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Jeju: Island of Beauty and Tragedy

Date 2018-10-18 Event period ~ Read 1196

Jeju: Island of Beauty and Tragedy

text and photos by Thomas R. Klassen

Jeju Island is a visitor’s paradise.
The oval shaped island enchants with its semi-tropical climate, beaches, and tea plantations; and entertains with a flourishing cultural and artistic scene. Just ten times the size of Manhattan, there is loads to keep the all senses humming whether indoors or outdoors.
Visiting Jeju is easy. Located in the Pacific Ocean off Korea’s southern coast the flight from Seoul is only 50 minutes.
As befitting a volcanic island forged from lava, Jeju harbors a tragic history that most tourists do not glimpse at first. For those with the urge to explore deeper, there is second Jeju hiding beneath the surface.

O’Sulloc Tea Plantation

Start discovering Jeju’s tragic history at the Jeju National Museum, built at a human scale and opened in 2000. Learn that the islanders were originally a flourishing separate kingdom and only annexed a thousand years ago by Korea. Located just outside of Jeju City the museum is easy to access.
During Korea’s Joseon period (1392 to 1910) the island served was a strategic battleground in wars between Korea and its neighbors. Moreover, mainland Korea found ways to exploit the islanders and their resources, going to far as to prevent islanders from ever leaving.
During these centuries, Jeju was a useful place to exile those deemed dangerous to the halls of power in Seoul. One of these was Jeong-hui Kim (1786-1856) known by his pen name “Chusa”. The Hall of Chusa, which opened its doors in 2010, commemorates this renaissance man who made major contributions to writing, painting, Buddhist teaching and more. Located in the southeastern corner of the island, the Hall is near the ocean and beaches.
Many of Kim’s achievements took place in Jeju were he was exiled for nearly a decade. The Hall of Chusa, with intimate displays, shows how banishment boosted Kim’s creative output.

Traditional Jeju home

Beside the Hall of Chusa is Kim’s home in exile. The housing compound is fascinating peek into life in Jeju 200 years ago, and the adaptations that islanders needed to make to prosper on a volcanic island. All walls and implements were of cooled lava, as no other types of rocks on the island.
In the 20th century Jeju’s tragic fate continued. The Altteureu Airfield is a reminder of the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. Located a few minutes’ drive from Chusa Hall, the airfield, now mostly farms, is dotted by concrete hangars built to protect Japanese kamikaze planes. Other remnants of the extensive Japanese military presence are in nearby caves.
The recently installed statue of a human figure holding a dove made of natural fibers towers over the landscape. It blesses the earth and sky praying for peace.

Airplane bunker at Altteureu Airfield

However, sadly, for Jeju the end of the Second World War did not bring tranquility. Rather more death and devastation rained down.
From 1948 to 1954, the island was ravaged by an ugly civil war far more intense than that Korean War that devastated the rest of Korea. Ten percent of the population perished, some in mass executions, as political factions battled over the future of Korea.
The vast Jeju 4.3 Peace Park, opened a decade ago, promotes reconciliation of scars that have not yet fully healed. The numbers 4.3 refers to events in April 3, 1948 that sparked fighting. Situated a very short drive from the airfield, the park contains a multitude of objects and indoor and outdoor displays.

Statue at Altteureu Airfield

At the core of the park is Jeju 4.3 Peace Memorial Hall, an architecturally stunning building resembling an inverted volcano. Its displays, often heart rendering, to explain how brother turned on brother, and remind future generations After learning about the tragic history of Jeju, it is not surprising that the islanders treasure the peace and tranquility that, at last, has settled over their island. The harmony and beauty that visitors can now savor.

Jeju 4.3 Peace Memorial Hall

Thomas R. Klassen is a professor at York University in Toronto, Canada. He visited Jeju in September 2018 as a Korea Foundation Field Research Fellow.

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