The volcanic Jeju Island is now a popular honeymoon destination in South Korea, but has a darker history that has only relatively recently begun to be openly discussed: a little over seventy years ago it was the scene of a massacre. Residents of Jeju had been some of the most ardent resisters of Japanese rule and supporters of an independent Korea. In April 1948, violence broke out when the regime in Seoul started an anti-communist purge in Jeju. In The Mermaid from Jeju, Sumi Hahn has written a novel centered around the massacre and a community of haenyeo, or female deep-sea pearl divers who begin their work as young as age eleven.
Hahn is not the first English writer to set a novel in Jeju with haenyeo. Two of the better-known Lisa See and Mary Lynn Bracht novels, The Island of Sea Women and White Chrysanthemum respectively, take their initial cues from the Japanese occupation. But the troubles in Jeju did not disappear when the Japanese left. The local government in Jeju objected to Syngman Rhee’s attempt to consolidate power in separate South Korea. Hahn places her love story in the midst of Seoul’s “Nationalist” surge to put down opposition on the island.
Junja is still a teenager who comes from a long line of haenyeo when her mother—one of the most skilled haenyeo on the island—suddenly dies. Her death was reported as a diving accident but it soon comes out that she was murdered by Nationalists looking to rid the island of Communists. Junja also becomes involved with a young man named Suwol, the son of landowners; the two hope to marry. But the most colorful character, and one based on a member of the actual resistance, is Constable Lee, a mainlander sent to Jeju to protect Junja’s village.
When Suwol is detained in Jeju City, Junja and her grandmother worry he will find the same fate as Junja’s mother. They travel with Constable Lee from their village to the city. To throw off the Nationalist guard’s suspicions when the trio try to rescue Suwol, Lee puts on a show that takes Junja by surprise because he’s so out of character. The guard asks Lee for identification and the constable goes into an exaggerated charade.
Constable Lee searched himself. He reached into every pocket, taking out pieces of string and bits of lint and dropping them into the street. “Here, hold this for me, will ya?” He placed a damp and smelly piece of cuttlefish jerky into the guard’s hands and wagged his finger, swaying, “Don’t you try to eat that! I’m watching!” He unbuttoned the top of his shirt, to grope his armpits. Then he unbuckled his pants and turned around in exaggerated modesty. He pulled out a crumpled piece of paper from under his belt and smoothed it out under his squint. He thrust the paper into the guard’s hand as he belched. “Here you go. Constable Lee, of Seogwipo. Right there, if you can read.”
Hahn uses Lee’s character to show the complexity of civil war and its allegiances. A couple of young recruits from the mainland are stationed with Lee on Jeju. After the two young men witness the Nationalist and American massacre of women, children, and an elderly man—all in the name of rooting out Communists—they are confused because they thought they were on the good side of the conflict. Lee clues the men into the truth:
“Privates, I’m going to let you in on a secret… In every war, there are always more than two sides.”
This was especially true on Jeju. Although Jeju residents live about as far south as one can get in Korea, they had little loyalty for the regime in Seoul. Some leaders like Lee broke off from the Nationalists even though they wore the uniform, all to save the residents they were sent to protect.
Hahn includes an American angle to her story. Although she places American army officers at the scene of the massacre, Junja and her husband emigrate to the United States. The book is structured so that Junja is an older woman in the United States decades after she and her husband leave South Korea. Yet they could never truly free themselves from the pain of war.
Every Fourth of July, for the sake of their daughters, they had watched fireworks that reminded them of gunfire… Junja would go to bed early. He would sit in the dark, listening to Brahms with a glass of Scotch. Memories of Korea, sudden and sharp as splinters. Their life in America had ached with them.
Jeju Island may seem like a paradise now with palm trees, pristine beaches and luxury hotels, but it wasn’t too long ago that bodies were discovered from the April 1948 massacre. Hahn’s story remembers this dark period.