Travelling the path of Korea’s war torn past

Today’s guest post by Scott Whitaker of Verramente takes us on an historical journey through Korea as he traces the war torn relics of the peninsular’s long and conflict shadowed history in this personal travelogue.

The Korean Peninsula has been the epicentre of conflict and war for centuries.

So much so that the rise of South Korea as a global economy out of the devastation of the Korean War has been dubbed the miracle on the Han River.

But the economic success of the country has been so quick and so abrupt that the country itself is torn between the old and the futuristic. Today a journey through the country sees teenagers in designer clothes headed to department stores while elderly women sell roast sweet potato in the street market next door.  It’s hard to understand Korea without scratching a little beneath the surface.

The country’s culture has been built on top of layers of history dating back thousands of years.  The modern threat of nuclear powers seems to be just another chapter in a turbulent history of a country who has fought with everything to hold on to its sliver of land.  

During my travels I was lucky enough to have a local guide who showed me behind the curtain of polite Korean bowing and smiles. I travelled to several spots around the country that show the deep history of war, sadness and sacrifice that makes the Korean culture so unique.

Namhae Island

During the late 1500’s Korea was invaded several times by the Japanese navy.  

A depleted Korean fleet battled the might of the Japanese in the swirling waters around Namhae Island.

You’ll find the particular sight of this sea battle at the foot of what looks like a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge connected to Namhae Island.  

My Korean guide took great pride in explaining to me that tiny fishing village was once the site of one of Korea’s greatest navel victories. Admiral Yi and his fleet of Turtle boats (a small warship unique to Korea) had lured the much larger Japanese fleet into a tiny, almost unnavigable strip of water between the Namhae and the mainland and laid waste to them.

These days Namhae is a tourist destination for Koreans who head there for the seafood and beautiful beaches.  But poke around a bit and you’ll find replica Turtle boats and museums celebrating the victory around the island.  The heritage of boat building still exists today with the surrounding islands being home to massive container ship building yards.

Namhae Travelling The Path Of Korea's War Torn Past

UN Cemetery – Busan

Busan is a stunning beach side city at the southern most tip of Korea, and it is was one of the most important spots of the Korean War.

Before America stepped in to battle the Russian backed North Koreans the communist forces had pushed almost to the southern coastline. Busan, surrounded by mountains, has been a military strong hold for centuries and stood until reinforcements arrived.

Travelling in Busan you can visit the massive UN Cemetery where forgotten soldiers have been buried.  The surrounding park has a very solemn air to it; but I was amazed by the local people.

The cemetery is laid out with a flag and memorial for every country which came to Korea’s aid in their time of need.  During my visit the locals who were exercising in the park greeted me and asked cheerfully where I was from. They showed me the memorial for soldiers from New Zealand, my home, and with the sincerest of tones thanked me for my country coming to their aid.  

Busan vTravelling The Path Of Korea's War Torn Past

Hwangryeong Mountain

Sitting in the very centre of Busan is the beautiful Hwangryeong Mountain.

The mountain takes in a view of the entire city. If you’re happy to hike the walk to the top of this 472m mountain takes around two to three hours.  When you reach the top you’ll be able to see some of Korea’s ancient war technology.

Dating back hundreds of years Busan was site of a number of navel invasions by Japan.  So many that they developed an ingenious method to communicate the impending battle across the entire peninsula in a matter of minutes to call for reinforcements.

On the summit of Hwangryeong Mountain you’ll find a giant cauldron which was used as a fire beacon to communicate from mountain top to mountain top that an invasion was imminent.  One beacon remained constantly lit, a second was lit when an enemy appeared, a third when they were about to enter the border, a fourth when they were inside the city and the final beacon was lit when the battle began.  Using this system they could communicate exactly what was happening across hundreds of kilometres.

view from Hwangryeong Travelling The Path Of Korea's War Torn Past

Gyeongbokgung Palace – Okhoru Pavillion

Built in 1395 (although destroyed and rebuilt several times since) the Palace is the largest of five grand palaces build during the Joseon Dynasty in Korea’s past.

Although one of the most visited tourist spots in Korea you’ll find one of the most tragic and heroic stories of Korea’s turbulent past if you look a bit closer.

In its past Korea has been occupied by neighbouring Japan several times. During these occupations there are a number of famous freedom fighters for the Korean people, Empress Myeongseong being one that has been remembered in art and music.

In the late 1800’s the Empress stood defiant against the Japanese.  Advocating stronger ties with Russia and fighting for independent Korea.  While in Gyeongbokgung Palace you can find the Empress’s quarters (Okhoru Pavillion).  During the morning of the 8th October 1895 the Palace was attacked by a group of Japanese assassins.  The Empress was murdered and burned after refusing to bow to the invaders.  The Empress has been immortalised in a musical name The Last Empress. Despite her bravery the occupation of Korea wouldn’t end until the end of World War II in 1945, after which the country was again ravaged by the Korean War.  

view from Hwangryeong Travelling The Path Of Korea's War Torn Past

Everywhere you go in Korea you can see the countries tragic past and their optimistic future.

Ingrained in their culture are values of honour, respect for the elderly that led their country out of the war-torn mess it was left in when the peninsula was divided into two and a resilience that you can only find in countries which have been through a terrible history.  

By taking a journey through Korea’s past you can gain a much better understanding of their beautiful culture.

Scott Whitaker

Scott Whitaker has spent the last ten years living and travelling between South Korea, Australia and New Zealand as well as plenty of trips in between.  These days he is constantly on the look out for unique experiences and local people for his local guide company Verramente.  You’ll either find him in an airport or furiously typing blogs posts in whatever local café has an internet connection.