Geography of Korea: IX. Jeju-do
Jeju-do Island traditionally formed a part of Jeollanam-do province, but was separated from it in 1946 and made its own province, and then in 2006 was designated the country’s only “self-governing province.” In traditional times Jeju-do had three primary cities: Jeju, Daejeong, and Jeongui, but today its two main cities are Jeju City on the northern part of the island and Seogwipo on the southern.
As of 2013, the population of Jeju-do was 594,000 (or about 1.2 percent of the national population), making it the least populous of the nation’s nine provinces. North to south the island of Jeju-do is about 31 kilometers, and 73 kilometers east to west, covering a total area of 1849 sq. km., about three times the area of Seoul. Its population density averages 321 persons/sq. km., making it, after Gyeonggi-do, the second most densely populated of the nation’s nine provinces.
Geologically, Jeju-do is a volcanic island formed between the Pliocene epoch at the end of the Cenozoic Tertiary and the Quaternary epoch of the Pleistocene. The island’s upper surface is composed primarily of basalt with very high permeability and the island lacks permanently flowing rivers or streams. For this reason, most settlements formed along the island’s coast, clustered around natural springs called yongcheondae.
In Jeju-do’s center towers Mt. Halla (1950m), the highest peak in South Korea. Throughout the island one also finds “oreum,” smaller parallel volcanoes that formed through volcanic activity after rift activity on the island had come to an end. The majority of these oreum are only about a hundred meters in height, there are larger ones such as Mt. Sanbang (395m) and Seongsan Ilchulbong (also known as Sunrise Peak; 182m) whose natural beauty has made them popular tourist sites. Although these oreum are scattered along the ridge of Mt. Halla from east to west, they are more prevalent in the island’s eastern section, while the coastal areas in both the eastern and western parts of the islands have relatively expansive lowland plains. On the western side of the island the township of Hangyeong-myeon in particular is the island’s largest farming region. At altitudes of between 200–500m above sea level, the terrain here is termed hilly or mountainous.
Jeju-do produces some of the most exotic and singular landscapes of Korea. Prior to South Korea’s liberalization of overseas travel restrictions in the early 1990s, Jeju-do was the primary destination for honeymooning Korean couples. The island’s primary draw is its singular volcanic landscape, providing remarkable scenery one cannot find on the Korean mainland. However, more intriguing still for Korean visitors is the island’s lack of the rice paddies so ubiquitous on the mainland. Though rice paddies are not completely absent from Jeju-do but because rice farming is done on such a small scale visitors rarely encounter them and as rice farming has been gradually declining on Jeju-do, paddies have become increasingly difficult to spot.
Jeju-do sits about ninety kilometers (56 miles) south of the Korean Peninsula’s southern tip, so its climate is also quite different from that of the mainland, with high mean temperatures as well as precipitation. The mean temperature for August is 26.6˚C (79.8˚F) in Jeju City and 26.7˚C (80˚F) in Seogwipo, which does not vary greatly from mean temperatures on the mainland, however, the islands January mean temperatures of 5.2˚C (41.4˚F) for Jeju City and 6.0˚C (42.8˚F) for Seogwipo are about 10˚C (20˚F) higher than temperatures in Seoul. Although, because the island experiences ceaseless and frigid sea breezes in winter the temperatures can seem lower than they are. Though Jeju-do is known for its year-round winds, the winter northwest monsoon can be particularly harsh.
Reflecting its relatively warm climate, the area throughout the island that sits at an altitude at and below 400–600 meters above sea level constitutes a warm temperate forest zone with such tree species as Machilus thunbergii (a species of evergreen shrub), Cinnamomum camphora (camphor), and the Neolitsea sericea (a medium-sized evergreen tree), and from there to 1500m constitutes a cool temperate forest zone with Acer palmatum (maple), Pinus densiflora (Japanese red pine), Styrax japonicas (Japanese snowbell), and the Quercus serrata (Bao Li). Extending above this altitude one finds coniferous forest with such species as Abies koreana (Korean fir), Taxus cuspidate (spreading yew), and Betula Ermanii (birch), at altitudes exceeding 1700m is the shrub zone with species like Salix hallaisanensis (Hallasan willow), Juniperus chinensis (dwarf juniper), and the Rhododendron mucronulatum (hairy Korean rhododendron). Thus on Mt. Halla alone one can find species belonging to the warm temperate forest zone all the way up to the freezing forest zone.
From the end of the Goryeo period (918–1392) the island’s mountainous area saw the creatin of artificial grasslands, which then became plantations for either animal husbandry or citrus orchards. The island’s Isidore Ranch is famed as a ranch and farm developed by missionaries after the country’s 1945 liberation from Japan.
