Fighting a buried foe, man strikes at a mythIt wasn’t So Yun-ha’s first time prowling the rugged mountain roads amid swarms of weekend hikers. But on a recent Sunday afternoon past the north gate of Namhan fortress, nestled in a suburb of Seoul, Mr. So, a retired religious scholar, looked unusually tense as he spotted several rusted metal hoops rising above the rocks.
“They look very familiar,” he said, sighing, as he tapped on the metal hook with a hammer to listen to the sound. “It’s the same shape I’ve found on the cliffs of Baekdo island.”
At 62, Mr. So is a singular figure among scholars of modern history in Korea. For the past two decades, he's traveled the country's mountains and valleys to uproot metal posts, nails, rods or chunks, which he says were planted by ultra-rightist Japanese during the colonial regime; the shapes are meant to disrupt the flow of Korea's energy according to feng shui.
Feng shui, known as pung su in Korean, is an ancient Chinese form of geomancy, a study of the flow of the earth’s energy. Mr. So is a firm believer.
On his first visit to Mount Namhan, a site so vital to the peninsula's positioning Mr. So dubs it “the wings of a crane,” he followed a hiker named Lee Jeong-hu who first spotted the suspicious metal lumps drilled into the heavy rock.
Mr. So says Namhan is just one of many sites that have yet to be purified. He pulls out a sheet, a list of places where hikers and civic activists reported to police and park authorities suspicious metal objects they found in the mountains.
He has had 150 reports, been to 60, and found 20 of the metal rods so far. The rest he either couldn’t find or were serving some other purpose, such as hooks for climbers’ ropes.
Then his excavation of Mount Jiri in June revealed a bullet-shape metal hulk weighing over 80 kilograms (176 pounds), sunk into the ground, and lead to the question of whether the Japanese conspiracy was real or fantasy.
“It's damaging even if you don’t think the Japanese did it,” he said of the buried metal. The controversy itself is distracting enough to be a nuisance, making the removal of the metal chunks a worthy cause, he explained.
Little evidence, lots of rumors
Stories about the Japanese metal rods have been around for years.
In 1997, local media reported on clusters of strange posts that were found underground during the demolition of an old Japanese Army installation.
The incident led to citizens’ outrage after some Korean historians said it was possible that Japan might have planted the hulks, which in this case were stone and not metal, when the Japanese demolished part of Gyeongbok palace to build their own administrative center in 1926, as an attempt to harm Joseon’s royal family and its descendants. The Japanese government, however, has denied the charge.
Mr. So argues that the colonial regime intended to destroy its neighbors to achieve its imperial ambitions.
The reality, however, is that without a documented confession, there is no way to prove that the Japanese secretly planted the material.
In the search for evidence, historians and activists like Mr. So rely on stories or oral testimony from older residents who lived long enough near sites where stakes have been found to bear witness. The lack of evidence at the sites themselves, however, means conclusive proof is still far off.
On Mount Jiri, an 80-something resident near Beopgye Temple, where a bullet-shaped lump was found in June, first testified that he had helped a Japanese man thrust the metal hunk in the mountain during the late 1960s, years after Korea’s liberation. But a few days later, the man changed his story, saying it was a shaman who paid him to plant the metal.
The story of the general’s confession
Mr. So still believes he’s on to something.
As an example, he cites a story about the former Japanese general Tomoyuki Yamashita who had allegedly confessed to Shin Se-woo, a translator for the Japanese army during World War II, that the Japanese army headquarters in Korea had assigned people to plant metal chunks throughout the peninsula to harm the peoples’ gi, or spiritual energy.
The story was allegedly passed on to Mr. So by Shin's son, Dong-sik, a 55-year-old feng shui expert who says his late father had heard the striking confession of the Japanese general just after the general was taken to a Manila court as a prisoner of war near the end of World War II.
Mr. So also said that based on details in Yamashita’s confession, in 1994 he found 26 metal nails driven into the cliffs of Baekdo island, in South Jeolla province, although it's uncertain whether the nails Mr. So found match the ones the Japanese general had mentioned. Whatever the case, Mr. So handed over 10 of the metal chunks he found in Baekdo to the nearby Yeosu City Hall and brought the rest to his home in Gwacheon city.
In a telephone interview, Mr. Shin, the son of the army translator, said he and a team of officials at the Cultural Heritage Administration had found "several metal posts" planted 18 meters underground in Changdeok palace in 1995, at the exact site mentioned in Tomoyuki’s confession. A senior official at the Cultural Heritage Administration, however, said they found nothing during the course of the excavation.
Both patriot and exorcist
In the mid-90s, the buzz about the Japanese metal posts was fueled by the government's move to reexamine the country’s colonial history under Japan, followed by a major campaign among civic groups to unroot any suspicious metal stakes found in the peninsula's mountains.
The movement’s cause, however, was largely dismissed as urban legend when mysterious posts and several butcher's knives that were found in the tomb of Admiral Yi Sun-shin, a war hero who defeated the Japanese fleet in 1592, turned out to have been planted by a Korean shaman named Yang Sun-ja.
Ever since the incident, many historians in Korea have concluded that most of the metal posts found in Korea ― at least the mysterious ones, not the hiker’s hooks ― were planted by shamans for use in rituals.
Mr. So admits that some people think his ideas about feng shui and metal spikes are crazy.
At the end of the day, he clears the ground, and puts a cup of rice wine and a pack of sausages he brought with him in his backpack. He bows in front of the rocks. After the lumps are removed, he fills in the holes with soil and chips from hammered rocks.
"But maybe it's inevitable that I’ve gone mad," he said. "In the end what I am doing is really just a form of exorcism."
by Park Soo-mee
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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