top of page

39. Jack-O-Lanterns in South Korea during 2020-2025CE

NOV. 4, 2021


In a show with real Seoul, Ryan reveals who Jack ‘O Lantern was, and how he managed to find his way to South Korea. He also takes Pete on a tour of South Korea’s spooky characters and shares some great news for those of you who enjoy farming on your mobile phones.

This episode visits the ‘Land of the Morning Calm’ better known to you and I as South Korea, or more officially, the Republic of Korea.

This is a country in East Asia, constituting the southern part of the Korean Peninsula and sharing a border with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (aka. North Korea).

The country border is known as the DMZ (the demilitarized zone) and was established in 1953. The DMZ is 150 miles long and 2.5 miles wide and is one of the most dangerous borders on the planet.

South Korea is about 100,000 sq km (that’s 39,000 sq miles) making it roughly 6 times smaller than France and it has one of the most pronounced tidal variations in the world at ~30 feet (9m).

How we got here

In about 700,000 BCE early man arrived, as they do.

It took them until about 8000BCE to start settling on farms and around 4000 BCE Stone age farmer tribes start merging into larger clans.

Around 100-300CE, three kingdoms emerge in the area. Goguryeo in the north, Silla and Baekje in the south. Then, in 668CE three became one as Korea is united under the Silla Kingdom.

Mongols invaded in 1231CE – Mongol invasions of Korea ends in a peace treaty and in 1392CE The Joseon dynasty started.

Japan attempted to invade unsuccessfully in 1592CE and again shortly after and in 1653CE the country experiences its first contact with Europe when a Dutch ship is wrecked on the coast.

In 1866 - Korea adopted an isolationist policy, refusing to trade with Westerners and in 1876 they signed a treaty with the Japanese saying that they were both independent nations.

In 1880 the country found itself falling behind in technology and industry, and reform is introduced with the slogan ‘eastern ethics, western technology’, followed by trade treaties signed with the USA, Britain, Germany, Russia and France.

1894 during a peasant uprising and looked to Japan for support. Japan sent troops to help… and they decided they liked the place and refused to leave. In the resulting war, Japan defeated Korea and they then set about eliminating Korean culture.

After their top official was assassinated, the Japanese go full colonialist on the country in which roads, factories, railways and bridges were built – largely so Japan could more effectively plunder the nations’ resources, particularly food.

By 1945 World War 2 put an end to Japanese control of the area and Russia and America (the Allies) agreed to split Korea into a north and south, with the intention of merging the zones.

Unfortunately, the cold war put paid to that ambition and Korea was split into two – one half communist, one half democratic.

It didn’t’ stay cold for long. In 1950 the North Korean army invaded the south, capturing Seoul starting a period of conflict both hot and cold that really continues to this day although in 2021 South Korea did omit North Korea as an ‘enemy’ on its military white papers, so who knows what the future holds.

South Korea didn’t let this hold it back though. In the 1980s the nation underwent economic transformation and the country became thriving and wealthy.

So much so that South Korea have even sent an astronaut into space – in 2008 Yi So Yeon took that honour. Well doe Yi So Yeon!

So let’s talk about Halloween

Halloween has its roots in an ancient Celtic festival, Samhain, which marked the beginning of winter. The Celts believed that the night before Samhain saw spirits from the other world appear and destroy crops with their frosty breath, leaving the land barren for winter.

To appease these spirits, the Celts would leave food and wine on their doorsteps and wear masks when they left the house to blend in with the creepy night travellers.

In the eighth century, the Christians took the pagan tradition of Samhain and rebranded it as All Saint's Day or All Hallows and the night before then became Hallows Eve (later Halloween).

Halloween retained its spiritual and macabre nature through many centuries, thanks to traditions like souling, where the poor would beg for pastries on November 2 (All Souls Day) in exchange for prayers for deceased relatives.

But nowadays it serves as an opportunity to dress up in costumes, watch horror films and snack on sweets and candy, with the sound of children knocking on their neighbours door and saying the magic words…


How’s it done in South Korea though?

