If you’re after top-notch food, craggy coastlines, vistas of undulating green fields, and islands on which no foreigner has ever set foot, go no further. Jeju Island has its rock formations and palm trees, and Gangwon-do pulls in nature-lovers by the truckload, but it’s the Jeolla provinces (전라도) where you’ll find the essence of Korea at its most potent – a somewhat ironic contention since the Jeollanese have long played the role of the renegade. Here, the national inferiority complex that many foreigners diagnose in the Korean psyche is compounded by a regional one: this is the most put-upon part of a much put-upon country. Although the differences between Jeolla and the rest of the country are being diluted daily, they’re still strong enough to help make it the most distinctive and absorbing part of the mainland.
The Korean coast dissolves into thousands of islands, the majority of which lie sprinkled like confetti in Jeollanese waters. Some such as Hongdo and Geomundo are popular holiday resorts, while others lie in wave-smashed obscurity, their inhabitants hauling their living from the sea and preserving a lifestyle little changed in decades. The few foreign visitors who make it this far find that the best way to enjoy the area is to pick a ferry at random, and simply go with the flow.
In addition, Jeollanese cuisine is the envy of the nation – pride of place on the regional menu goes to Jeonju bibimbap, a local take on one of Korea’s favourite dishes. Jeolla’s culinary reputation arises from its status as one of Korea’s main food-producing areas, with shimmering emerald rice paddies vying for space in and around the national parks. The Jeollanese people themselves are also pretty special – fiercely proud of their homeland, with a devotion born from decades of social and economic repression. Speaking a dialect sometimes incomprehensible to other Koreans, they revel in their outsider status, and make a credible claim to be the friendliest people in the country.
Most of the islands trace a protective arc around Jeonnam (전남), a province whose name translates as “South Jeolla”. On the map, this region bears a strong resemblance to Greece, and the similarities don’t end there; the region is littered with ports and a constellation of islands, their surrounding waters bursting with seafood. Low-rise buildings snake up from the shores to the hills, and some towns are seemingly populated entirely with salty old pensioners. Yeosu and Mokpo are relatively small, unhurried cities exuding a worn, brackish charm, while further inland is the region’s capital and largest city, Gwangju, a young, trendy metropolis with a reputation for art and political activism.
The same can be said for likeable Jeonju, capital of Jeonbuk (전북; “North Jeolla”) province to the north and one of the most inviting cities in the land; its hanok district of traditional buildings is a particular highlight. Green and gorgeous, Jeonbuk is also home to four excellent national parks, where most of the province’s visitors head; in addition, the arresting “horse-ear” mountains of Maisan Provincial Park accentuate the appeal of Tapsa, a glorious temple that sits in between its distinctive twin peaks.
Jeolla’s gripe with the rest of the country is largely political. Despite its status as the birthplace of the Joseon dynasty that ruled Korea from 1392 until its annexation by the Japanese in 1910, most of the country’s leaders since independence in 1945 have hailed from the southeastern Gyeongsang provinces. Seeking to undermine their Jeollanese opposition, the central government deliberately withheld funding for the region, leaving its cities in relative decay while the country as a whole reaped the benefits of the “economic miracle”. Political discord reached its nadir in 1980, when the city of Gwangju was the unfortunate location of a massacre which left hundreds of civilians dead. National democratic reform was gradually fostered in the following years, culminating in the election of Jeolla native and eventual Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kim Dae-jung. Kim attempted to claw his home province’s living standards up to scratch with a series of big-money projects, notably in the form of highway connections to the rest of the country once so conspicuous by their absence. Despite these advances, with the exception of Gwangju and Jeonju, Jeolla’s urban centres are still among the poorest places in Korea.