For the entire 52-week account of Dr. Nemeth’s time on Jeju Island as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1970s, you can download his new e-book free of charge. JejuWorldWide would like to thank Dr. Nemeth again for his generous contribution. — Ed.
Sometime during the 1960s and early on in the Vietnam War, the American officers at the military base in Moseulpo were challenged to an annual test of endurance and strength by the Korean officers, some from the fierce Tiger Division, who were stationed at their own small base in Moseulpo Town. Two teams, one from each military base, would race up Hallasan on a chosen day once a year, from shoreline to the highest. The first team to the top would be the winner. The rivalry was intense, fueled in part by the stressful Vietnam experiences of Korean and American soldiers who each claimed to have the toughest troops.
If my recollections are valid, when I arrived in 1973 the rivals represented by their two platoons had already raced to the mountaintop six or eight times previously, and the victories were about evenly split between them. The exception was the year when something entirely unexpected and unusual occurred. That year, memorialized as “The Year of the Arnold” by the expatriate community on the island — I believe it was 1971 — at dawn, when the two teams met at the seashore for their big race, the reclusive Australian youth from Hallim suddenly and unexpectedly presented himself as a “champion” representing the Hallim Farm and Woolen Mill. It was no secret that the Catholic Fathers at Hallim, mostly Irish, were occasional visitors to the Officers’ Club at the American base at Moseulpo. The Irish priests liked Jeju Island because its stony, green landscape reminded them of Ireland. The Irish had first introduced a profitable sheep and wool export economy to Jeju Island. At the Hallim postal office, English-language return addresses on envelopes were often written as “Cheju Ireland.” It was an inside joke.
The Koreans and Americans were at first bewildered over how to proceed with the race, but then agreed that the Australian youth could enter the race as long as he promised not to “get in the way.” At the pistol shot, the racers with their backs to the sea began to sprint to the mountaintop. At the end of the day there was only one winner: The Australian; The Arnold. He had left the Korean and American army teams in his dust. Thereafter he was nicknamed “The Australian Army” but his victory was in fact a Victory for Peace as he had no connection whatsoever to any military organization.
And so on a quiet day at Hwasun in the summer of 1973 I met “Conan the Ghost” walking up the beach when I was walking down the beach. “G’day!” he said. I said “Hi!” — and that was that. He was indeed a giant, straight off the cover of a romance novel, but in person seemed a gentle giant.
The Peace Corps originally brought me to Jeju Island in 1973, and to Hwasun shortly after my arrival. After two years I departed, but then returned to Jeju several more times to work and to conduct research. I always returned to Hwasun and witnessed its changes, most of which I found distressing. By 1985, Lower Hwasun had entirely lost its magic. The guards at the village gate and the old woman’s hut had all been vandalized. The stone piles remained, but the stone grandfathers were gone, replaced by substitute stones of no distinction. Saemaul Undong had come and gone and had put its heavy hand on the Hwasun landscape. Thanks to road improvement, access to the village was simple and direct. Horn-honking dump trucks and buses competed with taxis for road space. The roadsides were littered with glass, plastic and styrofoam. Grass roofs were almost entirely gone, and most of the villagers lived under plastic and tin sheeting and tiles. There was neon! Cement was everywhere in evidence. The harbor had been enlarged significantly. The spring-fed bathing spa had deteriorated, as the spring that once led through it had been rerouted. Commercial vendors crowded the beachfront. Chicken bones floated in the tide pools.
Yet, my older and fonder memories and images of Lower Hwasun overwhelmed the still-modernizing changing landscape I saw before me. I will still go back, secure in my memories, even though I will be motivated more by morbid curiosity than by any hope of ever rediscovering the unparalleled magic and solitude of pristine Old Hwasun as I once knew and experienced it. Call me a romantic.
Looking ahead, I accept that change on Jeju Island and at Hwasun beach and harbor is inevitable. But I draw the line at an obvious travesty: I cannot imagine that a major naval base accommodating aircraft carriers is now being considered for Hwasun Beach, or that this plan has the support of the majority of Jeju Islanders! If so, the new Hwasun seems destined to be Okinawa North, together with all that the name implies: physical and spiritual pollution at a vast scale. I oppose this misguided and preposterous plan.