Lee Hwan-jung wavers in his small boat, harpoon in hand. Looking back to shore, black rocks and dark waves sway under a granite sky. On this early February morning on the Jeju coast, cold water sloshes over his shoes. Lee is a self-taught fisherman from Seoul. Still robust at 43, with gray hairs just beginning to sprout, he wonders yet again if he made the right choice moving to South Korea’s largest island.
His family seafood restaurant is across the street from where my wife and I now live. We first met last August; he saw us dragging our suitcases into our apartment and introduced himself soon after we settled in. Friendly and welcoming, he invited us to eat at his restaurant and meet the rest of his family. In time, their oldest daughter would sit with us to practice her English, her father beaming from the kitchen and encouraging her to keep talking.
They were our first non-work friends on the island, where we had moved from Ontario, Canada, seven months ago to teach English. Over time, Lee began opening up about his personal frustrations and challenges as a ‘mainlander’ on the island. They had nothing to do with getting up at 3 a.m. every morning to go fishing. The main source of stress in his life came from the fact that no matter how hard he tried, Jeju natives seemed to mistreat him because he wasn’t born on the island.
At first, Lee’s frustrations seem like the complaint of any restaurant owner who can’t please all of his customers. Lee tells me that he gets a lot of positive feedback on his dishes from foreign customers – I am a big fan of his octopus ramen – but Jeju natives seem to be the only customers who routinely complain. Either he serves too much, too little, the noodles are too thin, or his food is not spicy enough. According to Lee, some Jeju customers turn abrasive after a few drinks of soju. Unable to pinpoint exactly what these customers say in angry, hushed tones, the negativity he feels but cannot name sets him on edge.
More troubling to me was the fact that Lee has to deal with other restaurant-owners, native to Jeju, who have an “in-group” that directs customers to businesses owned by islanders through word-of-mouth or in-house advertising. Lee argues this is a widespread issue throughout Jeju, a problem other restaurant owners from the mainland have complained about.
Because of this exclusivity, Lee claims, his restaurant is vacant on most nights. He had always sensed that Jeju people were, in his words, “smiling coldly, only friendly to his face.” The existence of the in-group, which he only discovered through a friend who is married to a Jeju native, confirmed his suspicions – and made him feel more isolated and lonely.
“I don’t know what to do. I can’t change their minds,” he sighed, staring forlornly at empty chairs and tables. “You know, this whole thing has given me headaches.”
My own experiences drew me to Lee’s predicament. As a black man, I am an outsider on Jeju Island, although there are clearly differences between Lee’s social position and mine. I am a visible outsider. Many of the hardships I experience are rooted in cultural ignorance of and racism against black people, both of which are still pervasive in South Korean society, not just Jeju.
But Lee will also always be an outsider on Jeju Island – even though he is Korean, ethnically an ‘insider.’ The discrimination he perceives is less visible, but enough to erode his feeling of self-worth and belonging – a feeling I can relate to.
Kim Ji-hyun, 27, is one of my former colleagues, born and raised on Jeju. I asked her if, in her experience, Jeju natives mistreat mainlanders living on the island.
“Of course,” she says. “Sometimes it’s visible, sometimes not. People are very close here with deep family roots. Jeju people share a lot of things. Mainlanders don’t know how serious this connection is.”
Park Seo-yeon, 24, another Jeju native, was willing to talk as long as I didn’t disclose her real name. As we entered a café in Yeon-dong, a neighborhood near Jeju City, she casually scanned the room, to make sure there was nobody she knew.
“The Jeju island people are more conservative. Young people are much more open,” she looked over her shoulder again and leaned in. “I think older people are the problem. They treat mainlanders harshly.”
“They don’t make it clear. They hide their mind, their feelings. For example,” she nodded over to the barista serving a customer behind us, “If my father owned this café and other people from Jeju came in, he would be friendly, treating them very well with big smiles. If it was anyone else, like you or other mainlanders, he would be much colder and quieter, but you would never be able to tell.”
“We treat each other like cousins,” Park said. “It’s different when it comes to mainlanders. People here believe we share a connection.”
The closed-off nature of islanders is not a new phenomenon, said Tommy Tran, a professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles. Tran researches Jeju history, culture and urbanization, and asserts that mainlanders generally perceive Jeju islanders to be inherently insular or conservative.
“[Islander] hostility toward the mainland does rub off on me as well, largely because I’ve spent so much time looking into the history and the situation.”
Further compounding Jeju’s insular nature is the island’s own distinct dialect, considered a critically endangered language by UNESCO, which is nearly incomprehensible to mainlanders.
