorship installed by US occupation forces after Japan’s defeat in the Second World War. The bloodbath continued for more than a year; by the end, as many as 80,000 people had been slaughtered, more than 20 per cent of the island’s population. Women were systematically raped. Seventy per cent of all homes were destroyed.
The truth about the Jeju butchery was systematically suppressed for decades: even the mass graves were kept hidden. To this day, the events are little known outside the peninsula. Yet the massacre was but one of many inflicted upon Korea’s workers and peasants by the US and its allies in their crusade to “roll back Communism” in Asia. This is the true face of imperialism, exposing as a cynical lie the “democratic” pretensions used by the US rulers to disguise their barbarism.
Su-kyoung Hwang’s book, which is based in part on interviews with survivors of the Jeju horrors, is a valuable contribution to uncovering this history. Hwang cites the account of a woman named Kim Ok-nyo: “I was stripped naked in the police yard and beaten senseless with a log, everywhere and even here. My hands were tied with cables, and before they switched on the electricity, they would run the water and fill the tank up.... When it seemed like they were going to kill me, I pleaded, ‘Just kill me, please kill me’.” Another elderly survivor, Kim Tae-jin, described how islanders were herded to the shoreline as police burned down their villages, homes and schools, then lined up for execution as suspected communists. “The police remained free of any culpability,” he said. “So they could kill anyone, countless innocent lives.”
The Jeju bloodbath was a direct precursor to the 1950-53 Korean War. In that war, US-led forces under the auspices of the United Nations slaughtered three million people as the imperialists sought to crush a social revolution on the Korean peninsula and destroy the deformed workers state that had been created in North Korea under the protection of Soviet troops. US warplanes attacked Korea with napalm and destroyed cities, factories and dams. Civilians were massacred by the tens of thousands, as in the South Korean village of No Gun Ri, where some 400 peasants including women and children were machine-gunned to death by the US First Cavalry Division. In the words of Air Force general Curtis LeMay, who organised the firebombing of Tokyo in WWII: “We burned down every town in North Korea and in South Korea too.” Washington repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons as well, but was hindered by Moscow’s development of its own nuclear arsenal.
The US rulers sought to use the Korean War as a staging post to the overthrow of the 1949 Chinese Revolution, which had smashed capitalist class rule in the world’s most populous country, but were blocked by the intervention of some three million heroic Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops. The war was fought to a stalemate, after which Washington for decades propped up a series of brutal police-state regimes in South Korea. Nearly 30,000 US troops remain there to this day, an ever-present threat to China as well as North Korea and to the combative South Korean working class.
We demand the withdrawal of all US forces from South Korea and an end to imperialist sanctions against North Korea. As Trotskyists, we stand for the unconditional military defence of North Korea, China and the other deformed workers states against imperialism and counterrevolution, including their development of nuclear weapons as a deterrent against imperialist attack. On this basis, we call for the revolutionary reunification of Korea through socialist revolution in the South and workers political revolution to oust the parasitic Stalinist bureaucracy in the North, establishing a government based on workers democracy and revolutionary internationalism.
A mass upsurge of workers and peasants
The Jeju events grew out of an upsurge by Korea’s workers and peasants that began in 1945. With the collapse of Tokyo’s brutal, decades-long colonial rule, the masses rose up, engaging in protests, strikes and land and factory seizures. The small Korean capitalist class had been wholly dependent on their Japanese overlords and was hostile to the fight for national emancipation.
In the wake of Japan’s defeat, the Soviet Red Army moved into the peninsula from the north. The US hastily proposed, and Stalin criminally accepted, the division of Korea at the 38th parallel. A regime led by Kim Il Sung, a former Stalinist guerrilla fighter in Japanese-controlled Manchuria, was installed in the North under Soviet army protection and soon moved to expropriate the landlords and capitalists. This was a social revolution that established the economic foundations of workers rule, though one deformed from birth by the existence of a bureaucratic caste that monopolised political power and deprived Korean workers of control over their own state. In the South, in stark contrast, the US occupying forces allied with those who had collaborated with the Japanese, to crush the workers and peasants insurgency that was spreading throughout the country. Police, judges and prison guards who had served the colonial regime simply went from Japanese to US pay.
Organisations known as people’s committees had emerged after the Japanese defeat across most of the country. Their character varied from area to area: some were led by “patriotic” bourgeois and religious forces, while others were dominated by left-wing peasant-based nationalists or forces based on the working class. The latter prominently included the Communist Party (CP), whose members had previously been in exile or underground, as well as workers who were among the millions who returned home after being forced to toil in Japanese factories and mines during the war. In the North, the most industrialised part of Korea, the Soviet-backed regime encouraged land and factory takeovers by the people’s committees, then moved to co-opt them as it consolidated its bureaucratic rule.
In June 1946, half a million protesters marched in Seoul against the US military regime. In September, tens of thousands of rail workers went on strike, demanding the nationalisation of industry and dismissal of all police and government officials who had collaborated with the Japanese. This sparked a general strike that was backed by peasants and students. The US ruthlessly suppressed the uprising, killing hundreds and arresting tens of thousands. “We set up concentration camps outside town and held strikers there when the jails got too full,” wrote one American official. “It was war. We recognized it as war. And that is the way we fought it” (cited in George Katsiaficas, Asia’s unknown uprisings, Volume 1 ).
