CHO DONG KOK: A POCKET OF TRANQUILITY IN RESTIVE KOREA
Cho Dong Kok Village, South Korea — At Panmunjom on the demilitarized zone (DMZ), the fixed, staring eyes of the North Korean border guards send a chill down your spine like a cold Siberian Wind.
Panmunjom is just 60 miles north of Cho Dong Village. Kwangju, four months ago the scene of South Korea's worst conflict since the North invaded 30 years ago, lies 130 miles south.
The threat of menace and tragedy is real. Some mornings children working in the fields bring in propaganda pamphlets, sent down from the DMZ by balloons at night. These days the leaflets hail the "just struggle for democracy" and warn of "flagrant preparations for a new war by US imperialism and the South Korean puppet clique."
Said one in English: "Americans, you will die."
Yet the village is about as peaceful a place as you can imagine. Its rice fields are nestled among pine-forested mountains, which cover 70 percent of the Korean peninsula. The rugged terrain, from the Mountain of Abundant Virtue in the south to the stark, barren ridges of the north, seems to enclose and protect the valley, even though North Korean bombers are only 2 1/2 minutes away.
Within Jea Bi, the Valley of the Swallows, life is a mixture of modern technique and traditional custom. In the past 10 years, methods of cultivation have changed drastically with new high-yield dwarf Tongil rice, chemical fertilizers, irrigation pumps, and power tillers. Cold-resistant vinyl greenhouses are now used to grow rice seedlings, lettuce, garlic, radishes, peppers, and Chinese cabbage in early spring.
The village owes much of its prosperity to the spread of universal literacy and the extension of land ownership to South Korea's former sangmin tenant class in the 1950s. The social leveling left Cho Dong Kok with a lively participatory democracy, a rarity in rural Asia, where the propertied, literate "haves" usually lord it over the landless, illiterate "have-nots."
Yet development lagged in the 1960s as most government investment was channeled into industry. Droves of young people drifted to the cities, especially to Seoul. Happily, this trend was reversed in the 1970s. The Park regime invested $4 billion in rural development, moved factories to the countryside, and created a government-supported Saemaul (New Community) movement. The latter emphasized irrigation, reforestation, the formation of credit unions, expansion of health services as well as bridge and well building.
Today the small farmer is the dominant figure in South Korean agriculture. A villager can easily adopt new techniques, seeds, and machinery, given the countrywide structure of credit, extension, and modern transport to growing urban markets. A 95 percent literacy rate now prevails in rural areas, and the farm science establishment is dominated by US-educated people with advanced degrees.
In 1977 South Korea broke the world's record for the average rice yield per acre. Yet average holdings are only 2.2 acres. Remarkably, this 10-year agricultural transformation has left Cho Dong Kok's traditional Confucian culture, inculcated over centuries of stable rule under Korea's Yi dynasty (1392 -1910), almost wholly intact. The tenets of Confucianism still provide the inner compass to the rural Korean's mind.
To the villagers, Confucianism is a philosophic justification of government by a benevolent bureaucracy under a virtuous ruler. Customs of hierarchy, harmony, and communal obligations flow from the adage "Filial piety is the basis of all conduct." Sons are subordinate to fathers, younger brothers to elder brothers, wives to husbands, and subjects to state.
These villagers worry that the political uneasiness in South Korean cities suggests a cultural breakdown among the younger urban generation.
Kim Chang Kyu and his wife, a farming couple with whom this writer stayed, were educated in classical Confucian studies, as were most members of the village's older generation. Indeed, Cho Dong Kok means "place of the Confucian school," though the school closed its doors a few years ago. Kim studied law in Japan, but war kept him from practicing. When he returned home, it was to farm.
As a member of Korea's yangban, or old landlord-official class, Kim lost all but three acres in the land reform. Now he is prepared to make great sacrifices to educate his five children. At 32, "elder brother," as he is known in the family, has postponed his marriage until the youngest child, 19-year-old Byung, enters a university.
Kim's pride and joy is his youngest daughter, Sun Mi. She is a 22-year-old student at a university in Seoul and is determined to study law. Sun Mi also is caught between two cultures. In her blue jeans and T-shirts, she voices deep respect for her father, but, without his knowledge, is conspiring to find a wife for "elder brother." Traditionally, the father picks the bride.
At home ordinary life seems to belong to another time altogether. To Cho Dong Kok's people, nesting swallows are a happy omen, as they are to Shakespeare's Macbeth. When I left the village, the tiny birds were just migrating back, darting in and out of almost every farmhouse to remake last year's nests under roof beams.
Often, as the family gathered for a meal, two swallows would fly in and out, almost brushing our heads. They perched and prattled in their nesting place under the wooden veranda's eaves, well within hand reach.
