An interview with Fred Dustin, Jeju, South Korea.
Fred Dustin is a Jeju institution. He’s lived on the island for nearly 37 years but has been in Korea for over 55. His life story, as well as his tales of a Jeju long since past are received by today’s ex-pats with a kind of respect that borders on awe.
You might find Dustin lounging in his offices at the Kimnyong Maze Park, the same park he created with his own hands. At 77 years old, Dustin remains as quick–witted and hard working as ever. On a cool, October afternoon he sips at his cup of coffee while taking long drags from his cigarettes. He’s the quintessential member of his generation, a proud and independent man who doesn’t mince words or suffer fools. He gives back to his community, though he hates to talk about himself or boast about the various charity projects he’s committed to. On the office wall hangs a photo of him shaking hands with Korean philanthropist Song Bong-kyu, the founder of the beautiful Hallim Park. It was taken as he received the Jae Am Cultural Award for his charitable work on Jeju.
Dustin first came to the island in 1958, though he didn’t settle down here until nearly 13 years later. He personally witnessed the rapid changes that swept over Jeju as Korea’s much heralded tiger economy turned the nation from a war torn, Asian backwater to one of the world’s largest economies and a leader in the tech sector. Today Jeju is a well-groomed island of ritzy, four star hotels, dreaming of becoming Northeast Asia’s next big tourism hub. It’s all a far cry from the Jeju that greeted Dustin upon his first visit nearly 50 years ago.
“It was a real hole” he says, flicking ash from his cigarette. He takes another drag as he remembers how it all started. The story of how Fred Dustin came to Jeju is a long and complicated one. It’s a story with enough twists and turns for even the wildest of Korean melodramas.
It all began when he was shipped to Korea in 1952 to serve 13 months as a clarinetist in the US Army 7th Division Band. Upon finishing his military tour he returned home to attend the University of Washington. He later went back to Korea for a 2-year stint as an English teacher with the Asia Foundation at Yonhi (Yonsei) University in Seoul. Dustin then returned to the University of Washington, and became the first student in the U.S. to receive a master’s in Korean Language and Literature. After graduation, Dustin moved back to Korea in 1958 to teach English at Chungang University. He left his post in 1959 to work as a manager for a gold mine in North Cholla Province with the Korean Consolidated Mining Corporation.
He left that job after suffering an eye injury in a mining accident and went on to work first as a copy editor at the Korean Republic Newspaper and then as the representative for a US investment in the Korean textile industry. During the mid-’60s he founded the Kanaan Poultry Corporation which imported US parent breeding stock to help up-grade the struggling Korean poultry industry. He was with them until his departure in 1968 when he was offered the position of Chief Supply Officer of the US Army’s 19th General Support Group, then located in Seoul. As severance pay from the poultry corporation, Dustin was given land in the northeastern corner of Jeju Island. He decided to remain in Seoul, however, and very well may have stayed there, too, had it not been for Marie Louise.
She was born in China, the daughter of a Lutheran minister and an American nurse. She originally came to Korea as a Lutheran missionary. Dustin was strolling along the Malipo Beach early one morning when he first caught sight of her. She must have fallen for Dustin’s charms, for the two were later married in 1971.
Just a few months afterwards, however, the couple learned that Marie Louise was suffering from cancer. She hoped to recuperate in quiet and peaceful surroundings, so the two set off for Jeju later that year. A home they designed had been started but not yet completed, so they spent their first year there living in a tent. Even when they finally did move into their new home it still didn’t have a floor. “We had to jump from rock to rock” jokes Dustin.
The island was a far different place in those days. Much of the Jeju coastal area up to about 200 meters above sea-level had been deforested, mostly by fire, in an attempt to both quash the tics which were harmful to the horses and cattle and to make harvesting of the Bracken fern (or Kosari) easier in the spring. The problem had been greatly compounded by the fact that trees had been the island’s sole source of fuel. It wasn’t until 1975 that then president Park Chung Hee ordered all burnings stopped. Thereafter, Jeju’s ecosystem slowly recovered to become the lush, green island we know it as today.
The largest foreign groups at the time were Catholic priests and Peace Corps volunteers. The Dustins were the only foreigners living independently on the island. In those days, there were no super-markets and for all foreigners living on the Island, including Dustin and his wife, the only source of western foods was the thriving black markets in Seoul or Pusan. So, most everyone ordered what was needed through friends on the mainland and had it flown to the island.
Marie Louise was a communications major and had been offered the job of Station Manager of a new Christian broadcasting station being developed at Hagwi. Dustin, meanwhile, was asked to teach English at Jeju National University. After Marie Louise passed away, Dustin remained on Jeju to teach at CNU.
He says that the real interest in Jeju’s development came in the 1960s when the Boeing consulting group nominated Jeju as one of the top three places in Korea to develop as a tourist destination. Since then the government in Seoul has been funneling massive amounts of money towards its largest island. In the nearly 40 years since then, Jeju has been transformed from a poor, wind swept island of rural farmers and ox-cart roads into what locals now like to call the “Korean Hawaii.”
While the winds of change swept over Jeju, Dustin continued teaching at Jeju National University. It wasn’t until 1983 that the idea for what to do with all that land he had received so many years before was finally conceived: build a maze. In November of 1987 he went to work planting the first leylandii trees that would later become the Kimnyong Maze Park. The hedges slowly grew and his maze took shape and in 1994, after 23 years of teaching, Fred Dustin left his job at CNU. He opened the maze park the following year. …continued on page 7
The park first became profitable five years later, and Dustin was quick to reinvest what he made back into the community. According to a representative of the Kimyong Maze Park, 100% of the parks net earnings go to local development projects. These include annual donations to the Maze Chair at Jeju National University, sponsorship of the Kimnyong Senior Citizen’s College as well as the Kimnyoung International Sailing Club. The sailing club has gotten local elementary and middle schools to list sailing as an official school activity, enabling local youngsters to participate in the sport. Sherrin Hibbard, an active promoter and member of the Club, says Dustin has bought all the boats for the club, including three cruisers, and over 18 training dinghies as well as all the supporting equipment– such as mooring pontoons and safety boats. The Maze also supports the salary for a full time coach. Sherrin says the Maze contributions have enabled even those without boats to become members of the club for a minimal yearly fee that is a mere fraction of what one would be expected to pay at other sailing clubs.
Long time Jeju resident Eugene Campbell has come to respect and admire Dustin and the work he’s done. “What a heart of gold,” says Campbell “focused on making a positive contribution to the Jeju community, and to Korea. He would be a good man to emulate.”
Dustin’s work has earned him widespread recognition and numerous awards. In 2006 he was named an Honorary Citizen of Cheju Self-governing Province, and was selected as the representative of foreign residents on Cheju– at the Bluehouse signing of the Free International City proclamation between the Governor and the President of Korea.
The Kimnyong Maze Park, meanwhile, has grown into one of Jeju’s main tourist attractions, bringing in people by the busloads. Fred Dustin can be found negotiating the crowds of screaming children and Korean honeymooners as he unceremoniously makes his way through the park. He’s respected within the community for his commitment to developmental work and revered by the island’s foreign community as a living historical archive. But throughout it all he has remained the wise but humble ex‐pat with the biting sense of humor and a direct approach to life. If you’re lucky enough to catch him, he may even share some of the wit, the wisdom and the many stories he’s collected during his remarkable life abroad.
So does Dustin have any advice for foreigners living on Jeju today? “Stop bitching,” he says in his baritone voice. “You think you got it bad, well let me tell you about the time . . . .!”
He laughs as he takes the butt of his cigarette and mashes it into an ashtray.