Jeju shines as Korea’s forgotten success story
“You cannot drive down the mountain road. Ever,” warned Mr. Lee, the owner of a Jeju scooter shop, as he used a red marker to highlight the treacherous, serpentine highway cutting through the middle of the island. It seemed this rule might be in our best interest. It created a quandary, however: Coming to Jeju and not hiking Hallasan is like coming to Korea and not trying kimchi. The experience just wouldn’t be complete without it.
So we postponed our plan to circumvent the island on two wheels and caught a bus to the mountain. It took several attempts over the course of a few days to successfully scale the summit, either because we started too late or hit inclement weather; but the third time was the charm — we finally reached the reflective waters of the caldera lake atop this 2-kilometer-high extinct volcano.
What we think of as Jeju is essentially the settled foothills of Hallasan, South Korea’s tallest peak. On its slopes of basalt and cooled lava, a people have eked out a living over several millennia, a people that are as distinct from mainland Korea as their subtropical climate. The island was originally known to Koreans as Tamna, and it wasn’t until 1105 that it was brought under the control of the mainland.
Amid its long-tumultuous relationship with dominant outside powers, Jeju has fostered a fiercely proud sense of local identity. In fact, the island culture is so distinct that its people developed an extreme dialect of Korean — some would argue it’s their own language. Called Jeju-eo, it diverged long ago from the common progenitor it shares with the mainland, and has a markedly separate syntax and lexicon. Once used by some 600,000 residents, only 5,000-10,000 speakers remain, most of whom are over 70 years old. UNESCO declared the language critically endangered in 2010, one of the society’s many hallmarks being lost to modernization.
This dialect, along with much else of what constitutes the essence of Jeju, is facing rapid erosion — its characteristic maritime religion, methods of subsistence, language and culture are on the brink of extinction. We sought to find the traces of this island culture before they slipped into history.
I. Mermaids on the Stony Shore
A few days later we set off eastward from Jeju City, at the center of the island’s northern coast, on one of Mr. Lee’s scooters. The main arterial 1132 highway, which runs around the perimeter, flows smoothly due to very few stoplights, no sharp turns and minimal traffic — just the free and open road. Heading clockwise, the endless coast envelops our left as thick foliage rolls upward on the right. Given that buses can be few and far between and many of the sites on the interior lack public transit options, traveling by scooter is undoubtedly the best way to explore Jeju.
Since the island is a mere 73 kilometers wide and 41 kilometers north to south, it didn’t take long to get to the northeastern end. This area boasts the main geological attractions that, coupled with Hallasan itself, have earned Jeju a coveted space among the New 7 Wonders of Nature. We swung off the main road toward the famed Manjanggul lava tubes. They were created by giant columns of lava burrowing their way out of the bowels of Hallasan in an eruption now in the distant past; the behemoth black tunnels are scoured out of the rock itself, and they’re the longest of their kind in the world. Along this side road is also the Gimnyeong Maze Park, a hedge maze fashioned after the almond shape of Jeju itself. Groups of people without wheels lined the sides of the road leading inland to these attractions, poor souls trudging along in pedestrian purgatory under the glaring sun.
Slightly farther down the coast are perhaps the most visible ambassadors of Jeju’s indigenous culture: the haenyeo, or diving women. In contrast to the mainland, Jeju society is founded on matriarchy, due largely to centuries of women controlling the income and family’s livelihood while the men were at sea. This iconoclasm of Confucian culture led Seoul policymakers to attempt to ban them from diving, but tradition reigned.
The haenyeo still dive to this day, plunging to depths of up to 20 meters to gather abalone, conch and other seafood by hand, without the aid of any equipment other than a mask. When they surface, the release of pressure from their lungs emits an audible whistle whistle. They are known in Korean folk culture as mermaids, and written records of them stretch back several hundred years.
In the Joseon period (1392–1910), Jeju was a place of exile. Cho Kwan-bin — a nobleman who was banished to Jeju in 1731 — described his fate as befitting “not an ordinary sinner, but one who just escapes the death sentence.” He also wrote that after witnessing the Herculean ordeals endured by the haenyeo to harvest abalone, he couldn’t in good conscience eat the dish ever again.
