Rachel Premack is a journalist living in Seoul. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Quartz, Foreign Policy, and other outlets.
Gwangmyeong Cave outside of Seoul is a crowd-pleasing hybrid of museum, light tunnel, and wine cellar—but its history is much darker.
Kim Su-hee, a 41-year-old teacher who lives near Seoul, had a pleasant date with her husband at the Gwangmyeong Cave this month. “I usually enjoy dating and sightseeing when my husband [has time off],” she said.
The cave is indeed a delightful choice for a date or family outing. One can see a 135-foot dragon sculpture known as “Lord of the Caves,” an underground aquarium, and a small hydroponic farm. From July through October, there was a Barbie Exhibition. There’s even a “Supernova of Wishes,” featuring 14,856 golden plaques upon which people have written their hopes. The Supernova of Wishes, according to English signage, “is teeming with powerful spiritual energy.”
The ability to make your desires known via golden plaques in this cave is a relatively new development. Previously, it was storage for salted shrimps and a refuge during the Korean War. And before that, it was the Siheung Mine, where thousands of Koreans toiled against their own will for decades under Japanese colonial bosses.
If the idea of placing a Barbie display where colonized people were once forced to dig up gold and coal for another country’s gruesome imperialist goals makes you baffled or slightly queasy, you’re really not in good company. The Gwangmyeong Cave attracted 1.4 million visitors last year. In a country that’s gung-ho on protesting, there haven’t been any demonstrations against the cave. The question of how the Gwangmyeong Cave became so cheery, and so successful, is a messy one.
Forced labor was a key component of Japanese colonial rule in Korea, which lasted from 1910 to 1945. The Gwangmyeong Cave was one of countless sites in and outside of Korea where laborers mined resources to be brought back to Japan. Up to 500 Korean miners worked at one time in the mines; most were farmers who were forced to work against their will, according to a Gwangmyeong Cave publication.
The abuse of human rights that must have occurred in the mines at Gwangmyeong causes historians like Hyung Kyung Lee, a junior research fellow at Seoul National University, to feel uneasy about the site’s current lightheartedness. “They [the museum operators] don’t seem to look at brutal, terrible history,” Lee said. “It should be remembered, so that it’s never repeated.”
Lee Mihyang, who heads the cave’s English-language marketing team, wrote in an email that the cave’s museum section “explains well how this cave managed during [the] Japanese colonial period.” But the most popular features she mentioned included the cave restaurant, the art center (the sole cave art center in Korea), and a slew of gold-themed spectacles.
What makes the Gwangmyeong Cave even more unusual is Koreans’ generally solemn attitude to historical commemoration. Few historical sites in Korea attempt to create exciting diversions. Sometimes the history pops up in jarring places. Your seat on the bus, for instance, may be taken by a statue commemorating the Korean girls and women forced to have sex with up to 70 Japanese soldiers per day.
To understand how the museum came to depict history in the way it does, it helps to consider who funded and created the space. The Gwangmyeong Cave was created by the government of Gwangmyeong City. It’s one of Seoul’s smaller suburbs, with 340,000 people. Like many Seoul suburbs, it’s eager to enhance its cachet by attracting big-box stores and expansive malls and cultivating natural attractions. Founded only in 1981, Gwangmyeong has been modestly successful at doing so; it was the location of Korea’s first IKEA (a 32.5-acre behemoth) and has a premium outlet of Lotte, a cherished Korean brand.
According to Hyung Kyung Lee, city government historic-site organizers typically emphasize profit over historical accuracy. “They tend to focus on entertainment and tourism to make lots of profit rather than conveying history,” he said.
The cave theme park appears to be the crown jewel of Gwangmyeong. “The great toil made by the citizens for the past 34 years is now becoming a driving force for opening up a bright future,” wrote Gwangmyeong mayor Yang Kidae in his online greetings. He highlighted the cave as a major part of that “bright future”; it has generated 3.6 billion Korean won ($3.3 million) and 217 new jobs.
Such future-oriented talk is common nationwide. Many Koreans are simply weary of feeling forlorn and victimized when they consider their heritage. The Gwangmyeong Cave is a rare heritage site to offer a more positive view. Kim Sung-mu, a travel blogger, wrote that the cave “changed the scene of sick history to miracles.”
University of Conneticut professor Alexis Dudden, an expert on Japan’s colonization of Korea, told me that the mine is “introducing both aspects of Korea in the 20th century, which is at once brutal occupation and then also rising from the ashes.”
The commercialization of a former forced-labor site may be crass and aggressively capitalistic; on the other hand, it’s no small thing that Koreans are able to aggressively capitalize their own land and people, eat three solid meals a day, and spend their weekends perusing Barbie exhibits. “We know this horrible history happened, but we still have to make money,” is how Dudden summed up the thinking. “If we dwell only on the horrible history, we’re not going to have any fun.”
The cave’s early-1900s mine workers left graffiti, and one piece reads, without any context: “Lots of money.” The worker may have thought this was an impossible wish, but it turned out to be a prophecy.