SINCE THE CITY THAT IS NOW called Seoul was first visited by
wandering tribes in the Paleolithic Age, 30,000 years ago, it has
been reborn many times. Seoul's latest renaissance began 35 years
ago, on July 27, 1953, the day the war between North Korea and South
Korea officially whimpered away to a troubled truce. In three years
of war, Seoul had been so thoroughly bombed by air, bombarded by
artillery and trampled by infantry that it resembled the rubble-town
that was Berlin after World War II. No more. By day, Seoul is a busy,
mountain-ringed metropolis with well-kept streets and tranquil parks;
by night, an exotic, neon-splashed Baghdad as full of frenzy, noise
and sin as any city on the planet. Seoul's rebirth has been so
extraordinary that it has come to be known as ''the phoenix city of
It is a blindly ambitious city, obsessed with material success and
hooked on economic growth. Seoul's population has increased from
about 1.2 million in 1955 to 10 million today, and it is now the
fifth-largest metropolitan area in the world. A forest of skyscrapers
rises in midtown, and the horizon is alive with construction cranes.
There is a new subway system, a spaghetti tangle of freeways and an
explosion of shopping malls and apartment buildings.
All of these manifestations of modern prosperity have been
superimposed on an ancient maze of alleys and goat paths which had
already been trod for centuries when, in 1394, the Yi dynasty gave
the town called Hanyang the new name of Seoul (which means the
capital) and declared it Korea's seat of government.
Seoul is not an easy place to visit, but a good place to start is
the Lotte Hotel, which lies square in the center of town, a
cosmopolitan establishment with 31 restaurants and bars, including a
disco called Bistro and a watering spot called the Bobby London Pub.
The massive marble lobby of the Lotte is Seoul's favorite meeting
place, and it was there I arranged to meet Chang Jeong Seok, who was
to be my guide.
Upon introduction, the smiling Mr. Chang said, ''My initials are
J.S., and that is an abbreviation for James. So you can call me
Jim.'' He turned out to be fluent in English and Japanese, a
versatile businessman in his late 50's who could switch effortlessly
from a professorial mien when delivering a lecture on Korean culture
to the winks and leers of a knowledgeable guide to the seamy side of
night life in Seoul.
Jim Chang and I stepped out of the Lotte, turned right and in a
couple of minutes had walked to the Myongdong section of Seoul, a
high-fashion labyrinth of cramped streets and tiny shops filled with
the products of Nina Ricci, Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Cardin.
''This is our Ginza, our Fifth Avenue,'' said Jim. Then he gestured
at the well-dressed flow of shoppers and said, ''These, of course,
are our yuppies.''
After a couple of turns that left me completely lost, we
encountered an acrid smell in the air. People were blinking back
tears and covering their faces with handkerchiefs. ''This is tear gas
left from a student demonstration yesterday,'' said Jim.
''Shopkeepers are sick of these demonstrations. Last year the
merchants were rioting, too, with the students. They were happy to do
it. They didn't leave the streets till they made the government hold
free elections. Now that victory is won, democracy is here, and the
shopkeepers wish the students would go away so they can do a little
business without choking customers with left-over gas.''
Atop a small hill above the shopping area stood the large redbrick
Myongdong Cathedral, for years a safe haven for rioting students
because Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou Hwan has refused to let police enter
the courtyard. The church is an old landmark, but new landmarks are
being made all the time in this volatile area. ''See that roof?'' Jim
gestured at a nondescript three-story school near the cathedral.
''That's where a young student stabbed a knife into his stomach last
month and leaped to the ground, dead. He left suicide notes saying he
died to inspire people to reunify the two Koreas. But why die? No one
can reunify until the crazy Kims in Pyongyang ((North Korean leader
Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il)) come to their senses. Dying is
a waste when you are dealing with maniacs.''
From the Myongdong's combination upscale shopping center and
battleground, Jim and I went to the frenetic bazaar at Namdaemun,
which means Great South Gate, and was in fact the location of one of
six ornate gates that opened through a 10-mile wall of dirt and
crushed stone that surrounded the city in medieval times.
Among the infinite number of things you can buy at the Namdaemun
market are silk, sunglasses, surgical equipment, watermelons, TV sets
and ginseng, the great Oriental restorative root, in all its forms
(dried roots, liquid extract, powder, pills, capsules, tea, soap,
shampoo, skin cream, cigarettes, chewing gum, jam and candied
slices). There is also folk medicine for whatever ails you: dried
chrysanthemum roots for headaches, rhemannia root for heartburn,
dried tortoise meat for lumbago, snake wine for impotence.
