Going South: Cheju Islanders in Vietnam

When Cheju went to the World…in the 18th Century, Part II

Whether people anywhere in the world ever concieved of themselves in concepts analogous to the “nation state” prior to the nineteenth century remains ambiguous but it is clear that different cultures had a particular awareness of an Other. The Other, however, was not always viewed in necessarily negative terms and the exoticism afforded to cultural Others sometimes served to inspire a sense of novelty. While many, including scholars, consider (with varied degrees) much of East Asia as being a part of a larger sinosphere, early travel accounts such as Song Dynasty Chinese emissary Xu Jing’s account of Koryŏ Koreans demonstrate that these cultures were very much aware of and were sometimes ambivalent about their differences. Accounts of the accidental adventurer, the castaway, even if there may have been later embellishments after the fact of the journey, also provide interesting insights on how people viewed themselves in the reflection of the Other. Cheju islander castaways were no exception.

Going South: Cheju Islanders in Vietnam

The account of Choch’ŏn (Jocheon) resident Ko Sang’yŏng and his shipmates becoming castaways on the shores of Vietnam is one of the more extreme examples of the hundreds (if not thousands as extant records in Tokugawa Japan alone counted 404 Korean castaways) of accidental adventurers during the Chosŏn Dynasty. Chŏng Min, who edited the 2008 re-compilation of Chŏng Un’gyŏng’s important yet long-forgotten text, notes that several different versions of Ko’s account exist in other texts, but the T’amna mun’gyŏllok contains one of the more complete story. Though South Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the current global economic situation, and social issues such as foreign brides in particular have made Vietnam a striking presence in Korea in the past six decades, contact between the two lands go back farther than one would think.

The linkages between Vietnam and the Korean Peninsula and its environs in premodern history are not immediately apparent, but curious events between the two have appeared on the pages of scholar-officials’ grand narratives. One of the earliest known recorded incidents of contact between the Korean Peninsula and Vietnam is the beginning of what became the Hwasan Yi and Chŏngson Yi clans. Following the collapse of the Vietnamese Ly Dynasty (1009-1225), royal family member Yi Yongsang 李龍祥 (Vt: Lý Long Tường) and relatives escaped Vietnam and found themselves castaways on the shores of Hwanghae Province (a western region currently within the territory of North Korea). Yi Yongsang passed the Koryŏ exam, was granted official title in the Koryŏ court, and became the ancestor of the Hwasan Yi clan. Yi Yongsang’s arrival at Ongjin is even commemorated in local folklore.

As far as Jeju is concerned in the chance encounters with Southeast Asia, two accounts stand out – that of Ko Sang’yŏng in the T’amna mun’gyŏllok and Kim T’aehwang in the Sukjong sillok in the 15th year of King Sukjong (1689). Both castaways were aboard the same boat that was blown off course to the shores of Vietnam. In the Sukjong sillok, Kim T’aehwang (who is identified in Ko’s account in the T’amna mun’gyŏllok as the chief communicator) is said to have raised tribute horses for the Chosŏn court and boarded a ship for the mainland on behalf of then-governor Yi Sangjŏn. The Sukjong sillok gives a summary of the crew running into stormy weather and being blown off course for 31 days until they reached the Vietnamese city of Hoi An where they were granted provisions by the Vietnamese king as well as permission for passage aboard a trade vessel bound for Zhejiang, China.

