After 50 years, job still fires up charcoal expert

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After 50 years, job still fires up charcoal expert


Seo suk-goo, who has produced charcoal for 50 years, unloads it from a kiln at Gangwon Pure Oak Charcoal Factory in Hoengsong. BY PARK SANG-MON

The warm, white smoke that emits from the stack of furnaces at Gangwon Pure Oak Charcoal Factory in Hoengsong enfolds the silent valley. The workers are always busy; some taking charcoal from a kiln while others put oak into another.

Seo Suk-goo, an 80-year-old charcoal expert, has worked at the kilns for more than 50 years. He repeatedly sets fire to oak every single day in order to manufacture the fuel.

About 10 tons of oak is required to fill the kiln and make charcoal. It takes four hours to build the fire. The wood burns at a tremendously high temperature for a week before turning into charcoal.

The history of charcoal’s use in Korea began 2,600 years ago. There is an ancient record from the Silla Dynasty (57 B.C.-A.D. 935) that said people from the era cooked rice and brewed tea on charcoal-fueled fires.

The fuel was also used to neutralize poisonous elements and odors in soy sauce and dongchimi (radish water kimchi). The ancients hung charcoal on geumjul, a straw rope that was placed across a gate for 21 days after the birth of a baby to prevent evil spirits and diseases from entering.


Pure oak charcoal burns in a conventional kiln. BY PARK SANG-MON

Charcoal has been used in various ways during daily life in Korea. Portable charcoal braziers and irons were essential goods to have in each household. People used it as a household medicine, dissolving it in water, and drinking it when they had a stomachache. A huge amount of charcoal was found buried near Korea’s cultural assets in order to maintain and preserve them.

But demand for charcoal has reduced as civilization progresses, with the development of fuel such as petroleum and coal briquettes.

However, the range of its practical uses is widening after its potency was proven through scientific analyses. The orders at the kiln have increased along with the trend for healthy living these days.

“The most important thing when making the best quality of charcoal is to control the heat,” said Seo. “My job is to check the color of the smoke to estimate the temperature in the kilns in order to make the best charcoal.”

The charcoal taken from the furnace is sorted into black or white charcoal. Black charcoal is created when carbon and ash burn at 1,300 Celsius degrees (2,372 Fahrenheit) and is covered with coarse soil in order to cool it down. Black charcoal is used for cooking, deodorization and moisture control. Most charcoal from the Gangwon factory is white.

The black type sets on fire easily, so it is mainly appropriated for industrial use.


Air holes and cracks in charcoal produced with pure oak. BY PARK SANG-MON

Twelve hours after the charcoal is taken to cool down, the kilns are open for visitors. Around 30 people visit the kilns each day to use a sauna there because far-infrared radiation that comes from the furnaces heats it up and is widely considered to be good for damaged nerves and fatigue.

“There was a time the workers at the kilns were belittled by others. However, this has totally changed, and I’m very proud of my job producing necessities for modern life,” said Seo, who added that he will make charcoal as long as his health permits it.


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