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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Environmental Warriors

Dec. 16 (Jeju Weekly)
It is a somewhat ironic critique of our current age that in seeking peace and serenity, Park Bum Joon and his wife, Jang Gilyeon, became unwilling media stars. The couple was the focus of a 2005 KBS documentary, “My Life Couldn’t Be Better,” which showed their simple farming life in the mountainous village of Muju.

The resulting attention drove the pair from their mountain retreat but has ended happily, with them finding a spiritual and material home on Jeju. They are now giving back to their adopted hometown by opening the Baramdo Library in Waheulri near Geomunoreum, and Park has recently published a book on Jeju’s UNESCO World Natural Heritage Sites. He also writes a column for the Kyunghyang daily newspaper about environmentally conscious lifestyles and is planning another book on life on Jeju.

The KBS documentary, part of the “Human Theater” series, was screened five separate times and brought the couple a throng of visitors. “The TV [program] made a lot of change for our lives,” Park said from his Waheulri home. "Because, you know, Korea is a small country and the mountain in Muju is isolated, but people from Seoul could come to my house in three or four hour’s drive. So our small house in the mountain got crowded.

“The house was very small and uncomfortable but we were happy because there was no one else around there. But 40 or 50 people every day came to see us. I feel we were kicked out.”

Seeking a home where they could again enjoy their solitude, Park and Jang visited Jeju in November 2006 and found the house to which they moved a month later. “When we met this house,” Park said, “we felt it was ready for our dream of a small library and a guesthouse.” The island has an added advantage also. “Jeju Island has a barrier from the mainland,” he said. “Most of the people in Korea live around Seoul, like half the population, so the sea is a great barrier for us.”

Surprisingly, Park was initially very much a driven city-dweller, having started a venture company in wireless Internet services after his graduation from Seoul National University. “I quit it in a day,” he said. "I went to the mountain with my wife and I started to work for an NGO and I started writing and I longed to farm.”

He said it wasn’t easy to explain why he changed, but a holiday in Mongolia where he lived in a ger - the small traditional Mongolian tent - with a wooden stove contributed to his environmental awakening. “It was my first time to see the horizon,” he said. “I was impressed that there could be another kind of life other than working on a computer 12 hours a day, seven days a week.”

He had also just met his now-wife, whom he described as “prepared for an environmental life.” Jang, a slight, beautiful woman who radiates calm, had spent three months in a Buddhist temple when she was younger and found it inspirational. In addition to the Baramdo Library, which is the smallest official library in Korea, the couple’s home boasts the dreamed-of guest-home and a garden where they grow herbs and a variety of vegetables, including pumpkins and peppers.

Park said when people ask if they will stay on Jeju the rest of their lives, “My answer is always, ‘I don’t know.’ But I believe if I go out to the mainland or other centers for a couple of years, I will be back to Jeju. I feel like it is my hometown.”

Having found that hometown, Park is concerned with helping it retain the essence that attracted him and his wife here, and his last environmental column was on a cable car system proposed for Biyangdo, an islet off Hyeopjae Beach. “I believe that Jeju Island has to have a philosophy that is slow and sure,” he said. “Many people from the mainland say that they have found a cure on Jeju Island. When they walk along the seashore, it’s a very unfamiliar experience for them, just like when I was in Mongolia. They can find something in themselves.

“I think this is the most important value of this island for Korean people. Cable cars or big casinos or big spas, that can be somewhere else - that’s not for Jeju.” He said that a 60-story building planned for Jeju City - “They say it will be the landmark of Jeju Island” - was also a poor match for the island. “Some people just want that kind of thing because we don’t have it here and I think there’s something wrong [with that],” he said.

“If we feel the good things we have and we don’t envy the things we don’t have, it will be a very peaceful place.”

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