The T’amna mun’gyŏllok, being a work of a literatus’s personal interest rather than a royal court-sanctioned historical narrative, provides many more details. When Ko’s and Kim’s boat was blown off course to islands off the coast of Vietnam, they initially thought that they had reached the shores of the Ryukyu Kingdom. It was when they attempted to communicate with local people using body language and classical Chinese script that they realized just how far they had drifted from Cheju. The castaways were met with initial suspicion by Vietnamese officials as an incident in which Chosŏn officials executed a Vietnamese royal castaway lingered in their memory, but after being taken to Hoi An they were treated with benign neglect rather than outright hostility. Eventually taking to begging for provisions, the castaways began to learn about the local language and customs and it is in this section of Ko’s account noted the relative prosperity of Vietnam as well as the variety of local tropical fauna and flora. Of particular interest to them were water buffalo native to Southeast Asia and used as draft animals for agriculture. Despite the language barrier and the fact that they were castaways, they were treated with much food and goods, reflecting the stability of the kingdom at that time. Even despite the aforementioned incident, they were called to have an audience with the king, who granted passage back to Chosŏn via a trade ship. Ko’s description of Vietnamese society notes that women outnumbered men and that they appeared to hold higher actual status, an interesting observation (for us in the present) given that a similar thing could be said about Cheju in that time.

——

Sources:

Chosŏn Wangjo Sillok

Chŏng Un’gyŏng. 2008. T’amna mun’gyŏllok pada pak-ŭi nŏlbŭn sesang. Chŏng Min, editor. Sŏul-si: Hyumŏnisŭt’ŭ.

Kang Ŭnhae. 2011. “Han’guk kwihwa Pet’ŭnam wangja-ŭi yŏksa-wa chŏnsŏl: Koryŏ Ongjin-hyŏn-ŭi Yi Yongsang wangja,” Tongbuk’a Munhwa Yŏn’gu, 26: 223-240.

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When Cheju went to the World…in the 18th Century

Cheju’s Accidental Adventurers and Castaway Narratives of the T’amna Mun’gyŏllok 탐라문견록

Introduction

“Cheju goes to the world, the world comes to Cheju.”

Many visitors and residents alike in Cheju likely have heard this or seen this slogan posted around the island, especially on tourist information boards and massive development projects (which both ironically efface if not outright destroy the very unique aspects upon which developers atempt to capitalize). The slogan is not only an uncreative derivative of an earlier “Korea goes to the world” catch phrase used by politicians to advertise national progress in spite of actual underlying contradictions, but also is a reflection of Cheju’s awkward reorientation to internationalism. Adding a futher paradox is that this reorientation appears in the very intellectual discussions that critique it.

In recent years, more and more scholars have become interested in Cheju’s maritime past. That such an interest comes amidst Cheju’s shift to a globalizing orientation (as well as the uncertainties that accompany such a change) is not coincidental. Around the same time that Cheju hosted the 2012 World Conservation Congress, the T’amna Culture Festival included special lectures on cultural exchange and contact in the Pacific Rim, a notable shift in discourse from emphasizing Cheju as a unique yet Korean locale to a Pacific island culture in its own right. Discussions about Cheju’s earlier “globalization” in the context of the East China Sea as Northeast Asia’s Mediterranean serve to promote Cheju’s turn to international tourism on the one hand but also critique the superficiality of its current commoditized manifestation. In any case, Cheju reinterpreted as a maritime entity marks a departure from earlier scholarship that emphasized (or perhaps overemphasized) the island as a remote and isolated place constantly at the mercy of more powerful and threatening forces from beyond. This is, however, not to say that current geopolitical and economic trends are necessarily creating fabrications in Cheju’s grand narratives. Rather, the conditions and situations of today’s Cheju have prompted reassessments and rediscoveries of things long overlooked due to previous exigencies.

The global present has, if anything, made us become more aware of a global past. Refocused attention on past globalizations have been an important trend in Northeast Asian studies and such works have brought valuable insights that challenge many prior assumptions that the cosmopolitanism that characterized the 7th to 14th centuries had long given way to an inward-facing conservatism in this region. While historians such as Pak Chonggi (2008) have refocused attention on the conspicuously cosmopolitan nature of the Koryŏ Dynasty (918-1392) and evidence that the Chosŏn Dynasty (1392-1910) was hardly a total “Hermit Kingdom” that most have assumed (and still do so today). Maritime Northeast Asia, even as Tokugawa Japan (1603-1868), Qing Dynasty China (1644-1912), and Chosŏn Korea took more inward turns, was still active with international exchange. Regardless of tightening travel restrictions that culminated in pronounced reactionary turns by the 19th century, people still found themselves on stranger shores.

