Adventure to Jeju Island

I traveled to Jeju Island with our group of international mission workers to learn about the history and culture of the island.  When we first arrived, we traveled to the Saint Francis Peace Center in Gangjeong Village.  They kindly hosted us for the next few days.  We stayed in the upstairs of the church building and slept on Korean futon mattresses on the floor, which were surprisingly comfortable.  St. Francis Peace Center collaborates with students, churches, and other organizations to advocate for peace on Jeju.

We met Curry, a Baltimore native who has lived on Jeju Island since 2016 and works as a peacekeeping activist.  Local activists object to the expansion of the military in Gangjeong and the United States’ continued military presence in Korea.  Currently, the naval base is small with less than 1000 soldiers; however, residents are concerned about possible expansion and increased agitation and the environmental impact of construction on this small island and its ocean life.

Curry took us on a tour of Jeju Island and showed us many of the Peaceful villages.  Every day, Curry and other peacekeepers lead a walk to the naval base to protest the military base’s presence on this island.  Due to COVID restrictions and social distancing, we could not link hands to form a human chain.  We walked together along the main road leading to the Naval Base, carried flags, and danced to music.  Initially, this was awkward; I was unsure how to participate in this peacekeeping activity.  It was not a silent walk for peace that I was used to at home.  But I enjoyed the walk to the base and had fun singing and dancing with this group of peacekeepers.

The following day, I took part in the 100 bows at dawn; this is a daily activity.  Our group traveled with Curry to the entrance of the naval base at 7 am.  We bowed 100 times for peace, signifying our protest of the naval base on Jeju Island.  While we bowed, the activists played a recording stating what each bow was for.  I was nervous and afraid of doing something wrong or angering the soldiers on the military base.  Every time I looked up from bowing, I made eye contact with the soldiers on the other side of the fence.  Initially, this made me feel uncomfortable, but halfway through the exercise, I no longer felt uneasy.  I began to understand why we were bowing, and I was no longer afraid of disrupting the status quo.

The following day we attended Catholic Mass on the side of the road at St. Francis Peace Center.  This mass has been offered since before the construction of the Naval Base, in opposition to the base on the island.  We felt honored to be in the presence of peacekeepers at this meaningful mass.  I represented our group by providing background information about who we are, where we are from, and what we are doing in Korea.  I thanked the congregation for letting us be a part of their service and advocacy, and I was impressed with their dedication to peacekeeping.  After mass, we joined the Peace Keepers for a lunch of fresh fish, rice, kimchi, and local tangerines.

We went to the Jeju 4.3 Peace Memorial Museum, highlighting Jeju’s history and the events contributing to the April 3 massacre.  Before my YAV experience in Korea, I did not know anything about the April 3rd massacre – this was not something I studied in history class.  April 3 was a turning point in history but the atrocities against citizens lasted for 7 years and Koreans were afraid to talk about the truth surrounding the brutality for 45 years.  Learning this history, I was angry with the Korean government for the trauma it inflicted by attacking Jeju Island, torching homes and innocent citizens with its Scorched Earth Policy, and killing thousands.  For many years, citizens could not speak about the April 3rd incident for fear of being silenced and attacked by the government.  Additionally, I was furious that the United States declared themselves the only legitimate power south of the 38th parallel.  The US Armed Military Government in Korea was in control. Despite reports, intelligence sources, and witness testimonies, USAMGIK turned a blind eye towards the indiscriminate massacre of civilians on Jeju.  Additionally, they did nothing to stop the brutality despite having the authority, perhaps even unintentionally encouraging it by demanding a stop to all riots and protests on the island.  The US never admitted their involvement or apologized for the devastation on Jeju Island.  I felt sick to my stomach when we visited the mass grave sites on Jeju; the cruelty that human beings can inflict on one another is atrocious.

Our group gathered each night to talk, play games, and sing karaoke to decompress after these emotionally draining days.  We needed to relax and escape after such stressful days because learning about Jeju’s tragic history was so sad.

We also had several group devotion sessions.  Abby, Lydia, and I led the closing devotion.  We gathered to reflect on the historical sites we visited and the people we encountered and to discuss the trauma the islanders have suppressed for years.  This trip was a very emotional experience for me, not only because of the tragically sad history but because the people have not healed.  In a perfect world, all parties involved would come together and work for peace – beginning with agreed-upon terms for the Conflict that happened in 1948.  By saying April 3rd Uprising, it implies the Jeju islanders attacked the military; by saying April 3rd Massacre, it implies that the military slaughtered people.  Calling it the April 3 Incident decreases the importance of what happened.  It is important to listen to the islander’s stories – of the struggles they witnessed and the trauma their families have survived.  Ideally, the Jeju islanders (victims) and the government (oppressor) would come together and recognize the wrongdoing and all the harm that was caused in 1948 and for years afterward.  Then decide together how to repair the damage.  Restorative justice can help create closure, healing, and peace.  Visiting Jeju and studying its history is a reminder that violence is never the answer and recovery from a war lasts for generations; the people of Jeju Island continue to deal with their trauma.

We met with a local farmer who belongs to the local Presbyterian Church and whose child attends the Late Spring Moon Ik-hwan School (where I will be living the second half of the year). We picked 6 baskets of tangerines, and were even allowed to eat some while picking. Jeju island is known for its rich volcanic ash soils and temperate climate, perfect conditions for growing citrus. Eating fresh and delicious tangerines with the warm sun hitting my face was heavenly.

That night we went out to the local market and tried a variety of delicious street food. Exploring the night market was a new experience for me. We also picked up some souvenirs to take back with us.

We toured the Jeju Haenyeo Museum dedicated to Jeju’s sea women who free dive the ocean for seaweed, abalone, urchins, and other shellfish. Haenyeo is a Japanese word that is used internationally but Jeju’s female divers call themselves jamsu or jamnyeo. The first records of free diving dates to 1629; by the 18th century, the number of female divers outnumbered the men. During the Japanese colonization in the early 20th century, many females replaced their husbands as the primary wage earner in their families. Because many families depended on women’s income as head of the household, a semi-matriarchal society formed on Jeju. In this fascinating museum, tools and dive equipment are on display and the evolution of their diving attire is explained. At 14, girls can begin training to be divers, this tradition has been passed down for centuries from grandmother, to mother, to daughter. However, the number of new Haenyeo has been declining since the 1980s; in 2014, 98% of divers were over the age of 50 and some divers are in their 80s! I read The Island of Sea Women: A Novel by Lisa See before traveling to Jeju. I highly recommend you read this book about two women from different backgrounds who live on Jeju and bond over their love for the sea.

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