I’ve heard that the Japanese cannot resist a maze, nor the Germans a precipice. Zen koan introspection may have something to do with explaining the former. Japanese are said to enter into the maze to enjoy the personal satisfaction of discovering their way out. The maze experience or exercise is to escape the pressures of daily life without going anywhere. This makes sense. The Japanese are an insular people and, following the logic of the determinist geographer Ellen Semple (1863-1932), accustomed to looking inward.

But what are we to make of those everyday German romantics over the past few centuries, often found poised in their thoughts and actions at a real or symbolic precipice and surveying the horizon; those who have characteristically sought out extreme situations in order to discover themselves and/or test their limits? One of these I discovered through my Korean Studies is Siegfried Genthe (1870-1904), author of Korea (1905), which includes a splendid chapter on his personal explorations on Jeju Island. He deliberately journeyed to Mt. Halla in order to climb up and stand on its precipice. He accomplished this goal in Oct. 16, 1901 and may have been the first European to “conquer” the mountain.

Figure 1: The German journalist-adventurer Siegfried Genthe (d. 1904). The first European to have climbed Mt. Halla?

Figure 1: The German journalist-adventurer Siegfried Genthe (d. 1904). The first European to have climbed Mt. Halla?

His account in Korea remarked on his feeling of power at such heights. He took scientific measurement and walked around the rim of the crater there. He noted the splendid view. Facing to the southwest Genthe no doubt spied Gapado and Marado from his perch. He probably thought he had reached land’s end in Korea. Facing southwest and into the East China Sea (Korea’s West Sea), he may have drawn a long deep breath of what he imagined was “the purest” air, knowing that human habitation in that direction was no closer than hundreds of miles across a landless sea.

Jeju Island has been land’s end for many purposes. A king of Korea, for example, could not send a political prisoner any further into exile than the lonely flanks of Mt. Halla. The tales of early Western explorers and travelers have been told many times over and won’t be repeated here.

I think that one of the most remarkable and inspiring tales of land’s end in Korea on Jeju Island relates to its more recent waves of settlement. This tale describes how hard-working and innovative men and women born in the north of the Korean peninsula migrated down to Jeju Island and once there helped render the land more agriculturally productive. Tens of thousands of refugees from the north relocated to the south of the peninsula, and some to Jeju Island, rather than live in the north under communism. They overcame some hard times at first as most had to restart their productive lives from scratch.

My own parents-in-law, Kim Bong-sung and Yu Pil-yo, his mother, and their first child (now my wife) were refugees to the south, relocating there from Hwanghae province in the north. Mr. Kim sought to regain an economic footing for his family first in Seoul and then in Suwon. He quickly demonstrated his determination and entrepreneurial spirit by establishing several business enterprises. He was even the principal of a public school for a while. My mother-in-law was briefly a 5th grade teacher in Seoul. The family prospered and grew larger. My wife is the eldest of six children.

Fate and vision took my father-in-law, his wife and his mother onward to Jeju Island in 1965. They resettled there to pioneer several new economic ventures at land’s end, in Seogwipo, along Korea’s last agricultural frontier. Their chief aspiration was to carve a profitable tangerine plantation out of the mountainside wilderness. This was no small task. Success was achieved at a slow pace through the accumulation of small victories, struggle upon struggle, dawn to dusk, day after day. It was a monumental, back-breaking battle for these three tireless pioneers and whatever local labor they could hire. Meanwhile the children remained in Seoul to attend school.

My father-in-law was popular and respected. He co-mingled, collaborated and formed productive relationships in Seogwipo and its surrounds with many other enterprising refugee families from the north of Korea, as well as with indigenous island families. Cooperation among the refugees nurtured ultimate success for many, including my wife’s father. Another success story is my wife’s charismatic godfather, Mr. Choung Chang-jo, who became professor then dean at Jeju National University.

