THERE'S A New Spirit in Seoul : This City of a Torn Past Has Put the Pieces Together Again While Preparing to Hold '88 Summer Olympic Games

Times Staff Writer

Native Koreans call their country Choson , which means Land of the Morning Calm. But a morning in Seoul, the capital, is anything but calm.

In the countryside, Koreans say the first sound they hear at sunrise is the mournful cry of a magpie.

In Seoul, it is the relentless pounding of a jackhammer.

Take a cable car to the top of Namsan Mountain and look at this Oriental boomtown, the world's ninth-largest metropolis with a population of 9.2 million. From high above Seoul, the city appears to be all concrete and glass, not much different from downtown Los Angeles. The haze, which will turn brown by mid-afternoon, certainly is familiar.

In the block next to the 600-year-old Ch'angdokkgung Palace, land has been cleared for another skyscraper. Cranes already are in place, but these are not the feathered ones that, according to Korean folklore, bring good luck. These are towering, mechanized cranes, which have lifted Seoul from the rubble of the Korean War.

Other high-rise office and apartment buildings throughout the city are in various stages of completion. Work continues on the beautification of the Han River, polluted almost beyond redemption after two decades of unchecked industrialization. Construction crews are completing two new subway lines, causing a bottleneck in the morning rush-hour traffic. Impatient drivers blow their car horns. Green and yellow taxis dart in and out of the congestion, dividing lines be damned. Trying desperately to maintain an orderly flow, traffic cops respond by blowing their whistles. Overhead, a billboard urges them to relax with ginseng tea. "Caffeine Free," it advertises.

Hawkeye, Hot Lips, Radar and the rest of the 4077th M*A*S*H unit would not recognize Seoul today.

But Seoul would recognize Hawkeye, Hot Lips and Radar.

"Terrible show," said an advertising executive, Jo Young Sang, when the topic of the popular television comedy, M*A*S*H, was broached, as it often is by Koreans during discussions with Americans. Of the three television networks located in Seoul, one is operated by the U.S. Army. The majority of that network's programming originates in the United States. All of it is in English. Although its primary purpose is to serve the 40,000 U.S. troops based in South Korea, the network also is popular among the many English-speaking Koreans.

"Americans have a very dark image of Korea through M*A*S*H," Jo said.

"Thirty years ago, Korea looked like the scenes from M*A*S*H," interrupted a spokesman from the city government.

"Terrible show," Jo said, unconvinced.

"But the world soon will see the big change in Korea," the spokesman said.

"The World to Seoul; Seoul to the World."

That is one of this city's mottoes for the Summer Games of the XXIV Olympics, scheduled for Seoul between Sept. 17 and Oct. 2, 1988. It will be the first time the Games have ever been held on the Asian continent and only the second time an Oriental city has hosted them. The 1964 Summer Olympics were in Tokyo.

The Korean National Tourism Corp. calls Korea "the best kept secret in Asia."

But the corporation's president, Ha Dae Don, said he believes that slogan might have to be changed as soon as the fall of 1986, when the Asian Games will be held in Seoul, and certainly before the Olympics in 1988. Whereas Seoul is visited by an average of 100,000 tourists a month, he estimated that number will double during the Asian Games and triple during the Olympics.

There already are several luxury hotels in Seoul, including a Hyatt, a Hilton and a Sheraton, and others are scheduled for completion before 1988. All this in a country that only a little more than 100 years ago was known as The Hermit Kingdom.

"The Olympic Games have improved the name of Korea dramatically," Ha said. "After the Tokyo Games, no tourists worried about going to Japan. Now, tourists won't worry about the accommodations or the social order or security problems here. Being chosen as the host country for the Olympics is some level of standard. It means we no longer are a developing country but an advanced country."

Then it was Ha's turn to ask a question.

"What do you think of Seoul," he asked.

For at least one first-time visitor, the answer was complex.

When you check into the Sheraton in New York or Boston or anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere, you do not receive this kind of notice under your door.

