Article begins

There is an underground cave called Doteul in the dark overgrowth of Dongbak-Dongsan forest in Guija-eup, in central Jeju Island. If not for the narrow constructed road and guideposts for tourists, it would be almost impossible to find the cave. When Korea was engulfed in the violence of the Cold War in 1948, Doteul cave served as a hiding place and safe haven for villagers, since only the villagers with intimate knowledge of the area could find the cave. 

In 2022, the Korean Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) started operating the nation’s first satellite-tracking center in Guija-eup, across from the Doteul cave. The satellite center tracks and monitors the operation of all South Korean satellites orbiting the Earth. In public reports, KARI explained that they chose Guija-eup because it was sparsely populated compared to other parts of Jeju Island. By placing the satellite center in a sparsely populated area, KARI could minimize the public health impact of electromagnetic radiation that emanates from telescopes. However, the reason Guija-eup, and the central area of Jeju, became “sparsely populated” is due to the political violence of 1948 which reduced the population of this region through massacre and displacement. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that the satellite-tracking center has been built next to a cave that symbolizes a bloody civilian genocide and violence, as South Korea’s investment in technoscientific modernity is intimately entangled with the Cold War violence that defined its political modernity.

“It is a truly haunting story.” Kim, a local told me. “There used to be a village near here which was destroyed in 1948.” That was a fateful year for the people of Jeju and the Korean peninsula. Korea had just gained independence in 1945 after being colonized by the Japanese Empire for over 30 years. But as soon as it gained independence, Korea was swept into the global Cold War, in which the US and Soviet Union vied for control of what eventually became North and South Korea.

While the leftists and ethnic nationalists in South Korea wanted to create a united and joint government with North Korea, the conservative politicians backed by the United States insisted on holding a separate election for a separate capitalist government in South Korea. This shattered the hope for peacefully creating a united Korean government. Many people in South Korea were not happy with this political maneuver. This led to widespread protest in many places, including in Jeju. 

The nascent South Korean state sanctioned a massacre that started in 1948 and killed at least 30,000 people, which is referred to as the 4.3 incident because it started on April 3, 1948. Later on October 11, 1948, the new South Korean government announced that anyone who still lived in or crossed over more than 5km inland of the coastal area in Jeju Island would be considered a communist guerilla and would be killed or imprisoned. Most inland villagers who were killed, however, were not ideologues or leftist militia. Most of them simply did not want to, or have the means to, move out of their hometown with such a short warning.   

Government troops came to Guija-eup on November 25, 1948, and killed 29 civilians. Most of those killed were young men, but a handful of them were children. The whole village of Daerim-dong, composed of about 50 people, was destroyed in this process. The people who were hiding in Doteul cave were discovered and shot. Kim told me about a young couple who were planning to get married but were both killed on that day. Afterward, the surviving villagers held a soul marriage ceremony for the spirits of the young couple.

Many people who saw their neighbors and families get killed did not come back to the inland areas because of trauma and fear of being labeled “palgangi,” or the “red monster,” a derogatory term used to describe communists or communist sympathizers. Because the villagers did not come back, many villages in central Jeju remained abandoned after the military conflict was over. There are 87 such “ghost towns” in Jeju Island that were destroyed or abandoned during the 4.3 incident. The satellite-tracking center is now built near one of these abandoned villages, across from the Doteul cave. 

Young Cheol Hong, an environmental and civic activist, told me that it was likely through the post-1948 state logic “that any land that is not private property will become state-owned. I believe this is how this land became state property, after 4.3 massacres that destroyed the village and displaced the villagers. This central Jeju area suffered a lot because of militarized state violence. I wonder if the state is once again triggering harm and trauma.” 

For decades following the 4.3 incident, people were arrested or persecuted for speaking critically against the state. Any antistate comments or movements were considered procommunist and were violently suppressed. Hong said, “there is basically no one in Jeju whose family wasn’t impacted by 4.3. And we weren’t allowed to talk about it until very recently.” He was referring to the democratization of South Korean society in the 1990s that finally allowed open social discussion about and compensation for victims of violence perpetrated by the state and the military during 1948. This process is ongoing and far from complete.  

