Rediscovering Korea, four decades on 1980-2021: Part 3. Beyond Seoul, a richer Korea experience

View of Ganghwado Island mountains from Jeokseoksa Temple on Goryeosan Mountain in Incheon. File photo
View of Ganghwado Island mountains from Jeokseoksa Temple on Goryeosan Mountain in Incheon. File photo

Rediscovering Korea, four decades on 1980-2021: Part 3. Beyond Seoul, a richer Korea experience

by Charles T. Mitchell
Stripes Korea

As we step further away from Osan and Seoul in this last installment, please remember that, whatever your experiences while on duty in Korea (or any land in which you are a guest), those experiences will help inform how you view the world from that time forward. So, venture forth and find adventure while assigned overseas (or even in the next state) and absorb those memories. 

When I first visited Incheon in the early 1980’s (before the ‘e’ was added after the government’s updated Romanization rules) it was a bit remote from the main destination spots of Seoul.

The old style restaurants were thriving, if not teeming with customers, foreign tourists were few, and the old concrete gun emplacements were still in place, bleakly facing out to a still troubled sea. At that time, we military types assumed the gun emplacements, since they harkened back to the time of the Korean ‘Normandy,’ would probably remain as curious museum pieces to remind the citizens of that turning point in the war. 

Sadly, few remain outside of museums or a few memorials. In the old days, very few non-locals wandered those stark, concrete and steel shorelines, but we were heartily welcomed by the local merchants and the restaurants, which often doubled as fish markets. The life of the sea was infused into every nook and cranny, with much of the broader Incheon made up of stretches of forest, marshlands, coastal islands, and a number of temples and parks.

MacArthur Park, as the Americans called Freedom Park, where MacArthur’s family had installed a larger than life statue of the famous liberator of Incheon, was still somewhat remote.

As an aside, several of us were sitting at the outdoor café near the statue when a bus full of Japanese tourists happened to stop near us. Every tourist on the visible side of the bus turned their cameras toward us and snapped pictures at the oddly out of place Americans. Fast-forward to today, and Incheon has been transformed into a city to rival Seoul proper.

When I first landed in the new Incheon airport years ago, I was dumbstruck by the changes, and even more so during a later visit. I understand that remnants of old Incheon can be found if one hunts for them, due in large part to the number of temples and temple grounds that still exist and the quainter neighborhoods surrounding them.

Grounded in its rich history, the old port continues to modernize and represents Korea’s ability to look forward, without dwelling on the traumas of the past, while keeping one eye facing north.

During my next visit, I hope to be able to still find a taste of old Incheon somewhere along that fast developing coastline.

Far to the south of Incheon and Seoul, Jeju Island (‘Cheju’ in the old days) stands off the coast as an almost magical, otherworldly destination.

When we visited Jeju Island in the early 1980s, it was more rural and remote than today and was known as a Japanese wedding destination more than as a Korean mainlander holiday spot.

Even though most people we saw tended to be Korean, a great deal of the tourists we encountered then were Japanese, often groups of businessmen. Set among the twisted, volcanic rocks of the island’s then mostly undeveloped shores, the pristine beaches, washed clean by the various currents swirling around the island, enabled us to swim in all four waters, the Korea Strait, the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, and the Sea of Japan (or of Korea).

One of my most memorable encounters was on the southeast shore where we met an old farmer moving his cows from a holding area, near where the farmer lived in one of those rare, quaint, old lava houses, to a field higher up from the sea. We followed a short way and took in the sight of the then undeveloped coastline as far as we could see.

The next day, on the walk from the bus to the Sunrise Crater (Seongsan Ilchulbong), we were awed by the sudden appearance of a small group of powerful and well-groomed Jeju horses, one with a young foal, trotting out of the veils of morning fog.

Sunrise view of Seongsan Ilchulbong on Jeju Island. File photo

In contrast to the mainland, where draft animals were still abundant, and woefully abused, all the animals we saw on Jeju, whether high end or working animals, were well treated.

An excursion in a huge lava tube, with a trek of over a mile, had us immersed in the folklore of the island, filled with tales of ancient serpents terrorizing villagers, and the snake cult that was whispered to still exist on the island.

Jeju’s magic had the ability to transform even the most reluctant of gourmands. I had never dreamed of eating something as exotic as a sea cucumber, but, when we visited a troupe of diving ladies (haenyeo) not far from Dragon Rock, I was so caught up in the intoxicating sea air that I happily paid the $1.25 equivalent (which has probably greatly increased today) and had a taste of the Jeju sea. Those women were shocking in the ease with which they undertook diving in those cold, rough waters. Cheerful to a fault, I never forgot the beaming, yet no-nonsense faces of those angels of Jeju among the sharp, unforgiving black volcanic rocks along the shore.