"On June 15, Saturday, the monthly air raid drill of the Civil Defense will be held. "The drill will start at 11:00 and last for approximately 30 minutes. "During this time you are kindly requested to remain inside. "We trust that you understand the necessity of this exercise." There are other government reminders, only a little less subtle, that hostile North Korea, whose southern border is 25 miles from the heart of downtown Seoul, is coiled and ready to strike.

A five-term congressman, Dr. Oh Se Eung, was asked if the North Koreans are a potential threat to the Olympics. The North Koreans, he said bluntly, are a threat to South Korea.

But as Seoul's commuters fight the rush-hour traffic, it is not likely that they are thinking of an attack by the North Koreans any more than harried drivers on the Santa Monica or Hollywood freeways are thinking of an earthquake. They all have the same goal, getting to work on time.

A more lasting impression after several days in Seoul is of the people, their hospitality, their vitality, their sense of humor and their intense national pride.

They have been conquered; they have been divided. Their city has been destroyed, their families separated. Presidents have been assassinated, presidents have been overthrown. Political tension is often high.

Yet, with their Confucian understanding that good things follow bad things, just as the sunrise follows the sunset, they have retained their optimism, and now they are ready to present themselves to the world as the little country that could.

Skyway is a hideaway in the mountains northeast of Seoul. Opened by the U.S. Army as an observation post, it serves civilians as a restaurant, bar and haven.

The only reminder of its primary purpose is a sign forbidding tourists from taking pictures of the panoramic view to the south because of the military installations located in that direction.

Near sundown on a Sunday, patrons upstairs, in the glass-enclosed restaurant, drink wine, stare dreamily into the salt-water aquariums and listen to an American folk singer.

"Five hundred miles, five hundred miles, five hundred miles away from home . . . " Downstairs, on the patio, Korean men, dressed in Western business suits with their ties loosened, drink a local beer, OB, and sing a sad song in their native tongue about lovers who were separated by war.

Which one? It is not important. In South Korea, not only the magpies cry.

In developing their unique character and culture, four centuries of Koreans preferred insulation from the rest of the world. They figured they saw enough of their neighbors, the Japanese, 120 miles across the East Sea, and the Chinese, across the border to the northwest, when one would march through the Korean Peninsula to get at the other. But after prodding from other countries, Korea opened its ports to Japan in 1876 and eventually to the United States and Europe.

Japan exported misery to Korea.

During the Sino-Japanese War in 1894-95 and the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05, Japan again encroached upon the country. But after those conflicts, the Japanese chose not to leave. They formally annexed Korea in 1910, beginning a 35-year domination in which they set out to separate Koreans from 5,000 years of tradition.

In an attempt at cultural genocide, the Japanese arrested the country's leaders, banned political activities, public gatherings and newspapers, destroyed books about Korean historical figures and rewrote others to make them more favorable toward Japan. They closed schools, preventing 90% of the children from becoming educated in an effort to render the country illiterate.

"One whole generation was wiped out," said Shin Kuk Bom, senior secretary to the president for education and culture and one of the fortunate few who was allowed to pursue an education during that time.

Independence came to Korea on V-J Day in 1945. But when the Japanese moved out, the United States and the Soviet Union moved in. The Soviets took everything above the 38th parallel, the Americans everything else.

Five years later, when both the United States and the Soviet Union had their backs turned, the separation became a divorce. North Korea invaded South Korea, overrunning Seoul and pushing the South Koreans almost into the sea. With the assistance of United Nations forces, commanded by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the South Koreans pushed back, recapturing Seoul and driving the North Koreans to the Chinese border.

Thus threatened, the Chinese joined the North Koreans for a counter-offensive that resulted in the fall of Seoul for the third time. There would be a fourth, when the Communists again were forced to retreat until an uneasy truce was called in 1953.

The capital was in ruins.

Thirty-two years later, the natives proudly call it the "Phoenix City of the Orient," Seoul having risen from the ashes once again.

"The ornamental animals on the roof are there to ward off evil spirits and fires," a tour guide says, pointing to the wood-carved monkeys on top of Kyongbokkung Palace.

