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Playing with Fire
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승인 2010.03.15  16:20:15
페이스북 트위터

▲ Visitors to the fire festival enjoyed not only light and fireworks displays, but traditional Korean rituals, music and competitions. Photo courtesy Jeju City Hall

“Three, two, one...” As the count wound down, rounds of fireworks burst atop Saebyeol Oreum, and watchers at its base voluntarily strained their necks to gaze upward in fascination. “Now!” yelled the line of security personnel, directing a line of fire-bearers to toss their lit torches onto the oreum. As the mountain began to blaze, smoke and debris filled the air as tens of thousands of watchers witnessed the atmosphere resembling a volcanic eruption. After festival goers took a moment of silence to make wishes for the New Year, folk music and the reverberation of large drums filled the night air.

Less people than had been expected attended the 14th annual Jeongwol Daeboreum Fire Festival, commended as the “best festival” in Korea by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism for two years running. After not being celebrated for decades due to safety reasons, the Fire Festival resumed in 1997 and has become a popular attraction for tourists and locals alike.

“I’ve been to a few festivals in Korea, and this one has by far been the best experience,” said Kyla Angela, who recently moved to Jeju from the mainland. “For the past month people have been bragging about the festival and how it is a must-see. It definitely met my expectations!”

Kimmey Kim, a Canadian who recently finished her teaching contract, made a point to plan her trip to New Zealand around the festival, flying out the following Monday. “This will be my third Fire Festival, and I didn’t want to leave without seeing it.”

The gods of Jeju were kind on the third and final day of festivities, sandwiching some sun and light clouds in between days of downpour. In the rain’s place, festival goers poured in for a day of food and drink, watching performances, and witnessing bangae, the festival’s fiery finale. In what perhaps more closely resembled Boryeong’s infamous mud festival, participants parked in muddy lots and lost the white of their sneakers while trekking in.

From the entrance, rows of tents led the way to the main stage. Fresh strawberries and more French fries than you could count in a day tempted guests as they moseyed along past red bean pastries and Korean-style corn dogs. Carnival games racked in the 1,000 won bills while kids and kids-at-heart chucked baseballs and darts in an attempt to take home a small stuffed souvenir.

“The Koreans were very welcoming,” said Brittny Hunter, who kicked off her first year in Korea with the festival. “They would often attempt to engage in conversation to express their excitement for the festival or simply for the pleasure of speaking with a foreigner.”

A major highlight of the afternoon was a performance from a group of Mongolian horse-riding stuntmen. Expressions of surprise and delight were easily spotted among the large crowd as the performers rode backwards, skipped rope atop a horse’s moving back, and formed three man pyramids while standing on two galloping horses.

▲ In the deumdol-deugi contest entrants tested their strength by seeing who could carry the heaviest stone the longest distance. Photo courtesy Jeju City Hall
The main stage was filled with amateur pop acts for most of the afternoon, seeming a bit lost in a crowd composed mainly of young children and mature adults. The crowd perked up for a talented sax player, and perhaps the most delight arose for a comical elderly man who wandered up to the front of the crowd. After taunting the musicians and being escorted off stage, the impromptu comedian took swings at the festival mascot with his cane.

As the sun began to set, the talent level rose. A group of young taekwondo experts wowed the audience with synchronized high-flying kicks and break-dance style floor moves.

“The weekend’s events have been wonderful, and we have been overwhelmed by Jeju’s hospitality” said Susan Gorin, the mayor of Santa Rosa, one of Jeju’s sister cities. Gorin traveled with an a cappella high school group, who performed late in the afternoon. “The students and I are excited for the fire show!”

▲ Multiple stages at the festival featured a variety of performances, traditional and modern. Photo by Jon Walker
After darkness set in, the sound of large drums filled the air, building anticipation for the main event of the burning of the oreum. A woman representing the reincarnation of “Seolmundae” grandmother, the legendary goddess who gave birth to Jeju Island, danced on stage to the beat of the drums.

As she began wandering into the crowd, spectators noticed the surreal rising of the full moon over some distant trees. The first full moon of the New Year, it was “a symbol of completeness. A new beginning,” said Han Jeong Soo, a tourism official responsible for organizing the festival. Just to the right of the moon, burned the “sacred fire” or “first fire.” After some travel time, the fire made its way through the crowd and onstage where the festival ambassadors received the first lighting.

Starting with the first row of torch bearers, the flame was passed to the row behind and the march to the mountain began. A line was formed at the base, and following the countdown, the “sacred fire” was unleashed on the mountainside. The oreum struggled mightily in its attempt to burn due to rains from the previous days, however, festival goers still received a spectacular show of high flying fireworks and mighty bonfires fueled by the written wishes of the crowd.

“The burning of the mountain was quite spectacular,” Hunter said. “It will definitely remain a highlight of my year in Korea.”

The main event is more significant than just a symbolic event. According to tourism official Han, the burning of the oreum recreates the traditional farming and ranching rituals on Jeju. From late winter until early spring, fire was used to clear out bush and grass, in an effort to smoke out pests and provide healthy feed for livestock.

“Fire has traditionally been a symbol of the resurrection of humanity,” Han said. “The sacred fire embodies the wish of the Jeju people for a safe and healthy new year.”

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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