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  • Jeju Island is famous for its haenyeo, female divers who gather seafood for up to five hours a day in the cold sea, without scuba gear. Illustrates TRAVEL-JEJU-ISLAND (category t) by John Feffer (c) 2012, special to The Washington Post. Moved Tuesday April 24, 2012. (MUST CREDIT: John Feffer for The Washington Post).
  • This Jeju Island breakfast includes mackerel with panchan, or side dishes. Illustrates TRAVEL-JEJU-ISLAND (category t) by John Feffer (c) 2012, special to The Washington Post. Moved Tuesday April 24, 2012. (MUST CREDIT: John Feffer for The Washington Post).
Sunday, May 6, 2012

Jeju Island merges natural wonders, dark history

I’m standing with a social worker beneath the palm trees outside a municipal building in the main city of Jeju Island.

We’re talking about a nearby naval base, which the South Korean government is trying to build and a number of islanders are trying to prevent.

She’s repeating a familiar refrain about Jeju – that it’s a paradise on Earth, but one with a dark side. The naval base is only the latest indignity inflicted on this semitropical island 60 miles south of the Korean mainland.

“It’s just like the story of Genesis in the Bible,” I say. “Even the Garden of Eden had a snake.”

She likes this line. Throwing her head back, she laughs very hard.

Then she wallops me on the shoulder.

It’s supposed to be an affectionate cuff. But the social worker is a solidly built woman in her 50s, and she nearly throws me off my feet. I laugh, too, while covertly feeling my shoulder for damage.

The women of Jeju have a reputation for strength. The island is famous for its haenyeo, female divers who gather abalone and other seafood for up to five hours a day in the cold sea – without scuba gear.

The diver figurines for sale in the haenyeo museum on Jeju look like Snow White with goggles. But the real haenyeo are squat, powerful women, many of them still working in this dying profession into their 60s and 70s.

The contrast between the hokey figurines and the people they depict illustrates the contradictions of Jeju. The island features several UNESCO World Heritage natural sites and is a premier honeymoon destination for Korean newlyweds. But the South Korean government is tearing up the island’s southern coastline to build a modern naval base that would host the country’s three top-of-the-line destroyers.

Islanders have a reputation for being more laid back than mainland Koreans, but Jeju also has a long tradition of fiercely resisting outside pressure.

This is my first time in Jeju. After dozens of visits to South Korea, I’m astonished by this island; it’s as if I’ve discovered that a relative’s dark, cramped house has a large, sunny room that I never knew about.

South Korea is certainly a dynamic place, as the tourist bureaus repeat endlessly, but it doesn’t win a lot of points for prettiness. The capital, Seoul, is almost wholly without charm.

Korea possesses a good deal of natural beauty, such as the forests around Mount Sorak in the northeast and the seaside villages. But Jeju is the one place in Korea where the attractions – from magnificent beaches and splendid coastal hikes to excellent food and intriguing museums – are concentrated in a single easily accessible stretch of territory.

In fact, Jeju Island is the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s only triple-crown winner, with designations as a natural preserve, a natural heritage and a geological park. Recently, the island was also listed as one of the new seven wonders of the natural world.

Jeju has a spectacular volcanic cone that looks like a grass-covered butte, the longest lava tunnel in the world and an immense extinct volcano, Mount Halla, at the center of the island. Jeju is three times the size of Thailand’s Phuket but attracts one-sixth the number of foreign tourists.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Jeju is its contribution to the relatively new field of “dark tourism.”

Over a meal of the island’s famous black pig, Anne Hilty, a cultural health psychologist from New York now living on Jeju, tells me that tragic sites, such as Holocaust museums or the new Sept. 11 memorial in New York, are drawing tourists looking for something beyond escapism. For the people of Jeju, she says, a focus on these dark patches of history can either perpetuate a “victim mentality” or serve “as a reminder of the need to work for peace and human rights issues on the premise of ‘never again.’ ”

My first brush with Jeju’s dark side comes on arrival, although I won’t find this out until later. The airport outside Jeju City is bright and new. But buried beneath the runways are hundreds of victims of execution who were thrown into mass graves.

Excavations in 2007 turned up more than 200 bodies, a small fraction of the roughly 30,000 islanders killed in 1948 when Korean authorities and right-wing vigilantes, with the compliance of the United States military, suppressed a popular rebellion.

This sordid history is captured with elegiac power at the 4.3 Museum. Located in the Peace Park on the outskirts of Jeju City, the museum is named after an uprising against Korean and U.S. military authorities on April 3, 1948. The museum memorializes the victims with photos, videos and oral histories.

A visit to the other major museum in Jeju City, the Jeju National Museum, reveals that the 1948 rebellion was part of a longer tradition. The most famous example involves the 13th-century Koryo dynasty on the mainland, which, after initially combating the invading Mongols, ultimately switched sides and in essence collaborated with the enemy.

The Jeju islanders, by contrast, continued to resist the combined Mongol-Koryo forces, just as they were later to put up a sustained fight against the Japanese, who occupied Korea during the first half of the 20th century.