The origins for this insularity – even distrust towards mainlanders – may be more complicated on Jeju than on other islands in South Korea. One critical period is what is widely known as ‘4.3’ (‘sa-sam’), the month and day marking years of violent confrontation between Jeju’s communist sympathizers and the South Korean government.
4.3 Incident – also called Massacre or Uprising (depending on one’s political leanings) – officially marks the beginning of an extensive anti-communist campaign by the government.
A special investigative report from the Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation states the series of government methods to suppress the uprising resulted in “the second highest [death] toll in modern Korean history after the Korean War.”
Confrontations with the preexisting government had existed long before April 1948. The South Korean Labor Party, which exercised strong political power over the island, opposed the upcoming elections in May 1948, designed to create South Korea’s first government.
A huge debate surrounds U.S. complicity – a 2003 government investigation said the U.S. Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK), which occupied the southern half of the Korean Peninsula after August 1945, and the Korean Military Advisory Group, also a U.S. military unit, shared responsibility for what became a violent witch hunt. Critics say there’s lack of conclusive proof.
Though the exact number is unknown, an estimated 30,000 Jeju people (10 percent of the island’s population), were eventually killed from 1947-1954 – entire families and villages tortured and executed.
Moon Hee, 33, a Jeju native who also declined to disclose her real name, has family roots on the island going back many generations.
“My grandfather, who is a stone statue master, made a village in the middle of the mountains, and it was destroyed. During the massacre, when the soldiers were marching through the towns, my mother-in-law hid in trees. She can still remember that moment.”
In the decades that followed, spent mostly under successive authoritarian regimes, the South Korean government denied culpability for the massacre. Only in 2006 was an official apology issued under the left-leaning Roh Moo-hyun administration.
“Islanders were really shocked by the massacre,” Moon said. “That’s why older people hate people from the mainland.”
Though this sheds an important historical context on islander-mainlander tensions, professor Tran says that the 4.3 Incident is a mere tip of the iceberg.
“Jeju has been discriminated against by mainland Korea for centuries since it was officially annexed by a mainland Korean kingdom in 1105,” Tran explains. “Jeju has a long history of being a de facto penal colony for exiles who fell out of favor with the mainland Korean court. Aside from a history of oppression [like 4.3], the history of Jeju is also largely ignored in mainstream Korean historical narratives and sometimes erroneously exoticized, even in my own field of Korean Studies.“
James Baldwin famously opined, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” When I first talked to Lee about the discrimination he experienced at his seafood restaurant, the hate he claimed to feel reminded me of things that I, as a black man, know too well. Diving deeper revealed the ocean of pain in Jeju’s past and present, that sometimes gets expressed as distrust and contempt toward outsiders.
Jeju’s economy and population, driven by the tourism sector, is shifting massively. In 2016, Jeju’s total population rose to just over 620,000 residents, representing a 17 percent increase over a six-year span. By 2045, Jeju’s population is projected to increase by 200,000 more people.
The rapidly changing demographic may be aggravating these preexisting island-mainland tensions.
“Islanders feel that mainlanders simply take advantage of Jeju’s natural environment and culture or do not care to respect local culture,” Tran said, including the deliberate destruction or desecration of shamanic shrines or encroachment on village land.
Although outsiders do bring a lot of economic development to the island, those who benefit are the ones who play the real-estate market, according to Tran. This means many other Jeju natives are excluded from the flourishing local economy.
“The spike in land prices from the booming real estate market has made cost of living in Jeju climb as fast as that of Seoul’s, even though Jeju wages are lower compared to other places in the mainland – yet another cause for resentment.”
Jeju is at a pivotal turning point. As locals grapple with the changes that will irrevocably alter the course of Jeju’s future, it is important to recognize the ways in which Jeju’s past affects the current residents of the island.
Effective reconciliation is always a two-way street: Will more mainlanders, like Lee, actively acknowledge Jeju’s past and engage in allyship as it is defined by islanders, and can Jeju begin a vital healing process without unfairly channeling feelings of anger, resentment and frustration toward mainlanders? These are big questions with no clear answers.
After five years of laying his roots here, Lee wants to stay. His oldest daughter is just starting to make friends at her new school, and moving back to the mainland will be a difficult process.
As I stand on the shore with Lee, looking along the coastline, I can see one young boy and a middle-aged man, presumably his father, standing on a winding concrete path just above the black rocks, untying a tangled fishing line together. Watching them laugh, their voices drowning in the wind and waves, I ask Lee whether he has any thoughts of doing something different. “I’ve been thinking about it,” he replies with a half-hearted smile. “I’m still thinking.”
Cover image: Jeju’s famous dol harubang statues. (Source: upepo via Flickr, CC-BY-NC-ND)