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North-South summit stirs hope for Korean woman in Japan who fled Jeju uprising

Song Bok-hee, who experienced the 1948 military uprising and government suppression on Jeju Island, is pictured in Higashiosaka, Osaka Prefecture, on April 17, 2018. (Mainichi)

HIGASHIOSAKA, Osaka -- As the first North-South Korean summit in over 10 years began on the morning of April 27, 87-year-old Song Bok-hee, a Zainichi Korean woman here, watched the talks with an undying hope for peace, while recalling her homeland's troubled past.

Song fled her home soil of Jeju Island, South Korea, following the April 3, 1948 uprising on the island and subsequent crackdown, and when the Korean War threw Korean Peninsula into chaos, she gave up on returning.

Song was born into a sweet-potato farming family in Seogwipo, Jeju Island, when Korea was under the control of the Japanese government. While Song and her family couldn't be described as affluent, they lived peacefully with the help of her relatives and neighbors.

But all of that changed on April 3, 1948. Those on the island opposed to splitting the peninsula into the communist North and the U.S.-backed South orchestrated an armed uprising. What followed was a military suppression campaign by Rhee Syng-man, who later became South Korea's first president. In the crackdown, villages of Jeju were systematically burned to the ground one after the other. Starting with her uncle, Song saw more and more relatives fall victim to the violence.

As the crackdown on the citizens of the island only got more severe, Song made the decision to secretly escape to Japan. Even though she thought her father would be against it, he urged her to go, telling her that if she could come up with the money then she should take the opportunity to leave. Depending on her older sister, now 97, who had crossed the Sea of Japan before her, she moved to Osaka's Ikuno Ward.

On June 25, 1950, immediately after her arrival, the Korean War broke out. While Song had planned on going back home when things had returned to normal, her hopes were outweighed by the intensifying severity of damage to her war-torn country, and she gave up on her plan. After two years living in Japan, word came that her father, who was still in Jeju, had died.

Song married another Korean in Japan. They started a family and were blessed with four children. In order to put food on the table, Song toiled away at a plastic-container manufacturing company that her husband had operated. "It wasn't that difficult," she recalled. "I was able to continue living as long as I worked hard in Japan."

Wanting to block out her traumatic memories of Jeju, Song had avoided attending the memorial service held each year in April on the island for the victims. But as this year marked the 70th anniversary of the uprising, Song gathered the courage to go.

"At my age, I thought it might be my last chance," she explained. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who was also in attendance, came up to Song and shook her hand when he learned that she was a relative of victims of the crackdown and had come all the way from Japan.

The past 70-year period represents the history of the division between the Korean peoples. The North-South summit on this occasion may turn out to be a turning point in the history of the peninsula.

"It may be impossible that I will see a united Korea in my lifetime," said Song. "But I will continue to hold onto hope. For now, I only pray that peace will finally come."

(Japanese original by Hideto Okazaki, Osaka City News Department)

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