A view of Seongsang Ilchulbong from the prayer site near the new naval base. (Photo courtesy of the documentary film, “Gureombi –The Wind Is Blowing” [구름비 바람이 분다]).
Jeju Island (제주도), Korea’s national pride, a popular regional vacation and honeymoon spot, was turned into one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World after a long and successful PR campaign for what essentially is little more than a PR title. The reason one must go to the self-proclaimed “Korean Hawaii” is not solely for this recognition. The simplistic beauty mixes active volcanoes and those with a grassy top. Jungmun Beach, set below a cliff and open to surf-like waves, is the finest beach getaway in Northeast Asia. And in a small country with a big gastronomy, even little Jeju adds a punch with its black pig (흑돼지).
But all that serenity and innocence is under threat. The Korean government, along with the U.S. military, began construction in 2011 on a massive, $970 million naval base on the southern village of Gangjeong (강정), near the southern city of Seogwipo (서귀포) where tourist activity and traffic flows heavily. As the plans become a reality more and more, the tension has reached an all-time high, with thousands of Korean citizens calling upon Pope Francis, who is visiting Korea this week, to join a prayer session on the islands treasured lava rocks (구럼비) that is serving as a protest at the construction site. (He has no plans to visit the island during his five-day trip.)
The site, near a stadium used when Korea co-hosted the 2002 World Cup with Japan, has barbed wire and blocked roads where hundreds of thousands of tourists, like the one writing, once parked on the shoulder of the highway and took scenic photos of quaint countryside and open sea. The base is near Jungmun Beach (중문해변), Jeju’s crown beach, although now filled mostly with Chinese tourists since Korea allows visa-free travel to Jeju for many nations, like China, who otherwise would need a visa to reach mainland Korea. The beach, sunk below a cliff where a couple luxury hotels, typically filled with Korean newlyweds and Korea’s elite, overlooks a sea that lands occasional chest-high waves on a sunny day. (Typhoons and heavy monsoons are summer staples on Jeju.)
The base’s purpose is to have a stronger, faster response to a North Korean threat, and to flex alliance muscles at China, which has heated maritime disputes already with Vietnam and Japan. The new base will not only be home to roughly 20 warships but also a new presence of luxury cruise ships. Jeju has always been Korea’s proud, personal possession–one famous fable, often told angrily by locals, is how Michael Jackson tried to buy the island–and a strong Western presence could turn Jeju into half playground, half regional military dispute.
The road that leads from Jungmun east to the grass-covered Sungsan Ilchulbong (성산일출봉), meaning “Sunrise Peak,” travels past the new base along the southern coast. The circular island can be driven along the coast by car in under 4 hours. Before the construction, the southern villages were filled with happy villagers selling mandarin oranges (귤)–once used as gifts to Korean kings–and the shores used to have spots of orange buoys where elderly women (아줌마) were free-diving for shellfish and seaweed. On the rocks, around caves, under concrete structures, makeshift seafood restaurants made of low plastic stools even lower tables would stay until dusk or until the weather turned poor. This can still be found in other parts of Jeju. But locals can only resort to prayer for this part, to keep their national gem close to the Hermit Kingdom and far from a world-wide tourist attraction and military headquarters.
Sunrise Peak is the personal and professional photographic trademark of the island. It’s name comes from its popularity for sunrise watching, which requires an 180-meter climb up six-hundred steps. What looks like a challenge from the bottom turns into comfortable hike, photo opportunities improving more and more. At the top, the scene mixes the peacefulness of the lush, grassy top, the trails of geologists visible, with the waves far below splashing hard against the cliff walls. Staying true to the island, one descent leads to the island’s main female divers club, a sometimes deadly profession slowly disappearing in modern times.
Back in Seogwipo, the second largest city behind Jeju City, restaurants serving Jeju’s finest cuisine, black pig (흑돼지), fill up with locals and mainland Koreans who long for an even more glorified pork belly, which is often understood by foreigners as glorified bacon. Jeju’s black pig meat is hard to find on the mainland. The pigs are fed and grown organically, and the meat tends to be more tender, more caramelized, and responds better to heat than typical pork belly (삼겹살). (‘Samgyupsal’ roughly translates to ‘three rolls of fat,’ reflecting the caloric total of food that is often served with the high-calorie soju [소주]. Koreans say the weight gain especially comes when rice [밥] is added at the end of the meal.)
The path leading to the entrance of Gwaneumsa (관음사), a temple remembering those who died during the 1948 Jeju Uprising. [Photo courtesy of Matt MacDonald]
Jeju isn’t merely a quick summer getaway. The crowds from Seoul (서울) or Busan (부산), Korea’s second largest city just thirty minutes flight time away, come to climb the snow-covered Mt. Halla (한라산), a 1,950m peak in the island’s center, in the winter months. Near the mountain is a temple and monument (관음사) to the Jeju Uprising, a dark past for a proud island that has the motto, “Island of World Peace.” In 1948, when the communist North split from the south, the communists on Jeju Island attacked police stations and civilians, killing roughly 1,000 people. The Korean government, backed by their first president, Syngman Rhee, and with the support of the U.S. military, killed 30,000 to 80,000 communist sympathizers, 10 to 25 percent of the island’s population at the time. The incident received a monument, an official presidential policy last decade, and the date of the uprising is being considered as a national holiday. The event is often wrongfully re-written in history as an uprising over an agricultural tax (and reported as so on this site in 2009), and at least one recent Op-Ed has called for withdrawal of the national holiday proposal.
The event is especially ironic today when a military base–built as an international alliance against a rogue, communist state supported at birth with the murder of 1,000 people by island communists in 1948–is protested but the people who supported what ended up being a source of a horrific war, and the region’s most dangerous question, has a memorial on perhaps the mountainous country’s jewel mountain.
The questions of what the island will be like when the base becomes a high military asset–or even target–are unknown. Around Seogwipo, trails dedicated to spots known for their untouched beauty come to a sudden fence and barbed wire. Trails to waterfalls and wilderness rivers are still their, elderly locals selling sliced pineapple on a stick.
Near Jungmun Beach are caged tanks too small for the seals and penguins inside. There is a contentment about them. But they are just a cliff away from a sea that, based on the relative time of their existence, not long ago was untouched for so long. There has to be a creeping feeling in Jeju of what it is like to be a caged seal or penguin.