Seeking the secret of success


Geomancy: Thousands visit the boyhood home of South Korea's president hoping to tap into a special energy from the surroundings.

April 22, 2003|By Barbara Demick | Barbara Demick,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BONGHA, South Korea - The old man in the gray felt hat walks purposefully around to the back of the house, through the yard with the malodorous mesh-wire chicken coop and past the mangy dog yelping at visitors, and casts his eyes upward to the mountain that looms just beyond.

"Yes, yes," he murmurs with approval, pointing with his cane toward the crest of the mountain. "You can feel the energy."

Kim Im Sul, 81, is one of thousands of visitors who have come to the boyhood home of Roh Moo Hyun, South Korea's newly installed president. The humble farmhouse where he was born in 1946 has become an improbable tourist attraction not only for the usual curiosity seekers but for those who want to probe deeper into the meaning of life and the secret of success.

More specifically, they want to learn how a poor boy reared in a home without an indoor toilet or electric lights managed to become a respected lawyer and then president. The answer, some believe, must lie in the topography of the mountains around Bongha, an otherwise ordinary village 20 miles northwest of Pusan in South Gyeongsang province.

Even if they are loath to admit it publicly, there are many who believe in "geomancy," the study of how one's destiny is shaped by natural elements in the surroundings. The Koreans call it poongsu, which like the better-known Chinese term feng shui literally means wind and water. Where you're born and where your ancestors are buried can make the difference between success and failure.

Hence the extraordinary interest in Bongha, a village with a population of 120 in a verdant valley whose only previous claim to fame was for its abundance of persimmon trees.

"There is something about this mountain that is different from the others. There were five people who grew up in the shadow of this mountain who passed the bar examination, and four of them became successful politicians. Can that be coincidence?" asks Kim Hyong Su, a photographer who snaps pictures of tourists in the village - cashing in, like many other local residents, on the phenomenon.

On weekends, as many as 3,000 people a day come to visit, so many that villagers had to widen the one-lane road that is their only access and to raze a persimmon orchard near the entrance to build a parking lot. A publicity balloon advertising the birthplace of Roh floats above, beckoning visitors.

Enterprising villagers have set up stalls in the lot to sell snacks and souvenirs: Roh's likeness on coffee mugs, T-shirts, clocks and on a particular favorite in Korea - small dolls that attach to one's mobile telephone.

Visitors quickly find their way down a pedestrian path into the courtyard of Roh's childhood home, a squat three-room building constructed in the traditional peasant style with mud walls covered in concrete. A tile roof has replaced the original made of rice stalks that covered the house during Roh's childhood.

The elderly couple who own the house have opened one room to the public, a tiny living room furnished sparsely with a lacquer chest of drawers and a television set. A queue forms outside as visitors wait to pose their children for photographs in front of the television set as though it were the shrine.

A disproportionate number of visitors seem to be parents with young children or pregnant women - all of whom apparently hope the special energy of the place will rub off on their offspring.

"There is a certain power around this house, and that is something you cannot ignore. I do believe in it," says Lee Yong Sook, a middle-aged woman who is dressed in a suede jacket and gold jewelry. Lee says that it was her second trip to the house and that on both occasions she made a deliberate effort to drink a sip of water from the house and to use the toilet, in a shed near the barn, to get the most of the energy.

"I tried to lie down on the floor, too, but a guard stopped me the first time. That's why I came back for a second visit," she adds. "My son enters university this year, so I'll come back another time with him."

Another visitor, a 21-year-old university student named Kim Key Hwan, was brought by his parents to see the house and the grave of Roh's parents, perched on a mountain on the outskirts of the village.

"I don't know if I believe in geomancy, but I'm willing to accept that there is something here that I don't understand," he says.

Many of the visitors to the house are geomancers, both professional and amateur. They often carry compasses to calculate the angles of the sun and mountains, and study the landscape with experienced eyes.

Kim Im Sul, the old man in the felt hat, for example, is a retired farmer and part-time geomancy student. He was particularly interested in the ridge of mountains that runs along the north side of the village and the small stream in the valley to the south.

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