Suddenly realizing that he had previously told his tour group that the palace has been destroyed by fire and rebuilt at least three times, he shrugs.

"They get drunk a lot," he says.

Much of the old has been preserved. Or at least reconstructed.

Seoul is surrounded by sections of a stone wall that was built at the beginning of the 500-year Yi Dynasty in 1392. Still standing are the four magnificent gates into the city. Within their boundaries are five royal palaces.

All have been razed more than once in various conflicts.

But it is the new that overwhelms first-time visitors.

Most of the luxury hotels and trendy department stores are in the Myong-Dong district of downtown. Because that area attracts the most tourists, fast-food restaurants are on every other corner. Across the street from Dunkin' Donuts is a recently opened Wendy's. Jon's Kentucky Fried Chicken is in the next block, next to a movie theater that is showing "American Gigolo" and "Streets of Fire."

With its towering office buildings, chic restaurants and nightclubs, Youido, an island in the Han River, is considered the Manhattan of Korea, although Studio 44, a popular disco, is in another section of the city. The tallest skyscraper in Asia, the 63-story Daehan Life Insurance Building, is on Youido.

Recreational facilities, parks and gardens are being built along the Han River, which divides Seoul. City planners promise it will resemble Paris' Seine before the Olympics. After one look at the murky, brown river, there is no question why they have labeled that plan "The "Miracle of the Han." They also say that all four subway lines will be operational and that freeways will be extended and widened in time for the Olympics.

All roads are leading to the Seoul Sports Complex in Chamsil, about a 20-minute drive from downtown. The five stadiums there are not only modern but artistic. The Olympic Stadium, dedicated last September, has a capacity of 100,000. Less than three miles away is the Olympic Park, which includes five more venues. It is scheduled for completion next March.

It is no wonder that the people in Seoul are eager to be on stage.

"I haven't heard anyone saying they oppose the Olympics," said Dr. Lee Yong Ho, executive board president of the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee (SLOOC) and Minister of Sport.

"No dinner speeches by political leaders or by the parties at weddings are complete without references to '86 and '88. If we want to widen a road or resurface a city street, we do it because of '86 and '88. I am the subject of envy for my colleagues in the cabinet because I'm dealing with this non-controversial area. There is no partisan division."

Lee, who received his Ph.D from Yale and taught political science at the University of Georgia, explains the pride that people of South Korea feel in being selected to host the Olympics.

"This is a great national honor," he said. "We are a very poor country. Twenty years ago, 15 years ago, there was a committee hearing held in the U.S. to discuss whether foreign aid was doing any good. We were always the nation that was used an an example of foreign aid's failure. We had no real argument with that depiction of our country. We didn't have any results to show.

"But we worked and worked. Now, we want the world to see that we have come this far. We were awarded the Asian Games in the '70s, but we returned them because we weren't ready. Now, we can do it. We can do as good a job as any previous host city. We may be able to do a better job.

"We can confirm to ourselves that all the effort and sacrifices have been worthwhile. That factor is important. This is an occasion to prove ourselves to the world and, more important, to ourselves."

At 10:45 on a Saturday morning, hundreds of shoppers look for bargains in the massive Lotte Department Store in downtown Seoul. Attracted by a sign advertising cut-rate prices, so many women are attempting to get into the shoe department that they have to wait in line in the aisles.

Fifteen minutes later, the air raid sirens begin to wail.

As the lights blink on and off in the store, the shoppers instinctively boarded the escalators, which take them to the underground Lotte Shopping Mall. Having been advised through the media that the monthly civil defense drill would be held that morning, no one panics.

In the mall, shopkeepers turn off their lights and close the doors. Some pull the shades. Shoppers mingle, many watching a television that has been set up outside a cafe especially for this occasion. Outside, cars and buses pull over to the curb. Street vendors and pedestrians duck into subways. For 20 minutes, Saturday morning is suspended.

Then, after an announcement over the public address system, life resumes as if nothing had happened.

The Olympics are still more than three years in the future, but already the Games are the second-most discussed topic in Seoul.

Reunification with North Korea is first, now and maybe forevermore.

