Click here for Part 1 — Ed.
My middle school students in 1974 acclaimed the arrival of Saemaul Undong (New Village Movement) by embroidering its name prominently upon my jacket. Who could have envisioned its ultimate impact at that time? I mentioned in my previous essay that Joni Mitchell (or somebody who looked and sounded just like her) sang “Both Sides Now” in Denver’s Brown Palace Hotel, in the saloon, night after night, when I attended an elaborate Peace Corps advanced recruiting event there (officially called “PRIST,” meaning “pre-invitational staging”). Woowoo! Joni also sang her latest big hit “Big Yellow Taxi.” The famous lyrics from that song are “they paved paradise to put in a parking lot.” Her muse according to music industry legend is that on her first trip to Hawaii she looked out the hotel window early in the morning after her night time arrival and saw beautiful green mountains in the distance, but then she looked down to discover a parking lot extending nearly as far off as the eye could see. She said it “broke my heart… this blight on paradise.” So she sat down and wrote the song. Since Jeju Island is known worldwide as “The Hawai’i of Korea” perhaps you can see where I am going with this analogy.
Saemaul Undong in 1974 was already a powerful cement-spewing juggernaut financed and spearheaded by the central government in Seoul. Everywhere it busied itself 24/7/365 relentlessly with burying and rebuilding upon what once was the traditional cultural landscape of the Hermit Kingdom on the peninsula. Consider Figure 2:
Seong-su was a 4th grader and one of my teacher-training students in Chunchon City. This was in January of 1973. He drew this innocent contemporary rural landscape scene of his natal village at night, and on the threshold of its Saemaul Undong facelift. Being a child, he might have imagined it would remain this way forever. I merely pause here in my essay to invite the reader to contemplate briefly on the soon-to-be-rendered obsolete straw roofs and swinging yeontan (cylindrical charcoal briquette) fire pails in this drawing. It was a time now near forgotten and just prior to the arrival of the great disruption that was Saemaul Undong into Seong-su’s small, isolated, traditional community.
Saemaul Undong had barely begun to sweep away “The Old” on Jeju Island in order to make way for “The New” when I arrived there in February of 1973. However, the loaded die had already been cast by President Park Chung-hee. The high stakes game of economic development was already underway. In retrospect, it is possible to claim that Saemaul Undong was a “mixed blessing” instead of an absolute success. Its complex outcomes are still unfolding. I have interviewed many Peace Corps Volunteers who served on Jeju Island during the 15-year lifespan of Peace Corps Korea ranging between 1966 and 1981. All seem astonished at the rapid pace of change that has taken place in such a short time. Some ex-Volunteers are stunned by the changes and resent them. Other ex-Volunteers applaud these changes. One example of Saemaul Undong induced change in the Jeju cultural landscape is the near disappearance of the choga jib.
Figure 3 depicts an iconic Jeju choga jib (“grass-roofed house”). My students embroidered it prominently onto my blue denim jacket. We observe how the matted grass roof is expertly tied down with woven ropes to withstand the force of the Island’s notoriously constant and unforgiving winds.
Choga jib was ubiquitous in rural Jejudo (and even plentiful in Jeju City) when I first arrived. Now they are nearly all extinct save for a few museum examples spared for tourists to gawk at in official folk village settings. Gone also, having passed on just a few months ago, is the talented Island artist Byun Shi-ji (1926-2013) who portrayed the choga jib both in its prime as well as in its rapid and demoralizing decline. In one of his most memorable paintings “Boisterous Dance” (1997) Byun captures a choga jib and its owner, frozen entwined in their own death watch, anticipating the end: Time stands still for the old farmhouse under the ominous darkening sky of Saemaul Undong’s minions of creative destruction.
