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Smith: Exhibit a glimpse into Korean sister city's painful past

  • Members of the Junior Jeju Orchestra, all junior high school students of Bujeju, Korea, play for the crowd during the dedication ceremonies of the Dol-Hareubang statues in Santa Rosa in 2003. (PD File, 2003)

Jeju, Santa Rosa's sister city in South Korea, is located on an island sometimes praised as an Asian Hawaii.

But there also exists on the isle of Jeju an unhealed sorrow and a vein of resentment toward America. That enmity runs counter to the friendship that brought Santa Rosa a vibrant trans-Pacific exchange program, and also the stone sculptures across Sonoma Avenue from City Hall and at Jeju Way on Fourth Street.

A groundbreaking art exhibit that opens Feb. 7 at the Sonoma County Museum will provide people on this side of the sistership an opportunity to consider a massacre that struck Jeju 65 years ago. And about why some on the island are dubious of friendship with the United States.

The exhibit is, “Camellia Has Fallen: Contemporary Korean Artists Reflect on the Jeju Uprising.” It's the first American showing of art that speaks to the 1948 mass killings of Jeju citizens by a U.S.-supervised South Korean government bent on suppressing a left-wing rebellion at any cost.

“This is their Holocaust,” said Mario Uribe, the Santa Rosa artist who founded the ArtStart public art program and who frequently visits Jeju. He's confident “there was some U.S. involvement” in the massacre.

Uribe learned that for decades it was forbidden for anyone in South Korea to even speak of the rampage that killed tens of thousands on Jeju. The silence ended in 2006, when then-President Roh Moo-hyun apologized to Jeju residents for the slaughter of innocents.

Even today, few people anywhere are aware of what befell Jeju in 1948. The sister-city bond makes the Sonoma County Museum ideal for the art exhibit's first international visit.

If you go to see it, expect some conversation about a current clash that also has some Jeju residents criticizing America. The South Korean Navy is building a huge naval base that is supported by some on the island and is condemned by others as a provocative attempt by the U.S. to gain strategic advantage over China.

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