EXPLORING SOUTH KOREA                                                           JULY 18-31, 2004


            In July of 2004 I explored South Korea before attending a conference in Xian, China.   I will discuss some of the things that I learned about Korea, then summarize my travels there.  I knew very little about Korea before going there, but wanted to see how it related to China, Japan, and other countries I had visited in Asia.



            A friend from South Korea had told me that if I couldn't find an address, just ask any young person to help - they are all studying English and 98% have a cell phone so they can call to get directions!  I found this to be true.  More generally, the Koreans I encountered were very friendly and helpful.

            Korea is a peninsula attached to northern China (and the eastern tip of Russia) that extends out toward the southern islands of Japan.  Hence it is a geographical bridge between China and Japan.  By visiting museums and historical sites in Korea, reading books and newspapers, and talking with Koreans, I learned that Korea is an historical and cultural bridge between China and Japan as well.

            Pottery techniques developed in China were transmitted to Korea, where their own styles were created, and then passed on to Japan where their unique styles were formed.  Examples include the potter's wheel, the incline kiln (enclosed on the slope of a hill), and the techniques of firing and glazing to make exquisite porcelains.  The Korean museums show porcelains from all three countries, indicating their similarities and differences. 

            Similarly, metalworking from China was imported to Korea then exported to Japan.  Bronze weapons from all three countries are compared.  Confucianism and later Buddhism were passed from China to Korea, modified in Korea, then sent to Japan.  Temple architects and craftsmen went from Korea to build some of the beautiful temples in Japan.  And Buddhist monks from Korea brought Chinese writing to Japan.  Japanese writing still uses Chinese characters (called Kanji, where Kan from Han means Chinese and Ji means character).  They are interspersed with Japanese phonetic symbols for syllables, called Hiragana and Katakana, which provide the word endings that are used to express grammatical differences in Japanese spoken language but which do not appear in Chinese spoken languages.  In the 1400s King Sejong invented Korean phonetic symbols for letters called Han-gul, which are grouped into syllables -- they can be easily distinguished from Chinese and Japanese symbols by their circles.

            The transmission was not only cultural. Genetic studies that I read previously have found that one-third of the gene pool in Japan is Korean, one-third is Chinese, and one-third represents another ethnic group from Central Asia.  

            Korea has been invaded many times by Chinese emperors and others over the centuries.  In 1238 many Korean palace buildings were destroyed by Mongols, rebuilt, then destroyed again in 1592 by Japanese invaders. Korea was occupied and annexed by Japan from 1910 to 1945.  During World War II Soviet troops entered northern Korea and Americans entered southern Korea to expel the Japanese.  After the war, the troops were supposed to leave, but the Soviets set up a government in the north, which subsequently invaded the south.  They captured Seoul and most of south Korea except the southeast corner.  UN troops then pushed them back to the northern area, but then Chinese troops entered the war and pushed the UN troops back to the southeast corner.  General MacArthur then took command of the UN forces, and pushed back to the 38th parallel where fighting went back and forth.  In 1953 a cease fire was declared, although the war never officially ended.  Since that time the north Koreans have tried small invasions of south Korea many times.  A few months ago another tunnel was discovered under the Demilitarized Zone which separates North and South Korea.

            Due to these tensions, American troops have remained in South Korea as a deterrent.  There currently are 36,000 US soldiers in Seoul, in addition to 1000 air force and naval personnel elsewhere.  The US and Korean governments have recently agreed to move the US soldiers out of Seoul to locations further south, which pleases some in Seoul due to rowdy behavior of some drunk soldiers but displeases merchants who will lose money.  There also have been protests against expanding US bases elsewhere.  So Korean reactions to the US military presence have been mixed.  In addition, President Bush wants to send 12,000 US soldiers from Korea to Iraq, which makes some Koreans nervous.   Hence, I only visited cities in South Korea.



