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Seoul 1988: Real life in the land of miracles

  • Written by  Simon Winchester
  • Published in Cultures
Displays of dancing and traditional costumes feature in the Olympic ceremonies Displays of dancing and traditional costumes feature in the Olympic ceremonies Korea National Tourism Corporation
Korea, insular and little-known to the Western world, was once dubbed the Hermit Kingdom. Today, given South Korea’s remarkable economic growth, it has earned another name – the land of miracles. Simon Winchester trekked the country hosting the Olympic Games

This is an archive story, published in the September 1988 edition of Geographical magazine. All facts, figures and statistics were accurate at the time of original publication.

So extraordinary and so rapid has been South Korea’s economic revival since the war that so nearly destroyed it, that it is not at all fanciful to call the country, as many Koreans do, the land of miracles.

Even to those South Koreans who are too busy and too determined to stop and ponder the wonders they have wrought, one event does appear truly miraculous: the fact that the international community, which not so long ago had written off the country as just another anonymous corner of the backward world, has now awarded it the honour of staging the games of the 24th Olympiad. The fact that Seoul now joins the ranks of Melbourne and Tokyo and London and Los Angeles is a source of inestimable pride to every one of the 50 million South Koreans – a just reward, as some see it, for their three-and-a-half decades of single-minded and utterly tireless effort.

And what an effort it has been! The Korean peninsula was a glum and impoverished corner of the world in 1945 when, after 35 years of dour domination, the Japanese colonists were defeated and forced to withdraw. What took place next made a long-suffering country suffer even more: the Russians and the Americans partitioned Korea according to a plan hatched, with astonishing lack of foresight, by the US State Department.

The 38th parallel was chosen as the line of separation: the Russians drove out the Japanese to the north of it, the Americans did the same to the south. Then both settled back and began to rule their newly-made fiefdoms.

The Koreans themselves, weakened by occupation and war, railed at the division of their land by two sets of alien newcomers, but could do little. For a while the barbed-wire frontier was open – people from Pyongyang in the north could visit relatives in Seoul, liaison offices were opened in both capitals, relations between north and south were reasonably cordial.

But slowly, as the cold war in Europe intensified, so the division hardened. It became more and more difficult for Koreans to pass between the two halves of their own country. By the early summer of 1950 the frontier was quite impermeable, with both sides glaring at each other with unconcealed hostility.

In June 1950 total war broke out. The Americans were called to assist the southerners, and the Chinese poured in across the Yalu River to help comrade Kim II Sung in the north. For three years of utter nightmare the armies of the two sides battered each other into breathless oblivion. When it was all over, the Koreans found to their dismay that the frontier between north and south was in almost exactly the same place as it had been when the war started.

All the fighting, all the destruction – and the death of three million Koreans – had been for naught. The country was flattened, ground into the very dust. Half of the population were refugees, homeless and frightened, hungry and cold, with no homes to go to and nothing to do.

But, in a manner that the world now recognises as uniquely Korean, both parts of the peninsula set about repairing things, pulling themselves up by their corporate bootstraps into the 20th century – and into the statistics books. For while North Korea became the world’s most isolated, most politically enigmatic of nations. South Korea created, in only a few short years, one of the success stories of the age.

korea prayerConfucius exerts more influence on modern Korea than anywhere else in Asia: ceremony of Sokchonje (Image: Korea National Tourism Corporation)

The country to which all the Olympians are now flocking is an unashamedly capitalist nation, relatively free and democratic – though until recently it has been less so, on both counts – and eager to display its triumphs to a bemused and astonished world. South Korea is the biggest shipbuilding nation on Earth, is home to the world’s most modern steel industry, and produces microchips and luxury cars, television sets and home computers and video machines.

No enterprise seems too arduous, no educational goal too ambitious, no standard of living too unreal to contemplate. The outward signs of economic triumph are everywhere to be seen. And yet they are all set against a backdrop of stunning natural beauty, of ancient temples and palaces, of the serene and languorous practices of Buddhism and Shamanism, of rapidly-burgeoning Christianity – and, above all, the rigours and disciplines of the tenets of Confucius.

Confucius exerts more influence on modern Korea, north and south, than anywhere else in Asia. The respect for ancestors and the old, the insistence on discipline and duty, the pride in nationhood and the practices of antiquity, the determination to excel in education, the unquestioning acceptance of the rigidity of social organisation – all these features, diluted elsewhere, flourish still in Korea. Two thousand years dead he may be, but the long hand of Confucius reaches down to Korea like nowhere else, and has to be accepted as the most profound influence upon the country’s successes of recent years.

Only by understanding Confucius can one begin to see why 20 million North Koreans have followed blindly in the footsteps of Kim II Sung. Only by understanding Confucius can one see why such a wretchedly battered entity as South Korea has turned into one of the century’s greatest economic showpieces.