The haenyeo later made history when Jeju was under direct Japanese imperialist control (1910 through World War II). The island played its part in the Korean independence movement during this time, and the haenyeo led one of the most notable acts of resistance on the island: Spurred on by outrage over regulations from the Japanese Diver’s Association, they mobilized tens of thousands of people in protest against the colonial government before being subjugated in a brutal crackdown.
As recently as the 1960s, over 20 percent of the island’s income and over 60 percent of its fishing industry came from the divers. But due to modernization and changing lifestyles, only about 5,000 haenyeo remain working today, with the vast majority being over 60 years old. Like many traditional cultures globally, the Korean mermaids are at real risk of dying off (UNESCO has added them to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list). The Haenyeo Museum is a great place to learn more about the details of their saga. Nearby is also Seongsan Ilchulbong, known as Sunrise Peak, a small crater islet barely connected to the main island. Between the museum and this tuft cone is a small pebbly beach where a group of haenyeo dive and sell the maritime delicacies they forage from the depths to tourists watching from the shore.
You haven’t seen tough until you’ve seen an 80-year-old grandma trudging out of the rocky surf carrying a bag half her weight of shellfish she’s just hand-collected from the ocean floor. We drank and talked to the women in their wetsuits, cracked open shells and ate our fill. Out in the water, the shrill sirens of the surfacing haenyeo filled the air. The wind whipped as the waves crashed against the rocks, but they seemed as indomitable as the volcanic crag towering behind them.
II. Excitement, Economics, Empire
The next day, we continued our clockwise circumnavigation of the island, toward the southern city of Seogwipo. According to tourist info, the picturesque landscape we passed en route was dotted with golf courses, as well as many filming locations for Korean movies. Considering my rock-bottom level of interest in both golf and K-drama, I felt as if the map was brazenly challenging me to give less of a shit. We came upon citrus farms where Jeju’s sweet, delicious, iconic satsuma oranges are grown, and stopped to buy a bag. Farming is Jeju’s other major industry alongside tourism, and like every aspect of old-world Jeju, it too is bracing for severe change.
Korea’s new free trade deal with China is expected to impact Jeju’s satsuma orange industry with losses of over 160 billion won a year. The overall effect on the nation’s other agricultural products may be even greater, due to the influx of low-cost imported potatoes, onions, garlic, cabbages and carrots. And while the government plans to dole out 30 billion won in subsidies to help local farmers develop their infrastructure, many fear it won’t be enough to stem the tide.
This dual-pronged economy of tourism and agriculture is the lifeblood of Seogwipo. In addition to several noteworthy sites like Cheonjiyeon Waterfall, another popular activity here is taking a submarine ride. While not quite as exhilarating as Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, we nonetheless cruised around submerged beneath the waves and saw a realm usually denied to most beachgoers. As we set off from the rocky harbor, sunlight streamed down from the surface, with schools of fish darting away from our metallic leviathan. We went deeper to find the shapes of shipwrecks slowly forming amid the murky water, old fishing boats and trawlers littering the sea floor.
Those with a more adventurous streak might want to consider climbing into a wetsuit to get up close and personal with sea life. Although Korea isn’t usually thought of as a diving destination, Jeju is still considered the republic’s mecca of scuba. Big Blue 33 is a dive shop operated out of Seogwipo by German national Ralf Deutsch, and it offers several courses for all skill levels.
“Diving in Korea is like an attractive mix of Norway and the Red Sea — black rocks and kelp like in Norway coupled with the soft coral and colorful tropical fish like in the Red Sea,” says Wolfgang Pölzer, an Austrian dive journalist and photographer.
But the unsullied maritime environment faces new, possibly fatal challenges, with Jeju Naval Base (also called Gangjeong Naval Base) scheduled for completion in 2015. Construction of the 1 trillion won facility has been halted over half a dozen times due to protests. Destruction of cultural property, loss of ancient artifacts and damage to the local way of life are among the arguments against it, but the strongest opposition comes out of concern for the environment.
Construction has cleared out large amounts of ancient lava formations that make up Jeju’s only estuary, and this area is home to numerous species of cranes and aquatic life, many of which are endangered. “Disaster” is a word often used to describe the environmental impact of the project: International human rights organizations have condemned the organizers’ use of hired thugs to harass and intimidate activists, which resulted in several foreign protesters being arrested and deported.