Great port cities of the Qing Empire such as Fuzhou and Quanzhou in China likewise were bustling centers of cosmopolitan activity as the Emperors Kangxi and Qianlong were generally open to outside influences. In Tokugawa Japan, despite Tokugawa Iemitsu’s 1639 isolationist Sakoku edict, trade still continued with Chosŏn Korea (not surprisingly in part to satiate aesthetic tastes among well-to-do samurai and merchants for the austere elegance of Korean pottery and painting), Qing China, Dutch merchants (though confined largely at the island of Dejima by Nagasaki), and even Southeast Asians and others due to a curious policy loophole that enabled Japanese of Satsuma domain to work with Ryukyu kingdom intermediaries. Trade among Northeast Asian states also extended to the Southeast Asian powers of Ayutthaya (in present-day Thailand) and Mataram (in present-day Java, Indonesia). 17th and 18th century Chinese and Japanese encyclopedias include notable – albeit terse and simplistic – descriptions of a great variety of ethnic groups from Hokkaido Ainu to peoples of Somalia, an indication that Northeast Asians were hardly in complete ignorance of the outside world. Maritime contact in Chosŏn Korea appears to have been relatively minor compared to its neighbors, perhaps a far cry from the Koryŏ days, but the Chosŏn Dynasty was nevertheless eager to maintain active relations with both Beijing and Edo; throughout the Chosŏn Dynasty, periodic embassies were dispatched to Japan with such pomp and circumstance that they became matsuri (festivals) unto themselves as Japanese locals watched parades of Korean officials and military escorts in exotic costume.

And what of Cheju Island under Chosŏn rule? Did Cheju go to the world?

Cheju Island, being a large island located not too far from the southwest-to-northeast Kuroshio Current, could easily figure itself into oceanic travel. Both literary scholars Hŏ Namch’un (2011) and Cho Tong’il (1997) observed a recurring theme of mythical figures coming to Cheju from abroad or finding themselves in distant lands in the stories of the Kwenaegit-tang 괴내깃당 ponp’uri, Songdang 송당 ponhyangdang ponp’uri, and Samsŏng sinhwa 삼성신화, which not only appear to attest to memories of ancient travels but remained important Cheju oral histories to the present. As an island, Cheju’s dependency on the sea would seem all too obvious, but what does complicate the matter is that following the Chosŏn Dynasty’s tightened grip on the island since the 15th century travel to and from Cheju was greatly limited. Though classical records indicate a few rare instances in which the T’amna kingdom dispatched emissaries to the Tang imperial Chinese and Asuka Japanese courts in the 7th centuries aside from the mainland Korean states, Cheju lost much of its autonomy by the 12th century and likely was not a major player in maritime trade given its lack of resources (although the island did export abalone, pearls, horses, and tangerines). Cheju’s status degraded further with Chosŏn rule and thus the age of Cheju islanders’ – confined with legal restrictions on maritime activity and miniscule t’e-u rafts or short-haul tribute vessels traveling to the Korean mainland – adventures beyond the seas had long ended. Or so it seemed.

Like the mythical Cheju hero Songgoksŏng 송곡성 of the Kwenaegit-tang ponp’uri, many Cheju Islanders found themselves accidentally on the shores of foreign lands. While none were forcibly locked in a chest and cast into the sea as in the ponp’uri, five to six centuries after T’amna’s annexation as a Korean territory, Cheju Islanders still inadvertently and literally reenacted the stories of these accidental adventurers. Part of the reason for the persistence of the seas of Northeast Asia as a mysterious and dangerous Bermuda Triangle-like entity in Cheju lore is because of the harsh conditions of waters around Cheju – prone to fierce storms and fickle winds – and it is this same feature that sent many adrift as far as Vietnam. While Hendrik Hamel and the Dutch crew of the Sparrowhawk found themselves on Cheju’s shores, Cheju Islanders found themselves on the shores of Japan, China, Taiwan, the Ryukyu Islands, and Vietnam. In some instances, Cheju Islanders even observed Dutch merchants in Japan, noting their curly hair and large noses. And of further interest is that Cheju Islander castaways also came upon descendants of Korean prisoners of war from the Imjin War (1592-1598) residing in Korean communities in southern Japan. These castaways came from a variety of backgrounds – some were official merchants, some were officials, some were government-owned slaves, some were commoners. Though the details of these castaways’ lives are lost to history, their accounts nonetheless contain pieces that reveal aspects of Northeast Asian societies not often described in more official records.

