Read Korea Online

Authors: Simon Winchester

Korea (9 page)

BOOK: Korea
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‘And I mentioned the Oxfam business. Well, you can imagine the rest. The ambassador had been at Oxford with the boss of Oxfam; he promised he’d do something, and sure enough, when he got back to Seoul a week later he fired off a cable, and we got a telegram saying the pipe was on its way. Two months later, there was the pipe. They laid it in six months, and water has flowed in all the farms round Hallim ever since. Bless that apple pie, that’s all I can say!’

The Isidore Ranch is now a mighty operation: 13 British-style self-feeding cattle bars; 56 pig sheds; 3 hay and grain storage warehouses; 8 silos; 7 reservoirs; 4 dipping tanks; 110 tractors and trucks and bulldozers; 1,700 head of milk and beef cattle; 1,900 sheep (which supply wool to the ladies who make the Aran sweaters in a co-op down at Hallim); and 4,000 pigs. The farms range over 3.6 million
pyong
(which equates to about 5,000 acres, the
pyong
being quite tiny, ‘like a tatami mat’, as a Japanese friend once said), and Father McGlinchey mentions with evident pride that the fence enclosing the property is 130 miles long, while the paved road around the periphery of Cheju Island is 16 miles shorter.

And Isidore makes a handsome profit—scores of millions of
won
each year that go to pay for non-profit institutions, homes for the handicapped and destitute, ‘for the weakest people in our society’. I mention that he calls it ‘our society’, and he takes the point. ‘I think of Cheju as home and the people as my brothers and sisters. I am Irish, no doubt. I still like to watch a tape of a hurling game [we had just been talking about the legendary Cup Final involving Offaly and Meath] and read the
Irish Times
when I can get it. But my real home is here. These are my people.’

Sometimes he seems a little lonely. He has no one to come and cook for him or look after him, and it is abundantly clear
he’s not very good at looking after himself: he has some difficulty just making tea and can only just about operate the small toaster in his kitchen. So the nuns at a nearby convent have taken on the role of distant housekeepers, and they feed him lunch each day. But it is a far-from-ideal arrangement—theirs is a closed and contemplative order, and the sisters are not permitted to speak to their Father McGlinchey (even though he says mass for them many times a week), and he has to take his commons alone. I went with him once: a time was assigned, a room was prepared, and I thought I saw a nun passing quickly out of it by a side door as we approached. Inside, on a deal table, was a simple lunch, magicked from the very air, it seemed. We are, we left, and then I heard the door of the room open quietly and as I glanced round saw two nuns dash in and collect the plates and forks. It had been like dining in an airlock, with no human contact possible. Small wonder P.J. was keen for company.

 

And we dined down at Camp MacNab, the tiny American base at Mosulpo, from where the climbers had come. Maybe it was the relentless rain that made it seem so depressing and spiritless a place. A dozen or so old Quonset huts, painted in green drab, dripped and leaked. A few rusting jeeps were parked outside. The sentries shone torches in our faces and let down the chain and waved us on to the mess. Inside was the enormous soldier, the Great Abseiler: he was avidly watching a film that seemed to involve a girl who grew an extra mouth somewhere in her armpit and who attacked and sucked blood from a variety of victims. Father McGlinchey and I ate hamburgers and I drank a Budweiser, and we watched, disconsolately, until someone shot the girl dead and the film ended. ‘Hey, Limey! My man! You came over!’ said the soldier. He explained that Camp MacNab offered servicemen from farther north a chance to have a few days’ exercise—special forces training went on too, but most of all ‘It gives the guys a few days in the fresh air, climbing the cliffs and so on. But no pussy, begging your reverend’s pardon, of course. And in weather like this…’ He made a gesture of disgust,
went and found another videotape and another beer, and settled down for more.

MacNab was more interesting than it looked that night. The Japanese had built an airstrip at Mosulpo in the thirties and had used it when they had bombed Shanghai, only a few hundred miles away across the Yellow Sea. Then the Americans had used it during the Korean War as a prison camp for captured Chinese, forcing the prisoners, at the time of the armistice, to choose whether to be repatriated to Communist China or to Taiwan. Most went to Taiwan, of course; in fact, it has long been supposed that troops in the invading Chinese armies knew they had a remarkable opportunity once they had crossed the Yalu: if they managed to avoid being killed then, assuming the war would one day be over, they would have a choice of countries to which to be repatriated. Nearly all would have chosen Taiwan, hence the choice presented to them once they stormed the river was, essentially, death or freedom. A droll situation indeed for a soldier in a Communist army.