Traditional Korean belief is the spirits of the dead do not leave the earth for several generations; thus, deceased parents and grandparents are still considered part of the family; Ancestral rites are performed to honour them on death anniversaries and on major holidays.

But in South Korea, Christianity really took off, from representing 1% of the population in 1900, to being one of the top two religions today, in part because Christianity became associated with America and with resistance to Japanese rule during the colonial period.

Since the early 2000s, Halloween has become increasingly popular and in Seoul, it is common to see Halloween costumes at supermarkets and decorations on the streets, for small children to dress up in costumes and go trick-or-treating and for 20-year olds to go to Halloween-themed parties at bars and clubs dressed as a sexy cat.

In fact, since 2015, sales of party dresses have increased by 139%, costumes for adults have increased by 24% and pet dog costumes by 957%.

This episode’s topic - Jack-O-Lanterns

A Jack O-Lantern is a lantern made from a hollowed-out vegetable, most commonly today a pumpkin, in which holes are cut out to create a face and a candle inserted to light it up.

The practice originates from an Irish myth about a man known as “Stingy Jack”. According to the story Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him but not wanting to pay the bhill, he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin, and he does.

But Jack decides to keep the coin. He puts it into his pocket next to a silver cross - preventing the Devil’s escape from his loose change form.

Eventually Jack frees the Devil, but under two conditions. First, that he would not bother Jack for one year, and second that should Jack die, the devil could not claim his soul.

On reflection, Jack realises one year isn’t great, so he concocts a new plan. This time he tricks the Devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit for him.

The devil, being a more obliging fellow than his reputation suggests, does this, not knowing that Jack has carved a cross onto the tree. This means the Devil can’t climb down. And so Jack manages to negotiate another ten years of grace.

But as happens to all men eventually, Jack dies.

In heaven, he meets God who turns him away as not the kind of person heaven really accepts.

So down he goes.

But in Hell, the Devil, upset at being tricked, keeps his word of not claiming Jack’s soul, so, Jack finds he can’t get into hell either.

So what’s a lost sould to do? The Devil gives Jack a burning coal to light his way in the dark and he pops the coal into a carved turnip and he takes with him as he has roamed the Earth ever since.

The Irish referred to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern” and then, simply “Jack O’Lantern”.

Over time the turnip has been replaced by carved pumpkins. Pumpkins are a type of squash; a member of the Curcurbita family and they grow on a plant which has large leaves and sprawling vines with coiled leaves called tendrils. They bloom with large, edible, yellow-orange flowers and have excellent health benefits. Pumpkins are an excellent source of magnesium, zinc, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, seeds are good for seeds for heart health and much, much more.

Pumpkins can be grown in containers, pots, backyards and greenhouses and a single pumpkin plant can produce between two and five pumpkins. That means you can grow a thousand pumpkins on an acre. BUT pumpkins need at least six hours of direct, unfiltered sun each day and a lot of water. If you want round pumpkins, you’re also going to have to turn them to encourage an even shape and put cardboard or thin board under the plant to prevent decay and insect damage.
Jack O Lanterns in South Korea

In the olden days, Autumn in Korea was the time when the people would harvest big, old wrinkled pumpkins the colour of dusty orange clay, often harvested from stone walls and straw roofs of people’s houses. These were large and not-too-sweet pumpkins and one was enough to feed a family of eight, so several were stored over the winter. These would be used to make stew, soup, porridge, served as a snack, with kimchi.

But what if you don’t have an acre – introducing smart farms…

By 2025, the population of Korea is set to rise by a million people. Cities are going to become more crowded and there will be a need to feed all these people.

Access to fresh healthy food will be a challenge, because traditional farms take up a huge amount of space, vehicles are needed to harvest crops, but they burn fossil fuels and young people don’t want to stay in rural areas or go into farming.

To address this, the South Korean government is looking to technology to avoid a crisis. Specifically, they’re investing in smart-farms.

