BUKCHON, South Korea — The soldiers descended upon the village, torching its homes and corralling residents into a schoolyard. After screening out relatives of military members and the police from the gathered crowd, the soldiers divided those remaining — men, women and children — into groups of 30 to 50, and dragged them away.
When the shootings were over in Bukchon, South Korea, 300 bodies, clad in traditional white clothes, were strewn across a nearby farm patch and rocky pine grove, looking “like so many freshly pulled radishes,” as survivors of the attack 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 decades of a strictly enforced silence, Jeju Island, where this and many similar atrocities took place, is now inviting visitors to learn first hand about one of the ugliest chapters in modern Korean history.
During these painful explorations of the island’s grim history, visitors occasionally 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.
The island became the country’s top tourist destination, with millions of visitors attracted by the scenic beauty and folk culture found around Bukchon on the island’s northern shore: old hackberry trees bent and twisted by the wind, jade-green coastal waters and so-called sea women diving for abalones and octopuses.
The new tourists are seeking a different experience.
“Jeju is no longer the tourist destination I used to know,” said Lee Hang-ran, 32, a schoolteacher from mainland South Korea, after visiting Bukchon.
After World War II, Korea was divided between an American-backed government in the South and a Soviet-backed one in the North. Starting in the spring of 1947, a group of Jeju islanders rose up against police brutality and called for a unified Korean government.
The police and soldiers, joined by a right-wing paramilitary group from the mainland, responded with an extermination campaign, branding the insurgents as Communist agitators. The rebels fought back, raiding police stations, but vastly outnumbered and outgunned, the peasant army was eventually crushed.
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.
Visitors can also see mass grave sites where hundreds of people, mostly relatives of the insurgents and others deemed leftist, were rounded up and executed as part of an effort to remove a potential fifth column at the outbreak of the Korean War in the early 1950s.
“They usually chose promontories, waterfalls and sandy beaches for execution sites because it was easier to dispose of bodies there,” said Lee Sang-eon, 56, a Bukchon native who lost four relatives and recently volunteered to give tours around his village.
Tales of brutality by government forces and paramilitary thugs are still recounted by islanders with both fear and spite, including the raping of women and requiring people to applaud as their relatives were killed. Soldiers are said to have forced a mother to walk around her village with the severed head of her insurgent son.
It was only in 2000 that a law took effect requiring a formal investigation. In 2006, the South Korean government apologized for the indiscriminate butchering of innocent islanders in the name of fighting Communism. In 2008, the government opened a large Jeju “Peace Park” honoring the victims.
At a government-built museum, thousands of names, including those of children, are inscribed in walls of black marble, helping visitors feel the scale of the slaughter.
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.
“They believed that if all the truth were known, it would sow discord in the village,” Mr. Lee said.
Some victims’ families remain fearful of a backlash and worry that if conservatives returned to power in Seoul, they would again suppress efforts to investigate.
Younger residents of the island, however, can be more eager to explore, and expose, the past.
The great-grandfather of Kim Myong-ji, 27, a Jeju native, was killed by government forces. But rather than hiding this family history, Mr. Kim is now an organizer of one of the tours that lay bare the past.
“I wanted to trace my great-grandfather’s life and why he had to die,” Mr. Kim said. “I want to raise the awareness of what happened in Jeju.”