Heart and Seoul
Seoul, South Korea
Seoul is a unique city in the world: it’s one of the few great modern
metropolises to change hands in war, and it remains just a few miles away from
one of ‘hottest’ international borders in the world – that between North and
When North Korean communist insurgents stormed southwards in
1950, it looked like bad news for the recently democratized nation of Korea.
Seoul fell to the communists, and it seemed that the Chinese-backed North
Koreans would soon dominate the whole peninsula. They reckoned without the will
of the South Koreans, who remained intent on staying independent. In
particular, they reckoned without the will and the might of United Nations
forces led by U.S. General Douglas MacArthur.
These days, only half a century later and with many veterans
still alive, Korea remains for many the ‘forgotten war’ – coming so soon after
the horrors and upheavals of the Second World War, it has in the popular
imagination been confined to a footnote, remembered, perhaps, by old soldiers
and people watching re-runs of M*A*S*H on TV. But at the time it was deadly
serious. Not only did many young servicemen lose their lives, it seemed that
Russian and China might get embroiled in the war, kicking off a global – and
possibly nuclear – conflict.
But it didn’t go the communists’ way. Following amphibious
landings at Incheon, on the coast near Seoul, the city was recaptured at the
North Korean forces driven northwards above the 38th Parallel, where they
remain to this day in international isolation.
Isolation is not something you will find in the modern city of
Seoul. Built in the valley of the Han River and nestling between mountains, the
Seoul Metropolitan Area is one of the most populous such designations in the
world. Yet this isn’t a city that seems overcrowded: rapid, predictable growth
has allowed the city authorities to plan Seoul’s expansion effectively, leaving
space for many parks and circling the whole metropolitan area with an
inviolable greenbelt to prevent too much expansion into surrounding
countryside. As a result, Seoul is a pleasantly spacious place to wander
around. Traffic management (which does exist, despite what the huge jams might
cause you to think) has led to Seoul being far lass polluted than cities of
comparable size. Compared even to Tokyo, Seoul is relatively clean and green.
How much longer it will be South Korea’s capital is a moot
point, however: the government is locked in a battle with the country’s Supreme
Court over whether or not the seat of government should be relocated further
south, a more comfortable distance from the threatening 38th Parallel. At the
moment stalemate reigns just as securely in the corridors of power as it does
on the border a few miles to the north.
There’s a great deal to see and do in Seoul, and you would be
well-advised to get to know the city’s subway system early on in your visit.
Walking between many of the sights worth seeing is impractical, and hiring a
taxi in rush hour can be even slower.
Gyeongbokgung Palace in the center of the city is definitely
worth a visit, though it has seen its ups and downs over the years. Burned to
the ground by the invading Chinese twice – in 1592 and 1910 – it has been
partially rebuilt and now houses a museum above life in the city. The Palace is
worth visiting in its own right as a fine example of traditional Korean
architecture. The building styles of Korea are often overshadowed by popular
notions of Chinese and Japanese construction. But Korea, having a history just
a long and distinguished as either of its powerful neighbors, has a rich
architectural heritage all of its own, typified by wonderful curved, pillared
roofs and beautifully painted and inlaid exterior walls. Interestingly,
Gyeongbokgung is not a World Heritage Site – though that honor goes to the
arguably less important but more visually striking Changdeokgung down the road.
You should also make an effort to visit Namdaemun, the Great
South Gate of the city. In medieval times Seoul was entirely surrounded by a
twenty foot stone wall. Most of the wall has gone now, but the gates remain,
and this is the finest of them. Although much lower than the skyscrapers which
surround it, Namdaemun is every bit as spectacular, its ancient hulk sitting
proudly in the city it helped to defend over the centuries.
For a city so committed to its own continuance and development –
and considering the dangers lurking just a few miles to the north – Seoul is
not at all a defensive place. Its people, smiling and friendly are neither
paranoid nor afraid. Despite its arguably precarious position and its bloody
recent past, Seoul, they will tell you, is a model for how all great cities