LIFE

ON THE ROAD Wind and Rocks, and the Sighs of Time in South Jeju

The volcanic island of Jeju forms an oval shape stretching east and west of Mt. Halla, which rises up alone in the center. The bottom half of the island is South Jeju, under the administrative jurisdiction of the city of Seogwipo. As the southernmost part of Korea, it is the first place in the country to greet the spring.

Seongsan Ilchulbong, popularly known as “Sunrise Peak,” rises from midnight blue waters of the bay across from a windswept field exuberant with an early spring profusion of yellow rapeseed flowers.

Hello, I say, as I meet you for the first time on the road.
Do you know this? That happiness in life starts with greeting the one that you love. That the greetings between you pile up and up and become happiness. As happiness is like wine, when life crosses the river of disappointment and despair it offers us a small boat and a pair of oars. That’s why we all need happiness.
Today, I’m on my way to the southern part of Jeju Island. I have no idea how many times I’ve started out on this trip, but whenever I do, I say Hello, as if meeting my first love. And with the same warmth in your voice you say back to me, Hello! When we exchange greetings like this I feel a flutter in my heart and my eyes grow bright, as if looking at a flowerbed in the sky. Any shadow of hate or despair in my heart disappears like the wind.
You stand there smiling and waving at me. You — have you ever wondered what country you are from? I’m Korean. I live in Korea and write poetry. The essence of the sixty years I have spent on this earth: probably it’s shame. I have not lived a life filled with passion and virtue, and have not been able to write the best poems I could from the depths of my heart. When the critics gave the nod to a handful of poems that I had stayed up all night to write I grew proud, thinking I had achieved the best that could be. When I think that I have simply crossed over puddles filled with impatience and clumsiness, my heart grows dark again.

Jusangjeolli Cliff, an aweinspiring formation of hexagonal columns of black basalt, stretches out ruggedly like sculpted ramparts along the shoreline at Seogwipo. It is one of the most spectacular sights of the volcanic island of Jeju.

Why the Sunrise is Beautiful
The road that I’m greeting is the ring road encircling the island of Jeju. Though better known by its old name of National Road No. 12, it is actually Regional Road No. 1132. The island harbors some beautifully mysterious natural phenomena and was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007 under the name “Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes.” The villages surrounded by lava, the unfathomably deep lava caves, the waterfalls dropping into the sea, and the myriad little islands … at some point the whole landscape is covered in deep yellow rapeseed flowers. For a moment, I forget what country I come from, what I do for a living. And for a moment, shame is put behind as well. That’s why I come here. People forget their loneliness in their encounter with the road, and the road becomes complete in its encounter with people’s loneliness and shame.

As you walk along the coastal road leading to Kim Jeong-hui's place of exile, you come to a rock-pile stupa, on top of which sits a stone figure with a human face. To the right is one of Jeju's numerous parasitic cones (oreum).

I’m now travelling southeast on the ring road. In the distance looming closer before me is a mysterious rocky formation in the shape of an elephant. The Jeju locals call it Seongsan Ilchulbong, or the Sunrise Peak of Seongsan. From this place, located at the far east of the island, you can see the most beautiful sunrise in Korea. This tuff cone was formed five thousand years ago when an eruption under the sea shot magma above its surface. An island at first, it later became connected to the land with the accumulation of sediment. The sunrise is particularly beautiful here because of the way the sun emerges on the horizon in a splendid array of colors, its light rays traversing the density of the dawn atmosphere to shine down in green, pink, blue, and yellow. Magical, don’t you think? Sunshine in a rainbow of colors. Think of Gauguin’s paintings for a moment. The primitive colors reflected in the paintings of the “noble savage” who ended his days on the island of Tahiti are the colors of the sunlight. The island’s black volcanic rocks with holes everywhere, the billowing blankets of yellow flowering rapeseed cascading down the foot of the mountain to the sea, the blue waves of the heaving ocean — between the long whistles of exhaled breaths of haenyeo, the women deep sea divers of Jeju, the sun shines down.

Tourists meander along one of Jeju’s Olle hiking trails, enjoying views of Mt. Sanbang and fishing villages along the coast.