There are also live turtles, eels, snakes and puppies, which can
be purchased either as pets or for supper. Jim pointed out that
eating dog is not illegal in Seoul, but that authorities have
forbidden restaurateurs to serve dogmeat during the Olympics in order
to avoid offending tourists. He also said, ''I am a Buddhist, so of
course I have never eaten a dog.'' (Dining on meat is not contrary to
Buddhist tenets, though the practice of eating dog is shunned in most
Dog may be missing from Korea's Olympic menu, but kimchi -- the
national dish -- will be utterly unavoidable. If one's eyes water
from tear gas, it is nothing compared to what a mouthful of this
stuff will do to the unwary. Kimchi is a fiery pickled side dish, and
in its simplest form it is made of sliced Chinese cabbage, white
radishes, garlic, salt and hot red peppers. Except for a boiled
soft-radish version for old people who have lost their teeth, kimchi
is never cooked but is stored in crocks, sometimes with dried fish,
shrimp, or oysters, for anywhere from a few days to an entire winter.
September 13, 1988
There are said to be at least 200 varieties of the dish, with
ingredients that include dropwort -- a European plant of the rose
family -- spinach, pomegranate, pumpkin, pheasant, chicken, pollack
and anchovy. The king of kimchi, in the eyes of some experts, is
called kamdongjoh, a rare but incomparably rank mixture of octopus,
roe, abalone, cabbage and the requisite eye-watering spices.
Kimchi's fans claim that the dish has mystical powers to cure
everything from cholesterol-clogged arteries to impotence. Indeed,
some kimchi gurus insist that the stuff delivers a quick energy burst
for athletes, much like a massive shot of caffeine. The mysterious
fact is that scientific analysis of kimchi shows no evidence of
caffeine, but at least one account raises the possibility that
urinalyses of athletes who have dined on kimchi do show signs of the
stimulant. Does this mean a kimchi-doping test will be introduced in
the Seoul Olympics to look for illegal levels of caffeine? If so,
consider all of South Korea disqualified.
Jim Chang and I drove to the Korean Folk Village, a
tourist-oriented reconstruction of ancient homes and buildings 30
miles south of Seoul near the city of Suwon. Jim led me quickly past
the places selling souvenirs, hamburgers and milkshakes to the house
where the shaman lived. A middle-aged woman was seated at a table on
a shaded porch and showed no outward evidence of possessing
supernatural powers. Yet Jim Chang addressed her with great deference
and dignity, took 5,700 won (about $8) from me and gave it to her.
The woman studied my palm, my nose and my ears and gave me high marks
for all three of these physical signs of character, Jim said. I then
gave her two other bits of information -- that I was born in 1931
(the Year of the Sheep) and that I had not married a woman from my
hometown. Without knowing any more than that about me, she declared
that I was a professor, a government official or a writer. She then
said I was going to prosper mightily in the near future, that I would
live to be 87, that I should under no circumstances lend anyone money
and that, above all, I should not lose my temper for about four
Shaman is a Siberian word, and the practice of shamanism in this
area originated during prehistoric days, when nomads from the north
drifted down into the Korean peninsula. Local shamans are called
mudang in Korean, and they are usually female. They spend most of
their time doing kut, meaning the ritual exorcism of malaise in the
home, which may be caused by anything from ghosts to gods to bad
business decisions. The mudang also make some side money by telling
fortunes, curing certain diseases and analyzing astrological signs
for couples wishing to marry.
We took our leave of the mudang, and I forgot her counsel
instantly. Jim Chang did not. Three days later, as I was saying
goodbye to him, he leaned into the taxi window and said urgently,
''Please, please, Bill, remember: Don't lend money, and please, no
losing your temper for four years!''
The night Jim and I went pub-crawling was full of surprises -- the
first being the upstairs joint called simply Cowboy Saloon. Maybe it
shouldn't have been a surprise since it was located in the garish,
swinging Itaewon district of Seoul, which contains Yongsan Garrison,
headquarters for the more than 47,000 U.S. military personnel
stationed in South Korea.
Cowboy Saloon was a dimly lighted space no bigger than a two-car
garage, with about 15 pretty, young Korean girls working to appeal to
four woebegone GIs. The music consisted entirely of country and
western laments of lost loves and dead friends, and though it was
still early in the evening, the soldiers were already drunk and sad.
We ordered maekju (beer), and Jim began to tell of his own lost
love -- lost in, of all places, Cheyenne, Wyo., where he had trained
as a Korean air force officer in the late 1950s. She was a beautiful,
young Japanese woman who was working temporarily in Cheyenne, said
Jim, and their love had ''blossomed like roses, until we knew we
would have no happiness in life unless we married.'' The more they
saw each other, the more they loved each other -- ''like Romeo and
Juliet,'' said Jim. However, there was a political fly in the love
potion: Like all loyal Koreans of his age, Jim despised Japan for its
occupation of Korea from 1910 until 1945. Though Jim had been a young
boy during those terrible years, he was mindful that Japan had tried
to eradicate all Korean culture -- including the language. As long as
he was in Cheyenne, far from home, Jim allowed himself to believe
that true love would triumph over politics. In the long run, it
didn't, for his sweetheart said she could never give up her Japanese
home and Jim could not bring himself to turn his back on Korea. ''We
broke apart and broke our hearts,'' he said sadly. ''I never saw her
or heard of her from that day to this one.''