            I flew from Los Angeles to Seoul, and initially spent two nights there.  I had made arrangements to see a friend that I had met in an exchange program at a university in Japan, who was planning to be in Korea when I arrived, and I accompanied him the next day to meet a Korean professor with whom his school has an exchange program.  The latter hosted us for a fabulous Japanese lunch in the most famous hotel in Korea! 

            I then went to the Korean office of Olympus to get my digital camera repaired.  I had lost the screws which held on the lens cover and couldn't get the screws in Los Angeles, so I had looked up the Olympus office in Korea on the internet, and called them to see if they could repair it, and they did so for free!  In the evening, I explored the area around Hongik University which has many restaurants, pubs, and dance clubs.

            I spent the next morning at the National Museum and at the Seoul Museum of History to gain historical background on Korea.  Besides learning about cultural transmission from China to Korea to Japan, I learned how new technologies improved ancient living conditions. Pottery made it more efficient to store water and food, and the potter's wheel allowed mass production of pottery. Agriculture and domestication of animals, introduced about 10,000 BC around the world, was more productive than hunting and gathering, which allowed larger populations in permanent settlements with surplus food to support a ruling class, priests, armies, and artisans.  Bronze, introduced about the same time, provided cooking utensils and better knives and weapons than arrowheads made of flint.  Iron utensils, introduced about 3000 BC, made stronger farm implements such as plows which further increased productivity. 



            In the late afternoon I took a four hour train ride from Seoul, in the northwest corner of South Korea, to Gyeongju (previously spelled Kyongju), in the southeast corner.  Along the way I saw many lush green hills, rice paddies, stalks of corn, and greenhouses for other produce.  Surrounding the towns and cities were clusters of high rise apartment buildings. 

            Gyeongju was the capital of the Silla dynasty for almost a thousand years beginning in 57 BC.  The last 300 years it was the capital of all of Korea, after the Silla conquered the other three dominant kingdoms.  In 918 AD the Silla were conquered by the Goryeo who moved the capital to the north.  The previous spelling of Goryeo was Koryo, which was the source of the name Korea during the first period of contact with Europeans.

            I spent three nights in Gyeongju.  After sleeping late the first day, it was 103 degrees F outside, so I took an air-conditioned bus to the Gyeongju National Museum just south of the city.  Instead of displaying many examples of similar artifacts, the museum selected a few exquisite pieces that illustrated important points.  Even though I had seen similar items in Seoul, I appreciated them and their significance much more here.  I took the bus farther south to the most famous Buddhist temple complex in the area, Bulguksa, which was unusual because it was built on terraces on a mountainside.  Then I took the bus back downtown to find an internet cafe to check my email.

            The next day it was partly cloudy and "only" 94 degrees F, so I walked around the burial mounds downtown.  There were 20 there and others elsewhere around the city.  They were built in the 4th and 5th centuries BC to bury Silla kings.  One mound was cut away to show their construction.  The king had been placed in a coffin wearing a gold crown, a beaded necklace which covered much of his chest, and a belt with bangles hanging down.  Nearby were various jars and cooking vessels for the afterlife.  The tomb was a wooden room which was covered with a mound of rocks.  A layer of topsoil was on top with grass.  Women wearing bonnets were cutting the grass on the mounds with hand sickles!  The mounds varied in height, with the largest one here being 22 meters high.  To the south was another park with more mounds, and a stone observatory built in 632 AD. 

            In the afternoon I took a bus south to the Bulguksa Temple to catch another bus up to the Seokguram Grotto on top of the mountain. The temple has a beautiful serene Buddha carved from a huge block of granite. Instead of going all the way back to downtown, I stopped about halfway at Bomun Lake, a resort area with fancy hotels.  I stayed there to see a free performance of traditional Korean dances.  I then took a late bus back to the city.

            The third day I walked around downtown to explore the food stalls set up along a main street, then discovered a huge covered market near the train station.  Women were selling produce, filleting fish, grinding flour, etc., and men were hacking away at sides of beef.  It was still hot outside, so I took an air-conditioned bus west of the city to see Gyeongju University.  Classes were not in session but I found a staff person in the library who could answer questions in English about the educational system in Korea.