Hundreds of castaways have been documented in Qing, Tokugawa, and Chosŏn records, but a piece of literature of particular interest here is the 18th century book of Chŏng Un’gyŏng T’amna mun’gyŏllok. Records such as the P’yohaerok also give valuable information on castaway narratives, but a striking feature of Chŏng’s work, written while he accompanied his father during his magistracy appointment in Cheju, is the almost ethnographic nature of his writing and the remarkable level of detail that castaways provided of their misadventures beyond the seas. Though written in classical Chinese characters and written for a literate Korean audience, Chŏng’s retelling of these castaway’s stories include interesting observations on cultures of Chinese, Taiwanese aboriginals, Japanese, Ryukyuans, Vietnamese, and (to a lesser extent) the Dutch not only from Korean perspectives but Cheju Islanders’ impressions of the world beyond.

Sources:

Cho Tong’il. 1997. Tong’asia kubisŏsasi-ŭi yangsang-kwa pyŏnch’ŏn. Sŏul: Munhakkwajisŏngsa.

Chŏng Un’gyŏng. 2008. T’amna mun’gyŏllok pada pak-ŭi nŏlbŭn sesang. Chŏng Min, editor. Sŏul-si: Hyumŏnisŭt’ŭ.

Jungmann, Burglind. 2004. Korean painters as envoys: Korean inspiration in eighteenth-century Japanese Nanga. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Remnants of the Japanese Colonial Era; Part III

Remnants of the Japanese Colonial Era; Part III: Colonial Modernities and a Tale of Saishu’s Two Cities

“Cheju modernity”?

[*For those disinterested in theoretical rambling, skip to the next section.]

What is “modernity”? It sounds like an absurd question with a self-evident answer, but in thinking about it further, one can find that “modernity” is an extremely arbitrary concept. Put another way, when does “modernity” even begin? And put in the context of Cheju Island, how does one define “modern” Cheju Island without assuming a culturally biased position that implies that Cheju Island had been “pre-modern” even while it occupies the same temporal space as the “modern” world?

“Modernity” is a strange, overwrought, contested term that we can never avoid and always reuse and abuse. In recent decades, scholars have reconsidered Korea’s entry into the “modern” world as a form of “colonial modernity.” Unlike earlier propositions (notably the so-called “internal development theory”) that Korea was on its own path to modernity before Japanese colonialism’s interference and had developed its own form of modern society in spite of imperial rule, colonial modernity considers Korea’s case a modernity wrought on under the strong penetration of the Japanese Empire at all levels of society. According to scholars that refer to “colonial modernity” (notably Bruce Cumings and Michael Robinson), many of the features of today’s “modern” Korea are survivals and adaptations of colonial Japanese institutional and cultural structures ranging from the persistence of Japanese-style bureaucratic structures and educational systems to cultural perspectives of Korean “tradition” and its place in the larger grand narrative of world history. “Modernity” as a concept is thus a controversial term unto itself and always assumes a position, however way it is deployed. Put another way, we can realize the term’s manifold problems when we consider one society “modern” and another society as “pre-modern” even though they occupy the same spatio-temporal location – how one and the other is defined is always an act of relegating one society or another into the “waiting room of history,” to whom whoever “history” itself belongs. As the chicken-and-egg debates over what exactly makes “modernity” rages endlessly in other corners of academia, for the purposes of examining Cheju Island it may be more productive to allow the concept of “modern” to take a backseat and instead consider what features of “modern” societies were imported, adapted, and transformed as they entered. In this case, Cheju Island’s case challenges us to rethink these false binaries of “modern” versus “pre-modern” as we see the remarkable speed in which islanders adapted to change. Cheju Island society, despite the dearth of sufficient research, was by no means stagnant and possessed its own capabilities for adjustment.

