Tracing Korean History in Seoul by a Long Line and Words

Angela Dansby

In June 2016, I had the privilege of going to Seoul, South Korea with an international client. The capitol was the definition of “concrete jungle” in the heat of summer and attending meetings in non-air-conditioned rooms made Korean colleagues see us sweat! But it was an ideal time to walk the streets of Seoul at night and visit palaces by day on the weekend that bridged our work activities.

Like all major Asia cities, Seoul has millions of residents (10 million in fact). Many of them live in nearly 3,000 high-rise buildings in between which runs the Han River, a refreshing offset to the concrete jungle. This river was once used as a trade route to China via the Yellow Sea but that ceased with the division of North and South Korea. The river’s estuary lies in the Korean Demilitarized Zone between the two countries and no civilian can enter. However, tourists can visit this unoccupied zone by land. It’s 160 miles long and located about 30 miles north of Seoul. It was established in the 1953 Korean War Armistice Agreement as a neutral political meeting place yet permanent scar of division. Shockingly, it attracts 1.2 million travelers each year. (Unfortunately, I did not have time to go on this trip!)

More accessible in downtown Seoul is the N Seoul Tower, a communication and observation tower atop Namsan Mountain with a wonderful view of the city at night and Myeongdong shopping street/district. Myeongong is one of the most expensive shopping streets in the world – truly “Gangnam style” (ritzy like the wealthy Gangnam District) – with major international brands represented until at least 10 o’clock at night. In the dark, the district is a visual cacophony of neon lights interrupted by the whirring motion of people, including shoppers, beauty product salespeople and massage parlor attendants. Skin care and well-being are hugely emphasized by the culture so South Korea is an excellent place to get foot massages and stock up on beauty products, including face masks and lotions made with a range of natural ingredients.

“Hey, check this out,” I said to my tall, white-haired client Bruce. “This store sells lotion with snail slime!”

Of course, I bought some, then the two of us walked down Myeongong street, which was a “gongshow” with our contrasting height and coloring to locals. At least 10 vendors asked us if we wanted a foot massage until finally, we agreed. It was refreshing after a hot day of walking in spite of the factory-style service.

“Next!” the massage parlor owner waved to us. He handed us a foot massage “kit” in a plastic tub and we shuffled in line next to dozens of other tourists.

With our fresh feet, we stepped back in history – way back to the late 1300s-1400s – by visiting three of the “five grand palaces” in Seoul built by kings of the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1897), the last of its kind in Korea. The first and largest one built was Gyeongbokgung Palace, which represented the dynasty’s sovereignty. The longest operating one was Changdeokgung Palace, an UNESCO World Heritage site that housed the Joseon government for 270 years and was favored by the kings. Deoksugung Palace remains the smallest grand palace and stands for “virtue and longevity.” Strangely, it’s located near Seoul’s busiest intersection, Gwanghwamun Square, but it’s surrounded by a protective, old stone wall (which contrasts to outlying modern buildings).

Bruce and I also visited Jongmyo Shrine, another UNESCO site, which stores memorial tablets of kings and queens in an architecturally significant building. It is known for a royal, ancestral ceremony with music and dance that has been performed for more than 500 years.

Speaking of ceremonies, every Sunday, some Koreans wear traditional dress (hanbok) to palaces. Bruce and I discovered this by accident and took advantage of photo ops.

In addition to traditional dress, Chinese characters on palace buildings are another throwback as these buildings preceded the Korean alphabet (called han’gul), which was created in the 16th century. Korean was heavily influenced by Chinese so half of its vocabulary includes Chinese words to this day. While Korean is completely distinct in sound and sentence structure, South Koreans generally write in a hybrid way, using Chinese characters for Chinese-derived words and han’gul for Korean words. North Koreans, however, totally eliminated Chinese characters from han’gul, even writing Chinese words in Korean.

Before han’gul, written Korean used Chinese characters to represent the sounds of its language. But because these characters could not adequately capture Korean speech, nor could most people afford to study Chinese, King Sejong (1397-1450) commissioned the invention of a more efficient phonetic script. With just 24 characters compared to 80,000 in Chinese, han’gul was a major achievement in Korean culture because it led to a population with one of the highest literacy rates in the world.

Korea is used to doing things its own way as a nation independent for thousands of years, but sadly, it has been invaded multiple times. The worst time resulted in Japan colonizing Korea from 1910 to 1945. So the Republic of Korea wasn’t born until 1948!

Then as bad luck would have it, the Korean War (1950-1953) broke out as a proxy for superpowers in the Cold War, which turned hot with this first military action. The Korean War began with 75,000 North Korean soldiers crossing a line … literally. It was the 38th parallel, created in 1945 to separate the Soviet-supported Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (now North Korea) and U.S.-supported Republic of Korea to the south. This civil war was ultimately about communism versus democracy. Sadly, around 3 million people died, 70 percent of them civilians and no peace treaty was ever signed. Alas, Korea remains divided.   

Bruce and I happened to be in Seoul on Korean Memorial Day (June 6), so we visited its War Memorial of Korea, a museum on the former site of army headquarters that memorializes military history. One of the largest war memorials in the world, it has six exhibition rooms and an outdoor display of monuments, war memorabilia and military equipment from South Korea, China (which fought against the country) and the United States (which fought for it and maintains 15 military bases in South Korea). The museum opened in 1994 to remind the public of lessons from the Korean War and to express hope for reunification of North and South Korea.

Unfortunately, this hope has faded in recent decades and the two parts of former Korea only remain bound by a common language today. Ironically, the word “han’gul” is divided in the middle, too.

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