If you’re one who focuses on a nation’s history, its past, its moment in time, just know that South Korea’s people today are marching to the beat of a very different drum or, as in this case, a different buk. They’re techno, educated to a 98% literacy rate, motivated, and ready to write their own success stories. So, step aside or get caught up in their energized whirlwind as they fly past. Sure they can tell you about the city’s history that dates back to 1394. But, they’re more interested in today’s world markets and the price of gold.
The Islands and The Sea
The port of Incheon (also spelled Inchon) is 20 miles west of the heart of Seoul, draped along the Han River as it makes its way to the Yellow Sea. South Korea, about as big as Indiana, blankets the tip of the Korean Peninsula that clings to the Chinese mainland like an afterthought. All around are islands, 159 nearby. Off the southern and western coastline the count skyrockets to 3,000 seemingly tossed into the Yellow and East China Seas by some long-ago empress. The greatest of them all is Cheju, not only the largest but also the tallest.
Also called the “Land of the Morning Calm” you’ve gotta beat the rush-hour traffic to discover if that’s true. Incheon’s three million inhabitants make their way to work daily, as this city is not only a vibrant port but also a major manufacturing area with factories for virtually all forms of industry – textiles, steel and chemicals, food processing and electronics, one could go on.
A Brief Look At Seoul’s Long History
It all began when some primitive, raggedy souls scratched out small hamlets along the Han River several thousand years back. That number, today, is nearly 11 million. Approximately 1,000 years ago, King Munjong emerged as the leader of the Koryo Dynasty and Namgyong, Seoul’s name then. The king’s descendents ruled the land for three centuries before the Yi Dynasty wrested control away. To preserve this control, General Yi Song-gye forced 200,000 workers to construct a massive wall around his city, remnants of which are still visible. Today’s population has spilled far beyond these ancient boundaries making Seoul not only the nation’s economic, cultural and governmental center but also one of the world’s most populous cities.
Back to the past – subsequent rulers constructed opulent palaces. Invading Japanese forces laid many to ruin in 1592. Built again, they were destroyed only 40 years later, this time by the Chinese. A relative calm came to Seoul long enough for city fathers to create an infrastructure where once there was none. Electrical power. Transportation. Missions and monasteries. Newspapers. The face of present-day Seoul was emerging.
Troubled Days Ahead
Japan incorporated Korea into its realm as a colony in 1910. Further development followed including a proper Railway Station, government buildings, etc. Then World War II raged. Following Japan’s surrender, control over the southern portion of the Korean Peninsula was transferred to the U.S. while the Soviet Union took control in the north. In 1948, the two were officially separated forming South Korea and North Korea, two nations with different ideologies, different governing styles, yet with the same people separated by a line in the concrete.
Within two years, their guns were trained on each other and the fighting began in earnest. The Korean War, also called the Korean Conflict, was on. The North invaded and Seoul fell. Chinese soldiers entered the melee. Americans too, plus soldiers from other nations. In 1950, General Douglas MacArthur and the U.N. troops landed in Incheon. When the guns were finally silenced three years later, people on both sides were left to tabulate their massive losses. Seoul wore the deep scars of battle. And, as we know, even today flashpoints remain, tempers are often heated, words are hurled, and the world watches cautiously.
But You’re Here To See The Sights
And shop. Commerce has not passed Seoul’s 50 million people by. With a robust economy and Korean Won to burn, the local people go to Insadon Shopping District for art and antiques, even a Korean bar-b-q or tea at a traditional teahouse. The Sinpo Market is another option. But if it’s fish you want, visit the Yeonan Pier market.
Museum-goers enjoy the National Museum of Korea for relics and artifacts, the Modern Architecture Museum for photographs, or the Gyeonbok Palace and Folklore Museum. The last dates back to 1394 and was the main palace for the Joseon Dynasty. Also from this dynasty, which lasted from 1392 till 1910, is the Hawseong Fortress. It required 700,000 man hours to build and features a four-mile-long wall. Compare that to the Changdeokgung Palace, with its impressive Throne Hall.
Everyone must visit the DMZ. The Demilitarized Zone that kinda isn’t. In fact, it’s the most heavily-militarized border in the world. In the world! In 1953, the DMZ was drawn up along the 38th Parallel following the signing in Panmunjeom of the Armistice Agreement. It’s 155 miles long, running between the Yellow and East Seas. Donning hard hats, you enter the Third Tunnel, one of the four tunnels discovered by South Korea since 1974. This one runs 1700 yards long. See the pictures. Hear the tales. Peer across into the north toward a nation sealed off from outsiders for generations.
Perhaps tie a message for peace to the chain link fence like others before you. We must believe those on the other side do the same. And, hopefully, a deafening quiet will prevail so only prayers for peace will be heard. Remember, ten million family members were and remain separated after all these years.