We should stop for a minute and talk about these divers. The hardy haenyeo are a symbol of Jeju island life. Wearing no diving or breathing equipment, they dive for hours in freezing waters down tens of meters to the sea floor, harvesting abalones, sea cucumbers, conches, and other marine delicacies. They say the more experienced divers can hold their breath for five minutes. The sound of exhaled breath as they rise to the water’s surface is indeed a symbol not only of the divers themselves but also the powerful life force of the women of Jeju. It is awe inspiring to think of the women divers growing old wresting a living from the sea. In 2016, the Culture of Jeju Haenyeo was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

I had parked the car by the roadside to wait for the sun to rise. I saw the sun first come down in a mixture of yellow and red, then gradually grow green and blue, and finally a glorious pink. Sitting among the rapeseed flowers on a spring day and watching the sun rise over Ilchulbong, I think I know why the birds sing and why the flowers have such bright faces.
On my way to Seopjikoji I turn my footsteps in a different direction.
Koji is a Jeju dialect word meaning “a very small promontory.” When I first went there thirty years ago, I was on my honeymoon. Back then it still had its primitive landscape.

There were the two us, there was the wind laden with the scent of flowers, there was the sound of the waves, and there was the sunshine with its multifarious colors. Perhaps there was nothing there at all. For a young couple completely unaware that the door to stern reality stood before them, this place was like a gift granted by life; yet to come was an unpredictable future that had to be borne. But these days there are too many people. Have you heard of the Korean drama series “All In?” A lot of other dramas and movies have also been shot there, so naturally the place attracts crowds. Once a lonely place, yet lovely and enigmatic, it has now lost its glory. But it is only when the tower of people piles up here that I realize I am human. Everyone would have had their own despair, sadness, and pain. Perhaps they all came here to forget that pain, I think with some pity, because I, and they, and all of us are human beings dreaming our dreams in sadness.

Dolharubang, rock statues of “old grandfathers,” can be found everywhere throughout the island.

Artist Lee Jung-seob and the Seogwipo Seaside
There are two people I have to meet on my trip to southern Jeju.
It’s now time to meet one of them: Lee Jung-seob (1916–1956), a Korean artist. I became engrossed by his work and life when I was around twenty. Over and over again I read the critical biography written by the poet Ko Un until the cover was tattered. I only stopped reading it when my time came up for military service. In the city of Seogwipo, there is an art museum and street named after the artist.
I’m not sure where to start talking about him. It was January 1951 when Lee Jung-seob first arrived in southern Jeju. The Korean War was at its height and Lee had come to take refuge on the island with his wife and two young sons. Born to a wealthy farming family, Lee had gone to Japan to study art at the age of twenty. There he met Masako, who became the love of his life. When I was in my 20s, the love story between a young Korean artist and a Japanese woman during the period of Japanese colonial rule made my heart ache. The two carried on their relationship, crossing the sea between Korea and Japan, and married in 1945. Not long afterward, Korea was liberated from Japanese rule. The couple who had lived peacefully in Wonsan, now part of North Korea, fled south when the city was bombed in 1950 during the Korean War. That’s when Lee arrived in southern Jeju. After passing through the crowded refugee city of Busan, the family moved on to Jeju, living at the Seogwipo seaside from January to December 1951. During this period, Lee eked out a scant living catching crabs for his family to eat. That’s why his works frequently feature crabs playing with his two children. Lee once said that he felt very sorry for what he did to the crabs. After sending his wife and two children to Japan in 1952, Lee lived in unhappiness and wrote letters to Masako every few days. Here I reproduce one of them:

“Art is the expression of infinite love. It is the truest expression of love. When one is filled with true love, the heart becomes pure . . . . More deeply, strongly and passionately, infinitely I love my precious Nam-deok. I love her, and love her and adore her, and everything in life reflected in the pure minds of the two people can be newly produced and expressed. To my endlessly soft and warm Mister Toe, I send loving kisses many times and many times again.”