            After stopping at an internet cafe downtown, I walked back to my hotel, which was a big mistake.  I should have taken a taxi.  It was 105 degrees F, and I became overheated.  I took a cold shower and drank lots of liquids, but still felt sick when I took the train back to Seoul.



             I previously had been staying in a guesthouse (similar to a youth hostel) in Seoul, but found it too far from a subway station to be convenient.  So I called ahead to make reservations at a hotel near the Sinchon subway station.  When I arrived, I found it had the tiniest hotel room I had ever seen, only as long as the bed and two feet wider.  It had a western bed frame, but instead of a mattress it had a Korean pad which is usually put on the floor.  It was too hard, but at 11:30 PM at night I decided to take it.  The next day I found another motel across the street which had a western mattress! 

            It was 80 degrees and overcast, so I decided that it was a good day to explore outdoor museums. I took a long subway ride east of downtown to the Ansa-Dong Prehistoric Settlement Site.  When the river flooded about 30 years ago, it revealed the site of pit houses that had been lived in about 6000 years ago.  After excavating the sites, they built a museum over them to preserve and explain them.  They also constructed facsimile pit houses nearby.  The pit houses were dug down a couple of feet to provide insulation, keeping the dwellings cooler in summer and warmer in winter.  A wooden structure was then build on top.   The museum had stone tools, arrowheads, and pottery found at the site.  It is interesting that stone age tools and pottery are similar (though with different surface designs) all over the world -- probably due to the limits of what you can do with the materials!

             I then took the subway to Namsangol Traditional Village, where five traditional Korean houses had been relocated in a park.        I like historical villages which depict the ways in which people lived in the past. In one of the houses there was a demonstration of a traditional Korean wedding. There was a park next to the village where I met members of a photography club, so I took pictures of them taking pictures!  I then took the subway to Yansan which is a neighborhood known for electronics markets.  There is a three-story mall containing dozens of shops selling the latest electronic gadgets. 

            The next day it was raining, so the motel owners gave me an umbrella to use.  I spent almost 6 hours exploring the huge Korean palace Gyeongbokgung and the adjacent National Folk Museum. The folk museum has great dioramas depicting daily life in various prehistoric periods, as well as artifacts and replica housing for the major historical periods. It also has a section depicting rituals in the life cycle of Koreans, including coming of age, marriage, and funeral customs.  I am glad that I had previously visited the National Historical Museum which provided a historical context for understanding the periods displayed in the folk museum. 

             There also was an interesting display of printing in Korea.  Books were printed using woodblocks as early as 700 AD.  By 1000 AD the techniques had improved to allow the printing of pictures and maps. Movable type (wood then bronze then iron) were being used in Korea more than 200 years before Gutenberg invented the printing press in Germany!  When Buddhism came to Korea in the 8th century, the monks brought writing in Chinese characters.  In the early 1400s a Korean alphabet called han-gul was invented by King Sejong to make it easier for Koreans to learn to write.  It is phonetic and has 14 consonants and 10 vowels.  They are combined into syllables that look somewhat like Chinese characters but are phonetic, simpler, and have circles. 

             I took the subway to Dongdaemun Market area, which is the largest market area in Seoul.  On one side of the main road were the old stalls and on the other side were two modern 9-story department stores.  In front of each department store was a stage, where singers and dancers were performing to attract young crowds. 



            In the morning I took an express bus to Gongju (formerly spelled Kongju) which was built in 475 AD as the capital of the Baekje Kingdom, one of the kingdoms later conquered by the Silla.  After finding a hotel, I took a taxi to see the old tombs west of downtown.  These were mound tombs similar to ones I had seen in Gyeongju. Four of the tombs were lined with rock, but two were lined with pretty red bricks which had been plastered and had murals painted on them which was the style of the Chinese dynasty at that time.  While five of the tombs had been looted, one had remained undiscovered until it 1971 when they were building a walkway for viewing the other tombs!  It had 3000 artifacts, including beautiful some gold objects. It reminded me of King Tut's tomb in Egypt that had not been discovered by grave robbers, although it did not have the furniture found in Tut's tomb.

