Museum hosts symposium on Jeju, South Korea, killings

  • Art pieces by artists Park Kyoung Houn and Jeong Yong Seoing about the 4.3 Incident on Jeju Island in South Korea now showing at the Sonoma County Museum.

    (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

For decades, the people of Jeju, South Korea, were prohibited from talking about the killings of at least 30,000 of their countrymen over a seven-year period beginning in 1948.

A matter of "national security," residents of the island off the Korean peninsula couldn't discuss it publicly under threat of harsh authoritarian penalty.

That's finally changed. Still, though, reminders of it brought a few people to tears Saturday during a symposium about the massacre sponsored by the Sonoma County Museum.

Santa Rosa, Jeju's sister city, is hosting "Camellia Has Fallen: Contemporary Korean Artists Reflect on the Jeju Uprising," the first international exhibition of art that speaks to the mass killings by a U.S.-supervised South Korean government suppressing a leftist rebellion.

The symposium continues Sunday with artists, filmmakers and authors discussing the uprising and its historical context – including to what extent the U.S. government bears responsibility. It runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the University of San Francisco's Santa Rosa classrooms, 416 B St.

On Saturday, artist Kang Yo Bae described his paintings and drawings to a rapt audience. In often stark images, his work depicts the oppression, violence and devastation residents of Jeju endured in the post-World War II era, Korean War and Cold War buildup.

He struggled to hold back tears as historian and journalist Kim Jongmin described stories of residents who hid in mountain caves to escape marauding military policemen who set fire to whole villages and rounded up the inhabitants. He described how some parents, trying to quiet fussy infants so not to be found, unwittingly killed them.

Santa Rosa artist Mario Uribe, who founded the ArtStart public art program, helped convince the museum board to curate the Jeju exhibition."The idea was to bring their work here and begin healing by sharing their grief. It's a catharsis for artists," he said. "I want people here to learn about it, to learn about the consequences of war."

Kim served as a director on a committee in South Korea that investigated and prepared a report about the so-called "4.3 Incident," named for the April 3 date it began.

The report concluded American military forces bear some legal and moral responsibility for the killings, because the Korean security forces were under U.S. direction for a period of the killings, which lasted until September 1954.

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