|The original sujagi is on display for a special occasion. / Courtesy of Ganghwa History Museum|
By Jia H. Jung
Somewhere in the belly of the glassy, triangular Ganghwa History Museum, there rests a very important flag. The flag is on loan from the U.S. and its lease is almost up.
U.S. military forces captured the item 151 years ago after its first military engagement in the "Hermit Kingdom" in June 1871. The U.S. recorded the event as the "Expedition to Korea"; Koreans remembered it as Sinmiyangyo, "Western Disturbance in the Sinmi Year."
The flag's name is "sujagi," the commanding general's flag. Faded but formidable, the four square meters of woven hemp bear a bold Chinese ideogram signaling military rank.
|Closeups of the sujagi's woven hemp, left, and the lettering. / Courtesy of Ganghwa History Museum|
This relic of the 1392-1910 Joseon Kingdom is the last of its kind. The flag, in Korea since 2007, is so dear that it is currently folded up and kept where specialists of Korea and the U.S. monitor the climate conditions. No one wants to accelerate the deterioration of the fabric, so a replica sujagi hangs from the lofted ceiling of a hall with a giant Sinmiyangyo diorama.
|The sujagi replica, upper right, currently on display at the Ganghwa History Museum. / Courtesy of Jia H. Jung|
The sujagi's time in Korea technically ends this Friday, Sept. 30. Negotiations for an extension may be underway, as has happened before. No one has mentioned plans to return the flag to America. Even so, the end date is a reminder that a poignant piece of Korean culture and history remains technically in the hands of another country.
The trouble began when Americans sailed into the Yeomha Channel in the Han River Estuary in 1871. The expedition was led by the Asiatic Squadron of American military forces that cruised the waters in Asia for the latter half of the 19th century.
"Honestly, they should not have been there," Thomas Duvernay, a professor of Korean studies at Yeungnam University, says from under his Indiana Jones-style cap during an interview in the air-conditioned oasis of a Starbucks near his campus office. "If a foreign warship wanted to go up the Mississippi River, that wouldn't be okay."
A Michigan native turned Korean history and English professor, he became obsessed with the sujagi in the mid-1990s, when he fell into Korean traditional archery and weaponry research. Sinmiyangyo jumped at him even if the event did not involve bows or arrows.
When met with resistance to their forays, U.S. forces destroyed a chain of ancient forts on Ganghwa Island, sparking a conflict that killed three American servicemen and over 300 Koreans.
Eo Jae-yeon was leading a secret army to defend Korea from Western invasion. As the end approached, he sacrificed himself. The Americans, after slaying him, tore down his sujagi and made away with it, plus 46 other flags and signals and an untold catalog of additional Korean artifacts.
Duvernay put half of his adult life into researching Sinmiyangyo and trying to recover the sujagi and other lost treasures. In 1998, a rear admiral of the U.S. Navy wrote that it would "literally take an act of Congress" to move the flag.
But in 2007, after some press and bureaucratic lifting from the Cultural Heritage Administration, the sujagi returned to Korea on a 10-year loan from the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, Maryland, to the National Palace Museum at Gyeongbok Palace in central Seoul. After a grand homecoming, the piece was moved out to Ganghwa Island, where Sinmiyangyo had taken place.
Duvernay eventually met Eo Jae-son, the great-great-grandson of General Eo. The duo became fast friends and foundation partners, pairing Duvernay's wealth of information from feverish solo research with the exclusive knowledge handed down over the generations within Eo's family.
|Eo Jae-son, left, and Thomas Duvernay / Courtesy of Thomas Duvernay|
Eo holds a magnanimous view of the sujagi situation.
"It's our fault for losing it in the first place!" he exclaims.
He says he just wants to unearth as much history as possible and pitch it forward.
Two inner chambers in the foundation office contain a shrine to General Eo Jae-yeon and original wood-carved citations of honor from King Gojong.
|Office shrine to General Eo Jae-yeon. / Courtesy of Jia H. Jung|
|A sujagi replica, flanked by citations from King Gojong / Courtesy of Jia H. Jung|
After a monsoon downpour on a late afternoon, Eo walks briskly through a glistening pine forest enveloping Gwangseongbo Fort on Ganghwa Island. In his black felt hat, indigo trousers and crispy white shirt, he appears younger than the septuagenarian he is and somehow congruent with the riparian landscape.
He stops at the circular Sondolmokdondae observation post, overgrown with grass and wildflowers. He wonders how the 50 or so fighters cornered here must have felt, knowing that the end was near.
|Eo Jae-son visits Sondolmokdondae observation post to retrace the history of the 1871 conflict which claimed the life of his great-great-grandfather. / Courtesy of Jia H. Jung|
In a barely perceptible throe of emotion, Eo turns his face towards the setting sun, pumps his fist and says, "But they didn't get us. We turned them back."
He proceeds down the hill to the lookout closest to the water. Jumping up into a nook in the brick fortress wall, he looks down at sondolmok, the same swirling whirlpool into which hundreds of Koreans reportedly leapt to their deaths after seeing the general's sujagi fall down.
|Eo Jae-son regards Sondolmok. / Courtesy of Jia H. Jung|
|The perilous waters of Sondolmok. / Courtesy of Jia H. Jung|
The next month, Eo strides into the lobby of Ganghwa History Museum. After vacation season and National Liberation Day have passed, his footsteps echo in the empty space. Clothed this time in a canvas newsboy cap and a tailored vest and pants set, he has the subtle swagger of the tango-dancing, sax-playing, daily cyclist.
|The exterior of Ganghwa History Museum / Courtesy of Jia H. Jung|
At the ticket desk, three young employees eye Eo but don't recognize him. Humbly, he mumbles who he is. The employees begin moving in and out of doors, whispering and getting on their mobile phones to dial people who don't pick up.
Finally, they emerge with a gift bag containing a book published by the Ganghwa War Museum. Of course, most of the information about the sujagi is from Duvernay.
|Pages out of a commemorative book published by the Ganghwa War Museum / Courtesy of Jia H. Jung|
Pulling away from the site, Eo Jae-son chuckles, "I have to get on the good side of these young people; they'll be here for a while."
He's right. Just last year, the Korean government named Ganghwa County as one of 89 endangered communities in Korea. It remains to be seen if any of the 1 trillion won to be made available to these communities through the Local Extinction Response Fund will help Duvernay and Eo establish the Sinmiyangyo museum they are determined to set up.
Either way, the sujagi is like Tinkerbell, needing applause to avoid oblivion.
Jia H. Jung is an alumna of Columbia Journalism School in New York City. She is a recipient of the 2022-2023 Post-Graduate Fellowship of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and is heading to Honolulu Civil Beat to report on Philippine Affairs for the Filipino readership in Hawaii and beyond.