I first met my father in law in 1974, near the end of my second year of Peace Corps Volunteer service on Jeju Island. I was spending more and more time in and about Seogwipo in those final months. What I recall most clearly about him was his strong character, good humor, and stamina. He worked constantly to maintain and expand his tangerine orchards. His voice was strong, spirited and rhythmic. He was tall, and walked the streets and mountainside with assurance and dignity. Mostly, I observed him from a distance. Often he would be riding on his trademark red motorcycle, wearing his black leather jacket and either a black helmet or a blue baseball cap. He was especially well-known about town for his generosity. He became instantly famous south of Mt. Halla for buying a house near his orchards in Beophocheon Village as a gift for one of his elderly female employees. I can’t say enough in praise of my father-in-law.

Figure 2: Mr. Kim Bong-sung, my father-in-law, Seogwipo tangerine plantation owner. Photo from 1974.

Figure 2: Mr. Kim Bong-sung, my father-in-law, Seogwipo tangerine plantation owner. Photo from 1974.

 

My parents-in-law’s tale of courage, perseverance and success over a period of many decades, overcoming the most challenging travails along the way, is but one north-to-south refugee resettlement story of a hard-working family that wound up successful at land’s end in Korea. All of these refugee stories need to be told as inspirations to young South Koreans today who must also face economic struggles during their own time.

I am sure it never seemed possible to Genthe in 1901, to my father-in-law in 1965, to me in 1974, or to Shon, Pitts, Dustin and DeNoon in 1986 (see my JWW essay #50), that anyone could face seaward at land’s end in Korea and gaze over that seemingly infinite expanse of sea to the southwest and suddenly and unexpectedly feel the world rapidly closing in like a global noose constricting like a slip knot around one’s neck. We all perceived Korean peninsula as spanning the distance between Baekdu Mountain in the north and Halla Mountain in the south. That was the simple fact of it all.

Now there is Ieodo, Korea’s new land’s end. Once a mystical place, Ieodo has suddenly been thrust into the public consciousness as a harsh and dangerous reality – as a new land’s end for Korea – but also for China and Japan as represented on this map:

 

Figure 3: Ieodo’s location is represented by the red star. Is Ieodo the newest “land’s end” for South Korea?

Figure 3: Ieodo’s location is represented by the red star. Is Ieodo the newest “land’s end” for South Korea?

Figure 3 depicts the location of Ieodo “island,” heretofore little-known and now a suddenly hotly-disputed seamount in the northern reaches of the East China Sea. As I write, Korea is claiming territorial jurisdiction over Ieodo within its red ADIZ (Air Defense Information Zone) boundary line; China, within its yellow ADIZ boundary line; Japan, within its ADIZ blue boundary line. Note how these ADIZ lines all overlap to include Ieodo. Military posturing in the region is currently front page news in all the world’s major newspapers. JWW readers can read detailed accounts there. My thoughts at this moment are more esoteric: Does a “land’s end” have to be land?

Many newspapers describe Ieodo as a “seamount.” A seamount is a mountain rising from the ocean seafloor that does not reach to the water’s surface. Existing below sea level, it is not by definition an island. During storms, however, the peak of Ieodo emerges in the troughs between large waves. To the extent that the high seamount is a potential hazard to ships, it has been called a “maritime rock” (and known in the shipping lanes as Socotra Rock). At least one shipwreck has occurred there.

So, Ieodo seamount occasionally becomes an “emergent” land mass and thus becomes temporarily and by definition a natural island, or “land” as when the sailor in the crow’s nest shouts out “Land Ho!” Adding to the confusion, South Koreans have occupied year-round and for over a decade a sturdy, high-tech biological research facility atop the Ieodo seamount. This makes it an artificial island (See my JWW essay #49).

In sum, from the past perspectives of both folklore and maritime law Ieodo was an enigma. At present, unless the present ADIZ boundary claims at land’s end in the East China Sea between South Korea, China and Japan are quickly resolved through diplomatic channels, the world may be on the verge of knowing what the authors of military history will begin to have to say about Ieodo.

Tagged with →