Perhaps a better aspect to focus in our examination of Cheju Island as a modern society is when the island became “urban.” This is again a very broad concept, but we can speak of an “urban” Cheju even in the early 20th century if we consider three things with regards to the “urban”: 1) as pertaining to the development of sophisticated infrastructure with the purpose of integrating a local into a capitalist system in order to transform a locality into a space for economic accumulation and diffusion; 2) the crystallization of a distinct administrative and economic “center” within a locality; and 3) consistent maintenance of strong cultural and political links to a metropolitan center or centers (which in this case would be both Japanese-ruled Seoul and Japan itself in early 20th century Cheju) through which metropolitan culture traverses into the local. This is not to say that Cheju had no centers prior to Japanese rule, but rather that the focus of power and economics became much more clearly emphasized within specific geographic areas and that these foci were inextricably interlinked with larger regional if not global capitalist flows.

Urbanizing Cheju: Cheju City and Mosŭlp’o as urban centers in Colonial Korea (early 1900s to 1945)

We can begin the story of “urban” development (in terms of infrastructure and integration to the global economy) in Cheju Island with the Japanese colonial administration’s projects in the early twentieth century. Cheju Island was by no means completely isolated until the moment of modernity (which scholars tend to put at 1876 with Japan forcing Korea to open its doors via gunboat diplomacy), but the beginnings of what we now take for granted as the modern conveniences and infrastructure of “Cheju City” and “Sŏgwip’o City” find their origins in colonial projects. Throughout most of the Chosŏn Dynasty (1392-1910), Cheju Island was divided into the three administrative districts of Chejumok, Chŏngŭi County, and Taejŏng County; these three districts had as their centers in present-day Cheju City, Sŏngŭp, and Posŏng-ni respectively. For most of this time, Sŏgwip’o, surrounding the coastal fortress of Sŏgwijin was hardly the city it is today as the real economic and population concentration in the south weighed heavily toward Taejŏng. Chejumok had always served as the main political and economic center of the island, but from the 18th century onward the township of Taejŏng (and in particular, today’s town of Mosŭlp’o) prospered due to its more ideal agricultural conditions, even going as far as surpassing Chejumok in wealth and population. The importance of these two towns played very important roles during the colonial period (1910-1945). Taejŏng maintained its importance well into the 1980s before Cheju City emerged as one of South Korea’s fastest-growing provincial cities.

As Yi Kiuk (1999/2004) observed in his excellent study of village economies in the island, already in the colonial period, Cheju’s economic structures were tied to modes of production and exchange prevalent in global capitalism with developments in road, sea transport, and water resource facilities. Though a modern port facility was constructed as early as the late 19th century under the reign of Emperor Kojong, it was not until Japanese colonial rule that Cheju (or “Saishu” in Japanese) had a port for genuinely large-scale oceanic transportation. Although Cheju’s maritime character is noted nowadays, Cheju does not actually have the advantage of large natural harbors and in fact every typhoon to hit Cheju demonstrates how vulnerable the island truly is. The entire waterfront at the mouth of the present Sanjicheon was redeveloped (using the very stones that comprised Cheju City’s ancient city walls) to create Cheju’s first (and not to mention completely artificial) major harbor to service massive steamships that could travel not only to the peninsular mainland but also to the Japanese city of Osaka. Sweet potatoes and today’s kamgyul (the original kamgyul native to Cheju are no longer widely cultivated) were also introduced to the island’s farmers. To facilitate the speed of transportation across the island, in which journeys across the island literally took days, the Japanese colonial administration ordered the construction of what would become today’s “Iljudoro” road, the road that circumnavigates the entire island. And, as had been the case in the Korean mainland, while the Japanese Empire was not actually as invested in enforcing compulsory education in Japanese norms as Korean nationalist historiography suggests, it was also during this period that the first regular schools were established.

