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The island of summits
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승인 2010.05.26  16:50:13
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▲ ASEAN leaders holding hands to symbolize their unity at a summit held on June 1 and 2, 2009, in Jungmun, Jeju Island. Photo courtesy Jeju Provincial Government

“Our garden is a deal maker,” chuckled Sung Joo Yeop, general manager of the Spirited Garden, a bonsai-themed botanical garden nestled in the southwest of Jeju.

It was late October 2006 and Wendy Cutler, assistant U.S. trade representative for Japan, Korea and APEC affairs, had been locked in a hotel conference room in Jeju for hours. Outside, hundreds of militant Korean activists and local farmers from the island were staging a furious anti-free trade agreement protest.

Feeling that she was going nowhere at the negotiation table, Cutler and her Korean counterpart agreed to take a short stroll in the Spirited Garden. To date, Sung believes that it was probably during the calming walk in his bonsai garden that the two veteran negotiators reached some consensus.

Thanks, maybe, in part to the ever-so-subtle nudge of Jeju’s garden-variety demigods, the chief U.S. negotiator for the U.S.-Korean free trade agreement was finally able to sign the agreement on June 30, 2007. Sung has a thank-you email he received from Cutler, in which she stated how beautiful and soothing it was when she walked the trail chatting with her Korean negotiating partner.

The episode Sung shared shows why Jeju is becoming increasingly known the world over as “the island of summits.”

Hundreds of miles away from the hustle and bustle of megacities and insulated from the political pressure of various interest groups, Jeju is being increasingly considered an ideal place in Korea to close deals on key bilateral and multilateral talks.

In 1991, when the world was still reeling from the fresh memory of the Cold War era, Mikhail Gorbachev visited Jeju, bypassing Korea’s capital entirely, and established diplomatic relations between Moscow and Seoul. The historic event inspired top officials in Seoul and Jeju, leading them eventually to christen Jeju “The Island of World Peace” in 2005.

The former Soviet president visited the island again in 2001 and stayed at the Hotel Shilla. Gorbachev reportedly checked in to “Raisa’s Room,” the suite he had stayed in 10 years earlier with his wife, who died in 1999, and which had since been named in honor of the former Soviet first lady.

The list of state leaders that retain personal memories of Jeju is long: Jiang Zemin, the former president of the People’s Republic of China visited Jeju in 1995, followed by Bill Clinton a year later for a U.S.-Korea summit. More recently, Ban Ki Moon, the United Nations secretary general, visited Jeju, along with ASEAN leaders. At the end of May, state leaders from China, Japan and Korea are scheduled to gather together in Jeju for the first summit of its kind to be held on the island.

Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, when Jeju was rising fast as a preferred Asian destination for key summits in the region, state leaders mostly stayed at the Shilla, Hyatt and other five-star hotels clustered in the Jungmun resort complex. As the summits were mostly bilateral talks, Jeju’s deluxe hotels were the perfect venue to host the meetings.

As Jeju started to host more multilateral talks, including the Korea-ASEAN summit last year and other diplomatic events with more than several hundred delegates and supporting staff, the convention facility of top Jeju hotels proved inadequate to provide the necessary infrastructure and support.

The International Convention Center Jeju was the island’s answer to the long overdue cry for help from the Jeju hospitality sector. Opened in March 2003 after near six years of planning and construction, ICC Jeju was designed as a world-class venue suitable to accommodate upscale multilateral talks and other top international meetings in a single location. ICC Jeju will soon add its own anchor hotel to the main meeting facility, providing participants instant access to deluxe accommodation from the venue.

As any olle hiker coming from the mainland would eagerly attest, the trails of Jeju, with their spectacular beauty and serenity, emit the silent power of healing and spiritual rejuvenation. As an increasing number of top government officials around Asia and the world over start to discover the subtle influence of the island’s serene environment on closing deals at key international summits, one can only imagine the ultimate news coming out of Jeju in the near future _ the first inter-Korea summit to be held on South Korean soil.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has reportedly been reluctant about reciprocating a visit by South Korean leaders to Pyongyang, since Seoul would not be an ideal location to put all the boisterous political elements in line with their agenda. Staging an immaculate show of public camaraderie comparable to the one they were able to demonstrate in the North Korean capital a few years ago would be virtually impossible.

North Korean officials have repeatedly hinted that Jeju would be an ideal location to host the first inter-Korea summit in South Korea, to be far from the political pressure of the capital, as state leaders from the former Soviet bloc were earlier. If the current crisis over the sunken corvette is peacefully resolved, ICC Jeju might yet greet the North Korean leader someday in the not-too-distant future.

After all, the first sight any visitor flying into Jeju notices is hundreds of small summits or oreum (volcanic cones) rising peacefully all around the island, befitting its newly added nickname _ the island of summits.

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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