On my first visit to South Korea I gained at first hand an insight into the economic miracle that has come about there. I flew to Ulsan, a small seaside town in the deep south, to visit the headquarters of the shipbuilding division of a ‘miracle’ company called Hyundai. What I saw would make Europeans, and many Americans too, shiver in their shoes.

Any one of the yards on the Tyne, in the river’s heyday, could possibly manufacture four or five ships at once – in wartime perhaps. The Hyundai shipyard, however, can produce 46 ships at the same time. There was no shipyard at Ulsan 30 years ago. But now the plant is one of the best and most productive in the world.

korea seoulSeoul is now one of the world’s largest cities, its population having grown by 80 per cent in the past ten years (Image: Korea National Tourism Corporation)

It was on that trip that my fascination with Korea began. Last year I made a return visit with the aim of taking a much closer look at the nation and its people. This time I was to walk almost the entire length of the country; the trek of about 320 miles took two months.

My walk began in the southwest corner of the country. Here, in the two Cholla provinces, is the rice centre of Korea, and here, on a warm, early spring day, the farmers were out ploughing or planting the paddy. Everything seemed to be happening so fast, so enthusiastically. In other countries where I had seen people plant and harvest rice there was always a sense of laziness to the rhythm. Here in Chollanam-do, there was a factory-like urgency to it all: Pull that plough! Turn that wheel! Plant that seedling! Dig that furrow! It was almost exhausting to watch.

I found myself thinking about the extraordinary success of every one of Korea’s recent ambitions. Much of that success, I fancied, had come about because of the sheer will-power and concentrated effort that the people apply to any venture they undertake: they build ships night and day, at lower prices and in greater numbers to beat the competition; they work their fields at an exhausting pace to make quite certain their fellow people want for nothing in their diet, and so that the nation has to import nothing – no food, anyway – from abroad.

Dusk was coming on when I arrived on the outskirts of Kwangju. The warm, still air was drenched with the scent of early jasmine, and the sky was alive with flights of early swallows. But it was far from being a scene of total pastoral peace: every 90 seconds the whole earth shook, the magnolias and cherry trees trembled, and a thick, pounding roar sounded from off to the west. Artillery practice, someone said. Kwangju seemed like a city on the edge of war.

I should have had some early clue as I walked there that day. Within five miles of Naju the road suddenly widened to perhaps five times its normal width and stretched straight as an arrow for three full miles, with yellow markings and arrows painted on its surface. It was an emergency airfield runway. There are many such in Korea, just as there are in Switzerland, which – like Korea also – has secreted high explosive charges deep inside its bridges and tunnels against invasion and the threat of war. Korea’s emergency airfields are used regularly, often to the intense chagrin of motorists.

Route 1 turned north after the runway and crossed a range of hills. The first village through which I passed was a pretty little place, 20 or so cottages grouped round a dusty little square, each one home to a family of hardscrabble farmers. One aspect of the village was unusual: many of the houses had thatched roofs. President Park Chung-hee, who did more than most Korean presidents to raise the national morale and self-esteem, decreed that thatched roofs were a stigma of underdevelopment and ordered a nationwide campaign to replace thatch with tile. In the rest of the country most thatch has gone; but here, down in Cholla, where they are said to loathe the government, a lot of it has stayed, both as a defiant symbol of Cholla independence and because it is warm, cheap, and handsome.

The night before I had been listening to a BBC World Service documentary about Korea. One statistic stood out: by the end of the century, one of those interviewed had said, every Korean would enjoy a standard of living equivalent to that of the British middle classes today. I doubted it very much.

I doubted it because of a strong impression I had been forming from my visits to the countryside. The life of the urban Korean was changing with unprecedented rapidity, but out here, far from the influences of city life, the ancient, Confucian rhythms were being preserved – and the economic simplicities that went with them.

The Koreans are an ambitious, hardworking people. But at the same time there are those Koreans who have a desire to preserve the essence of their lives and are thoughtful enough to care to resist the seductive charms of change.

But the two systems, the material and the Confucian, sit uneasily together. The Confucian deal is a simple one: if people will forget their individuality and concentrate on their duties, then they can be guaranteed that they will be treated with respect and kindness by all. Self-abnegation is bargained for universal respect. Happiness is to be gained through human things, coming to terms with oneself, one’s family, one’s community.

The modern world, which has Korea firmly in its grasp, offers a very different deal. Self-abnegation has been replaced by self-assertion. Human relationships, respect for elders, certainty of place in society – all these things are being overlooked today, and many Koreans, like the rest of us search for happiness through the purchase of goods and services, the quest for material pleasure and success.

About 60 miles further on in my trek I reached the US air base in Kunsan. Here the liaison officer was a Korean called Mr Kwong. Much of Mr Kwong’s job was concerned with bringing Americans and Koreans together. ‘We have about 300 marriages a year between Korean girls and American men.’ he said. ‘But there’s still this stigma of getting involved with a foreigner. Korea is racially very pure, still: more so than Japan. There’s a feeling that we shouldn’t dilute our stock.’