Even though the prospects for the country becoming whole again appears no closer than it did at the end of the Korean War in 1953, the hope remains strong. Korea is known as the Ireland of the Orient.

"Even now, 40 years after the division, you can go to churches at 4 a.m. and see people in their 70s and 80s praying, praying that the country will be unified before they die," said Lee, the SLOOC executive board president. "In Buddhist temples, people make offerings for reunification."

Shin, the secretary of education and culture, clenched his fist when the question of reunification was introduced during an interview.

"We have to have a unified Korea," he said. "We are the same people."

Meantime, approximately 1.3 million troops with loaded weapons glare at each other from opposite sides of the demilitarized zone at Panmunjom.

In the duel for international prestige, South Korea scored a major triumph over North Korea when Seoul was selected as host for the Asian Games and the Summer Olympics.

Anticipating as much, North Korea campaigned vigorously against Seoul in International Olympic Committee meetings. But once the votes were cast, the North Koreans were left with two options.

They could threaten to disrupt the Games. Or, realizing that more attention would be focused on the Korean Peninsula than at any time since the end of the war in 1953, they could attempt to score points of their own by promoting peace between the two countries. Within the last year, North Korea appears to have taken the latter course.

But South Koreans do not have to have long memories to recall 1983, when terrorists, alleged to have been North Korean agents, assassinated 17 South Koreans, including several high government officials, at a conference in Rangoon, Burma.

"North Korea would like to destroy the Seoul Olympics," Shin said. "They say the Olympics will not be safe. But who is it that is making them unsafe? It is the North Koreans.

"If there was not interference from the North Koreans, we would do better. They are pulling back. If we have 50 horsepower, maybe one-third of our power is lost. We are running on two-thirds power."

In the event the North Koreans intend to attack South Korea, speculation is they will do it before the Olympics so as not to harm any representatives of their Communist allies, all of whom have announced they will participate in the 1988 Summer Games. SLOOC officials are confident that every country that is active in the IOC expect North Korea will attend the Games.

"Even if we didn't have the Olympics, we remain very alert and watchful of the North Koreans," Lee said. "We do everything we can so that our concerns won't become a reality. I don't think it is easy for them to take such measures because there is a risk factor for them also.

"There is nothing to be gained from heightening tension. Both sides are so heavily armed. If there is a war, there would be no winner in the end. The only alternative is peace."

Another threat to the Games could be whether the South Koreans are able to keep their own house in order.

President Chun Doo Hwan has announced he will resign at the end of his seven-year term in March of 1988, six months before the Olympics. In a country that is inexperienced in democracy, the manner in which his successor is chosen will have a great bearing on whether South Korea is able to present a unified front during the Games.

In some minds, doubts may already have been raised because of the recent student demonstrations and anti-government comments in the newspapers from rival political leaders.

But the fact that the government has become secure enough in recent months to lift restrictions against demonstrations and allow more open discussion in the press is considered by many here as another step forward for South Korea.

It is almost 5 o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon. Businessmen and businesswomen, clerks, secretaries and shoppers converge at once on the narrow streets of the Myong-Dong district, rushing in different directions. No one strolls in Seoul. A teen-age girl wearing a "Where's the Beef?" T-shirt walks next to a woman in a hanbok dress, a traditional loose-fitting, high-waisted garment often seen in Korea. Most of the men and women are in business attire.

Vendors stand on the corners, underneath street signs that are in the native Hangul and English, and sell leather goods, jewelry and souvenirs. One man is selling Newsweek subscriptions. The sample copy of the magazine has a picture of Seoul's skyline on the cover, under the headline, "Here Comes Korea." The smells are incense, roasted corn, ginseng, onions, shrimp tempura, soy sauce and diesel exhaust from the traffic. Man-pulled carts jockey for position with taxi cabs. Grandfathers in straw hats and lightweight, loose-fitting clothes look up from card games to watch the frenzy.

Precisely at 5 p.m., the activity lurches to a halt. Drivers put their cars in park, and pedestrians stand at attention as the national anthem is played for the lowering of the flag at the end of another day.

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