Despite being just 85km from the mainland, Jejudo was little visited for centuries. As a result it acquired its own history, traditions, dress, architecture and dialect.
According to legend, Jejudo was founded by three brothers who came out of holes in the ground and established the independent Tamna kingdom. Early in the 12th century the Goryeo dynasty took over, but in 1273 Mongol invaders conquered the island, contributing a tradition of horsemanship, a special horse jorangmal and quirks in the local dialect.
Over the years the island developed a unique architectural style: stone houses with a thatched roof that was tied down by rope against the strong winds. Different generations lived together in a walled compound, but unlike the rest of Korea, each generation had separate cooking facilities. Visit Seong·eup Folk Village to explore some traditional housing compounds that include outdoor toilets next to pigsties.
Local clothing was made from hemp and dyed with persimmon, and this orange-tinted clothing is a popular souvenir.
In 1653 a Dutch trading ship was wrecked on the island. The 36 survivors were looked after by a kindly Jejudo governor, but when a few tried to escape they were severely beaten. After 10 months they were taken to Seoul and were forced to stay in Korea for 13 years until some of them escaped in a boat to Japan. One of the escapees, Hendrick Hamel, published his experiences, the first detailed account of the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ by a European.
During the later Joseon period, the island became home to over 200 exiles: intellectuals, Catholic converts and political undesirables who spent their time teaching the islanders and composing wistful poems.
Through it all, the locals carried on earning their living by fishing and farming. The island is famous for tangerines, which are grown on the southern coastal lowlands and are on sale throughout the year. Inland, pastures support horses and cattle.
Like the rest of the country, the past few decades have seen the island change radically –most of the coastline is now built up and many farm pastures have been turned into golf courses. The catalyst has been a flood of tourists from the mainland and abroad, which peaks from mid-July to mid-August. The numbers of haenyeo , hardy and hard-working female divers who still free-dive for seafood and seaweed, are in steep decline. Their daughters have opted for an easier life on dry land.
Recently the island has been given self-governing status and this may open the door to further economic development.