The ethnic integrity of Korean society can be a frightening phenomenon and is one of the reasons for the power and energy of the economy. The whole country, on certain topics, thinks perfectly alike; the whole country, when urged in certain directions, can be an unstoppable giant, everyone working in concert; no disagreement, all with the same degree of comprehension and sympathy.

korea statueBuddhism is alive and well in South Korea alongside Confucianism, as the ceremony at this temple shows (Image: Korea National Tourism Corporation)

Korea has spent the better part of its 4.000-year history being invaded, crushed, colonised, or in other ways trampled on. But through this all the Korean people have remained culturally inviolate, and in no small part because of their fierce attachment to their colourful and complicated past.

Korea’s people suffered during the colonial period, and so too did its forests. The Japanese took most of the usable wood to help their war effort, and so at the beginning of each April there is a concerted attempt to persuade everyone in Korea to plant a tree or two. But there has been little imaginative concern to reseed with any trees other than those of immediate commercial use.

Towards the end of my journey I reached Seoul, one of the world’s biggest cities and yet one of the world’s least known: a city that has been devastated by no fewer than four invading armies in this century alone. Its population has grown by 80 per cent in the last ten years. Today ten million people jostle and scurry and beaver away in the fantastic jungle that has created itself in the past dozen years.

Once a month, the Seoul government stages a civil defence drill; the sirens blow, the police fan out, and everyone must take to shelter. Anyone caught driving or walking on the streets is fined stiffly. Korea intends to have as many of its civilians left living as possible should the Communists invade again.

I had wanted to see the modern equivalent of the old royal palace, the so-called Blue House where the president lives. But you are not allowed within a mile of it. Yet in a way the new kings of Korea are not the generals who run the place – and they may not be running things for much longer, given recent political changes. The real kings are the men who run the great chaebols, the huge industrial empires that exemplify the miracle state of the new Korea. I had called on one of the greatest of these men the last time I had passed through Seoul; he was Kim Woo Choong, who ran the Daewoo Corporation from an office next door to the Hilton Hotel.

He owned the Hilton, actually. He was worth tens of millions of dollars, and controlled an empire that made cars and refrigerators and shirts and microprocessors, steel bars and container ships – an empire whose companies laid pipelines and built new towns, baked bread, ran supermarkets, and ran the best hotel in Seoul and the best French restaurant to boot.

Daewoo – the name means Great Universe – was no more than a small engineering company 20 years ago. Kim Woo Choong had seven employees and a total capital of £7,000. Now he employs more than 100,000. Brilliant organisation, Confucian dedication, an innate sense of duty, carefully applied company paternalism, and an unforgiving regime of discipline – all this, coupled with low wages and precious little interference from unions – all helped to bring Kim and his colleagues at Hyundai and Gold Star and Samsung and the other chaebols, who started, as he had, in those ruined days following the war, the immense power and industrial might they enjoy today.

korea map

The last leg of my walk took me to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) which runs along the border between North and South Korea. For 151 miles it stretches across the country like a scar. Almost no human beings go there.

As I walked along Route 1 towards the southern border of the DMZ I saw from a distance what looked like an enormous bridge. As I got closer I realised that it didn’t appear to be carrying anything across the road.

Just beneath its huge mass of cement and iron poised over the road were a number of long tubes drilled into the structure’s vertical supports. A cable emerged from the end of each tube. They would, on command from some central bunker, transmit the signal that would detonate high-explosive charges lodged inside each of the tubes – bringing the whole enormous mass crashing down. The explosions would totally block the road and would with luck prevent the southward passage of all those North Korean tank squadrons that were poised to swoop down on Seoul.

I passed through four more such bridges. And there was a bridge over a river, too, that was similarly equipped for explosive self-destruction.

Since 1973 the most effective counter to the threat from the north has been to place American forces, in very considerable numbers, in the area through which the North Koreans would have to advance – the area through which I was now walking.

The southern border of the DMZ is an impressive frontier indeed. There is an immense fence topped with coils of razor wire. There are trip lines. There is more barbed wire, bundled into rusting piles, and minefields 200 yards deep.

The pride the Koreans understandably display for their staging of the Olympic Games is offset only by the continuing tragedy of the division of their country into two. The prospects for reunifying two countries that are so utterly opposed in every imaginable way seem dim indeed. And yet the students, on both sides of the wire, seem lately to have come to agree that certain factors are common to both lands – their language, their history, their commitment to Confucian thought.

Perhaps the students – tomorrow’s leaders – are saying that these underlying similarities will one day appear of more importance than the ideologies, and barbed wire and minefields, that divide the land in two. This may prove to be wishful thinking – but Koreans have achieved all other targets they have had in their sights in the last 35 years. Some Koreans at least believe that a measure of optimism is now justified. Their land will one day, they insist, be united once again.

And, judging by the record of achievement since the war, who in the world could stop Korea then?

Simon Winchester is Pacific correspondent of the Guardian and lives in Hong Kong. This article is based on his book Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles.

This is an archive story, published in the September 1988 edition of Geographical magazine.
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