Jeju-do’s isolation by both land and sea has contributed greatly to the development of the island’s unique culture. Almost all foundation myths, such as the foundation myth of the Korean nation—the myth of Dangun, has the founder descending from the heavens, but the foundation myth of Jeju-do relates how the island’s three progenitors, named Go 高, Yang 梁, and Bu 夫, emerged from the earth at Samseonghyeol. Even today one finds Bonhyangdang (a native shrine to a village deity called a bonhyang) distributed throughout the island and which serve as places of village rituals, and it is believed that after such rituals are performed the spirits go back into the ground. Though these are village rituals, carried out on behalf of the village, they are not communal undertakings but rather are prepared and performed at the family level, another aspect of Jeju-do culture not seen on the Korean mainland.
Jeju-do’s unique cultural features have been attributed to the prevalence of the island’s seaborne exchanges over interchanges with the Korean mainland. In the island’s culture one can discern affinities with cultural features found on Okinawa in Japan, in Fujian Province in China, Taiwan, and even so far as Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. Indeed, even the indigenous language of Jeju-do is quite different from that of the Korean mainland such that it can be impossible to communicate with the island’s native elderly population. This phenomenon is not analogous to the situation between the Okinawan language and Japanese. Even households where the parents and children and children-in-law live under the same roof, it’s not uncommon for each generation to have its own separate kitchen and prepare its own meals, while another distinguishing cultural feature from the mainland is the high participation of women in the labor force of Jeju-do. Another factor in the gradual distancing of Jeju-do culture from that of the Korean mainland is that the sea effectively insulated the island from the strong Confucianization of Korea over the course of the Joseon period (1392–1910).
Not surprisingly, the primary industry of contemporary Jeju-do has been tourism. In terms of agriculture, the cultivation of fruits such as tangerine, so-called hallabong (also known as dekopon, a citrus hybrid), and the Daphne odora (a flowering shrub), is very important, while sweet potato, potato, rape, garlic, and carrots are also important crops. The raising of race horses in the island’s pasturage is also a key industry. And in terms of fisheries, primary catches include cutlass, sea-bream, anchovy, squid, and the Japanese amberjack, while the sale of sea products such as abalone, conch, sea cucumbers, and sea squirts gathered by the island’s female divers called haenyeo (“sea women”) are an important source of tourist revenue. The work of these haenyeo is very arduous, and can result in such occupational hazards as decompression sickness, but such conditions are treated using traditional methods.
In 2011, the entire island of Jeju-do joined the ranks of Vietnam’s Halong Bay, Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, Argentina’s Iguazú Falls, Indonesia’s Komodo Island National Park, and South Africa’s Table Mountain National Park, when it was designated one of the world’s New7Wonders. In 2013, the number of visitors to Jeju-do surpassed 10.85 million, producing tourism revenue of some 6.5 trillion won ($US6.5 billion). In 2012, of the 1.7 million international tourists to Jeju-do, 1.08 million, or 64 percent, were from China. The number of Chinese visitors is expected to increase rapidly in the future, such that a separate accommodation complex is being built to accommodate them.
Jeju-do is steadily expanding its tourism attractions based upon its natural resources into such things as museums, water sports, submarine rides, and horseback riding. Visitor destinations in the vicinity of the island’s Jeju City include Samseonghyeol (literally “three clans’ holes,” the legendary location where the founders of Jeju emerged from the earth), Jeju National Museum, Jeju Folklore and Natural History Museum, Jeju harbor, Jeju City’s ancient wall (and site of the former governor’s office, or Gwana), Moseogwon Park, and Jeju Loveland, while the island’s eastern section has its shoreline scenery, Udo Island, Manjang Cave, Bijarim Forest, the coast at Geumnyeong, Sangumburi Crater, Seongeup Folk Village, and Seongsan Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak). In the vicinity of Seogwipo on the southern coast one can find Jeongbang, Cheonjiyeon, and Cheonjeyeon Falls, Lee Jungseop Art Museum, Oedolgae Rock, Jungmun Tourism Complex, Yeomiji Botanical Gardens, Yakcheon Temple, and Daepo Jusangjeolli Sea Cliffs, while the island’s western section has Mt. Sanbang, Hwasuncheung, the coast at Yongmeo-ri, Marado Island, Moseulpo harbor, Kim Jeong-hui’s place of exile (and Daejeong-eup town wall), Jeju Jogak Park, Bunjae Artpia Museum, Peace Museum, Hallim Park, beaches at Hyeopjae, Biyangdo Island, as well as many other “chimneyless” industries—namely the tourism industry—that can be found in Hallasan National Park and elsewhere throughout the island.