Late one evening, as dusk settled on a wide beach on the East China Sea side, we were treated to amusing evidence of the heanyeo joie de vive by stumbling on the hwangap party (61st birthday) of a very happy little lady and maybe two dozen of her dancing lady friends, clad in white Hanbuks, who cheerfully invited us to join their dancing.

One of my final experiences on Jeju was a visit to the Buddhist sanctuary of Sanbanggulsa grotto.

After climbing a long line of endless stairs, we were treated to stunning views to the sea, and witnessed a small ceremony by several female monks at the top most grotto, the one with the dripping water (the tears), which we were invited to sip. The alter was filled with all manner of offerings, so, since we were intruding in a way, I asked if donating a little won would be okay.

My Korea-savvy friend said yes, so I placed several bills, probably equal to no more than five or six dollars, and backed away.

As we turned to depart, the younger monks (nuns?), waved us to wait, and one brought out an older lady monk who stopped in front of me and said something about kindness and hope (my friend loosely translated). She then motioned to one of her younger monks who brought oranges to me. Specifically, to me.

I was speechless, as I thought offerings from the foot of the statue were reserved for much more important people (or gods).

When I protested, my friend advised me to take the oranges, as he had never seen such offered from an altar. After profusely thanking the older monk, we departed, and, since I wasn’t sure what to do with such precious items, we proceeded to eat those oranges on the way down the mountain.

As we finished a section (I gave wedges to my friends), we threw the plump seeds into the bushes beside the stairs, in hopes that some of the seeds might take root and return the oranges to the mountain and the Buddha’s grotto.

And, yes, that stairway will be a key destination during my next trip to Jeju Island, where I hope to see a few forty-plus year old orange trees lining the stairs.

The DMZ, that woodland scar across the peninsula, was, when I was in Korea in the early 1980’s, off limits to most American personnel. Those of us in the 6903rd were strictly forbidden to travel anywhere near the DMZ, so visiting the Joint Security Area a few years ago for the first time (and with my family) was doubly interesting for me.

We were lucky enough to land seats on a next day USO tour (from the office in the Millennium Hilton, our hotel). In hindsight, we’ll book well in advance next time.

The tour was comprehensive and, other than learning that we could have paid a little more and taken a tram to the bottom of the tunnel near Dora Observatory, well managed. Once we were handed over to the US military at the Joint Security Area (JSA) and had signed the liability waiver, we were loaded up onto a well used old bluebird military bus and were given an amazing inside look at Panmunjom and the rest.

At the Dora Observatory on the DMZ in 2012. This and following photos by Charles T. Mitchell

A view of North Korea in 2012.

We were driven by the old Bridge of No Return, which was dark, overgrown, with broken paving, and rusting bollards. The bridge invoked images of so many Koreans who had had to make a life altering choice after the war.

The Bridge of No Return in 2012.

Later, my wife’s mother related to our son how her own uncle had made the decision to go north, to what he thought would be a socialist utopia, but, fortunately, had not been able to convince her father to join him. Near the bridge, we also stopped briefly to pay our respects at the memorial to those lost during the murderous tree incident in 1976.

Another vivid image from the visit was the surreal surroundings of rolling hills, forested within the DMZ and on the south side, but nearly denuded of trees or vegetation on the north side, where the setting sun revealed the bizarre comedy of the north’s ‘model’ village (a shell), with its ridiculously immense flag.

The author at the DMZ in 2012.

Before we entered the negotiations rooms at Panmunjom, under the watchful and strict eye of our Army hosts, we were treated to the tragically comical, oversized binoculars wielded by the guards on the north side, surveying us tourists on the south.

The Panmunjom border on the DMZ in 2012.

One interesting side note on visiting the JSA was that, when our phone bill arrived a month later, my phone and my son’s phone both reflected a dozen or so one minute, one dollar charges during the “phone blackout” period when we were in the DMZ. The phone company had no idea how those charges had appeared, and quickly removed them. My son and I chalked it up to a certain northern government trying to generate a little illicit cash from the unsuspecting tourists.

After nearly forty years of waiting, I can attest that a visit (via the USO) to the JSA should be on the must do list of anyone assigned to Korea, as long as your commander’s policies permit.

One aspect from the early 1980’s that I no longer see in Korea, was that, no matter where we went, whether in modern Seoul, or the distant countryside, citizens were always interested in who we were and always would want a photograph with us, especially with those who were blonds or red heads, as if they were good luck charms.

