Review: Hyun Kil-un – Dead Silence and other stories of the Jeju Massacre

Dead SilenceTranslated by Hyunsook Kang, Jin-ah Lee and John Michael McGuire
Eastbridge Books, 2006, 206 pages
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On a trip to Jeju Island a few years ago I remember having a slightly tipsy interaction with a Jeju-based journalist and intellectual, as we staggered from 2cha to 3cha via a liquor store. “I don’t like America”, he solemnly announced, as he clutched the bottle of makgeolli that we were about to share. When I asked why, he said: “because of 4:3”. I was surprised that an incident that is now 70 years in the past can still cause such emotion, but my lack of Korean and his lack of English was rather a barrier to explore the issue further.

The 4:3 incident is named after an early landmark in the conflict also known as the Jeju Uprising and the Jeju Massacre. The event took place on 3 April 1948 (hence 4:3, following the American custom of giving the month first), when coordinated attacks on Jeju police stations by leftists and activists opposed to separate elections in the US-administered half of the Korea peninsula provided the impetus for a brutal response from the authorities. And given that the tensions started during the period when USAMGIK was in control of the southern part of the peninsula, the US is considered by many to be accountable for the brutality of the subsequent clampdown. Thucydides, in his account of the civil strife in Corcyra, documented in forensic detail the savagery and breakdown in the social fabric that can occur in such times, and the 4:3 incident fits the template pretty well.

This book’s subtitle, “Stories of the Jeju Massacre”, does not immediately entice. But do not be put off. This is a compelling collection of stories that examines the turmoil and its aftermath in a commendably nuanced manner. Hyun Kil-un, born on the island, wrote these stories in the 1980s, a time when the safest way to try to uncover the truth of the period was through fiction rather than investigative journalism.

The first story, Dream of a Dragon Horse, is set in Joseon dynasty, pre-colonial times – when Jeju was regarded as a place to send criminals, and which was regarded as a hardship posting for a governor from Seoul. A well-respected local landowner cuts down some of his own tangerine trees as an act of civil disobedience: he was expected to surrender his full harvest to the king, and his protest against the oppressive taxation policies of a remote regime ultimately costs him everything. The story sets the historical context for the later oppression of Jeju islanders in more modern times.

The remaining six short stories are rooted in the massacre itself, often flitting back and forth between present day (in the 1980s) and the troubled past. The most straightforward and least interesting of the six is the title story, Dead Silence, which follows a failed attempt by the guerrillas to strike a decisive blow against the scorched earth policy of the anti-communist forces.

Hyun’s general approach is non-partisan, written from the perspective of a Jeju native grieving for the pain caused to the community by the strife. He focuses less on the rights or wrongs of either side and instead lays before us the tragedy of the conflict, in which families and neighbours were turned against each other, people needlessly slaughtered or falsely accused of communist sympathies (thus condemning them to death) simply as a way of settling personal rivalries or even – in the case of Grandfather – to avoid a gambling debt.

The stories involve priests, students and teachers with actual or assumed communist sympathies; families who are ostracised (or much worse) by their neighbours because a son or a father fought on the side of the guerrillas; and innocent victims slaughtered either by the punitive forces or the communists simply for living in the wrong place.

The most substantial and interesting story, Fever, follows tells the story of a journalist from a national newspaper who is given an assignment covering an award to be given to a prominent citizen from his home town in Jeju Island. As he speaks to various people involved in the award, he comes to question whether the citizen was as deserving of honour as the citation suggests. The story asks questions about whether “collaborators” who prospered under Japanese rule could nevertheless be thought of as patriotic in some sense. More importantly the story laments that even forty years after the 4:3 incident it was still not possible to ask questions about the past for fear of either opening wounds or antagonising entrenched interests.

The collection is thought-provoking in the questions it raises, and deftly seeks after the truth in the way that the fictional characters depicted in the stories are unable to. Recommended, with the minor quibble that it would have been nice to have had some information as to original date(s) of publication (sometime in the 1980s or thereafter) and Korean titles of the original stories.

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