Dubbed the “Hawaii of Korea,” Jeju is known as a honeymoon hotspot off the country’s southern coast. But Jeju attracts more than just newlyweds and is gaining popularity among Koreans from the mainland and around the world who are in search of self-reflection and self-renewal.
One is Brenda Paik Sunoo, a 70-year-old third-generation Korean-American born and raised in Los Angeles. She relocated to Jeju in 2015 after visiting numerous times both as a tourist and as a photojournalist documenting the island’s famed female divers, haenyeo.
This month Paik Sunoo published Stone House on Jeju Island: Improvising Life Under a Healing Moon, her fourth collection of photos and writings. She calls the book “a love letter to Jeju.”
A place to preserve
Like any love letter, the volume pays homage to the best Jeju has to offer: its natural landscapes, its history of strength and resilience and its deeply rooted spiritual traditions, as reflected through Paik Sunoo’s own story of inner discovery.
In Stone House on Jeju Island, Paik Sunoo recounts her and her husband’s 2015 resettlement in Aewol, an area in northwestern Jeju. It centers on the 18-month process of building their doljip, or stone house, but also chronicles a broader personal pilgrimage, from their initial attraction to the island to their integration into the local community.
For Paik Sunoo, who has over the years identified as both a foreigner and an ethnic Korean and today has her Korean citizenship, it was important to immerse herself in the village in a way that was respectful of the environment and her neighbors.
“When I came to build this house, there was no way I was going to build a Western style house,” she said. “I really wanted to show that I really had the interest in preserving Korean culture and traditions and architecture as much as we can.”
On healing and hope
The making of a new life on Jeju has also been an exploration of grief and survival, as Paik Sunoo and her husband continue to heal from the loss of their youngest son, who died of cardiac arrest at age 16 in 1994.
“I felt it wasn’t just a building [of] a house,” she said. “It was a metaphor for reinvention; it was a metaphor for healing.”
For Paik Sunoo, that metaphor was made all the more powerful set against the backdrop of Jeju’s own painful past. In 1948, the South Korean government massacred tens of thousands of islanders for suspected communist loyalties.
“Why does Jeju resonate with me? It is because Jeju has gone through so many losses themselves of their family members and endured and resurrected their lives,” Paik Sunoo said. “So that gives me strength.”
Calm in the countryside
Mainland Koreans, too, are finding relief on Jeju Island. As South Korean life speeds ahead at a break-neck pace, with its grueling work hours, high stress and competitive culture, urban dwellers suffering from burnout are seeking an escape.
“This slave to the office or slave to the factory is a part of this urbanization or modernization that’s taking place, and people need a rest,” said Mark Peterson, professor emeritus of Korean studies at Brigham Young University in Utah.
With increased focus on wellness and balance has come a trend of revitalization activities, including Buddhist temple stays, forest therapy, meditation, public saunas, natural foods and communal living. According to David Mason, professor of cultural tourism at Sejong University in Seoul, wellness tourism is on the rise in South Korea.
“[T]here has been some movement among Koreans to leave the big city and the stress and the kind of horrors of modern urban pressures and go to some rural countryside area and try to live a more human life,” Mason said.
Some travelers are even choosing to relocate, either full or part-time. Kim Kwang-yoon, 57, for example, built a vacation home on Jeju last year to serve as a retreat from his high-demand job as a biotech company owner in Gwangju. He and his wife try to visit the island twice a month.
“I always miss the life of Jeju Island. Every day,” Kim said. “Every day I want to go there.”