04 October 2008

Seoul: Yeouido

My sightseeing today involved the island of Yeouido, which developed from a useless sandy bar on the Han River to "Seoul's Manhattan" full of financial institutions and skyscrapers.

I started my tour at Yeouido Park, which occupies the site of the island's first real development - an airstrip built by the Japanese in 1916. Commercial airline service began in 1929, with services to Japan and Manchuria. In 1953, the privately owned Korean National Airlines (KNA) started international services from there. By 1958, however, Gimpo Airport further west, originally a military airstrip where the Japanese kamikaze trainees, and later the US Air Force, operated, took over all civilian airline operations, and Yeouido was reduced to a military airfield. (That also makes KNA the only airline to serve Yeouido, as the first scheduled foreign airline to arrive in South Korea, Northwest, came in 1961 - to Gimpo. Meanwhile, KNA became a government airline in 1962, before becoming private again in 1969 and renaming itself Korean Air.) In 1971, the southeastern suburb of Seongnam built a new air force base, the military moved there, and Yeouido Airport closed forever. Soon thereafter, a wide asphalt-paved plaza took over, named the "May 16th Square" in honor of the May 16, 1961 military coup that started the 18-year rule of unitary executive Park Chung-hee; it hosted military parades on Armed Forces Day (October 1st), provided a place for citizens to ride bicycles and roller skates, and even had an aviation museum consisting of leftover military aircraft from the airport. In 1999, the asphalt was replaced with landscaping, to form the modern park. If the Manhattan analogy holds, this is the Central Park.

One section of the park remains as a wide swath of pavement, where citizens can rent and ride bicycles and inline skates. Rentals are 3,000 won (USD $3) per hour; an ID will be required as a deposit.

The blue-domed building in the distance is the National Assembly building, built in the 1970s. Before then, the National Assembly met at a small Japanese-era hall next to City Hall in downtown, and that building now houses Seoul's city council.

Looking further south, I could find the headquarters of Korean Broadcasting System (KBS), the government-owned, license fee-supported television and radio broadcaster with several national channels. The left building is the original headquarters, and the right building is the International Broadcasting Center (IBC), built to house foreign broadcast crews (including those from NBC in the US) for the 1988 Summer Olympics here in Seoul. The IBC still displays the logo of the 1988 Games.

In 1983, back when this area was still just a plaza, KBS held a multi-day nonstop telethon to help South Koreans locate family members who had been lost during the war. This plaza was filled with thousands of people looking for family members on live TV broadcast. It proved to be very fruitful for many of the participants, though for those whose family members were stranded in North Korea, any form of contact (mail, phone, or else) remains impossible due to North Korean embargo and censorship. Another proof that despite all its nationalistic propaganda and mantras, Kim Jong-il is more interested in his power and personality cult than in giving his people a true "workers' paradise."

Looking north from near KBS. Plenty of people riding bikes and inline skates, as well as doing chalk drawings on the pavement (to the left in pre-delineated grids). In the distance is a tall flagpole, 50 meters to be exact, displaying the national flag. There is a distinct nationalistic flair to this park, which, again, occupies the site of a Japanese air strip.

I found this open-air pavilion in the park. I've seen many tiled-roof versions in royal palaces, but this thatched-roof version is more authentically everyday Korean. A common rural experience would've been to sit in there and eat watermelons on a hot summer afternoon, though that's a distant memory for most today.

The southern third of the park consists of a nature forest, with study aids, but I didn't explore it. The middle third is more of an open grassy field. It also has some more nationalistic elements, including this great statue of King Sejong, the fourth king of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), whose reign lasted from 1418 until his death in 1450. Sejong is probably the most beloved of all the monarchs of Korea, because of his scientific and academic contributions, the most important being the Korean alphabet announced in September 1446. In fact, he is so beloved, that he's adorned the 10,000-won banknote ever since its first introduction in 1973.

Actually, that September date is by the lunar calendar. Solar calendar puts the date on October 9th; in fact, next week will be the 562th Alphabet Day, and there will be a re-enactment of King Sejong's promulgation of the new alphabet at Gyeongbok Palace in downtown that day. I'll make sure to check it out.

The statue is surrounded by replicas of various innovations devised by Sejong's royal scholars over his reign.

This is a solar clock. As this was devised before the Korean alphabet was invented, it uses figurines of the twelve figures of the Chinese zodiac, in addition to Chinese characters, to identify time, enabling even the illiterate to read the clock and tell time.

Here's another invention: the rain gauge.

Yet another: the water-powered clock.

On the right: the 1446 proclamation announcing the creation of the Korean alphabet, written in archaic Korean (as spoken at that time) using all 28 letters of the alphabet. I certainly can't read it!

On the left: the left column lists the eleven vowels, and the two right columns list the seventeen consonants. Of those, one vowel and three consonants are no longer used, leaving twenty-four letters in use to write down modern Korean.

A relatively unknown event during Sejong's reign. This picture depicts one of his first projects - a pre-emptive strike on the Japanese island of Tsushima, just 35 miles away from Busan, to bring the pirates there under control and prevent them from striking Busan and other Korean coastal towns. The daimyo of Tsushima had to answer to both the Korean king and the Japanese emperor from that point on, until the 19th Century, when Japan learned Western-style modern diplomacy and broke off such agreements. This also marks one of the few instances where Korea went on overseas military conquests, at least until participating in the Vietnam War in the 1960s, and in the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq this decade.