Also known as vertical-farming, smart-farms produce food stacked in layers inside a structure where the environment (temperature, light, humidity, and gases) can be automatically controlled.
They’re essentially futuristic greenhouses, maximizing farming in a limited space without sunlight or soil. They use 90% less water than traditional farming, with much of it being recycled again and again. They also don’t use soil, instead bedding in Rockwool - is a sponge like mass of fibres made from basalt rock and chalk.

Smart farms also use pesticides, herbicides or fungicides and can grow plants 24/7, shortening the growth cycle to half. You can also grow whatever you like, you’re not dependent on local climate to produce exotic produce. Local growing means no needs to transport produce from overseas and they reduce the need for manpower, because they can be controlled remotely (even via smartphone).

There is one additional effort required for these farms though. Because there are no insects to pollinate the plants, humans are still required to give them a helping hand; They do this by using a vibrating wand, which shakes the flowers so that the pollen falls out.

Korean startups N.Thing, NEXTON, and Farm 8 are the leaders in vertical farming providing fresh, sustainable, local food, at scale, all year round. NEXTON has built a small vertical farm in an abandoned tunnel under a mountain where they play classical music to encourage their plants to grow. N.Thing offer a portable farm called the CUBE and Farm 8 sells close to 40 tons of packaged salads per day, including to Starbucks and GS25 (Korea’s leading convenience store chain), from locations including their ‘Metro Farm’ in a subway station in Seoul.

South Korea’s ‘Farm66’ company also won the Hong Kong Emerging Brand award for their aquaponic vertical farms which use fish in the agriculture process – converting their waste into fertilizer which grows the plants, which then filter water back to the fish.

This isn’t just theory either. South Korean built indoor vertical farming is already being used to grow crops in the Middle East. Farms in shipping containers are being exported to the United Arab Emirates for just $130,000 each. The ‘cultivation modules’, called the ‘Planty Cube’, is a shipping container sized box ~12 metres long, which is filled with racks of crops, like lettuce and in 2020, 10 x Planty cubes were installed in Abu Dhabi, with fifty more in 2021-22.

Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait have all placed orders and will take delivery in the next few years

But, where’s the spooky?

Farming is exciting, it’s true, but it wouldn’t be Halloween without a spooky tale or two.

In Korea, there are many types of Korean folktales, one of which is known as imuldam, specifically about supernatural beings - ghosts, monsters and goblins.

In most of these tales supernatural beings enter the human world and engage in friendly or antagonistic relations with humans. One such creature, is called the Dokkaebi.
Known as the "Korean goblin", the Dokkaebi are a spirit of nature, said to be the spiritual possession of inanimate objects, like an old discarded broom, or an object stained with human blood

Legends describe dokkaebi in many forms, but most often they are described as having horns, bulging eyes, a big mouth, long, sharp teeth, a hairy body and long claws. They are typically found at night, but they also appear when it is foggy and rainy.

There are various tales over time and geography, but they are always depicted as fearsome and awe-inspiring and their appearance is heralded by a tall blue flame of fire.

They may also possess magical items, such as a a hat which grants the power of invisibility or a club, called the bangmangi, which acts like a magic wand, but can also be used to summon things and, presumably, bash people on the head

But Dokkaebi also possess extraordinary powers and abilities themselves, which they use to variously help humans, or play pranks on us. Trick or treating, you might say.

Pranks include setting fire to things and preventing wayward travellers from passing by without first wrestling – and you should know that Dokkaebi are extremely skilled at wrestling and cannot be beaten.

That said, most of the stories describe ways in which these creatures are indeed beaten, possibly because in in some tales, they only have one leg.

But if you can win over a dokkaebi it can be good news. They can bring good harvests, catches of fish and great fortunes. They can also defend us against evil spirits.

Depending on where you live, some people want the dokkaebi to bring them good luck, and others want to chase them away. In Jeju Island, there is a healing ceremony which is said to drive away the dokkaebi from the patient, similar to driving away the bad energy from a person who displays dual personalities.

But maybe, having read this, you just want to keep your local dokkaebi around. After all, they might just bring you a dose of good fortune. And if not, you can always just push them over eh?

bottom of page