I left P.J.’s ranch after a couple of days. He was in an exceptionally good mood the night before I went. A letter had just come from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in New York inviting him to a thirtieth anniversary gathering of all the living winners of the Ramón Magsaysay Award—a prize he had been given ten years before for his work at Isidore. He was to go to Bangkok, all expenses paid, to help celebrate the birthday of a prize given ‘for those men and women in Asia who have personified the achievement of the ideals of the great Filipino president Ramón Magsaysay, and who have thus contributed significantly to the public good’.

‘Bangkok,’ he said, rolling the word around his palate like wine and grinning a puckish grin. ‘Sounds like fun.’ And he gave me a strong handshake and bade me Godspeed. ‘You know where I am if you need me. I’ll always be here.’

I didn’t see him when I left next morning at eight. He read, or listened to the BBC World Service, until four or five every morning, almost until the sun came up. He was in consequence
rarely awake before eleven, and when I passed by his room he was snoring softly. He had been a most remarkable man, a giant in many more ways than the merely physical.

 

It was still spitting with rain as I stretched out my stride on the high road to Cheju City. The road was die-straight for miles and very exposed, and when storms rumbled down from the slopes of Halla-san to the east, it became uncomfortably chilly. I tucked my head down against the blast and considered the odds and ends of life. It wasn’t long before my reverie was interrupted.

First, two buses driving hell-for-leather in opposite directions clipped each other, neatly severing wing mirrors, radio aerials, and an assortment of other chrome-covered or glass-filled chunks of hardware that clattered like a hailstorm along half a mile of roadway. The two drivers clambered down from their charges and promptly collapsed
fou rire
, while their passengers looked on, glum and bewildered. Most of them were elderly—travellers on the so-called
hyodo kwan guang
tours, in which children pay for holidays for their parents or grandparents, in the best Confucian tradition. And then again, and suddenly and from nowhere, a horseman galloped past me; he was on a normal, full-size horse, not one of the classic Cheju horses, which are minute dwarfs said to be descended from those brought down from Mongolia by Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century. (The Mongols brought many things—Buddhism, fur hats and coats, and a language that has had a lingering influence on the peculiar dialect still spoken on the island.) I must have been no more than a blurred image as the horseman raced past, but something about the image must have registered, for a couple of furlongs later he pulled up his charge and turned around and cantered back to me for the sole purpose of asking for a cigarette. He tried to light it while his horse snorted and steamed in the rain, and he exchanged the occasional phrase, ending on the usual surprised and optimistic note about all Englishmen being gentlemen. He then turned his horse once again and thundered off until his hoofbeats were drowned out by the rush of the Halla-san winds.

And then I breasted a hill, and Cheju City lay before me—an unlovely sprawl of modern buildings, tall hotels (for honeymooners either too tired or impoverished to take the taxi down to Sogwipo), and rows of single-storey houses. Most of Cheju City has been built in the last twenty years, though not, like Seoul and Inchon, because its predecessor had been destroyed in the war. Indeed, the war had left Cheju Island relatively unscarred except psychologically, and in a manner peculiar to many islands around the world.

The Communist invasion of South Korea began in June 1950. But war came to Cheju Island a great deal earlier and, indeed, in a more classically Marxist manner. In the summer of 1947, not long after the People’s Committee for North Korea had been formally convened in the Northern capital, Pyongyang, a number of Communist cells were formed on Cheju (which then had a population of a quarter of a million; today there are twice that number). The strategy, so far as one can gather now, was for the island to be subverted and used as a southern springboard from which a secondary invasion could be mounted against the republic. Had the scheme worked, the Americans—or the United Nations—would have been in direct difficulty. The so-called Pusan perimeter inside which the Allied forces took refuge would simply not have existed, and it would have taken the most enormous of battle skills to repulse an onslaught that was both terrific in scale and double-pronged in design. Had the Communist ploy succeeded in Cheju, the whole of Korea might now be united—under the malevolent leadership of Kim Il Sung.

