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A son’s storyMuseum founder keeps bitter memories alive
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승인 2010.03.30  17:49:23
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▲ A diorama in a room of one of many tunnels under Gamma Oreum; Visitors inspecting exhibits at the Jeju Peace Museum. Photo courtesy Jeju Peace Museum

Like a metaphor for the ethos of Jeju, under Gamma Oreum, a low volcanic cone lush with greenery that embodies the essence of serenity, lays a hidden world of war, brutality and destruction.

Located on the southwest side of Jeju, Gamma Oreum is infested with tunnels constructed by forced laborers under the Japanese occupation. The tunnels snake throughout the oreum with 17 entrances which are practically invisible from the outside. They created a three-level maze of tunnels stacked over tunnels. “There are so many rooms even I don’t know how many there are,” said Lee Young Geun, founder and chief of the Jeju Peace Museum that is on Gamma Oreum.

According to Lee, the forced construction of the tunnels began with the completion of Alddreu Airfield in 1935. When the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937, “these tunnels were a command center for Chinese attacks.” During the Pacific War, Jeju became a defensive stronghold to combat offensive attacks against Japan.

The oreum was the epicenter for military strategy on Jeju and housed high-ranking Japanese officials, Lee said. The low but wide oreum was a perfect location for the lengthy and complicated tunnels that could not be easily detected by enemy forces. The oreum also had the advantage of a view spanning most of the island from its peak, including Alddreu Airfield and other Japanese facilities on the other side of the island, which made Gamma an ideal strategic site for the command center.

While guiding this writer through the second level of tunnels (the only level currently open to the public), Lee described the purpose of the different rooms, some large enough to hold meetings of up to 40 people. He said that the purposes are known due to the memories of one man who, during the occupation, was the young son of “the leader of the village” that encompassed Gamma Oreum. Because of his privileged status he “would freely visit this place [the tunnels],” Lee said.

The tunnels were built by conscripted Jeju citizens who toiled underground for long hours. “The most difficult thing was the hunger,” Lee said. “You might not understand how they felt, but there was nothing to eat. It was backbreaking work but there was no food.”

There is no record of how many workers dug the tunnels. Lee said that even the workers themselves had no clear notion just how many people were used to excavate the oreum.

The Peace Museum has several large rooms that contain artifacts from that time. In the center of one room is a scale model of Jeju that indicates all the Japanese military facilities. “There are more than 360 oreum. 120 of them have underground tunnels that have been discovered so far,” Lee said, as he pushed a button which lit up small LED lights that indicated the exact locations of the tunnels, “but I assume there are more.”

There is also a theater where a film is screened about the horrific events that took place on Jeju under the Japanese occupation. The film is unsettling with graphic images reminiscent of those of Auschwitz and other concentration camps during the Holocaust. Dead bodies are dumped into massive unmarked graves by trucks, and there is a close-up on a woman’s face as she is buried alive. It is a somewhat confusing film, with much that appears to be improperly translated and an ending that shows both Japanese and Korean children shouting rehearsed lines the subject of peace, which smacks oddly of propaganda, but in the name of peace.

▲ Museum founder and chief Lee Young Geun pointing out features in the tunnel complex. Photo courtesy Jeju Peace Museum

“I decided to open this museum,” Lee said, “because this was my father’s wish. He repeatedly said this shouldn’t be repeated again. He was 21 years old when he started digging the tunnels. He dug for two and a half years.” Lee said his father, who is now 90, is the sole remaining worker who dug the tunnels. “The reason why he was the only one who was so young at the time is that Jeju people who were 18 to 24 were dispatched to Japan or other places to do even harder work. The reason why he stayed was because he was the only son of three generations. He had to work here for at least two years. Other people only worked for one year.”

Several years ago when Lee sought assistance to build the museum, he was met with reproach from locals and from the Jeju provincial government. For 20 years Lee has been collecting artifacts, pictures and documents about the Japanese occupation. “This is a personal museum [independently owned],” he said, “because no one wanted to cooperate. I wanted to donate all the information that I had but the Jeju government didn’t want to do anything about it.”

Lee said that the animosity towards the creation of the Peace Museum was due to the fear, pain and, most prominently, the shame connected to the occupation. Literally digging up the past would open old wounds that were once seldom spoken of, he explained.

Instead, Lee bought the land and built the museum with a bank loan, opening it in 2004. “Now part of the funding comes from the government,” he said, “after there were many articles written about this place. There was an article that said that many Japanese students were learning something about their occupation and then the government decided to start to fund the museum.”

Lee’s own wish for the museum is to build “peace and co-prosperity, but to do that we must have an accurate history. Without that there will be no peace. If we don’t know correctly what happened, there will be no moving forward to the next step of a constructive future.”

“I feel this museum needs to be improved. Because of lack of funding many documents are buried now. I want to show everything that I have. I hope the government can work something out for this museum. Even though I built this museum personally it is not a personal possession,” he said.

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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