The Korean government and Jeju’s own courts and administration have all supported the project and struck down grassroots efforts to prevent its completion. Proponents say the influx of money will stimulate the local economy — the base will serve as an occasional port for cruise ships — but the real motivation seems to be the geopolitical significance of a military presence in the area: Nearby waters are home to shipping lanes through which all of Korea’s exports and most of its petroleum imports are transported.
Supporters have also used as justification the increased capacity of military response in case of a North Korean threat. The base is planned to house 20 warships, three destroyers, several submarines and possibly even aircraft carriers. However, some see the North Korean threat as a mere diversion, and instead propose that the base is really intended as a power play directed toward China.
Tensions are heightened because of the waters surrounding the nearby island Ieodo, which are thought to contain oil and mineral deposits. The situation is comparable to posturing between Japan and China, but author Donald Kirk, in “Okinawa and Jeju: Bases of Discontent” (2013), writes that in stark contrast to the Japanese, the port on Jeju will not be used to house any American military presence. An old Jeju adage encapsulates the fears of many of the islanders — that they could end up like the proverbial “shrimp whose back gets broken in a fight between whales.”
III. Conquest of Paradise
As we rounded through the southwestern tip of the island, the flora became markedly thicker and jungle-like. Dense expanses of vegetation framed the side roads, while a deafening cacophony of cicadas served as an auditory temperature gauge. People moseyed on horseback in this lush, verdant area. Ma Park is known not only for riding but also as a place for watching dramatic recreations of Mongol horse warriors. The performers are actually Mongolians who’ve been sitting atop horses since before they could walk, and have come to show off their skills to the masses. Part hybrid stunt-riding exhibition and part medieval battle reenactment, “The Black Flag of Genghis Khan” is divided into three thrilling acts, featuring horseback archery, swordfights and riding acrobatics.
The horses are certainly not the first of their breed in the area — the Mongolian horses on Jeju have roots firmly entrenched in antiquity. Following the series of Mongol raids that culminated in 1270, Mongolia officially brought the peninsula — and its islands — on as an ally for the next 80 years. According to the Head of the Jeju Horse Culture Center, as quoted in The Jeju Weekly, the Mongols introduced 160 of their characteristic short, stocky mounts to the island in 1276. The conditions proved ideal, and through the interbreeding that ensued with local steeds, Jeju has been known as an equine haven ever since. Although numbers declined in the mid-1900s, modern efforts to preserve the horses have been helpful, and as a result their numbers are rebounding. They are called jejuma or gwahama, meaning “short enough to go under fruit trees.” In truth, it’s best to think of them as ponies; for average- to large-sized Westerners, climbing on the back of one is unlikely to be an option.
Before the Mongols arrived, the island had long been a breeding ground for four-legged beasts — horses, mules, sheep and even camels. The Mongol armies took advantage of these resources, and it was Jeju horsepower that was used to connect Korea’s network of military posts under Mongol rule. These same rulers used Jeju’s rocky coasts to launch several invasions of Japan, but each attempt was thwarted when freak storms dashed their ships upon the rocks. These were called Kamikaze, or Divine Wind, by the grateful Japanese, who 500 years later went to Jeju with imperial ambitions of their own. The Japanese brought 70,000 soldiers to implement their plans, building a military facility at the base of Songaksan during the Second World War. During this time, the islanders were treated harshly and conscripted into building runways, tunnels and other infrastructure for the emperor’s forces.
Much of the island still bears the scars of this oppression; the island’s brutal subjugation can be seen along the walking trail Olle-gil 11, which starts in the southwest harbor of Moseulpo. Along the way are 19 still-standing Japanese airplane hangars, most of which are being used by local farmers to house equipment. But the blood of Jeju’s islanders isn’t solely on the hands of foreign powers. Catholic activist Hwang Sa-yeong was executed in 1801 as part of the Joseon suppression of peregrine religious influence, and his memorial is erected along this path.
A century and a half later, at the outbreak of the Korean War, over 200 people from a nearby village were executed without trial on suspicion of being communist sympathizers. In fact, the whole island saw a series of violent purges from 1948 to 1954. The most infamous was the Sasam (“4-3,” or April 3) massacre. From April 1948 and lasting just over a year, government troops executed over 30,000 people suspected of having leftist political leanings. It was around 10 percent of the entire island population at the time, and 30 percent of the speakers of the original Jeju-eo dialect, which left much of the language to die along with its speakers. The trail passes the Seotal Oreum memorial, which bears solemn witness to these tragedies.