             I took a taxi across town to Gongsamseong, a former walled fortress on a hill above the town.  The palace is gone, but much of the wall remains and several gates have been reconstructed.   I walked down the hill and finally found an internet cafe with help from friendly Koreans.

            The next day I went to the Gongju Historical Museum and saw artifacts that had been found in the unopened tomb, including some beautiful gold crowns, bead necklaces, earrings, wooden headrests and footrest, and pottery.   I then took an express bus to Suwon, and rode a city bus through rush hour traffic to the Korean Folk Village, an outdoor museum with more than 50 buildings brought there from various places in Korea.  It showed the different types of houses and displayed artifacts in the context of daily lives.  Especially interesting was an incline kiln that I had read about in a museum.

            The sign for the Buddhist temple noted that Buddhism was combined with belief in a mountain god and worship of a fertility god. Next to the building containing the statue of Buddha was a 3-tired rock structure which had small rocks piled on each tier, which is part of the spirit worship.  Shamans were used for healing as well as divination.  Elsewhere in the village, there were bird-face poles and grandfather statues which are used to ward off evil spirits.  And there were ropes around rocks and trees with paper strips tied to the ropes like I had seen at Shinto religious shrines in Japan.  This aroused my curiosity about religions in Korea, and I wondered why Christian missionaries had been so successful in Korea (1/4 of the population is Christian) whereas they had not been so successful in other East Asian countries.



            Since Suwon was a suburb of Seoul, I was able to take a long subway ride back to Seoul instead of taking a bus.  The next morning I went to the Korean War Museum, where I learned about the Chinese and Japanese invasions, as well as the 1950-1953 Korean War.  In front of the museum was a large statue of two soldiers hugging.  It is called "The Brothers" and represents a brother fighting for the north meeting a brother from the south on the battlefield.  It expresses hope for the eventual reunification of North and South Korea.

            After spending several hours in the war museum, I took the subway to the Namdaemun Market, which is the second largest market area in Seoul.  While wandering around the stalls I met a group of tall basketball players from Russia.  They were there for a sports competition.  One of them was 2 inches taller than I am (he is 208 cm and I am 203)!  That evening I went with a Korean friend to a dance club near Hongik University.  The dance music was great so I danced for three hours! 

            The next day I took the subway to see the Deongsugung Palace. It had very beautiful artifacts, including embroidered clothing, silver, porcelains, lacquered boxes, drums, and other items used by the royal family.  I learned why Koreans use thin metal chopsticks and metal soup spoons, instead of the wooden chopsticks and ceramic soup spoons used by the Chinese.  The royal chopsticks and soup spoons were made of silver since silver turns black if the food is poisoned. The museum also had sundials and astrological charts, an interesting rain gauge, and astrological charts. 

            The museum filled in some of the history of the Joseon (previously spelled Chosun) dynasty, which began in 1392 when a military general overthrew the king, and lasted 500 years until the Japanese occupation in 1910.  The first Joseon king instituted land reform, taking land from wealthy landowners and from Buddhist temples.  The Buddhist religion was suppressed and Confucianism was emphasized.  Hereditary government positions were abolished and civil examinations were established, in keeping with Confucian tradition.  Primary and secondary schools were established so men could compete equally for the exams, but the schools were limited to the sons of nobility which is contrary to Confucian ideals.  A university was also established in Seoul.

             Since I had enjoyed this palace, I decided to see a third palace in Seoul, Changdeokgung.  It had a beautiful garden with woods, a lake, and pavillions.