Looking east from near the Sejong statue. The pink buildings to either side of the thoroughfare belong to South Korea's No. 2 television and radio broadcaster, Munwha Broadcasting Company (MBC). Back in 1980, when the Chun Doo-hwan military government shut down private media outlets to control the flow of information, MBC was the sole survivor - by being 70% owned by KBS. With both KBS and MBC, Yeouido has been the place where Korean soap operas and dramas - now proving themselves very popular across China, Japan, and the rest of Asia - are written, shot, and produced.

About five years ago, MBC produced a particularly successful historical drama, known as "Daejanggeum" (大長今), and broadcast as "Jewel in the Palace" on AZN Television in the US. It described the life of a female palace cook/medic in the Joseon royal court, and was a huge phenomenon, especially in Chinese-speaking countries. I definitely remember watching the drama myself - though dubbed in Chinese (and therefore unintelligible to me). North Korea's Kim Jong-il is also known to be a huge fan of the drama, and supposed to have a crush on the lead actress, though, predictably and unfortunately, he doesn't let his people watch it (or any other South Korean TV, for that matter), under the penalty of lifetime prison labor.

The north third of the park consists of fauna native to the Korean peninsula. This pond, in the shape of the city of Seoul, has many of them.

Typical Korean trees: pines, maples, and ginkgo bilobas.

This park also has a 1 1/2-mile loop around the outer edge, with one path for bikes and another for pedestrians.

I have emerged onto the northeast corner of the park, and onto the river shore. This photo shows Bamseom, an uninhabited island in the dead middle of the river flow, and a major estuary for migratory birds. The Seogang Bridge goes over the island; it was started in the 1970s, abandoned in the 1980s, and finally finished and opened in the 1990s.

Two of the many skyscrapers of Yeouido. These twin towers, 34 stories tall, are the headquarters of one of the largest South Korean corporations - LG, best known for its highly regarded electronics division (formerly known as Goldstar), but also dabbling in telecommunications and other industries. Both LG, and its crosstown rival Samsung, have edged out the established Japanese electronics giants, including even the almighty Sony, in the past decade.

Now I am heading for the riverside park, where masses of people are arriving for the international fireworks show later. I found this graffiti on the stairway down to the park. "2MB OUT" - knowing that 2 is pronounced "yi," same as the surname Lee, and that MB stands for "Myung-bak," this graffiti is self-explanatory. Another meaning, as I mentioned in a previous post: President Lee Myung-bak has only two megabytes of brain power.

It's up to the South Koreans themselves to drive Lee out. However, I'll be glad to help by electing Barack Obama, against Lee's wishes - effectively castrating his regime and agenda.

A very typical scene of modern-day Seoul. Kites flying around, as the Han River flows, and the apartment buildings and the N-Seoul Tower stand in the distance.

This park may look empty in this photo, but it was getting very packed. Restroom lines were starting to get very long - so much so, that men's rooms had to be divided in half, to accommodate some of the women into the sit-down toilets.

My original plan was to stay for the fireworks, but I had a dinner to go to, so I didn't stay around for long. I did catch the tail end of the fireworks, a few kilometers upstream at another riverside park, after the dinner.

Bike rentals are also available at this riverside park. The park has a bike trail, which extends along the entire length of the south bank of the river within Seoul city limits. Ride downstream (west), and it's possible to get into rural villages close to Gimpo Airport. Ride upstream (east), to end up at Jamsil Olympic Stadium, or even points farther away.

A fairly new, expensive way to enjoy the river: the water taxi. This platform is one of several places where the water taxi can be picked up. Fare: 5,000 won (USD $5) for a single commuter during the commute hours on a fixed route at fixed intervals, or 45,200 won (USD $45.20) to charter an entire boat (up to 7 passengers per boat) to travel from here to Jamsil Olympic Stadium.

A slightly older, but cheaper, way to enjoy the river: the sightseeing boats. Inspired by the Paris bateaux-mouches, they were introduced in time for the 1988 Olympics, and offer a 60-minute cruise around Yeouido or a 60-minute one-way trip to Jamsil Olympic Stadium. Both cruises cost 11,000 won (USD $11) per adult passenger. Daytime views are little more than the river itself (about the width of the Hudson, and much wider than the Thames or the Seine) and the nearby apartments, but nighttime cruises can be very beautiful.

I have arrived at the eastern end of the island, anchored by the iconic golden spire of the 63 Building. Recently renovated, the building consists of 60 above-ground floors and 3 below-ground floors. The first below-ground floor is where the bulk of the visitor activities are, including posh restaurants, a food court, an aquarium, an IMAX cinema, and elevators to the 60th floor observation deck/art gallery. Lots of people were trying to get up to the observation deck in preparation for the fireworks, so I had to walk away. I will, however, return later during my stay here in Seoul, to visit the art gallery on the 60th floor and also to watch the Alps-themed IMAX movie.

This building continues to remind me of two things: my previous visit here in 1994, where I took in a smoggy view of Seoul while listening to Mariah Carey, and my later experiences playing the SimCity computer game, where I could place this very building as a landmark in my own cities. In SimCity 3000 Unlimited, in fact, a scenario features a very faithful rendition of Seoul, and the challenge is to prepare the city for the 2002 FIFA World Cup; one requirement is to build an airport in addition to the existing Gimpo Airport, and another is to build a new stadium in addition to the Jamsil Olympic Stadium to enable visiting soccer squads to practice. At times during my Yeouido tour, I felt as if I had entered one of my SimCity creations and become a Sim, instead of being in a real city!

I will take a break from sightseeing tomorrow, as I have other plans in mind.