▲ While other Jeju Oreums contain lava tube tunnels and caves, Gama Oreum harbors a darker past. Koreans were forced by Japanese troops to dig these defensive tunnels during WWII.
Gama Oreum in western Jeju is small in size but huge in history.
As an oreum (parasitic volcano), Gama Oreum is a reminder of Jeju’s volcanic past, but it also contains the history of Jeju’s Japanese occupation. This small oreum conceals a labyrinth of tunnels dug by the Japanese Army in the final stage of World War II. The Japanese were taking a final stand on Jeju to defend their homeland.
They believed an Allied Forces invasion would come from the west, with Jeju directly in its path. To prepare for this the army set up defenses including turning many of the island’s oreums into underground fortresses. The invasion never happened and with the surrender of the Japanese forces in 1945 the oreum fortresses were largely forgotten.
For years the tunnels beneath Gama Oreum and its violent military history lay dormant. But in 2004 the Peace Museum opened at the base of Gama Oreum and one of the tunnel courses was renovated to be safely visited. The history of Jeju’s Japanese occupation was now accessible to residents and tourists. The Peace Museum was dreamt up by founder Lee Young Geun to promote world peace and to tell the story of Jeju’s Japanese occupation.
Gama Oreum also has a personal significance to Lee. His father was one of the Koreans forced to dig the fortress tunnels, spending more than two years enduring great hardship to complete the fortress. Lee doesn’t wish to place blame or stir up anti-Japanese sentiments but rather honor the Korean men who sacrificed to build the fortress. In fact, many of the thousands of annual visitors to the museum are Japanese. The mission of the Peace Museum is to promote peace and provide an experience for visitors to contemplate their role in world peace.
To fully appreciate Gama Oreum and its fortress tunnels, start with the museum. First, visitors watch a well-produced film, available in English, of the history of Gama Oreum and the Japanese presence on Jeju during World War II.
Emphasis is made on the misery of any war and the sacrifices of the Korean laborers who dug the tunnels. Graphic historical footage of casualties and the conditions of the laborers are disturbing to watch. The film however ends on the positive note that peace and friendship between Japan and Korean and all countries is possible. The museum’s collection of over a thousand objects left from the Japanese occupation are simply displayed and include English labels.
The highlight of a visit to Gama Oreum though is the fortress tunnels. Only one of the tunnels is open to the public but the doorways of other courses can be seen. Leaving the forest behind, the tunnel pulls visitors into another world and another century.
Two things instantly evident are that the tunnels took immense toil to dig and that it would also be difficult to live in this underground fortress. Conditions were dismal for the ill-fed Koreans who dug two kms of tunnels and underground rooms using pickaxes and shovels.
Leela Sitahal, an English teacher on Jeju, was moved by the experience: “Upon entry into the tunnel, I was awestruck. As I walked along the intricate network of semi-dark tunnels, I was filled with wonder, fear and empathy. My mind raced with questions. I could not begin to imagine that people lived, worked and kept digging there. The experience was incredible!”
After emerging from the tunnels it is time to explore the surface of the oreum. Gama Oreum is just 140.5 meters high and an easy 10 minute walk to the top. Visitors can instantly see why the Japanese chose this oreum to build a fortress. The peak is a perfect natural look out over the west side of the island and the coastline. It is easy to imagine Japanese soldiers standing atop the oreum and scanning the horizons for an Allied Forces attack.
Gama Oreum and the Peace Museum are located in the southwest of Jeju Island near Cheongsu Village. Follow the signs for the Peace Museum from the 1136 road. Nearby tourist sites include the Spirited Garden and O’Sulloc Tea Museum. For more information visit www.peacemuseum.co.kr, or call 064-772-2500.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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