The family business established by the artisan’s grandfather was carried on by his father, then himself, and now his son. Over a period of 108 years, the family’s steadfast dedication has become its trademark. Utilizing techniques passed down for generations, Kim Jong-hun produces traditional cast iron pots called gamasot, and his single-hearted devotion to the craft has earned him a place on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Gyeonggi Province.
Master iron caster Kim Jong-hun inspects a finished iron pot. Cast with pure molten iron, his pots remain popular among those who love traditional crafts.
Sometimes you wonder about the age of someone you’ve just met, especially when you’re interested to learn more about their life. It is not about evaluating them based on superficial characteristics such as being young, or mature, or old, but about taking a genuine interest in their personal history - what they have gone through and how they have sewn and patched times and places together over the course of their life. That’s how I learned about the life story of Kim Jong-hun.
“Having been born in 1930, I’ve lived so long and gone through so much,” Kim said. “When the Pacific War broke out, I was maybe in the fifth grade. I experienced the Second World War and witnessed the country’s liberation from Japanese rule. I also served in the Korean War, although I didn’t participate in combat. I was 18 years old when the Chinese troops entered the war, forcing our army to retreat, and all men aged 18 or above were enrolled into the militia forces. In the freezing winter, we marched all the way down to Busan without rations, eating whatever was available at civilian homes on the way.”
The entire country was a battleground, but Kim managed to survive. He was also fortunate enough to be able to continue his studies after the war. Although he had to give up his dream of studying medicine, he still managed to enter the prestigious Seoul National University, where he attended the College of Agriculture. He was an ambitious young man, ready to try anything in life, but fate was not on his side. When his father, whose health had begun to decline during the war, found it harder and harder to manage his foundry, Kim was left with no choice but to go back home and trade in his books for iron. That was in 1953, not long after an armistice halted the war, when he had one more year to go before graduation.
Leaving Dreams Behind
In the 1950s, every household had a number of gamasotin the kitchen. Even those who were not so well off had at least a few of these iron pots, each reserved for cooking rice or soup or boiling water. People who raised cattle even had a separate iron pot for preparing cattle feed. Since the pots were indispensable household items, Kim did not need to worry about selling his products. Carried on an ox cart to the nearest market, a large pot was exchanged for two 80-kilogram sacks of rice plus two bolts of cotton cloth. Although not cash, this was more than sufficient. His family’s barn was filled with rice, and the “barley hump” (the hungry days in late spring to early summer) was unknown to them, even without having their own farm, so it was quite a profitable business and a secure means of supporting a family. Perhaps that’s why Kim never protested his father’s request that he take over the family business.
“As a young man, my grandfather settled down in Anseong, a town famed for traditional cast iron and bronze ware, and worked in a brass tableware factory. Later, he set up a stall at the corner of a market, soldering used iron pots before he opened a regular repair shop,” Kim said. And then, in 1910, his grandfather took over a Japanese-owned foundry and named it Anseong Iron Casting [Anseong Jumul]. That was the start of his family’s business, a home-based foundry operated in a workshop standing on a plot of about 300 pyeong [approximately 990 square meters], with several family members producing no more than six or seven pots a month. In 1930, his father inherited the business. He employed a few more workers, but production hardly increased.
Large iron pots called gamasot were fixed onto the clay stove in the traditional Korean kitchen. Seen here is a smaller, free-standing pot for steaming rice or cooking stew. 200 × 200 × 120 mm.
Remarkable innovations began after Kim took the helm and reformed the production system. The blowers sending air into the furnace for melting iron were upgraded from a treadle type to a motorized one to increase production capacity. For more efficient transportation of goods, the old ox cart was replaced with a truck, one of the army vehicles that had been sold to civilians after the armistice. As a result, the company’s distribution channels were expanded from nearby towns to Icheon, Yongin and Suwon in Gyeonggi Province, and even as far as Cheongju and Jecheon in North Chungcheong Province. With such improvements in production and distribution, the scale of business finally expanded. The only aspect Kim did not try to change was the age-old manufacturing process, handed down through generations. Today, he still sticks to the traditional methods of casting and pouring molten metal into the mold by hand.
Kim explained, “Wood and coals are fired in the furnace, with air blown into the inlet to stoke the fire, and then pig iron, coke and limestone are added to bring the chamber up to a temperature of 2,100ºC. The furnace should be steadily maintained at the same temperature to obtain pure molten metal, which is critical to casting sturdy iron pots.
The molten metal is then poured into the mold, a procedure that requires utmost care. If the amount is insufficient, blowholes appear in the casting; if the temperature fluctuates, even slightly, the liquid metal is prone to splattering.”
