Memories of Massacres Were Long Suppressed Here. Tourists Now Retrace the Atrocities.

BUKCHON, South Korea — The troopers descended upon the village, torching its houses and corralling residents right into a schoolyard. After screening out family of army members and the police from the gathered crowd, the troopers divided these remaining — males, girls and kids — into teams of 30 to 50, and dragged them away.

When the shootings have been over in Bukchon, South Korea, 300 our bodies, clad in conventional white garments, have been strewn throughout a close-by farm patch and rocky pine grove, trying “like so many freshly pulled radishes,” as survivors of the assault on Jan. 17, 1949, described it.

Seventy years later, a tour group arrived in Bukchon to look solemnly at the small graves of the infants killed that day. After a long time of a strictly enforced silence, Jeju Island, the place this and lots of comparable atrocities befell, is now inviting guests to be taught first hand about one of the ugliest chapters in fashionable Korean historical past.

During these painful explorations of the island’s grim historical past, guests sometimes meet survivors like Ko Wan-soon, 79.

“When my infant brother cried on the back of my mother, the soldier slammed him in the head twice with a thick club,” Ms. Ko said, recalling what happened at the Bukchon school ground. “It’s good that we can now talk about these things.”

These so-called “dark tours” reflect a growing freedom under the government of President Moon Jae-in to revisit the abuses perpetrated when South Korea was governed under a dictatorship. But for a long time, no one could discuss what happened at Bukchon and elsewhere around Jeju between 1947 and 1954.

During those years, Jeju, an island off the southern coast of South Korea, was a human slaughterhouse, with an estimated 30,000 people losing their lives, about one-tenth of the island’s population. A vast majority of them were killed by police, soldiers and anti-Communist vigilantes hunting for leftist insurgents and their relatives.

In South Korea’s postwar prosperity, however, golf courses and resort hotels were built on Jeju, not memorials and history museums.

Also killed were large numbers of relatives and others considered sympathizers.

During the crackdown, many rebels and villagers fled to the hills to hide in the island’s caves. As part of the tours, visitors crawl into some of these pitch-black rock shelters, using their smartphones for light. Rusting bullets and fragments of earthen utensils used by the fugitives are still found in these claustrophobic, bat-infested caves.

While the government has now acknowledged its culpability, victims’ families during the postwar decades lived with the stigma of being blacklisted as “reds” under the guilt-by-association system, and a pervasive system of political surveillance kept people from talking about the horrors they had witnessed.

Even though the history now can be freely discussed, many island residents choose not to.

The Jeju killings remain a sensitive topic in South Korea, which is divided over how to come to terms with its tumultuous modern history. Conservative activists still define the island’s uprising as “riots.”

“Where I come from, if you talk about things like the way the government oppressed the Jeju people, you are likely branded as a ‘red,’ ” said Jang Soo-kyeong, 48, who took a recent tour of the island and lives in Daegu, a conservative city in mainland South Korea. “I wish we could discuss this kind of thing freely regardless of changes in government.”

For residents of the island, the history is deeply personal.

Some families married their daughters to soldiers, police officers or anti-Communist vigilantes for survival. The rebels murdered relatives of police officers, as well as villagers who collaborated with soldiers. Islanders, often after torture, informed on their pro-insurgent neighbors.

“Relatives of victims and perpetrators still live in the same village,” said Kang Ho-jin, a Jeju native. “Old villagers know who killed whom.”

Many survivors have refrained from discussing the era even with their children. Interconnected through centuries of marriage, these older islanders wanted to end the vicious circle of hate begetting hate.

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