Sobered and reflective, we left Cowboy Saloon and continued on our
crawl through the other pubs of Itaewon. One called Alabama, a
rollicking rock 'n' roll joint, was filled with so many beefy, beery,
mean-talking American soldiers that it seemed to me more like a
redneck bar in the hills of the real Alabama than a bar in Asia. By
contrast, the Lucky Club, a dark, deafening disco less than a block
from Alabama, was populated entirely by Korean students. I was the
only Caucasian in the place, and when Jim and I sat down at a table,
a small young man immediately approached and took a seat next to me.
He glared at me with reddened eyes and shouted over the music, ''I
hate Americans like devils.'' I said nothing. He glared at me some
more, then shouted, ''You dance with me? I like to practice
From Itaewon, we drove to the south side of the Han River, which
is a newly fashionable part of Seoul, with blocks of pleasant new
apartments built on the reclaimed river flats. Our destination was
the Seoul Club, a nightclub with such a marvelous mix of kitsch,
glamour and decadence that it would have looked perfectly natural in
the early '30s in Havana or Berlin. A band played what was once
called swing, and a master of ceremonies almost as cadaverous as Joel
Grey in Cabaret introduced a variety of torch singers, crooners and
belters who performed in spangles and tuxedos from a spotlighted
stage above a blue-lighted dance floor.
As the band played on, club hosts and hostesses moved through the
huge room, urging strangers to dance with each other. Jim smiled
knowingly. ''Here is where the swallow boys go to work,'' he said.
Swallow boys, he explained, were a kind of Korean gigolo -- young men
who were charming, good-looking and, always, light as swallows on
their feet. ''Once they dance with a woman -- an old wealthy woman
particularly -- she is helpless,'' Jim went on. ''Sometimes for maybe
20,000 won ($27), they do more than dance and sometimes they take a
picture of that, and then the poor woman is hooked with blackmail.
Those are swallow boys.'' We didn't spot any working swallow boys at
the Seoul Club that night, but the experience had been so heady
without them that it didn't matter.
The first time I saw Seoul was in the fall of 1984, and though the
city was just as lively then, there was an oppressive atmosphere
which is now gone. It was, I now realize, the atmosphere of a city
bent under the hard rule of military government. The president in
1984 was an ex-general, Chun Doo Hwan. His regime, which began in
1980, and that of president Park Chung Hee for 18 years before him
had guided the country to economic prosperity, but both had refused
to recognize basic rights -- including the right to openly oppose the
government and the right to vote in free elections.
In the spring and summer of 1987, citizen uprisings all over Korea
ultimately produced a political miracle, and last December the
country freely -- and peacefully -- elected a new president for the
first time in 16 years. The winner, Roh Tae Woo, 55, was Chun's
hand-picked successor, but he won fair and square and, thus far, his
style in office has been open and democratic. Where Chun never once
invited the public into the lavish grounds of the Blue House, the
presidential mansion, Roh has already permitted crowds of the hoi
polloi to visit its public rooms several times in his first seven
There is still dissent, but the atmosphere in Seoul is more
tranquil these days, and the signs are optimistic. Even at the bleak
border some 30 miles to the north, at the Demilitarized Zone, there
is a symbol of hope. The 2 1/2- ; mile wide, 150-mile long strip of
ground between North and South Korea has remained largely untrodden
by all but a handful of soldiers and truce negotiators for 35 years
now, and in that period nature has steadily worked to resurrect its
own best form: The endangered Manchurian crane, an ancient Korean
symbol of longevity, is said to be nesting and thriving again in the
Of all the symbols that define the high spirits of Seoul, none is
so thrilling as the city's Olympic architecture. One cannot view it
without a sense of awe, yet behind its beauty lies a sadness. For the
genius who built the best of the Olympic structures died of cancer in
June 1986, at 55. He was Kim Swoo Geun, Seoul's superstar of
architecture for almost 30 years, a whirling dervish of a man who
published his own art magazine, taught architecture at a local
university, underwrote art shows and backed theater productions. In
1971, Kim designed the weird but brilliant National Museum in the
ancient national capital of Puyo -- a triangular building covered in
purple tiles that is set above 16 gargantuan legs of exposed
concrete. The director of Seoul's National Museum once said, ''Kim is
the kind of man whom we in Korea have only once in a hundred years.''
Superb as his other edifices are, Kim's masterwork is destined to
be the Olympic Sports Complex in Seoul. In 1977 he began working on
the overall park, the centerpiece of which is his Olympic Stadium,
built in the fragile shape of a porcelain cup from the Yi dynasty.
Part of Kim's great architectural park is located over the tombs of
ancient Korean kings, which will be excavated after the Games have
ended. Here Kim Swoo Geun hit the perfect poetic note by placing the
most striking evocation of Seoul, the resurrected phoenix city, where
it rises quite literally out of the remains of the past.