Kim's house smelled wholesomely of wood smoke, grain, and garlic-marinated kimchi pickles. When Paduga, the dog, was not barking at some passing peddler -- anyone from an old man selling seaweed to a youth roaring up on a motorcycle with his stock of latest cassettes -- one could hear the ticking of a grandfather clock. Men plowing in the fields could be heard calling, "Do-do-do!" to keep a cow or ox from lurching off course. Often a newly born calf trotted alongside, tripping over the furrows.
Until five years ago, most village houses were thatched. Now, exhorted by the "self-help, cooperation, and discipline" Confucian-style slogan of the Saemaul movement, most have tile or metal roofs brightly painted in deep blue, green, orange, or red. The houses themselves stay traditional: L-shaped rooms around a teak-roofed porch, with stucco wattle-and-daub walls, sliding paper windows in woodern frames, and floors heated from below by stone flues. Shoes are left outside. At night quilts are taken from cupboards and spread across the warm floors. Aside from cushions, cupboards, big rice chests, and a TV, there is little furniture.
There are also shrines for late ancestors. Yangban families have been known to impoverish themselves or go into debt to spend on feasts honoring forebears. Explained Kim: "If a yangban family doesn't prepare rich food, the neighbors will say, 'Why do you prepare such a humble table for your ancestors?" In Cho Dong Kok, as elsewhere, "what will people say" are potent words.
The village's sangmin, since getting land in the 1949-to-1953 reform, tend to have grander houses. They own all six of Cho Dong Kok's power tillers but none have children in college, as four of the yangban families do.
Kim's household has an air of genteel poverty. The most valued possessions are three 17th-century scrolls inscribed with Chinese calligraphy; they were given to Kim's ancestors, as members of the hereditary nobility, for services to the Yi dynasty court.
In May the entire family came home to help with the spring rice transplanting , a new custom in the labor-short Korean villages since most people between 17 and 35 now work in towns. Cho Dong Kok's fields were filled with people knee deep in cold water and backs bent to quickly thrust clumps of seedlings into the soft mud.
Despite the hard work, there was a feeling of frivolity and family reunion. Breaks for meals along the road became picnics. Kim's wife brought pork and chicken stews, steaming rice, spicy vegetables, fish, leathery dried squid, and kimchi.
All day boys trotted from seedbed to field with towels tied around their heads and heavy loads of green seedlings stacked on A-frames on their backs. In late afternoon Byung, in his black schoolboy's uniform, rolled up his trousers and joined the rest of the family, working until late dusk. In a few days the watery surface of the fields was spangled with tiny green shoots and the roads and paths scattered with bits of dropped plants past hope of reviving. South Korea's temperate climate means freezing snowy winters and a steamy summer monsoon, but in spring and fall the air is bracing. Apricot, cherry, and peach orchards were in bloom in Cho Dong Kok. The surrounding hills were ablaze with yellow forsythia and pink azalea, with tiny violets along the paths. The pine forests have regrown since the devastation of the Korean war, and tall Lombardy poplars line most of the country roads.
Kim's family, though Confucian, is also Buddhist. Buddhism is enjoying a evival among young Koreans, and up at Bright Cloud Temple a group of mostly village girls with high school educations spend their days in study and prayer. The abbess, her head shaven and wearing the immaculate gray robes of the order, is an educated woman. After lunch, she took us to see some newly painted murals adorning the outer walls of the main temple, set in a cherry orchard.
Most depicted familiar tales of Buddha's life. But one was a South Korean legend of a wandering monk who dreamed his soul had become a half-white, half-brown ox. "Our souls are both good and evil," the abbess said. The dream ends with the monk happily playing a flute and riding off on his now pure-white ox. In another mural showing a misty landscape of jagged peaks, pines, and waterfalls, the monk was shown approaching a mountain monastery that looked like Bright Cloud Temple. To its villagers the Valley of the Swallows seems almost as much a haven and refuge as the temple does to the nuns. The rural dwellers cling to the Confucian concept that order and security come from a harmonious relationship between master and subject, ruler and ruled.
South Korea is a nation of valleys. What is troubling about its current political restiveness is that the Confucian culture preserved in its villages may have lost its grip in the new industrial order of the cities. Japan has evolved a successful post-Confucianist society, but industrialization came there more gradually.
Much of Asia's political tumult can be traced to population pressures, the commercialization of labor and property, and the collapse of traditional authority and customs. No culture is ever static, but usually there is time to adjust to change.
Twenty-five years ago 8 out of 10 South Koreans lived in villages like Cho Dong Kok. Today less than three do. When change comes this fast -- no society has ever industrialized and urbanized quicker -- a system can grow incoherent. Those caught up in it can find the old inherited solutions to problems no longer work. Political turbulence can then, without conscious intent, bring a whole society to a state of collapse.
Chances are this will not happen. But it is what an older generation back in the villages is most worried about.