President Moon Jae-in on Tuesday apologized to the victims of state violence during a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the bloody April 3 incident on the southern island of Jeju.
Moon, the first head of state to attend the memorial event in a decade, also renewed his pledges to uncover the truth behind the tragedy, restore the victims' honor, make state compensations for them and retrieve the remains of the missing.
"I, as president, deeply apologize once again for all the pains stemming from the state violence and the efforts (to heal them), and also deeply appreciate them," Moon told a gathering of some 15,000 people, including the surviving victims.
President Moon Jae-in speaks during a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the bloody April 3 incident on the southern island of Jeju on April 3, 2018. (Yonhap)President Moon Jae-in speaks during a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the bloody April 3 incident on the southern island of Jeju on April 3, 2018. (Yonhap)
The Jeju April 3 incident refers to the government-civilian clash from 1948-1954, an outgrowth of Korea's ideological division following its 1945 liberation from Japan's colonial rule. A 2003 government report put the number of civilian deaths at between 25,000 and 30,000, about 10 percent of the island's population at the time.
"Today, I pledge to move forward toward the complete resolution of the April 3 incident without wavering. There will not be any suspension or retreat in our efforts to verify the truths behind the incident and restore (the victims') honor," he added.
The liberal president stressed that the government, in cooperation with the legislature, would try its best to support the victims and their families through measures, such as the establishment of a state trauma treatment center.
Noting that there are still some that refuse to recognize the Jeju incident, Moon called for the nation to "squarely face" the dark side of the country's modern history.
"Still, the Republic of Korea is awash with the languages of animosity and hostility that have been created by old ideologies," he said. "We have to escape the practice of putting ourselves in the framework of old ideologies."
In the several decades after 1954, authoritarian governments distorted or covered up the truth behind the incident and muzzled victims for the sake of public order and peace, the victims and their families have claimed. Some rightists had defended the government's bloody crackdown on islanders as part of a campaign to "exterminate communist sympathizers."
"Before the souls of the victims of the April 3 incident, we once again affirm that peace and co-existence can stand rightly based only on the truth, not ideologies," he said.
"The extreme confrontation between the right and left gave birth to the tragic piece of the history, but the victims and Jeju islanders went beyond the mistrust and animosity generated by the ideologies," he added.
The president, in addition, stressed that verifying the truth behind the Jeju incident is a process of repenting for the unfortunate past and recovering the "universal value of mankind."
"Restoring the honor of the victims in the April 3 incident is our future on a path towards reconciliation, coexistence, peace and human rights," he said.
The incident has returned to the spotlight, as Moon, who took power last May, pushes to address the grievances of the victims of past state abuses. Establishing the truth about the Jeju massacre is one of his 100 major election promises.
Just a month before last year's presidential election in May, Moon visited Jeju and pledged to attend the memorial ceremony this year as president and elevate its status to a national anniversary event.
In 2006, then-President Roh Moo-hyun traveled to the island to attend a memorial service for the victims -- the first time a South Korean leader had done so. (Yonhap News)