While modernizing the foundry, introducing new technologies, Kim still harbored hopes of going back to school. And yet, he loved the moment when the molten metal, tens of kilograms of hot glowing matter, was poured into the mold all in one go, he and his fellow workers moving to the same beat. The tedious preparatory work, involving an array of tools and equipment, such as casts, molds, cores, and sand for casting, did not bother him at all. And he was not afraid of the sparks flying up. What mattered most to him was how to make a pot so hard that no one could break. For that, he always had to maintain the furnace and molds in good working order.
Surviving Market Vicissitudes
Kim’s time has been fused into the metal, and meeting the fire with its flaring and splitting flames, molded into a solid iron pot. He was often overcome with emotion when he ran his hand over the cold surface of a pot, heeding the whispers of the time accumulated in it. And yet, he cannot deny that his heart often chilled at the thought of himself torn between the “road not taken” and the “road to be taken.” Each time, however, the hot and heavy molten metal would warm his heart again, leading him back to the road he had to take. By the time he had mastered all casting procedures, he said to himself, “I guess I will just keep on casting these pots for the rest of my life.”
“But I was wrong,” Kim recollected, “since iron casting, like any other business, was influenced by technological advances. As the New Community Movement [a government-initiated community development campaign in the 1970s] was carried out nationwide, triggering modernization of people’s living environment, old kitchens with large iron pots affixed to wood-burning stoves began to be replaced with modern kitchens. And the ban on indiscriminate logging led to the replacement of wood-burning stoves with briquette boilers. To top it off, nickel silver was introduced in the 1960s, and then stainless steel in the 1980s, so the heavy, cumbersome iron pots gradually fell out of favor.”
Discarded gamasot, whose demand not long before had exceeded supply, now ended up in junk shops. As the traditional iron pots, which had been dependable companions in the country’s kitchens, were abandoned as unwanted objects of the past, cast iron foundries across the country went out of business. Kim was hard put catching up with the rapidly changing times, but he had no intention of giving in. He started to explore a new market, producing cast iron stoves and auto parts. In the early 1980s, he reinvented his family’s business once again by launching small iron pots which could be used on a gas stove. As his business gradually revived, however, he ran into yet another crisis.
He loved the moment when the molten metal, tens of kilograms of hot glowing matter, was poured into the mold all in one go, he and his fellow workers moving to the same beat.
Kim Seong-tae (second from left), the master’s son and current CEO of Anseong Iron Casting, works with other manufacturing staff members to remove the mold from the core box, as his father (fourth from left) looks on. The mold should be separated from the cast when it has cooled down to around 800ºC to prevent warping of the pot.
“In 1989, I narrowly avoided bankruptcy caused by a dishonored bill that I received from a client,” Kim said. “But I was not so lucky in 1994. My house and my factory were seized, just when I planned to enter the Chinese market with cast iron stoves. Then in 1997, the government applied for an IMF bailout amid the Asian financial crisis, further aggravating the business climate. In spite of all that, I just couldn’t give up.”
Hardships continued. Doing business in a leased factory was difficult, with its poor working conditions and the ever-rising rent. In 2004, when his second son joined the company, the workshop did not have so much as a hammer and a shovel, not to mention a mold. They had to start from scratch to rebuild Anseong Iron Casting. The “road not taken” was no longer on his mind.
“Gradually, word spread that we make our pots using century-old traditional methods of iron casting. In the end, my craft was designated as Gyeonggi Province’s Intangible Cultural Heritage No. 45 in 2006. It has taken half a century for the craft, which was my childhood environment and source of entertainment, to become my career and earn me such honor,” Kim said.
Modern design is combined with traditional techniques.
The octagonal casserole dish (240 × 220 × 65 mm) is used for boiling or frying, while the segmented pan (240 × 240 × 45 mm) can do both at the same time.
From Metalworker to Artisan
In 2006, his second son, Kim Seong-tae, took over Anseong Iron Casting as its fourth president, ushering in a new wave of change. Obtaining a patent on a new iron pot with the lid placed inside the rim to prevent its contents from boiling over, and diversifying the product line, ranging from the large traditional pots to a variety of modified models, the company has been behind the revived popularity of cast iron products among those who recognize the value of this old craft. Perhaps the biggest change was the decision to go online, which markedly raised the sales volume. But the company has not merely sought profits but placed priority on its pride and honor as a generations-old family business.
“Since my son took over the management, the production system has been greatly improved. Our products have become more accessible to consumers,” Kim said. “Now, my only wish is to see more people, other than my son, take an interest in this precious craft and keep it alive forever.”
Though swayed by the dizzy speed of change and growth amidst Korea’s turbulent modern history, Kim Jong-hun has always tried to stay alert in the here and now. “It seems the gamasot is my lifetime companion, bound to me with unbreakable ties,” said the artisan on the verge of 90, with a smile on his face as innocent and guileless as the unassuming iron pots he makes.