Today we have three visits only planned, one the National Folk Museum, two the Bukchon Hanok Village, and three the Gyeongbok Palace. Today I have to get to grips, albeit just broadly, with the history of Korea and its current policies.
Early Korea is shrouded in mythology but from about 700 BC, records show various periods when the country was ruled from within or by the Han dynasty of China or in conjunction with Manchuria or by the Mongols. Fast forward to about 1388 when the Joseon dynasty overthrew the Goryeo dynasty (which was first established about 400 years earlier) and introduced many reforms including Hanguel, the Korean alphabet. The Joseon dynasty lasted until about 1897 but became increasingly stagnant and isolationist. In 1897 the Korean Empire was established but in 1910 Japan annexed the country. Korea was then controlled by Japan under a Governor-General of Korea from 1910 until Japan’s unconditional surrender to the Allied Forces on 15 August 1945.
South Korea’s history of course dates only from 1948 following the Japanese surrender and the partitioning of the country into the North (administered by the Soviet Union) and the South (administered by the US). The intention was to return a unified Korea back to the people after the US, UK, Soviet Union and China could arrange a single government. Nobody could agree and two separate governments resulted. The brutal Korean War of 1950-53 achieved nothing but destruction of the two parts of Korea. The country was then divided and remains divided by the demilitiarised zone and by deeply entrenched political and philosophical differences.
Since partition South Korea has had civilian governments starting with the First Republic until todays Sixth Republic. Mostly a nominally democratic government at inception the leadership became increasingly autocratic and often the military ruled. The sixth republic has stabilised into a liberal democracy. South Korea is regarded as one of the Four Tigers of the rising Asian states (along with Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong) and has developed from one of the poorest countries to one of the world’s wealthiest nations.
Just a quick review above to remind me of the background to the Korean peninsula of today. It gives little perspective to the ongoing tensions between North and South and probably the underlying wish of most of the population of both countries that they be unified, listened to and treated with respect.
Today we saw the changing of the guard at the Gyeongbokgung Palace which was the primary royal palace where the king resided. The palace guards had the duty of protecting the king by opening and closing the palace gates, inspecting all visitors, and maintaining a close surveillance of the palace. They were divided into day and night shifts, and the Changing of the Guard ceremony took place whenever the shifts changed over. Today of course it is ceremonial, there is no king on the throne a bit like Buckingham Palace, except that England has her majesty the Queen! Quite a colourful display accompanied by some heavy drums to give a military or at least formal touch to it.
We roamed about the palace, which was huge in area but did not convey the feeling of the grandeur of the Forbidden City. Within the precincts of the palace grounds is the National Folk Museum well worth a visit. The museum uses replicas of historical objects to illustrate the history of traditional life of the Korean people. We spent an hour or so wandering through it looking at the exhibits and increasingly gaining an admiration for the hard work and conscientiousness of the Korean people. It was exemplified today by a number of groups of children (primary school, different age groups) each with a teacher who was busy explaining the exhibits. In every case the children were totally focussed on the teacher and what she was saying. No fidgeting or signs of boredom. Absolutely rapt. The discipline starts at home and starts early.
Last visit today was to the Bukchon Hanok Village which is a thriving Korean traditional village, with lots of little alleys and preserved to show a 600-year-old urban environment. Charming homes, probably of the reasonably affluent set on a hillside not far from the palace. The Hanok is the traditional Korean house built in a specific architectural style and constructed using elements such as long curved roofs and alternating flooring that help keep the home warm in the winters and cool in the summers. Recently, hanok houses have become very trendy as not only are they historical and beautiful, they are also very eco-friendly and sustainable using natural building materials.
Outside when we got back to the hotel there was a huge demonstration which we took to be anti-Japanese. Instead it turned out to be anti the current Korean leadership of Moon Jye-In, described as socialist or worse, and in favour of the conservative Park Geun-Hye who was deposed on corruption charges and is serving a prison sentence of 33 years. Turns out Moon was imprisoned in the 1970’s as a human rights lawyer under the regime of Park Geun-Hye’s father Park Chung-Hee. The latter was abhorred by many as a brutal dictator and praised by others as the architect of South Korea’s economic prowess following decades of post-war poverty. Anna took some pics of the huge demonstration, most of the participants were elderly.
While it is a pity if South Korea is racked by political divisions at a time when it should be providing a united national face to the Japanese and to North Korea, it is surely a symptom of progress that orderly demonstrations can be held and tolerated.