Many of the caves found in regions of gotjawal woodland provided shelter to villagers evading the military during Jeju 4·3.

It was the gotjawal that provided sanctuary to villagers when all land — and life — beyond 5 k.m. of the coast was declared hostile to the state. It was within the forest’s deepest corners, its volcanic caves, that villagers found some modicum of safety.

The woodlands cover 6.1 percent (113.3 square kilometers) of the island and survive in four main areas, which mark the ancient flow of lava across the landscape: Hangyeong-Andeok in the southwest; Aewol in the northwest; Jocheon-Hamdeok in the northeast; and Gujwa-Seongsan in the east.

Much more widespread in the late-1940s, the woodlands were the lifeblood of local life and culture by providing grazing, charcoal, nutrition, medicine and much else. With the outbreak of bloodshed, they also sheltered villagers from rapacious troops.

The name gotjawal combines ‘got’ (woodland) and ‘jawal’ (rock) in the Jeju language, which aptly describes the habitats key features. Somewhat more vividly, the Jeju Dialect Dictionary runs, “a forest where trees and vines are disorderly entangled.”

As per its etymology, gotjawal is rocky forest; it lies on lava formations that are barely hidden beneath the woodland floor. The basaltic lava is mostly “aʻā clinker” which is known in the Jeju language as “bille.” There are also smaller areas of Pahoehoe lava, but most gotjawal sit atop aʻā clinker.

The aʻā clinker is classified as either slabby or rock block aʻā lava. These forms of aʻā clinker are quintessential to gotjawal, as can be seen underfoot as one seems to be treading across strewn rubble. The aʻā clinker forms a platform 1-3 meters in depth, with lowland gotjawal tending to have a thicker shelf.

The rocky volcanic floor helps to create a distinct microclimate with vents in the ground seeming to breathe; the gotjawal is known as the “lungs” of Jeju for this reason. It is poignant, therefore, that at the height of 4.3, particularly in the long winter of 1948-49, it was in the gotjawal where many villagers found room to breath.

This was represented so viscerally in the 2012 film “Jiseul” by O Muel as Keunneolbgwe cave in Donggwang-ri provides the backdrop for one of the movie’s most iconic scenes. Villagers share jokes and sweet potatoes in a dark, damp cave, distracting themselves from the terrors outside with island humor.

Keunneolbgwe (“Big Wide Cave”) is now a key site along the 6 k.m. Donggwang-ri 4.3 Trail, which allows visitors to see massacre sites in Andeok-myeon, southwest Jeju, up close.

Jeju woodlands have always been central to life and community, and walkers today are treated to abundant cultural heritage such as ancient agricultural walls, animal shelters and “gamateo” traditional kilns hidden amid the volcanic topography.

It is to this volcanic topography that a natural, underground aquifer, into which 46 percent of Jeju’s rainfall permeates — the highest rate in all of Korea — owes its existence. The water pools in subterranean chambers, then travels in rivulets down the mountain where it is siphoned for use.

The high rate of permeability means that in the areas of the east and west where gotjawal is found, there are very few rivers. This rocky habitat, with its underground water system, is not only unique in Korea, but extremely rare internationally.

Gotjawal is unsurprisingly a haven for Jeju flora and fauna. In addition to endemic plants such as the Jeju gosarisam and Mankyua jejuense, the gotjawal provides a habitat for the endangered Fairy Pitta and the black-headed snake.

It has always been in the nature of woodland to provide such sanctuary.