The Spectre of History Looms Large in South Korea

South Korea, historically known as Goryeo, has a long and eventful history dating back over 4,000 years, with palaces, temples, archaeological ruins, markets and prisons bringing this history to life. The spectre of history is ever-present throughout the country and it makes for an unforgettable journey of discovery.

Korea dates back to the year 2333 BC when Dangun established Gojoseon, the country merged into Goguryeo in 313 AD, unified with two other kingdoms under Wang Geon in 936 AD and was renamed Goryeo, changed its name to Joseon under Yi Seong-gye, was occupied by Japan between 1910 and 1945, divided by the Korean War, liberated by western powers, and became a democracy in 1987.

The long history of South Korea, dominated by ruling families, conflicts, occupations, rapid modernisation and well-known international technology brands has made the country one of the most fascinating to visit in the world. Walking through the streets of the old parts of Seoul and Busan — the country’s two major cities — feels like stepping back in time. It is as though the spectres of history are guiding you, showing you what Korea has endured to make it the successful modern country of today, teaching you the lessons of history so that you understand the national character of the South Korean people.

As the two largest cities in South Korea, Seoul and Busan have no shortage of historical sights to visit. Here’s why:

Statue of South and North Korean soldiers embracing outside of the The War Memorial of Korea as the sun sets

Seoul

As the capital of Korea for centuries, it is no surprise that the most spectacular royal palaces and harrowing colonial prisons were built here. More so than anywhere else in the country, the ghosts of the past can be felt in many attractions in Seoul.

Seodaemun Prison — The dark side of Korean history

Seodaemun Prison was a place of incarceration prior to Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula, and again for a few years after it, but it is the Japanese colonial era that has made this attraction one of the most famous in the South Korean capital — for the wrong reasons!

Known as Keijo Prison in the early years of Japanese occupation and Seodaemun from 1923, the large compound was mainly used to punish Korean liberation activists (those against Japanese rule of Korea) and keep them away from the wider Korean public. As you step through the double gates under the watchtower on the boundary wall, the scale of the prison hits you — huge red brick barracks that housed hundreds, and later thousands, of prisoners stand in rows, an exercise yard with tall walls and narrow walkways is spread out in front of you, and in the far northwestern corner stands a small building, the execution chamber.

Prison courtyard surrounded by barracks of cells

Walking through the prison compound, through the chilly cell buildings and into the torture block is not for the faint hearted. It often feels like you are being watched or followed as you explore somewhere that was once often the last place many people would see before their lives ended — including key figures in the March 1st Movement including Ryu Gwansun and Kim Gu.

Today, the South Korean Government are working hard to preserve Seodaemun Prison so that Koreans and visitors alike do not forget about the events that led to the creation of the modern South Korean state.

Bukchon Hanok Village — A glimpse into life during the Joseon Dynasty

Seoul’s Bukchon Hanok village is the oldest street in the South Korean capital and one of the most picturesque. Nestled between Gyeongbok Palace, Changdeok Palace and Jongmyo royal shrine and at the top of a hill overlooking the city. The village is made up of narrow alleyways of hanoks, 600-year old courtyard houses with traditional sweeping style Korean roofs and large wooden double doors.

Steep hill in Bukchon Hanok village

The views from the top of the hill in Bukchon Hanok village are unforgettable. The contrast between the traditional houses and narrow streets and the towering glass skyscrapers in the background is striking. The sight of locals and tourists walking through the compact alleys in colourful hanbok, some taking selfies on smart phones, is an eye-catching example of how an advanced technological country like South Korea is able to keep alive traditions and reinvent them for the 21st century — embracing tourism to ensure that cultural history does not disappear.

In the alleys of Bukchon Hanok there are several hidden traditional tea houses, where tea ceremonies offer visitors an insight into how tea has been served for centuries. There are also shops selling assorted Bupyeon (glutinous rice balls filled with a sweet filling and coated in powdered beans) and other tasty sweet Korean rice delicacies. These are not to be missed when visiting the best-preserved historic neighbourhood in Seoul.