The influx of tourists treading these paths has damaged some coastal areas on the southern side of the island, and some rare fir and pine trees are dying off, according to Douglas MacDonald of The Jeju Weekly. Distinct vegetation and plant life are a cornerstone of the Jeju identity, and one of the best places to see them is Hallim Park. One of the oldest tourist spots on the island, it boasts magnificent gardens, arboretums, bonsai forests, lava tunnels and caves. It’s located just northwest of Ma Park and the walking trail, lying off the main highway and across the road from Hyeopjae Beach.
Jeju is often promoted as “the Hawaii of Korea,” and while most long-term expats will have undoubtedly developed a thick skin to such hyperbole, it is actually warranted for Hyeopjae. Smaller islets break the waves farther out, leaving a calm lagoon of tropical turquoise waters lapping onto white sand beaches, peppered with clusters of black volcanic rock. The area provided plenty of opportunities to indulge in one of my favorite beach pastimes: finding a tidal pool and wallowing like a hog.
Speaking of hogs, we passed several farms along this stretch of the west coast, identified by their porcine odor long before they came into eyeshot. They contribute to one of Jeju’s signature culinary dishes, black pork. Small, with a sleek black coat, these pigs were traditionally raised in pens built underneath latrines, living off of the human waste deposited therein. They were then slow-smoked over burning hay, which was meant to infuse the meat with a smoky goodness. The final product is supposed to be tastier and “chewier than its white northern counterparts,” according to one Konglish-laden tourism website. While the smoking method remains, the eating of turds has gone with the wind, apparently to the chagrin of some hard-line ajeossis (older Korean men) who claim it has adversely affected the taste. As part of a joint North–South Korean operation, black pig farming is expected to begin soon in Pyongyang.
IV. Maiden, Mother, Crone
After a couple of days lounging proper in the waters of Hyeopjae, we continued northeast back to Jeju City for the final stretch. Just south of the city is the granddaddy of all tourist traps in Jeju: LoveLand. This erotic art theme park opened in 2004 and is filled with hundreds of statues and displays of every size and type of genitalia or intercourse imaginable (except for homosexual, because Korea’s not quite there yet). As with other raunchy exhibitions in Korea, it’s fun watching older folks get down ’n’ dirty — all inhibitions seem to get tossed aside when there’s a giant cock in the room.
There are many sex theme parks on Jeju, and several historical reasons why it’s associated with amorous trappings. First, many marriages were prearranged back in the day, and Jeju’s professional matchmakers gave advice to help consummate the union between two awkward strangers. Also, under a series of military dictatorships that ran the country for decades, international travel was heavily regulated and difficult to come by, leaving Jeju to serve as an exotic honeymoon destination within national borders. As such, it has developed a sexy reputation over the past few decades.
The relics most closely linked to this history are the dol hareubang, or stone grandfather statues. These phallic figurines have traditionally been thought to represent virility and stamina, though some scholars have argued that they actually represent hallucinogenic mushrooms used in rituals originating in Siberian shaman culture. Shamanism is present all over the nation, but the variety practiced here is distinct from that on the mainland. While the exact origins of Jeju’s folk shamans are unclear, scholars have pointed out their strong similarities with those on the mainland and in Okinawa, Siberia and Mongolia.
Dirk Schlottmann, a German professor in Cheongju who has studied shamanism throughout Asia for several decades, thinks the strongest similarities can be traced to Siberian roots: “Some of the main signifiers include crowns from the Silla kingdom which represent the cosmic tree, and also color patterns on pottery, both of which are near-exact matches.” In addition, Jungseum, wooden ducks mounted on tall poles outside villages, can be found throughout many shamanic cultures heading westward from Siberia into Europe. This correlates with how Korea is believed to be partly settled by people of Tungusic stock, as is the case with Siberia and parts of Manchuria.
There are also other notable differences between the shamanism on the island and on the mainland. Shamans usually have a multifaceted role in traditional folk culture — healer, historian, mediator and prognosticator — and while these nurturers of domesticity have usually been women in Confucian society, on the conversely matriarchal Jeju they’ve tended to be men. They’re not considered natural conduits to the gods, nor do they enter trance-like states; rather, they act more like priestly officiants.
