Cultural Trauma and Healing: The Case of Jeju Island


Many of the world’s cultures have experienced a period of trauma and healing, as a result of war, famine, genocide or other state violence, natural disaster, or other causes. There are ways of healing both typical and unusual or culture-specific; some avoid the issue altogether, at least initially, thereby delaying the healing, often repressed by authority or due to an element of shame — or because the pain is just too overwhelming. Some loudly proclaim their pain to the world, while other cases are little known to others.

How we, as individuals and as cultures, experience trauma and work toward its resolution and transformation can vary widely.

The case of the Holocaust during World War II is perhaps one of the most well-known in modern times. In part, this may be due to the sheer number of countries involved, and while the reality of the prisoner camps was not widely known until after the war was over, at that point it could no longer be hidden. Too, the Jewish population, primary target of genocide though there were many others, has long been dispersed throughout the world, so many countries had a direct connection to this traumatic experience. Less well known, however, is the story of other groups also targeted during that period: the Roma and Sinta, those with disability, homosexuals, the mentally ill, and more.

Many other cases of cultural trauma and healing have been reported globally, that we may all learn from the experience in areas of healing, of justice, and of prevention.

One of the most violating, perhaps, akin to child abuse by a parent, is that of state violence. Numerous cultures have experienced such in one form or another; beyond the physical trauma, which can come in many forms, is the emotional damage, all the worse as the violence comes from the very structures of society that we trust to ensure our security: military and police, backed by government. In addition to this is the sociocultural destruction that can take generations to rebuild.

When such violence takes place on an island, there is yet another layer of trauma: entrapment. This can occur in other circumstances as well, such as in the Jewish ghettos or the concentration camps during WWII, but an island with its wide watery boundary makes for an especially terrifying and thus terrorizing circumstance.

Add to this: an immediately prior and long-term military occupation by a foreign power, the very recent end to a protracted multinational war and new occupying military forces in one’s territory, implementation of a type of government that one’s country has never had before, and which results in a period of instability and power vacuum — and ultimately in an ideological division of the country into two, fueled by foreign powers, and even more historical, social, and cultural layers — and you begin to have the case of Jeju.

Jeju Island is today a prime holiday destination for Koreans, and increasingly so for global travelers; Time magazine, just days prior to this writing, included Jeju in its 2023 list of “World’s Greatest Places,” while the International Convention Center on the island sees numerous events per year, just one of which — IUCN’s World Conservation Congress in 2012 — brought 10,000 new visitors from around the world.

Most who come to the island, while they may know that Korea had a war in the 1950s, have no idea of the period of terror and trauma the islanders experienced in the few years prior. It is just now beginning to be known in university courses and both academic and newspaper articles outside of Korea, and with good reason: though this period took place in the late 1940s, it was subsequently illegal for nearly 50 years to openly discuss or publicize about it at the risk of detention, torture, and imprisonment; the social taboo over same lasted yet another decade after its mention was decriminalized. While there is now official agreement at all levels of society over the events of this period, the topic remains controversial and sensitive to this day.

And so, 75 years later, the world is just beginning to know about the trauma and ongoing healing of Jeju Island.

excerpted from Introduction to Cultural Trauma and Healing: The Case of Jeju Island, author Anne Hilty, ©2023