In terms of scale, infrastructural developments (with the notable exceptions of the three major military airfields of Chŏngt’ŭrŭ, Chindŭrŭ, and Alttŭrŭ constructed at the end of the Pacific War) were hardly impressive. The Iljudoro road was constructed to allow automotive vehicle traffic, but was barely wide enough to fit a single car. It was clear that like the Chosŏn Dynasty rulers, the Japanese colonial administration was merely interested in developing Cheju to the extent that the island was subordinate yet sufficiently useful. As had been the case in most of the Korean mainland, development in Cheju never matched those of locales more important and readily exploitable for the Japanese Empire such as P’ohang and Pusan (industrial port cities facing the Japanese mainland), Kunsan (a major port from which Korean rice was shipped to Japan), or Taejŏn (a town conveniently located along a major rail line). On the other hand, these changes on Cheju’s physical landscape, the methods of administration, and the goals of centralized urban planning had an irreversible effect upon the island and maintained a remarkable continuity even into our times.

Cheju City

While much of the late 19th century native characteristics of Cheju City persisted (and still persists in pockets), the Japanese colonial administration expended some effort to transform it into another city within the Japanese Empire. For all intents and purposes, Cheju City served as the locus of the island’s administration and as somewhat of a representative for the central authority of the Japanese Government General in Seoul, the colonial authorities converted or built over symbolic sites to demonstrate their presence. Physical effacement of built space for the purpose of official forced forgetting is by no means unique to the Japanese Empire (and indeed the Chosŏn Dynasty was also invested in such a practice to cement its rule following the overthrow of the preceding Koryŏ Dynasty), but many of the visible features and urban planning arrangements of today’s Cheju City maintains a dialectical link with practices during the colonial period.

As had been the case in Seoul (referred to as “Keijo” under Japanese rule), Japanese settlers inhabited Cheju’s old downtown, which is based around Kwandŏkjŏng and Ch’ilsŏngt’ong. Ch’ilsŏngt’ong and the area around today’s Chung’ang-no area has continuously been inhabited since the T’amna period (and in fact the area known as Mugŭnsŏng since the 18th century was perhaps the original location of the ancient seat of the T’amna kings) and the importance of this neighborhood continued with the Japanese establishing their colonial center here. The current Ch’ilsŏng-no Arcade shopping street itself is a product of the 1980s but it was during Japanese rule that the three main parallel roads (Tapdong-no, Ch’ilsŏng-no, Chung’ang-no) were reconfigured as straight thoroughfares to mimic the norms in modernized Japanese cities; until the colonial period, Cheju City’s town streets not only wound in the same manner as ‘kolmokgil’ (country village roads) with the particular Cheju character of narrow ‘olle’ paths but also followed a distinctive pattern reflecting the Ursa Major constellation and hence Cheju’s native cosmology. Cheju City retained its small-town characteristics, but its streets were reorganized to follow those of its Japanese rulers in part due to the practicalities for effective colonial control and in part as a means of symbolic conquest.

The Ch’ilsŏngt’ong area comprised of a number of shops – many of which were Japanese-owned businesses – and Japanese settlers also owned houses here and in the adjoining Mugŭnsŏng neighborhood. Unbeknownst to many including Cheju residents, Japanese influences in residential architecture remains conspicuous in the unusual design (in particular square-shaped beams, sliding panels reminiscent of Japanese shoji, or central corridors) of some old tile-roofed houses that remain (for now) in the Ch’ilsŏngt’ong area. Hyangsadang, a shrine dedicated to founding ancestors a short distance across from Kwandŏkjŏng, was converted to a branch of a Japanese temple, Higashi Hon’ganji. A Japanese-style inn (ryokan) was established not too far from Kwandŏkjŏng, serving as a convenient place for bureaucrats to spend the night when transportation back home would be too inconvenient. Also near Kwandŏkjŏng is the site of Cheju’s first movie and performance theater. The building that still exists today near Sŏngnae Church (another very old site with a century-long history as the first Protestant church in Cheju) is the site of the 1950s Hyŏndae Theater, but another theater existed during the colonial period; records of this theater, however, are no longer available to us.

