I forgot from which museum in South Korea I learned this fact – possibly the April 3rd Peace Park. An American general established the 38th parallel at the dividing line between the section of Korea to be disarmed by the US forces, and the section to be disarmed by the Soviet Union, because that dividing line put Seoul in the section to be (temporarily) under US control. He felt it was crucial to keep Seoul from the power of the Soviet Union because it is the ‘nerve center’ of Korea.
Seoul is still the nerve center of South Korea. As a relative of mine who lives in Seoul says ‘nobody is from Seoul’. The vast majority of Seoul’s current population consists of people from every corner of South Korea, drawn to this bigger-than-New-York-City metropolis for economic opportunity.
While writing this blog, I’ve looked at quite a few other English-language blogs about travel in South Korea (you can see them in the blogroll on the right). A few of them emphasize how wonderful it is to visit the provinces, such as Jeollanam which are often overlooked by foreign visitors, and look down on those foreign travellers who only see Seoul and think that they’ve seen the ‘real’ South Korea.
I deliberately visited every province except Gyeoggi Province (of which Seoul is the heart) before taking my first step in Seoul. First of all, I liked the shock value of telling people in many different corners of South Korea that, nope, I’ve never been to Seoul (yet). Also, I wanted to get a good sense of what South Korea is, by seeing all of the provinces before seeing Seoul, so that my exploration of Seoul could serve as a capstone bringing together everything I had experienced all over South Korea.
Also, I’m the person who travelled in every region in Japan except Kanto (Tokyo), so I get some contrarian kick out of travelling everywhere except the most travelled area.
However, having experienced Seoul and every province of South Korea … I have to say that Seoul does offer a pretty comprehensive window into South Korean society. You can get many of the highlights of a South Korean travel experience without leaving city limits. Seoul even has Buddhist temples in the mountains within official city limits.
Furthermore, the key museums and tourist sites offer a pretty good overview of Korean history and traditional culture. In fact, I think that, even if you plan to visit all the provinces like I did, Seoul is a good place to get a general understanding, which can be deepened by travelling further afield.
And … Seoul isn’t like anywhere else in South Korea. It has much of what you can find in the provinces, but it also has a cosmopolitan level beyond which I didn’t encounter anywhere else, even Busan.
For me, Seoul served as the final leg in almost a year of travel, and crystalized my travel through South Korea.
And now, Seoul will fill the final set of regular posts in this blog. I started with the least densely populated provinces – Chungcheongbuk, Gangwon, and Gyeongsangbuk – to introduce a South Korea relatively thin in people, but rich in nature and history. I used this post to serve as a dividing line, as I blogged about a set of provinces with more people and plenty of variety. I originally planned to group Gyeoggi/Incheon with Seoul but, as I wrote about Gyeoggi/Incheon, I realized that my travel experiences there weren’t really different from the other provinces (yes, Gyeoggi is the most densely populated province, but that didn’t translate into a noticeable effect on my impressions). Seoul, on the other hand, is different enough to be in its own category, and with 20% of South Korea’s population, it’s certainly formidable.
I think Seoul will make a fine finale for this blog.