The island and its beauty are well worth fighting for.

I take a day trip from Jeju City due east to Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak, a kind of Mont St. Michel of compacted ash that’s connected to the island by a spit of land. Walking along the water, with the lava mountain rising up before me, I happen on a group of haenyeo preparing for the day’s work. They’re dressed in black rubber suits and carry bright orange taewak, or floats, that look like fluorescent pumpkins and keep the divers buoyed as they recover their breath between dives.

I chat with them about the weather conditions before they set off in their boat. Then I duck into a waterside restaurant for a breakfast of broiled chub mackerel, which comes out sizzling on a metal plate alongside a delightful assortment of panchan (side dishes), including cold acorn squash and warm strips of fish cake.

Climbing up Seongsan, which technically isn’t a mountain but the result of an underwater volcanic eruption, is an ordeal. It isn’t particularly steep, and the trail isn’t long. But it’s so crowded with tourists that you might as well be at the mall on Black Friday.

The views down onto Seongsan port and the nearby islands, however, make enduring the ascending scrum worth it.

For a more tranquil hike, I take a ferry to the largest of the islands – U-do – where the highest point affords similarly spectacular views. U-do is known for its peanuts, so I make sure to try the peanut noodles at a cafe at the base of the promontory and the peanut ice cream at a convenience store as a reward after making my way back down.

Heading back from Seongsan, I tramp through the nearly mile-long Manjanggul, the largest lava tunnel in the world. It’s cold, dark and wet, which is perfect for a hot summer day in the semitropics.

Another must-see site is the Cheonjiyeon waterfall in the southern part of the island, with a nearby temple and arboretum (and a teddy bear museum if your kids aren’t nature types).

Not far from the waterfall is Gangjeong village, the site of the naval base under construction. Protesters have tried to stop the bulldozers. The town’s mayor has gone to jail over the base, the country’s most prominent film critic has gone on hunger strike and celebrities such as Gloria Steinem have raised their voices in protest.

Now, since the police pushed them back from the construction site, the protesters occupy an empty lot not far from the large metal fence that shields the base construction from view. Every night, they sing, dance, pass tangerines around and speak out against the Korean government’s actions. It’s protest Jeju-style.

Not everyone in Gangjeong opposes the construction. Some believe the base will bring jobs to the island. The protesters believe the price is too high to pay.

The island depends on tourists, after all, drawing them with its natural attractions, the haenyeo and quirky museums such as Love Land, with its 140 outdoor sculptures of couples in myriad sex positions.

There’s also the food. I try the Jeju versions of yukejang, which is more like comforting beef gravy than the traditionally spicy hot broth, and samgyetang, a soul-warming chicken soup featuring an entire chicken, ginseng, Chinese dates and abalone with so much rice in it that it’s practically gruel.

I also have a couple of meals of Jeju’s famous black pig. The meat arrives in thick, fatty slabs, pink and white, which you grill and eat with soy paste and cabbage kimchi and wash down with the rice wine known as makgeolli.

But my most spectacular Jeju meal is in the Samyang neighborhood of Jeju City after my day of climbing lava formations and tunneling underground. I’m supposed to meet someone at Momaejon Garden restaurant to try its famous pumpkin duck. But my guest can’t make it, so I’m there by myself.

I order the duck because it’s a dish served nowhere else.

“That’s too much for one person,” says the proprietor, Lee Hae Seong.

“But I’ve heard so much about this dish, that it’s unique, that I have to try it,” I respond.

“It’s for three or four people,” she says.

“I’m pretty hungry,” I say, embarrassed.

She looks skeptical. “You’ll take the leftovers home?”

“Absolutely!” I promise.

The order arrives: a mound of smoked duck with wild mushrooms and garlic atop wedges of acorn squash, drizzled with barbecue sauce and surrounded by an astonishing assortment of side dishes: pickled persimmon, spicy sesame leaves, fried tofu. Next to it is a big bowl of greens that include lettuce, chicory, sesame and kohlrabi. There’s a special mustard sauce alongside the usual red spicy pepper paste.

The owner sits down across from me and we talk. She asks where I’m from, about my family. She tells me that she used to have a restaurant in Seongsan. She opened this place seven years ago. I ask whether she runs the place with her family.

“No,” she says. “Just me. And my staff.”

I hear a sad story in her voice, but before I can probe, she takes a piece of lettuce and a piece of chicory, places a piece of duck and a piece of squash in the middle, adds some spicy bean sprouts and some of the mustard sauce. She wraps it up and holds it out for me. I start to take it in my hands.

But no, she ignores my hands and pushes the little bundle directly into my mouth as if I were a baby.

I could try to resist. But she’s a strong and persuasive woman. And the pumpkin duck is like nothing I’ve ever tasted, sweet and salty and smoky but with a touch of bitterness from the chicory. I feel as though I’ve taken a bite out of Jeju itself.

The more I eat, the more I think I understand the island. But in the end, it’s too much for me, too much to eat in one sitting, too much to absorb in one short visit.