One buddy, a tall, good looking blond guy from Co-op City, the Bronx, never quite got used to being followed around and giggled at by the uniformed teen schoolgirls in Seoul. At one of the fountains in one of the many parks, he split his pants one afternoon hopping from stone to stone, to the scandalous delight of a dozen of those schoolgirls.

On a bus ride to see the Korean Folk Village near Suwon, the young school children on the bus were fascinated by we Americans and a young boy (who must have drawn the short straw) got up from his group, walked to our seats, bowed, and politely asked (through my friend the interpreter) if he could touch the ‘fur’ on my arms, having no idea what to call arm hair.

His mates cheered him after he carefully touched the furry American. Then, of course, several others had to try. Having one’s picture taken by tourists and local Koreans was a routine that everyone eventually accepted.

Invariably, little old ladies would sidle up to us, and even me, with brown hair, and we’d then see some family member taking a quick snapshot.

Some of the bolder little ladies would ask and we’d happily oblige. It was a time when the older folks were still very grateful for the US presence in their country.

Today, as we all know, society is focused on the fleeting imagery of the latest trend, so something as commonplace as a wandering traveler from overseas probably no longer warrants such snapshots. 

Final thoughts 

Finally, upon returning to the states in late 1982, another element of that long ago Korea experience was the sheer lack of knowledge or awareness of Korea and things Korean in most parts of the US.

I was struck by how often I had to explain my Korean experiences in detail, with most people having little or no knowledge other than that the Korean War, the ‘forgotten war,’ had been fought there.

While a number of major US cities had, for the most part, Korean enclaves by the 1980’s, much of the cultural awareness was confined to those ‘Koreatowns.’ Slowly, over the years, as with countless other diasporas, things Korean moved more into the mainstream of US and global life.

Representative of Korean culture going mainstream are the shrinking of places like Manhattan’s Koreatown, which has been reduced to a little over a block on 32nd St. How many of us thought the spicy condiment gochujang would be touted on the Food Network nearly every other show?

How many of you have seen a Paris Baguette coffee and bakery competing with Starbucks and Dunkin, or HMart and Lotte grocery stores springing up everywhere? Like with so many other influxes of new peoples, the adopted country becomes all the richer for the added cultural aspects, the food, the music, the art, and the viewpoints of the newcomers.

With the ever-expanding Korean wave in music, style, food, cinema, and art, one is likely to hear hit songs by Korean national treasure Lee Ji-eun (IU) or by marketing wizards BTS in a nightclub today, or glimpse the actresses Kong Hyo-jin or Park Shin-hye on a streaming video, or see them all in global fashion ads.

How many would have predicted that famed director Bong Joon-Ho would be awarded three Oscars, three BAFTAs, and the Palm d’Or, all in one year? And, how many of us will admit to becoming hooked on K-dramas and comedies streaming over Netflix and other services?

From ‘Pasta’ to ‘Dream High’ and more, those shows have exposed millions to the Korea many on assignment there experience firsthand. 

Yes, Korea is firmly in the global mainstream, far from the struggling land we experienced so many decades ago. Korea is far more diverse and full of many lifetimes of experiences, so I caution you that I’ve only turned a few pages of the never ending story that is Korea. Wherever your next assignment might be, you can rest assured that you will encounter Korean culture outside of the confines of the peninsula.

However, when you do look back on your time there, don’t forget about those amazing experiences, unforgettable people, and special places unique to the peninsula that, while they may evolve over time, or may even be covered by the shiny new objects of progress in a few years, your memories and the memories of your friends and colleagues will keep alive those timeless, nostalgic views of the Korean peninsula and its people.

Don’t forget to share those memories. For me, although Covid postponed our 2020 trip, I hope to soon find myself wandering some of those old alleys, evolving neighborhoods, and exciting new spots, in Seoul and beyond. Stay safe.


About author

Charles T. Mitchell is a writer of novels and short stories, a former national security and commercial consultant, a retired USAF officer, and a current member of US National Park Service’s Volunteers in Parks, primarily at the Korean War Veterans Memorial, Washington, DC. His first overseas assignment was with the former 6903rd Electronic Security Squadron, Osan Air Base, Korea, from Sep 1981-Sep 1982, for which he later received the US Korean Defense Service Medal (created in 2002).His most recent book of short stories, Hues of Seoul: Mystery and Suspense in Today’s Korea, was inspired by his time in Korea, later visits, today’s global Korea reach, his three decades-plus marriage to a first generation Korean-American, and his role as uncle and godfather to his second-generation Korean-American grandniece, and her little brother. For more background, please see the website.

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