▲ Co-president of Jeju Forum C, Koh Hee-bum. Photo courtesy Koh Hee-bum
Koh Hee-bum has had a very full life. He has enjoyed a long career as a journalist in Seoul, for 13 years at the Christian Broadcasting System followed by nearly 20 years at Hankyoreh, the latter of which he was ultimately made president.
A Jeju native, in 2009 Koh returned to the island with his wife in order to contribute more directly to the welfare of his birthplace. His 100-year old mother and his brother also live here.
Koh is currently the co-president of Jeju Forum C, an NGO he and a group of friends founded in September of 2009.
“Our motto is ‘Change, Challenge, Communication’,” said Koh, “and we could have included other ‘Cs’ such as Creativity and Community.”
The organization operates as a think-tank in order to help guide the future of Jeju culture. Uncharacteristically, however, this think-tank is not made up of scholars; rather, it takes a democratic approach and recognizes that every Jeju citizen has a valuable contribution to make to Jeju society.
“We want to include the inherent knowledge of every worker, every ordinary Jeju person,” Koh continued. “Our organization, through ‘10 founders, 100 specialists, and 10,000 members,’ will help to build Jeju’s future.” This approach bridges the gap between theory and practical application, he said.
Jeju Forum C has three programs: presentations, tours, and reports.
Specialists on themes of economics, peace, environment, climate change, democracy, civil sovereignty, and social welfare have presented a series of lectures open to the public and members alike. The organization also held two public discussions, one on Jeju’s economy and the other on its governance.
The NGO organizes regular tours to significant Jeju sites in order to help educate Jeju people about their community’s history and assets. The tours are wildly popular, with 40 to 50 people in attendance at each, and include a knowledgeable guide.
The long-term effect of Jeju Forum C is in its plan for comprehensive reports con-cerning Jeju Island. “Jeju is an island of opportunities,” expressed Koh. “Where there were once challenges and adversities, there is now benefit. The stone is used for building, the wind for energy. Our traditional lifestyle is now considered one of well-being. Nature, once a hardship for Jeju citizens, now provides meditation and renewal for all.”
The reports generated by the efforts of Jeju Forum C will cover a range of interests and will be conducted by methods of participatory research in order to involve as many citizens as possible. Their purpose is two-fold: to guide policy-making and to educate the general public about the value of Jeju.
“It is vital that we communicate Jeju’s value to one another,” emphasized Koh. “When we think something is ordinary or of little value, we don’t work to preserve it, but if we realize that what we have here on Jeju is priceless, then it will be preserved.”
When asked whether foreign residents of Jeju Island are welcome in Jeju Forum C, he enthusiastically replied that the NGO welcomes foreigners who want to be part of Jeju society.
“Unfortunately, Koreans generally are not so familiar with other cultures,” he expressed with regret. “We as a nation are not yet entirely ready to accept a multicultural approach.”
“It’s important, however, to understand other cultures as well as religions,” he continued, “and if Jeju’s own culture is intact, if we have fully recognized its value, then involvement with others will not compromise but rather enhance that.”
“I would like to help develop a society in which everyone, foreign as well as native, would want to live.” When asked what he sees as the most pressing issue for Jeju’s society today, Koh spoke emotionally of the controversial naval base and the community of Gang-jeong, in which neighbors and even family members have been at odds with one another over this issue for three years.
“Community, and our lifestyle, are critically important values in Jeju society,” he relayed, “and in this tiny, beautiful village of Gangjeong, the community is broken.”
“Many families in the village haven’t participated in ‘chesa’ [rituals for ancestors] in three years over this issue,” he continued, “and this, for Jeju, means the death of a community. It’s a tragedy.”
“It’s very serious, in matters of depression and a suicide rate which is now double that of mainland Korea, and there’s little chance that it will ever fully heal.”
He went on, “We lost many opportunities for communication. The national government didn’t explain its motives, Jeju people distrust the national government, and the local government didn’t ask enough questions.”
“Why here? What’s the value to Jeju? How will it be financed? And how will Jeju be compensated?”
Koh views the preservation of Jeju’s natural environment and its cultural assets as a key to its economic success. “Jeju must maintain its clean image, especially in terms of environmentally friendly agricultural and other practices, in order to take advantage of its natural assets,” he maintains. “The current rate of development conflicts with these principles of conservation.”
“Studies of Jeju Island have shown it to be an ideal place for offshore wind turbines, to provide renewable energy,” he further informed. “Wind harnessed at sea produces nearly twice the energy supply as that over land. Jeju’s former battle against its famously strong winds has now become a great asset.”
He sees this as a new and more sustainable industry for Jeju than tourism as the latter comes with a fair measure of vulnerability – to economy, natural disaster, the whim of the tourism industry, and other factors.
From 2006-2008, Koh was general secretary for Korea Energy Foundation. This NGO is focused on sustainable, or renewable, forms of energy and supplying energy to those who are impoverished. He remains passionate on this subject.
In 2013, the World Energy Congress – the “energy olympics” with 5,000 participants from around the globe – will be held in Korea [Daegu], largely due to Koh’s efforts during his time of leadership at the Korea Energy Foundation. External recognition of Jeju’s assets, according to Koh, is vital to the valuing and ultimate preservation of Jeju’s culture by its people.
“The valuing of Jeju’s traditional culture must be in keeping with universal values,” he concluded. “The people of Jeju can transform the hardships of their former lifestyle into assets, in terms of sustainability and wellness. This resilience is the basis of the culture of Jeju.”
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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