Americans like me who were raised in desert environs grow up knowing quite well what it means when carrion birds begin to circle, then perch, then hop forward in a closing circle towards their next meal. The “boisterous dance” of the carrion birds is often the last vision a doomed man or woman, lost and alone, experiences before expelling their last living breaths in harsh desert environs. Jeju Island is not the American Old West but is technically a semi-desert vulnerable to drought. In Byun’s painting we observe the demise of a once-proud, independent young farmer. One interpretation of the painting – my own – is that he has entered through no fault of his own an inescapable metaphorical desert of increasing debt, despondency, rapid sterility of unattended soils, impending starvation, bankruptcy, leading finally to abandonment of inherited lands. All this downward spiral arrives at his migration to a manufacturing city on the mainland in order to barely survive by working hard for low wages. To what extent was Saemaul Undong responsible for his woes?
Perhaps I have been a bit careless and cynical here by intimating in a seemingly simplistic manner that some sinister and conspiratorial role advertently played by Saemaul Undong in the successful achievement of “The Korean Miracle” also led to the downward spiral of Byun’s traditional choga jib farmer. Confucius is supposed to have claimed that “Behind every success story is a great crime.” But don’t blame me for recklessly spouting off in this essay. Blame Confucius for my inspiration.
Certainly there are many sides to every story. Saemaul Undong spokespersons promoted the systematic eradication of grass-roofed houses both on the mainland and on Jeju Island as part of a public safety campaign. They claimed the choga jib was a fire trap back in 1973 and 1974 when I attended a few Saemaul Undong advisory team meetings with Jeju villagers. Few could marshal any credible counter-claim that a choga jib was fire proof. Look again at Seong-su’s crayon drawing in Figure 1: a bunch of kids are swinging tethered red-hot brown-coal briquettes around in flaming arcs in the vicinity of grass-roofed houses! A disaster in the making!
I am not being sarcastic. One of the most unforgettable and disturbing scenes imbedded in my memory from my Peace Corps days on Jejudo occurred during a powerful typhoon event. I was foolishly riding the highway bus entirely around the island just for kicks. When the bus, which was traveling in a clockwise direction out of Jeju City and tracking east, turned the corner at Seongsanpo and began to roll southwest along the coast toward Pyoseon-ri, it ran head-on into the full fury of this tremendous storm.
It was dark. Pitch dark. The rain was heavy and blowing horizontal. The bus shuddered and swerved as it became increasingly pummeled by savage gusts. The driver seemed terrified, yet was striving to stay on schedule. Need I say that the bus was uncrowded? Most the passengers who were destined for Seogwipo Town disembarked at a run in Seongsanpo. Although far short of their destination, they aimed instead for the closest roadside yogwans and sulchibs in order to wait out the peak of the storm in relative safety. The bus rolled on.
The force of the downpour strengthened as we slowly approached Pyoseon-ri. I was half-asleep. Our driver suddenly gasped aloud about something happening up ahead. I always sat behind the driver when touring the circumference of the island in this particular direction because the passenger window faced to the sea, and because I could also watch the road ahead through the driver’s large front windows. What I saw that night spasmodically between curtains of deluge I will never forget.
The black howling night was illuminated by a huge fire up ahead. The bus slowed nearly to a halt. With that, a strong, acrid stench of hot wet smoke hit us like a wall and it was nearly overwhelming. Everyone on the bus began hacking and choking up. The driver picked up speed. Off to the left but adjacent to the highway were several village houses with their grass roofs aflame. Through the near-blinding storm I could glimpse only scant details of the fiery disaster so close at hand: Some villagers were running amok in their attempt to flee the vicinity of burning structures. We could hear them screaming and yelling. Others were forming into bucket brigades which seemed both absurd and futile as the flames and embers leaped higher and higher in defiance of the terrific rains and winds.
The bus sped up dramatically just as a fusillade of windborne rain and fire began to furiously pelt against its exposed nose and left side panels and windows. My nose was inches away from tiny brands of ignited wood and straw that momentarily stuck sizzling to the window glass then melted quickly away. On the pavement below I thought I could see small fireballs rolling around randomly. “Jwi!” the driver shouted as he ran them down and picked up more speed. The fireballs were rats all aflame and headed nowhere.
“Mumchura!” (Stop!) I insisted. I wanted to run back to the chaotic scene and somehow lend a hand. But the driver by then had pushed his pedal to the metal.
Next Week: The Illustrated Peace Corps Man (Part 3)