Kim Soonie has immersed herself in the traditional culture of Jeju Island. Mythologist, poet, researcher, historian, assessor of artifacts and antiques, philanthropist and representative of the Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA), Kim has a love of Jeju culture that would be difficult to surpass.
She began collecting Jeju antiques and artifacts when still a high school student, at a time when her friends laughed at her for her interest in such ‘worthless’ items. At that same time, however, many such articles were being carried out of Jeju to Seoul and other more far-flung locations.
Coming full circle, as a representative for CHA with an office located in the airport, one of Kim’s primary responsibilities today is to prevent the exportation of significant Jeju artifacts.
As such, she is called upon a few times each year – more frequently in the past, she noted – to assess objects that visitors to Jeju are attempting to take off the island.
If the item in question is deemed a true Jeju artifact, it is confiscated by authorities – whether purchased legally or not. All international airports have a similar function these days, Kim explained.
Her tertiary education was in Korean literature, which, coupled with oral tradition, has proven a powerful tool for her study of Jeju mythology.
“To really understand a culture,” she said, “you must gain a deep understanding of its myths.” She has written a related two-volume set of books: The Myths and Legends of Jeju Island, and The Goddesses of Jeju Island.
According to Kim, these books, researched primarily from early literature written in Jeju dialect, were printed in both Korean and English languages to help those outside of Jeju understand the foundation of its culture. They were published in 2002, and are now out of print.
For the past 10 years, Kim has focused her research and written numerous articles on Jeju women’s culture, with a particular interest in the diving women, or haenyeo. She also organized the museum of the Seolmundae Women’s Center located in Shin Jeju.
Her current project, however, brings her back to Jeju mythology, as she is writing another book on the topic – this one based primarily on the oral tradition retained by Jeju elders.
“I’ve collected numerous stories, primarily from our grandmothers as well as some grandfathers and also shamans,” she relayed, stating that the book is scheduled for publication in 2012.
Echoing a prominent theme among many today, she spoke of the need to record the elders’ stories and knowledge “before they are gone.” It is widely believed that Jeju’s traditional culture, likely including the local dialect, will die out with this senior generation, as inter-generational transmission no longer occurs.
She envisions a future project in which the myths of Jeju are not only documented but transformed so as to become relevant to the 21st century and once more an integral part of Jeju culture. Whether she or someone else will actually accomplish this work – or if it’s even feasible – she admits that she doesn’t know.
Kim has also published seven volumes of poetry, for which she is equally well known. It is her books and other work on Jeju mythology, however, that are her greatest professional joy.
The most significant event of Kim Soonie’s life, however, was her marriage to her husband, Kim Jong Chul, now deceased. Disowned by her disapproving family as a result, she recounted that her choice of spouse “completely changed my life.”
Kim Jong Chul, 20 years her senior, was renowned for his publications on Jeju’s 360-odd oreum (volcanic cones). She also described his knowledge of Mt. Halla flora as comprehensive. “He knew every flower, herb, tree, all plant life. We frequently hiked the mountain as well as the oreum, and he taught me so much. It was as if every plant was his good friend,” she laughed, reminiscing.
Kim Soonie, currently in her 60s, shared that she dreams of spending her latter years in a countryside home surrounded by those same plants and trees as well as the dogs that she also loves, and continuing to write. “I want to live out my later years in a mature way,” she said, “without greed, in simplicity, and giving back to Jeju in whatever ways possible.”
As an early gesture of the senior life she envisions, Kim donated her entire collection of Jeju antiques and artifacts to the Jeju National Museum shortly after her husband’s death a few years ago. Upon doing so, she reported that she felt “light and free.”
“I feel so grateful for my life, even at this age. I’ve been very fortunate all along,” she said, adding with a laugh, “and that’s why I don’t mind aging at all.”
Her ready laughter, twinkling eyes, and spirited outlook on life, coupled with her profound love and knowledge of Jeju and its deepest cultural features, leave a lasting impression indeed.
Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.net)
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