Most of Cheju City’s schools were also concentrated in this tight area, in particular Puk (Buk) Elementary, Nam Elementary, and Sinsŏng Girls’ High School. That a modern education system was centered in this one neighborhood was not at all an accident – the area around today’s Chung’ang-no was the prime center of education in Cheju from as far back as the Chosŏn Dynasty. Of the schools within Cheju City, Puk Elementary, founded in 1907, is a source of pride for many longtime residents as it was the first elementary school to have been established by Cheju Islanders and is the only school in the city that remains in precisely the same spot as it did over a century ago. Nam Elementary school was established under the Japanese colonial administration and was moved in the second half of the twentieth century. Sinsŏng Girls’ High School, originally located near Chung’ang Cathedral, was founded under the auspices of Catholic missionaries and like Nam Elementary it was eventually moved to a different location.

Taejŏng

Taejŏng’s center was historically in what is now Posŏng-ni where the 18th century exile Ch’usa Kim Chŏnghŭi resided and the remains of Taejŏng’s town walls still stand. Whereas soil conditions in other parts of Cheju were not particularly ideal for larger scale agriculture, Taejŏng possessed some of the island’s most arable land and this better quality soil is evidenced in the superior onggi earthenware ceramics unique to this region. The greater degree of wealth – as well as the fact that many mainland elites who were exiled to Cheju tended to reside here – also gave Taejŏng the distinction of having more educated residents. In the colonial period, however, Taejŏng’s center of activity shifted south to the seaside town of Mosŭlp’o. Local historian Kim Ungch’ŏl insists that in order to understand the story of Cheju in the early twentieth century, one has to look at Mosŭlp’o.

The town of Mosŭlp’o holds an unusual position in Cheju’s early 20th century history, a position that would surprise most visitors given the town’s current modest state. Whereas remnants of the colonial era are still evident in Cheju City, almost none exist in today’s Mosŭlp’o in part because the town consistently developed over several decades until its fortunes declined toward the end of the twentieth century. Until the 1960s when Cheju City’s development began in earnest due to the Park Chung Hee regime’s National General Development Plan (Kukt’o Chonghap Kaebal Kyehoek – initiated in 1964, but put into full implementation in 1985), the town of Mosŭlp’o was perhaps the closest thing Cheju Island had to a “city,” boasting a more active cultural scene and a better developed infrastructure with a more defined townscape.

All along the road from the current bus terminal in Mosŭlp’o going down to the harbor was the old town center. Some time in the 1920s, Japanese “New Theater” (Shingeki) drama was introduced to Cheju for the first time and the first performance of this import was in Mosŭlp’o’s first theater. The original theater during the colonial period was near today’s Mosŭlp’o harbor, facing the pier and along the current “Olle Course 10.” The area around the theater was once bustled with commercial activity as there were also inns for travelers. Mosŭlp’o’s importance was due to its proximity to the productive agriculture of the greater Taejŏng area, its fishery resources, and its harbor.

Toward the end of the Japanese colonial period, Mosŭlp’o and Taejŏng gained the dubious honor of hosting major imperial military fortifications that stretched from Song’aksan to the large air base and army bunkers at Alttŭrŭ (Alddeureu). With the defeat of the Japanese Empire imminent, military authorities planned for a final desperate attempt to reassert themselves as they established massive facilities of war on the backs of forced labor. The scars of Cheju’s traumas are much more visible in this part of Cheju Island as the now-abandoned aircraft hangars, watch towers, and gun turrets among the otherwise tranquil barley fields are a haunting reminder of this region’s complicated past.

Sources:

Interviews with Cheju City residents conducted during the period from July 20, 2014 to August 27, 2014