Beautiful island, sad history
JEJU – Schoolchildren here sing a mournful song about a gigantic rock about 90 miles southwest of the island where the souls of fishermen lost at sea find their final repose.
The rock cannot really be called an outcropping since it’s actually submerged several meters, but South Korea has set up a meteorological station with a helipad as visual evidence that it’s there, lurking ominously below.
Sometimes, when the seas are rough, the rock, named Ieodo, does appear shimmering above the surface, dark and menacing. Suitably, its name derives from a folkloric tale embedded in the subconscious of local kids from the time they’re old enough to mouth the words.
Sadly, this particular rock is the latest focal point of tensions between China and lesser countries that the Chinese might prefer to view as vassal states, kowtowing in respect and paying tribute as in days of old.
The tensions compound as a relatively late entry into regional rivalries, the United States, stages war games reminding the Chinese of the dangers, any time from now to years away, of pursuing its claim to Ieodo and other more valuable prizes ranging from the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea to the Senkakus, the cluster southwest of Okinawa that Japanese patrol boats are zealously defending from encroaching Chinese fishing and ``research” vessels.
The latest performance of fun and games, featuring a star performance by the gargantuan aircraft carrier George Washington, is going on right now well south of this ``island of peace.” As if those war games were not enough, still more ships are conducting exercises to the north in the Yellow Sea. Nobody’s going to get to see them, but if you’re watching television you won’t be able to miss the spectacle today of troops repelling a mock North Korean invasion.
Fighter planes, helicopters, tanks and cannons will zoom and boom in a show that carries a clear message to the North: don’t even think about a repetition of the invasion of June 25, 1950, the opening number in the bloodiest war in Northeast Asian history.
It’s a dead certainty the North Koreans will respond with volley after volley of rhetoric, some of it quite threatening, but it’s hard to see the verbal onslaught as a precursor to war. The North Koreans, whatever they do, like to catch their foes by surprise, as with the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island attacks of 2010 ― as indeed they did when they invaded South Korea ― and not when the Americans and South Koreans are brandishing their weapons and baring their teeth.
The sense of peace and tranquility is overwhelming here even as young demonstrators wearing papier mache images of dolphins and seagulls and other native creatures enact their futile protest against construction of a South Korean naval base on the south coast of the island.
The protesters are sure U.S. warships will be docking at the base, but officials in the Jeju governor’s office say no way. Rather, U.S. warships will cruise far out to sea, putting in at Busan perhaps before returning to their home port, the naval base at Yokosuka south of Tokyo.
It seems the toughest job facing local officials when it comes to the base is to make sure the central government lives up to its promise to build berths big enough for two cruise ships at a time.
It’s possible the Navy base, whenever it’s completed, will recede into the background as an obscure installation in a province where views on having it here are quite mixed. Angry though some people, including local villagers, seem to be, the base may bring in some income.
Certainly, in the development of the island for tourism in recent years, worse affronts to the eye have risen up and down and all-around the coastline. It would be difficult, however, for any of them to obscure the sensational beauty of a place where snow covers Korea’s highest peak, Mt. Halla, in winter and palm and orange trees grow all year down below.
Visitors, though, tend to overlook the dark side of Jeju, the memory of the bloodletting that’s known as ``4.3,” when civil strife broke out here on April 3, 1948. At the peace memorial outside Jeju City, I was the only visitor one morning to the ``tunnel of history,” not counting a gaggle of schoolgirls who asked me to pose for photos with them.
A brooding display of scenes and inscriptions depicts all that went wrong from 1947 to 1954 when finally the government felt confident enough of its grip to reopen Halla to hikers.
Almost every village has a tale of massacre, none bloodier than that of Bukchon on the northern coast east of Jeju City. Again, when I stopped off at the local memorial, I was the only visitor. Small piles of stones marked the graves of the 20 or so children among more than 400 people shot dead, and stone tablets nearby tell the tale.
The story was etched in stone, I’m told, when people didn’t want to talk about what had happened ― they feared they would be labeled as ``leftists” and get into trouble again.
Nowadays, the worst fear is that people will forget the lessons of history, oblivious to wars and rumors of war, while warships and planes cruise over the horizon.
Columnist Donald Kirk, www.donaldkirk.com, is a former war correspondent and author of two books about the Vietnam War. He can be reached at email@example.com.