Seeing history from an island in the Han

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Seeing history from an island in the Han

Lee Gil-yong remembers seeing a long line of fighter planes parked on a giant grass field in Yeouido. It was a few years before the Korean War broke out, when Yeouido was used as a temporary airfield by the U.S. Army. Mr. Lee, a son of a ship carpenter, lived on a small island in the Han River just across from Yeouido, called Bamseom.
A half-century later, he is one of the 200 “silhyangmin” from Bamseom. The term was originally used to describe North Koreans in the South who were unable return to their homeland after the war, but it now refers to people like Mr. Lee who have lost their “homeland” ― the island ― for good.
These days, the only time Mr. Lee gets to step on the island is when reporters accompany him there after filing an official request with city authorities. For the past decade, the government has banned the public from the island to preserve its natural state.
That is the sad reality for a 69-year-old man whose family had lived on the island for three generations until the Seoul city government bombed Bamseom in 1968 so it could use the soil and rocks to develop Yeouido. The bombing left Bamseom split into two deserted islands. Meanwhile, Yeouido has grown into the city’s financial center.
For those who lived on Bamseom for generations, the sense of longing they feel for their life on the island is something that most Seoul residents, who are used to moving around frequently, can’t easily identify with.
“We don't know what has happened to many of the residents,” Mr. Lee says. “We've lost touch with many of them.”
Every year, on the morning of Lunar New Year's Day, the surviving former residents of Bamseom meet at a shrine on Mount Ausan to perform an exorcism ritual.
The tradition holds a special pride for them, since the shrine that had been on Bamseom, and which was recently relocated to Mount Ausan, was a prestigious temple during the Joseon Dynasty that served some of the country's most skilled shamans.
When the government decided to bomb the island, Mr. Lee says, some residents were more concerned that the shrine would go up in flames than that their houses were being destroyed.
Indeed, a rumor among the former residents has it that the shrine emerged intact after the bombing when the other buildings were reduced to rubble.
“It was really something,” Mr. Lee says. “As a kid I was told that if you didn't put out your cigarette when you passed by the shrine, the butt would forever stick to your lips. If you were horseback riding and didn’t dismount, the horse’s shoes would stick to the ground and wouldn’t move an inch. That's how much respect we had for the shrine.”
Superstition seems to have played a major role in the Bamseom residents’ lives, up to the time of the island's destruction. Mr. Lee says it was a common belief that a giant acorn tree on the island held a divine spirit.
“Even if there were dead branches from the tree on the ground, none of us could take them home and burn them in our furnaces,” he says.
Such a belief system was considered unusual in the rest of Seoul in the late 1960s, when Christianity began to take strong root.
The history of Bamseom dates back to the early Joseon Dynasty. The exact date when the island was settled is unknown, but historians say that shipbuilders, who were among the first residents, might have begun moving there at the end of the 14th century. This was when the Joseon capital was moved from Gaeseong to Hanyang, as growing trade created the need for water transportation.
Mr. Lee recalls that one out of three of his neighbors were ship carpenters, although old documents from the Joseon period reveal that the islanders ran peanut plantations, grazed goats and raised licorice root.
Other historians explain that early in the Joseon Dynasty disgraced politicians were exiled to the island. But as time passed, the island, which was surrounded by a forest of willow trees and a scenic river, became one of the eight most beautiful sites in Mapo district.
Sim Sa-jeong, a Korean painter, is one of many artists and writers from the Joseon Dynasty who praised the sublime beauty of the island.
Acknowledging the island’s charms, Mr. Lee says, “During the summer, the beach was filled with families playing in the water. On the first full moon of the year, people hung swings from a tree, and stayed until late at night.”

When the city announced its plans to bomb the island in 1968, Kim Gong-seon, the director of a residents’ collective, says no one came forward to fight for their rights.
“We didn’t dare to rebel against the government in those days,” Mr. Kim says. “You had to risk your life for such a thing. If they asked us to leave, we simply had to leave.”
Mr. Lee shares a similar sentiment. “Urban development was such a big ambition for the government in those days,” he says. “We knew we had to move out when they asked us to leave, but we just wished the government had been more organized about the whole plan. But they threw us a piece of land, leaving the rest up to us. So we had to build everything from scratch.”
The Bamseom residents were given three choices by the city government for their new homes: squatter settlements on the hillsides of Bongcheon-dong, Sillim-dong and Seogyo-dong near Mount Ausan. The neighbors chose the Seogyo-dong area, mainly because the village overlooked their old home.
About 80 percent of the people who lived on Bamseom eventually moved to the mountain, living next to each other. Their new settlement didn't last long, however, as the construction of apartment houses drove away the residents in the mid-1990s, dispersing them throughout the city.
The city has made some efforts to repay its debt. Mapo district has hosted a homecoming event since 1998, taking the former residents of Bamseom to their old home by boat. Two years ago, during Chuseok, they held an ancestral rite on the island.
It was an intensely moving experience for the surviving residents, Mr. Kim recalls, especially for those who had buried their ancestors on the island and didn’t have a chance to relocate their tombs before the bombing.
The land was dry and desolate from a major flood the year before, however, and was covered in weeds.
Since the bombing, the size of the island has almost doubled, as silt from the upper reaches of the Han River has accumulated over the years.
In 1986, the city government banned public admission to the island, saying it would impose a penalty of at least 500,000 won ($487) for those caught fishing or intruding on the island.
Two years later, the city officially designated Bamseom as a nature preserve. The island now attracts rare birds that are considered endangered species.
Mr. Lee, who gave up his job as a ship carpenter shortly after he left the island, still has fond memories of that time.
“Living on the mainland is more convenient in every respect,” he says. “But it just can't replace life on the island.”

by Park Soo-mee
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