            It was hot, so to cool off I took a long air conditioned subway ride to a mall called Techno Mart which is an 8-story building full of electronic shops.  I bought another memory card for my digital camera.  I have been taking pictures at a slightly faster rate than I had planned, and wanted to make sure that I can take the pictures that I want in China.  This is the first foreign trip that I have used a digital camera, and it has worked well so far. I carry six extra memory chips in a holder with my passport, and I also carry a spare battery.  More than once I was glad that I had the second battery.  Each night I recharge one of the batteries so I always have a full charge on one of them. 

            Friday morning I passed by the Gyeongbokgung Palace on my way to a bookstore, and noticed that there was an elaborate changing of the guard ceremony so I stopped to watch.  The bookstore didn't have the book on Korean religions that I was looking for, so I walked through Insa-dong street on my way to another bookstore.  Insa-dong is described in tourist literature as having the atmosphere of old traditional Seoul with narrow alleys on the sides.  I found the atmosphere touristy with expensive antique boutiques and cheap souvenir trinket shops.  But it was interesting nonetheless, seeing calligraphy brushes as well as old books which were folded like an accordion instead of the pages being cut and bound.  A car had driven up one of the alleys and couldn't get through and so had to back out!

            One of the alleys had an eros museum with art from all over Asia.  On display was a knife that had been used to create eunuchs.  Eunuchs were used to guard the emperor's harem in ancient China.  Since they had easy access to the emperor, they often wielded considerable political power.  Some acquired wealth, married, and adopted children.

            I passed by Tapgol Park and decided to explore it.  Tapgol means pagoda, and in the park was a 10-tier pagoda.  But to protect the Buddhist carvings on the 700 year old pagoda, it is enclosed in a tall glass case, which looked very strange!  There also was a monument to the independence movement during the Japanese occupation.  In 1919 a group of students read a declaration of independence there, and demonstrations spread throughout the country.  But the movement was surpressed.  Hundreds were killed and thousands were arrested.

            The second bookstore had gone out of business so I took a bus to the third one listed in my guidebook.  It didn't have the religion book I wanted, but it had a book on Korean folk customs that I bought.  I finally found a book on the history of various religions in Korea online at amazon.com, so I ordered it and read it after I got home!  I learned that the Korean indigenous religion included belief in a supreme being as well as in ancestor spirits, which made it easier for missionaries to identify that supreme being as being the Christian God.  Belief in a supreme being is fairly unusual in indigenous religions, since most have a variety of nature gods.

            It was hot so I took a long subway ride out to the COEX mall and convention center.  I took the hotel elevator up to the 32nd floor cocktail lounge for a view of the city.  I also saw the Kimchi museum in the basement of the mall.  Kimchi is usually served with every meal in Korea.  It was originally pickled cabbage with radish, green onion, garlic, ginger, salt, and red chili pepper.  But now there are hundreds of varieties in different regions of Korea and for each of the four seasons. 

            Friday night I went with two Korean friends to explore a couple of pubs around Sinchon subway station, where DJs played music but people did not dance.  It reminded me of similar pubs in Edinburgh, Scotland.  We then took a taxi to the Hongik University area where the best dance clubs were, since it was after midnight and the subway and buses had stopped running.  There were hundreds of young adults on the sidewalk and around the clubs.  The taxis were backed up like rush hour.  It would have been faster to walk, but then we would have been too tired to dance!

            `The club we were looking for had closed, so we found another club.  Since it was the weekend, the club had a cover charge (as did the others nearby).  It was $10, which is typical of clubs in Los Angeles, but it included all the drinks you wanted of beer, soft drinks, whiskey, or water!  It was fun dancing, and as usual it was easy to establish a rapport with other dancers.  Dancing is a universal means of interacting, because dancers watch each other and often imitate each other.

            Saturday morning I lugged my daypack and my big packpack to the airport bus stop.  My backpack was heavier since it had several museum books and books on Korean culture as well as several sets of postcards.  At the airport, I was told that my flight to Beijing was full, but I explained that I had to catch a connecting flight there, so they put me on the plane.  I was excited when I landed at the Beijing airport and boarded the plane to Xian.  It was another of those moments when I ask myself, "Do you realize where you are?"