Jeju is called the Island of 18,000 Gods for a reason: It’s home to over 400 working shrines where people can engage the spirits, or placate them, for good fortune and bounty. Among the more famous ones in Jeju City is Chilmeori Shrine, which is dedicated to Yeongdeung, the goddess of the sea and wind whose ritual is inscribed in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. Certain regions have unique preferences out of the pantheon; the haenyeo make offerings to Yowang and his wife Yowang Buin, the dragon king and the queen of the sea, respectively.
The creator deity Seolmundae is the personification of Hallasan, deep within which she is said to be slumbering, and the nearly 400 smaller volcanic cones around the island are said to be her offspring. She is portrayed around the island in near-universal archetypes found throughout the world’s ancient belief systems: She can at various times be the young virginal maiden, the life-giving mother, or the wise old crone. There’s a saying for why Hallasan looms large over the whole island: “Seolmundae watches over us all.”
As with other aspects of the island’s traditions, these folk practices were outlawed by the Japanese because they were deemed to contribute to nationalism. Under Park Chung-hee’s New Village economic program, many folk practices were “declared the enemy of modernity,” say Anne Hilty and Sunyoung Hong, writing in The Jeju Weekly. “Shamans were required in formal proceedings to give their tools to the government and renounce their beliefs. Practices continued in secret, though, at the threat of legal sanctions.”
The religion survived these historical assaults, but recently the relevance of traditional shamanism has been diminishing. Instead of holding their rituals on the beach or in sacrosanct locations, they are more often turning to the stage. And while shamanism on the peninsula welcomes foreign guests and media, non-Koreans are largely shunned on Jeju. Schlottmann related a time he witnessed the sacrificing of a chicken during a seaside ritual: “When the bird failed to die properly, many believed it was due to my presence, a foreigner being in attendance.” Beyond UNESCO, other efforts are being made to preserve and safeguard this ancient way of life such as Giuseppe Rositano’s upcoming documentary, “At Search for Spirits on the Island of Rocks, Wind and Women.”
Having completed our odyssey of this small maritime hideout, we returned our trusty steed to Mr. Lee’s bike shop, who seemed genuinely amazed that neither we nor the bike had tragically perished. On our last night, we headed to the densest concentration of watering holes in Shin (New) Jeju and hit up Jespi, a bar dedicated to serving Jeju’s very own line of malted beverages. Jeju has tried to elbow its way into the domestic beer market, with its own brand launched just last summer. Sharing the name with the company bar, Jespi (Jeju Spirit) has wisely avoided the usual domestic swill approach and offers stout, pale ale, pilsner and strong ale, each brewed with Jeju’s legendarily pristine water and locally grown barley.
Besides new initiatives in food and beverages, other attempts are underway to transform Jeju’s economy so it can flourish in the modern era. Jeju City recently built a 271-acre, $381 million science park as part of six major projects designed to cement Jeju’s reputation as a hub for education, healthcare and research. So far, it seems to be working: The domestic internet staple Daum moved its main operations there in 2012, as had gaming giant Nexum, which relocated its corporate headquarters in 2011. While it’s unlikely that the big guns will abdicate Seoul anytime soon, it doesn’t mean Jeju can’t cut itself a bigger slice of the pie.
All of this should give hope regarding what the future holds for the island. Even after centuries of suffering and tremendous hardship, there remains a myriad of contemporary challenges facing these proud people. Their story has always read like a classic David versus Goliath tale of overwhelming odds, yet their religion, lifestyle and language have somehow managed to persevere. The island became an autonomous government in 2006 — 900 years after first being annexed — and perhaps this, coupled with modern economic strategies, could allow the fate of Jeju to be decided on its own terms.
< More info >
Mr. Lee’s Bike Shop
There is a wide selection of scooters available and English-speaking staff. An international driver’s license is required to rent a scooter anywhere on Jeju.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org(link sends e-mail)
Big Blue 33 diving service
Owner Ralf Deutsch speaks English. Visit the site to find out more about diving trips, rental gear and certification courses.
The park offers horseriding (12,000 won to 30,000 won) and go-karts (25,000 to 35,000 won). “The Black Flag of Genghis Khan” is staged three times daily (tickets 12,000 won to 18,000 won).
Hours 9 a.m. to 5:20 a.m. (March to Oct.), 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (Nov. to Feb.)
Manjanggul lava tubes
Hours 9 a.m.-6 p.m. (summer) and 9-5:30 (winter).