Seeing Seoul

I ended up in Seoul, not out of any deep rooted desire to visit it, but due to the quirks of airline pricing which made it much cheaper to fly Seoul to Tokyo to Toronto rather than Tokyo directly to Toronto.

Thus I found myself one coolish February day in Seoul with little knowledge of South Korea’s history other than the war with the north and no real plan as to what to see or do other than a tour to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which separates the two Koreas.

A few YouTube history documentaries, a review of TripAdvisor Things to Do and a wander around the National Museum of Korea gave me a fair idea of its background and some not to be missed sites.

First a bit of history. Peoples have inhabited the Korean peninsula for over 8,000 years but the first kingdom came about in the 2nd century BC.

Various kingdoms came and went but the most famous and long lasting was the Joseon dynasty which governed a united Korea from 1392 to 1897. King Sejong the Great ( 1397 -1450) is credited with creating the Korean alphabet, a moving clock and the printing press, amongst other accomplishments and his statue is prominently displayed on the Main Street:

The Joseons were prolific builders and 5 of their palaces have been carefully reconstructed on their original sites in downtown Seoul. The originals, mostly made of wood, were destroyed by fire or the Japanese. The new palaces, although true to the originals, are now made of red pine imported from Canada. Here’s what just a small portion of Gyeongbokgung Palace looks like:

A lovely feature of the palaces in Seoul is if you wear a traditional costume, entrance is free. Thus, plenty of locals and a few foreigners went to the many costume-for-rent stores by the palaces and donned the Hanbok:

Beside the palaces lies the village of Bukchon Hanok. Built to house the administrators employed in the palaces starting in the 15th century, nearly 900 of the houses still stand, interspersed among todays apartments and garages:

It’s said that Korea’s worst problem is its geography. With China, Russia and Japan as its neighbours, its estimated to have been invaded over 3,000 times. The Joseon Dynasty dealt with these invasions by alternatively sealing its borders and becoming a hermit kingdom and opening up to foreigners to develop ways of getting rid of unwanted armies.

In 1894, following China’s defeat after the Sino- Japanese War, the Chinese left and in 1904 the Russians were driven out after losing their war with Japan. Thus began one of the darkest periods in Korean history when Japan annexed Korea and colonized it. Numerous atrocities were committed by the Japanese towards the Koreans during this occupation, the worst of which was the taking of the “comfort girls”, 15 and 16 year old girls who were used as sex slaves by the Japanese soldiers during WW2. A pretty sculpture pays tribute to those girls, of whom only 6 are still alive today:

Little love is lost between the Koreans and Japanese. Tourism between the countries is minimal, there’s not a lot of Toyotas around and no one seems anxious to establish better relations.

After WW2, Korea became a proxy for the Cold War. The Russians installed a former guerilla fighter as president of North Korea and, along with China, heavily armed it. In the south, a puppet of the USA was made president. On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded the south and advanced to Seoul.

For the first time, the UN, heavily backed by the USA, sent a military force to protect a country’s sovereignty. The Korean War waged on for three years until the Secretary General of the UN and North Korea signed a ceasefire agreement establishing the border at the 38th parallel. The war has never officially ended and South Korea does not consider itself bound by the ceasefire agreement it never signed.

The DMZ serves as a buffer zone between the countries. Originally 2 kilometres on each side, it is now a 1.2 strip per side that runs about 155 miles across the peninsula. No arms are allowed inside the DMZ, but each side is heavily guarded.

It was against this backdrop, and a few passport checks, that I was expecting something somber and grey on my bus tour to the DMZ, so I was a little surprised at our first stop beside the DMZ to find, you guessed it…..a theme park complete with food fair, a cable car ride, a movie theatre an amusement park: and a giant parking lot for tour buses:

Our second stop on the tour was a little more serious. The North Koreans had, at various times, burrowed four tunnels designed to quickly move 30,000 soldiers into the South. The tunnels were discovered, blocked and now provide tourists like me the opportunity to get as close to North Korea as possible. The one I walked through ( they are quite large and about 2 metres high) is 75 metres underground.

On our final stop, we went to an observation tower where we could clearly see the DMZ and across the border, North Korea’s third largest city. Using the powerful binoculars, I could make out a single North Korean sentry walking around the guard tower. Photos through the binoculars were not possible, but this is what the DMZ looks like:

North Korea as seen from South Korea

Our tour guide, a mid -30s local lady explained what she thought about reunification “it’s our parent’s issue, not ours. We’ve never known a unified Korea and we’re a little afraid of the heavy price we’d have to pay to absorb the much poorer north. As for North Korea and its missiles and nuclear threat? We think they’re more of a nuisance than anything else. It’s a way for Kim Jong-un to get attention. Nothing more”.

I visited the war memorial commemorating the 5 million soldiers and civilians who died during the Korean war; unfortunately the museum was closed the day I tried to visit. I walked through a few of Seoul’s noteworthy neighborhoods and tried a variety of Korean foods. I walked to the Hangang River which bisects the city and was forced to listen to K-pop, Korean hip hop, for two hours at a protest beside my hotel.

It was all very pleasant, but without meaning to sound dismissive of Seoul, after five days I had seen all I wanted to see and was ready to move on.

Next, Japan.

3 thoughts on “Seeing Seoul”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: