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Heart and Seoul

Seoul, South Korea

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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 South Korea.

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 should be.

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