Politics, pine trees and presidents

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Politics, pine trees and presidents

The author is a national news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo. 

Pine trees are the most familiar trees in Korea. Our ancestors hung straw garlands decorated with fresh pine branches to celebrate the birth of a child. In their daily lives, they used furniture and tools made from pine wood and were buried in coffins made from pine when they died.

Classic literature, artwork and myths feature pine trees. The evergreen pine symbolizes the spirit of upright scholars. Even “The pine tree atop Mt. Namsan” appears in Korea’s national anthem.

Among Korean pine trees, Geumgangsong is considered the finest-grade lumber, as they have less cracks and are beautiful. It grows naturally in Gangneung and Samcheok in Gangwon Province and Uljin, Bonghwa and Yeongdeok in North Gyeongsang Province, starting from Mount Geumgang through the Baekdudaegan Mount Range.

Geumgangsong, the pine tree, is named after Mount Geumgang. It has different names in different regions, like Chunyangmok, Hwangjangmok and Anmoksong. As it is considered to produce the highest quality wood, trees were directly controlled by the government during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). They were logged only for grand state projects such as building a palace or government office.

Sowang-ri in Geumgangsong-myeon, Uljin is the biggest Geumgangsong forest in Korea. More than 10 million pine trees — including two protected trees over 500 years old and a straight tree called “Miinsong” that is 350 years old — are growing in the region. In the reign of King Sukjong (1674-1720) in the Joseon Dynasty, the area was protected so that Geumgangsong trees were not cut down without permission from the court. In 1959, the government designated the habitat as a forest of protected species and banned entry for unauthorized civilians. It was later designated as a protected genetic resource forest in 1982 and only restricted entry is allowed.

This valuable Geumgangsong habitat could have almost been burnt to ashes. The fire in Uljin, which started on March 4, spread to the edge of the forest. The forestry administration set up a blockade near the forest, but small sparks constantly blew over and threatened the trees. After the line was barely defended, the fire did not spread. But it was a critical crisis that threatened the Geumgangsong pine trees that stood in that spot for hundreds of years.

President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol will begin his five-year term on May 10. There are many issues to be solved, including the stabilization of housing prices, easing inter-Korean tension, Covid-19 disease control and generational and gender discords. Just as small sparks threatened the ancient Geumgangsong, trivial mistakes can lead to chaos that reverberates across the country.

That’s why Yoon needs to take a thorough and sophisticated approach. The president-elect must keep the mindset that he “works for the people only” throughout his term, just like the evergreen pine trees. 

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