Sung-hee Choi, a peace activist based in Jeju Island, has been very vocal about how she thinks the space program is an extension of South Korean militarism. Regarding the satellite-tracking center, she told me that “at first, they advertised it as a public facility that will boost the local economy and promote science education. But it turns out that South Korea’s national intelligence service and the military were involved in the construction of this satellite facility. Because of that, we have not seen any transparency or public accountability.”

Credit: Sung-Hee Choi
Two activists hold a banner that says "Stop Space Industry"
Two activists hold a banner that says “Stop Space Industry”

For the past two decades, peace activists in Jeju Island have been mobilizing against the construction of the South Korean naval base in Gangjeong, in South Jeju. The activists now see the expansion of South Korea’s space program in Jeju as another threat to the demilitarization of the island, as they see the space program as an extension of the South Korean military. 

Activists in Jeju, like Choi and Hong, revisit the history of 4.3 to articulate the importance of complete demilitarization of the island. However, the US military and South Korean military continue to use the strategic location of Jeju Island in the name of anticommunism and national security against the perceived threat from North Korea. National security against North Korea is often evoked as a reason for the need to develop military technologies as well as satellite technologies for surveillance and monitoring. Competition with North Korea remains an impetus for the South Korean governmental support for technoscience.  

Sung-hee Choi shared with me the difficulties of articulating her activism around outer space to the South Korean public. She said it is difficult to convince the South Korean public why it is important to even care about outer space and to explain the issues of militarism related to it. Caring for outer space in South Korea is difficult to articulate, since it has to do with expansive issues of militarized space, time, fractured memories, and ghosts that continue to haunt South Korean society. South Korea’s space program is one of the many state projects through which conflicting memories of the nation’s modern history of decolonization, ideological conflict, democratization, and development come to surface. 

Sociologist Grace Cho has used haunting and hauntology to talk about the unspoken trauma and gendered violence that were experienced by the Korean diaspora following the Korean War. What kinds of relations are made visible when we think about the haunted infrastructure and technologies that make outer space knowable, visible, and imaginable? Banu Subramaniam, writing about the discipline of biology and the haunting legacy of Darwin, writes that “in learning to see ghosts, scientific practice transforms into a deep-seated historical practice, where the objects and subjects of science and their histories come hurtling into focus.” A focus on the ghostly presences in the satellite center reveals the histories and memories of the place in which a “technoscientific future” in outer space is being built in South Korea.

Space and science museums in South Korea promote outer space as the space of the future, where the children and students will one day have settlements or visit intergalactic hotels. Absent in such discourse of outer space as a space of technoscientific progress are the histories of violence and genocide that often literally clear land to be occupied by scientific infrastructures. In the case of Jeju Island, what is absent in discussion of futurity are the civilians that were killed and displaced and villages that were destroyed, which provided the conditions for building a satellite-tracking center in the same area some 70 years later. What is also not discussed is the militarization of space technologies such as satellites as well as the militarization of outer space itself, which is becoming a space for international conflict and competition instead of cooperation. 

Every April, many residents across Jeju hold communal shamanist rituals for those who were killed or disappeared during the violence of 4.3. In this ceremony, the spirits of the dead, who still haunt the Earth because they had untimely, unjust deaths, come to greet the survivors and partake in the ritual by eating the food offered to them and listening to the songs and chants in their memory. Remembering is a way of healing and appeasing the ghosts. Spirits and ghosts from 4.3 haunt activists and survivors and prod them to do the unfinished work of mourning, justice, and peace. As militarized violence in Korea continues in different forms, even in outer space, the ghosts of 4.3 continue to haunt and make visible the relations between science, futurity, politics, and history that are yet to be articulated. 

Taras Fedirko and Whitney Russell are section contributing editors for the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology.


Hae-Seo Kim

Hae-Seo Kim is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. Their dissertation research is about the sociopolitical environment in which outer space is explored in South Korea, where shamanist, folk, and scientific cosmologies co-constitute the material and social relations of South Korea’s space exploration. They are interested in learning about different cosmologies and folk stories of outer space from around the world, and they engage with feminist, postcolonial, and indigenous theories of science and technology. They are also a contributing editor for AnthroPod: The Podcast for the Society of Cultural Anthropology.

Cite as

Kim, Hae-Seo. 2024. “Haunting Technoscientific Futures in South Korea.” Anthropology News website, April 22, 2024.

More Related Articles

A Reliable Narrator

Erin Routon