Changdeokgung Palace and secret garden —A Royal retreat at the heart of Seoul

The UNESCO-listed World Cultural Heritage site that is Changdeokgung Palace (translating as “Prospering Virtue palace”) is one of the five grand palaces in Seoul, and undoubtedly the finest of the lot. The palace was built in 1405 and became the main home of the Joseon Dynasty for centuries. The palace is well-preserved and deceptively bigger than it first seems from the traditional style entrance gate.

From the 9th Century AD, Changdeokgung became the favourite palace of King Seongjong and his successors. Much of the original palace was burned down by angry citizens who wanted to punish the royals after they fled during the Japanese invasion of the country in 1592. Thankfully, the palace was fully restored during the reign of Gwanghaegun in 1611.

Inside the secret garden of Changdeokgung Palace

The most unexpected part of the Changdeokgung Palace compound is its huge secret garden, only accessible to ticket holders and the ghosts of kings from years past. The garden was designed by King Taejong and is the final resting place of many royals. Now known as Biwon thanks to King Kojong, the garden has been left to grow naturally, with trees and foliage growing without human intervention. Countless colourful wooden pagoda are hidden throughout the forest and around the lake.

In the autumn, when red, yellow and brown leaves fall and coat the ground, it does feel like kings and queens are passing by as you explore this natural wonderland, visitors dressed in traditional Hanbok gliding past, tricking the mind as though ghosts have come back to life and are showing you around their favourite gardens. The silence of the secret gardens is a welcome retreat from the hustle and bustle of Seoul.

Busan

Nestled on the south coast, the city of Busan is a rare example of a part of South Korea that remained untouched by the ravages of the Korean War. It is also a city that has a long religious legacy and is the final resting place of hundreds of allied troops who died fighting to liberate the country.

Haedong Yonggungsa Temple — Rare example of a temple by the sea

Built on the edge of a cliff overlooking the northeastern coast of Busan, this historic temple compound was built by the Buddhist teacher Naong during the Goryeo Dynasty in 1376, and is a rare example of a temple located next to the sea.

The temple complex is home to the Haesu Gwaneum Daebul (Seawater Great Goddess Buddha shrine), Daeungjeon Main Sanctuary, Yongwangdang Shrine, Gulbeop Buddhist Sanctum (inside a cave), and a three-story pagoda with four lions. Wherever you stand in the complex, views out towards the ocean are simply unbelievable.

Haedong Yonggungsa Temple is built atop a cliff overlooking the sea

Haedong Yonggungsa temple is one of Busan’s most popular tourist attractions, so there are often large crowds, but this does not mean that there are no spots to stand for some quiet seclusion. Wherever you choose to spend time in the temple though, you are sure to feel some sense of spirituality like nowhere else.

UN Memorial Cemetery — Homage to the heroes

Rows of British graves at the UN Memorial Cemetery

The United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Korea, located in Busan, is a homage to the thousands of allied troops who died fighting for the liberation of southern Korea during the Korean War (1950–53). Both locals and visitors alike stop off at the cemetery to pay their respects to all of those who spent their last days in Korea.

Spread over 135,000 square metres, the cemetery is home to different groups of graves dedicated to each allied country that fought in the Korean War — British, Australian, New Zealanders, Turkish, Koreans, Canadians and many more, each with uniquely-designed gravestones and memorials.

At the entrance to the cemetery there stands a chapel where a video is played to give some background to the cemetery and the wider Korean conflict. Interestingly, a number of veterans who survived the war have chosen to be returned to the cemetery when they die so that they can be close to their comrades who were not lucky enough to return home.

The UN Memorial Cemetery in Korea is a unique attraction and somewhere to learn about how the modern state of Korea emerged. As with many of the historical sites in the country, there is a sense of spirituality throughout the site.

South Korea is one of the most historic countries in Asia and one of the most misunderstood in a cultural and historical sense. Grand palaces and infamous colonial prisons in Seoul, marketplaces, seaside Buddhist temples and war cemeteries in Busan make this the perfect destination for history buffs and those who want to feel the spectre of history guiding them through the history of the Korean Peninsula.

This trip was sponsored by Korea Tourism Organization (UK). More information about travelling to South Korea can be found here: gokorea.co.uk.