But Cheju did not take easily to subversion and insurgency. Well-trained guerrillas, led by tacticians trained in Moscow, fanned out into the long valleys that radiate down from Halla-san and made lightning raids into the villages—villages that in those days were still protected by medieval stone walls and where a positively Sicilian code of brotherhood and
omertà
reigned. (The walls were demolished, the stones used to build the dry-stone walls that make up the little fields that give the island so Irish a character.) But the villagers fought hard and well, and the
Communists made little enough headway, though some villages, like the hamlets of Sangmyong-ri and Kumak-ri close to Father McGlinchey’s Isidore, were thoroughly Marxist, and remained so for some while after the war.

It took three years before Seoul realized the depth of the insurgent problem on Cheju; but by 1950, when President Syngman Rhee decided to dispatch a regiment of militia to Cheju City docks, there was already an uneasy stalemate. In the bitter fighting 60,000 had died and some Cheju islanders say that 60,000 died on each side, which seems rather improbable. Only 415,000 soldiers and civilians, after all, died on the southern side in the entire Korean War. The rifts caused by the bitter little conflict on the island are still felt today, however. No border, no frontier line, no armistice ever separated the warring factions down there once the battling was done; no hermetic seal was ever placed on the hatred between insurgent and conservative. And while thousands of Communists moved prudently across to Japan (many of the ‘North Koreans’ who now live in Tokyo are in fact Cheju islanders who chose the wrong side in the island civil war), many of the collaborators and less visible members of the Northern forces still remain, occasionally to be uncovered, occasionally to be exposed.
Omertà
protects many; bitterness remains; it is an odd island, stranger than it might seem from the holiday brochures—a deep place, with long memories and peculiar secrets.

I trudged on through the city outskirts, past the ugly office blocks and the hotels, past the warehouses where the exporters store the oranges, kumquats, pineapples, tangerines and bananas that Cheju sends to the rest of Korea. It would be idle to pretend that Cheju City is a pretty place; it looked as though it were made of grey Lego blocks, and a sooty haze of smoke from
yontan
, the powdered-coal briquettes used to warm the houses, hung over the place. The roads were wide, and there were few cars; the whole place had a strange sterility about it, an unnatural quietude. Perhaps it was the season. And there was something sinister about the way the airport suddenly loomed up, unmarked
on any map (because of security, the authorities say) and surrounded on all sides by barbed wire and watchtowers. There had been fog, and no planes had landed at all that morning; but now the circling jets roared in one after another, and the place was a maelstrom of noise, an odd contrast to the silence of the town.

It was, in any case, a relief and a small pleasure to come down to the sea and to the rather raffish, rather seedy milieu of the coast. The honeymoon crowd were out in force here, down to see and, inevitably, to be photographed beside a strange contortion of basalt that was known as the Dragon Head Rock, or the
Yongduam
. A legend, of course, came attached, as so often in this legend-rich corner of the world—and woe betide any Korean who dares challenge its veracity. It seems that a servant of the Sea Dragon King was climbing Halla-san in search of some magic mushroom that holds the elixir of eternal life; the mountain gods were none too keen on an aquatic interloper finding such a thing and shot him dead. He was duly buried at sea, promptly turned into a dragon, and lo! His head reared up onto the beach and ascended thirty feet in the air, for the honeymooners’ pleasure and delight.

Quick! Quick! shout the taxi drivers, and lead the poor brides—exhausted, quite shattered, and generally bewildered—to clamber up some knob or spire of rock or perch on some slimy crag. Here! Here! they beckon, and demand that the youngster, in the highly unsuitable combination of high heels and
chima chogori
, teeter to the edge of some precipice and pose with her bemused young husband. Click! go the Instamatics and hummm! go the Sony Video Plus 8s, and the record is there for all time and the elders.

There are a fair number of elders—unrelated, members of the
hyodo kwan guang
corps—gawking at this performance too. And there is an elderly and grumpy-looking horse, a tiny, shabby-coated Mongol nag that stands with infinite boredom by the top of a nearby cliff, and a queue of elders waits to mount him, briefly, for another picture-taking session. The ideal souvenir of a Korean journey to Cheju, then, would be a photograph of a
frail, old, monkish fellow in grey
hangbok
and horsehair hat, sitting astride a barely living horse that by rights ought to be in the van for the glue factory, with the Dragon Head Rock in the background being clambered over by a cursing, spitting group of young brides busily laddering their stockings and breaking their heels but being too shy to cry out to their new husbands about the awfulness of it all. Koreans, in short, have not reached the most advanced level of tourism: it is all done en masse, is very Confucian in its style and inhibitions, and cannot survive for long.

BOOK: Korea
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