Jeju Peace Museum, Jeju, South Korea
Under thirty-five years of Japanese rule, ended in August 1945, Jeju did not escape unscathed from conflict and occupation. Right across the island, physical remnants of the conflict that almost reached its shores remain.
On its western side is Gamma Oreum with clear, unobstructed views of the coastline and Halla-san. Built into its base are darkened, claustrophobic tunnels that sprawl away for kilometres underground. From this location Japanese forces would direct any defence against a foreign invasion armada.
However, an invasion never came and no defence was ever made.
Today, the Jeju Peace Museum sits on the site of Gamma Oreum, a lasting memorial to life under occupation and those forced labourers who constructed the tunnels.
The father of museum founder and chief, Lee Young-Geun, spent two and half years here as a labourer and it was on his request that he began this Peace Museum.
Lee bought the land, began building the exhibit halls and restoring the tunnels for visitors in 2002. Two years later the personally financed complex opened. And in order to keep things ticking over – on top of his schedule at the museum – he works mornings and nights driving a shuttle bus for a local golf course. A gruelling modern-day schedule indeed.
For Lee, it’s the reaction of visitors when they leave that provides the most satisfying part of his day. He says that Korean visitors have a much better understanding of their history while the Japanese leave with a feeling of regret for the things that their nation did. When they realise that, he’s happy. This is especially so when it comes to the students.
“[They] only read books before, [so here] finally [they] see something. [They think] war is terrible, [we] have to protect from the war,” Lee says of their opinion.
There are a number of school visits from both countries. Next door to the existing buildings a new theatre and exhibition hall are being built to accommodate the students’ needs, with space to leave their thoughts in writing. This year alone, two hundred will visit from Japan on a specially arranged trip.
Older generations have heard directly from their parents about the time period. But these days’ generations have no direct link. Lee’s own father is now 88, and too old to act as guide (he did until 2005).
Though western visitors could find themselves emotionally detached, it’s not difficult to imagine some of the hardships endured by those constructing these tunnels. Wandering through, hunched over due to a low roof, my stomach churned and my face flushed.
Before leaving, hike to the top of Gamma Oreum for magnificent views of Halla-san. A biting wind at the top only compounded my dispirited mood. As events pass out of living memory, places like the Peace Museum become vitally important.
By 2008 Lee says that his objectives are being met: to tell people about the stories here and across Jeju, “[to] show the horrible things about war,” and to “make peace between the two countries Japan and Korea.” With visitors averaging a few hundred every day, there is a continual stream of those coming to discover their past.
Visit http://www.peacemuseum.co.kr/ for more information. Click ‘sitemap’ and then on the sign post image for directions.