The turmoil soon spread to Jeju, a strategically located island that US Army reports described as a “hotbed of Communism” and a “cancer of the troubles in South Korea”. After the Japanese surrender, workers had seized all 72 of the chemical and manufacturing enterprises on the island. By late 1946, the new Workers Party of South Korea (WPSK) — a fusion of the South Korean wing of the CP and two other organisations — had won control of the local people’s committee, which largely consisted of farmers and fishermen.
The WPSK and its CP predecessor were far from being authentic revolutionary parties; rather, they upheld the disastrous Stalinist strategy of seeking allies among “progressive” bourgeois forces. The CP had sought an alliance with the US occupiers as potential liberators from the Japanese. And now the WPSK was ready to link up with any force, including elements of the national bourgeoisie, that opposed those in the ruling class and military who had collaborated with the Japanese and were now serving as US tools.
Cold War and counterrevolutionary terror
When tens of thousands rallied in Jeju City on 1 March 1947 to mark the anniversary of a 1919 revolt against Japanese rule, US forces ordered South Korean police to open fire, killing six people. An island-wide general strike broke out against the killings. The US brought in hundreds of additional police and a squad of nearly 1000 fanatically right-wing youth who had been displaced from North Korea. Fascist bands organised by these thugs engaged in an orgy of terror, raping and murdering their way from village to village on the island.
That same month, as part of the Cold War against the Soviet Union, Democratic Party president Harry Truman announced a global policy of American military, political and economic intervention to stop the spread of Communism. At the time, Korea was the main front of the anti-Soviet drive in Asia. Having already blocked all transit across the North-South border, the US banned radio contact with the North. The WPSK was declared illegal and repression increased sharply throughout the US-occupied zone.
Washington turned to Syngman Rhee, a rabid anti-Communist who had lived in the US for decades, as its hand-picked puppet to become president of the South in an “election” boycotted by all other parties. Rhee was literally the only prominent Korean politician the US could find who was not tainted by support to the Japanese occupation. He had already promised his paymasters that Jeju Island would be made available for a huge US military base.
The killings, repression and torture on the island, combined with opposition to the fraudulent US-run election, led the WPSK to launch an armed uprising on Jeju on 3 April 1948. Simultaneous attacks were launched against the fascist youth gangs and police stations across the island. These won broad support; even the provincial governor went over to the side of the insurgents. A truce was negotiated later that month, but the US vetoed it and ordered the Korean Constabulary to conduct a “scorched earth” policy. Eighteen US warships blockaded Jeju to prevent infiltration from the mainland and bombarded defenceless villagers. American military “advisers” provided South Korean forces and their fascist auxiliaries with advanced weaponry. In contrast, most rebels had only handmade spears, swords or farm implements.
As carnage swept through the island, revulsion at the mass murder led to revolts in the South Korean army. When the Korean Constabulary’s Fourteenth Regiment was ordered to Jeju to help suppress the uprising in October 1948, thousands of soldiers mutinied, killing their officers and former Japanese collaborators. The soldiers seized control of the area around Yeosu and nearby Suncheon on the mainland in what became known as the Yeosun Uprising. Mass celebrations broke out as they hoisted the flag of the newly declared People’s Republic in the North.
The US dispatched troops in a bloody counteroffensive that retook Suncheon and Yeosu. Thousands were executed, the army was purged of leftist elements, and a law was passed making collaboration with North Korea a capital offence. But mutinies continued over the following year. In May 1949, two battalions of the Eighth Regiment walked across the 38th parallel and joined the North Korean armed forces. A CIA assessment later that year reported that South Korea was “wholly dependent on U.S. economic and military aid for its survival”.
When the North Korean army moved south the following year, they were greeted as liberators by the workers and peasants. If not for massive US air power launched from Japan, followed by the full-scale military invasion under the UN fig leaf, the North Korean forces would likely have taken all of Korea with little resistance. The price of US imperialism’s intervention to shore up capitalist rule in South Korea is staggering: more than 100,000 killed from 1946 to 1950, followed by the extermination of millions in the war itself.
For workers revolution in the bastion of world imperialism!
The Jeju massacre was an unspeakable crime of US imperialism that should be seared into the consciousness of workers worldwide. Today, Jeju is marketed as a tourist paradise, the “Hawaii of South Korea”. But a decade ago, excavations at the island’s international airport unearthed the remains of hundreds of victims of the 1948-49 anti-Communist slaughter. Some 700 people had been summarily executed there, their bodies thrown into pits.
South Korea recently opened a massive naval base on Jeju’s south coast facing the East China Sea. US nuclear submarines and other naval vessels began arriving last year, part of Washington’s military “pivot to Asia” directed centrally against China and initiated under the Obama presidency. Construction of the base was met by years of angry protests on the island.
It was the Democratic Party administration of Truman that oversaw the mass killings in Jeju and elsewhere in South Korea and began the Korean War. After Donald Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un earlier this year, Democratic leaders denounced his supposed “concessions” and called North Korea a “threat to the security of the United States, our allies and the world”. The real threat to the world is US imperialism, armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons and with some 200,000 military personnel deployed in at least 170 countries. The Trump administration and the Democrats both seek to force North Korea to surrender its nuclear deterrent, which would render it defenceless in the face of US aggression.
The carnage on Jeju Island seven decades ago is but one example of the horrors perpetrated by US imperialism against working people and oppressed nations around the world. Our aim is the defeat of US imperialism through workers revolution by the multiracial proletariat. The Spartacist League is dedicated to building a revolutionary workers party that is the US section of a reforged Fourth International, the necessary leadership for the workers to put an end to capitalist rule and mass murder once and for all.