Nam-deok is Masako’s Korean name. There’s a part of this letter that I can’t take my eyes off of: that part about sending loving kisses to Mister Toe. This expression of infinite love for something so humble and low is a revelation of Lee’s view of the world. Lee deeply loved his wife’s toe. Many of his letters mention kisses to his wife’s toe.

“Sehando” (A Winter Scene, 1844) by Kim Jeong-hui. Ink and wash, 23 x 69.2 cm. One of the most famous Korean literati paintings, which were produced by scholars rather than professional artists, this simple landscape expresses Kim’s state of mind as he ponders the meaning of life during his bleak years in exile on Jeju Island.

Lee Jung-seob liked to paint cows. In the dull honesty of the cow he sought to bring out the most quintessentially Korean scenes possible. Unable to buy paint and other art supplies in the midst of war, he used the foil lining of cigarette packs as his canvas. After finishing a pack of cigarettes, he etched pictures on the foil and colored them with paint. Of the three hundred-some cigarette foil paintings produced by Lee, three are in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “Family on the Road” is my favorite Lee Jung-seob painting. The picture of a man taking his wife and two children on a picnic loaded in a handcart is a picture of the world that Lee dreamed of. Lee held his final exhibition in Seoul in 1955, but his paintings did not sell. Mentally debilitated, he started to refuse food and spent his time in psychiatric wards until he died in hospital in 1956 with no one by his side.
At the Lee Jung-seob Art Museum you can see his paintings, the art that he loved all his life, and the letters to his wife. It's heartening to realize the significance of the life of an artist who lived in poverty. The Jaguri coast below is where Lee took walks with his family. Just walking along the shore here on a bleak and lonely day, thinking about the life of a poor artist in wartime can provide some mental healing.

The road between Ilchulbong and Mt. Sanbang is aptly called Paradise Road. The beauty of nature along the road is breathtaking. At the end of the road is a place steeped in the aura of the scholar and artist most beloved by many Koreans.

Outside the Lee Jung-seob Art Museum in Seogwipo is a stone monument with a portrait of the artist's visage carved in relief.

The Life of a Joseon Scholar in Exile
Mt. Sanbang is located at the western end of southern Jeju.
The ridges have a soft and comforting look. You can see the peaceful scene of native ponies grazing on the grass. By the side is a small port with the lovely name of Moseulpo. Rambling along the ridges, I reach Moseulpo at sunset and dine on grilled Pacific herring with rice at a small restaurant. Making food the joy of living is probably a foolish thing to do. But on a lonely day, on a day of deep despair, sitting in a shabby restaurant in a little harbor town eating alone with a bottle of soju for company is not so foolish. The man is thoroughly analyzing and ruminating on his past. There is no reason he can’t find a new road in life.
In 1840, a man was exiled to Moseulpo. His name was Kim Jeong-hui (1786–1856). In the Joseon period, exile was the punishment meted out to those who disobeyed the king. Kim lived in exile on Jeju for eight years.

He was confined to a thatch-roofed house surrounded by a thorny fence. It is true both in the East and West, past and present, that the finest achievements in a person’s life often come in times of poverty and deprivation. It was here in exile that Kim Jeong-hui’s learning and art reached new heights. The painting “Sehando” (A Winter Scene), familiar to all Koreans, was created here in 1844.
Everyone should see this painting at least once. Designated National Treasure No. 180, it is ever so simple. There’s a rundown house depicted in a few lines, a gnarled old pine tree, and three young Korean pines. It carries an inscription, an old saying by Confucius: “Only when the year becomes cold, then we know how the pines are the last to lose their leaves.” I think he meant that after the cold winter we realize what it means to be green; only after tough days does the light of life begin to shine. Attached to the painting are encomiums written by 16 scholars from Qing China, who wrote down their impressions of the work.
In his home of exile, Kim Jeong-hui pondered the meaning of life. Surely that is meaningful in itself. The road between Ilchulbong and Mt. Sanbang is aptly called Paradise Road. The beauty of nature along the road is breathtaking. At the end of the road is a place steeped in the aura of the scholar and artist most beloved by many Koreans.

Gwak Jae-gu Poet
Lee Han-koo Photographer

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