Cover of book: The Island of Sea Women

Lisa See
The Island of Sea Women

The bloody Cold War history of South Korea’s picturesque Jeju Island is not well known, even among mainland Koreans. And yet it’s estimated that more than 25,000 civilians were killed as part of a government-led anti-communist campaign between 1947 and 1954. Tens of thousands more fled the island. Indeed, many had no choice but to turn back to the old colonial enemy, Japan.

The scale of the killing boggles the mind. The population of the island was decimated in a struggle against no more than 500 leftist insurgents with fewer than half that number of rifles. Two-thirds of the island’s villages were burned to the ground. And the most sadistic kinds of torture were committed for the sake of amusement.

One theory is that the authoritarian South Korean president Syngman Rhee, anticipating the North Korean invasion, wanted to purge Jeju Island in order to create a fallback position for the army. But whatever its cause, this awful episode in South Korea’s history should be known and discussed by a wider international public.

So it’s worth celebrating this vigorous new novel by best-selling Californian author Lisa See. The Island of Sea Women tackles the Jeju uprising head on, including graphic but credible descriptions of state-sponsored violence, exploring the complex effects on survivors and their children and raising the possibility of qualified forgiveness for the sake of future generations.

It also honours the women-focused culture of Jeju, whose communal values and practices are exemplified by the remarkable haenyeo or traditional female divers.

One reason this period of history is relatively unknown is that, until the country’s first democratic elections in 1987, any mention of the mass killings could – and often did – lead to arrest and indefinite detention by the South Korean secret police.

In fact, the government only officially acknowledged the extent of the slaughter in 2003. The testimonies of survivors were published in a report by South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2009, a document relied on extensively by See.

It’s particularly significant that a popular author such as See, known for her sprawling family sagas with strong feminist themes, should write about Jeju, because the United States played a major role in facilitating and then covering up the bloodshed. At the time of the uprising, the US Army Military Government in Korea controlled the southern half of the Korean peninsula, including Jeju Island.

As See notes, the US military was aware that government forces and their paramilitary allies were committing war crimes because they sent a fact-finding mission that discovered multiple mass graves and villages reduced to ashes. And yet they did nothing.

“Is not doing something their way of sending us a message about their real intentions?” asks one of the characters in The Island of Sea Women.

In fact, it was the US that helped set the pattern of indiscriminate killing, ordering Korean police to open fire on demonstrators at a rally in 1947, an incident that led directly to the Jeju uprising. And US military personnel were involved in the conviction of hundreds of Jeju community leaders imprisoned on the mainland, where they were eventually executed at the outbreak of the Korean War.

See has a naturally vivid style and can sometimes seem to relish the drama of cruelty. For instance, her previous novel, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, contains wrenching descriptions of life in a remote village in China’s Yunnan province, including the murder of infant twins whose birth is considered an ill omen.

(Indeed, The Island of Sea Women opens with a tense underwater scene in which a young haenyeo is all but drowned by a huge octopus.)

At the heart of this book is a reimagining of the massacre at Bukchon, a coastal village where, on the morning of January 17, 1949, two soldiers were killed by insurgents. In retaliation, the local battalion commander ordered the execution of the entire village: about 1000 men, women and children. In the end, they managed to kill more than 400. Why did they do it? According to the Truth and Reconciliation report, the officers had wanted to desensitise their younger soldiers to the horrors of war.

Young-sook, the novel’s main character, is present at the village with her husband and children on the day of the killing. So too is her childhood friend Mi-ja, who has married a local man with close ties to the US military. As the soldiers separate those with family members in the police and army, Young-sook begs Mi-ja to help save her children. Mi-ja refuses to even try.

Young-sook survives but can never forgive Mi-ja, who eventually immigrates to the US. Many years later, when Young-sook meets her erstwhile friend’s great-grandchildren, she finally comes to better understand the other’s actions.

The Island of Sea Women is not a literary masterpiece like Han Kang’s Human Acts, the acclaimed novel about the suppression of the 1980 Gwangju student rebellion. And it is not written by a Jeju native, so it lacks some of the raw poignancy of Hyun Ki-young’s 1978 novella, Sun-i Samch’on, which also focuses on the Bukchon massacre. It is, however, a book that will ensure millions of readers learn of the terrible events of 70 years ago – or even hear about them for the first time.

Of course, this is more than just a worthy consciousness-raising novel. See is a first-rate storyteller with an attractively rapid style. As in her previous nine novels, The Island of Sea Women pays tribute to women’s friendship and reflects on the causes of occasional rivalry. It also contains a wealth of colourful detail about the lives of Jeju’s fiercely independent haenyeo.

But See’s book is most important because it begins the necessary work of extending the processes of rehabilitation, empowerment and accountability beyond Jeju, beyond Korea and around the world.

Andrew Fuhrmann

Scribner, 384pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 20, 2019 as "Lisa See, The Island of Sea Women".

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Reviewer: Andrew Fuhrmann

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