Korea sites conserved amid conflict

By Mark Edward Harris
Changdeok Palace InjeongjeonFew lands have been more devastated by war and conflict than 20th century Korea.

Tensions continue to this day along the 38th parallel that divides North and South 60 years after the signing of the armistice that stopped the Korean War.

Yet the perseverance of the peninsula's people has preserved for posterity many of its cultural institutions and historic structures.

I started my exploration of South Korea's rich history with a visit to the tomb of Sejong the Great in Yeoju, Gyeonggi province.

He is best known for developing Hangul, the modern Korean phonetic writing system that brought reading and writing to the masses, as well as giving the outside world the key that unlocked the complex language.

After paying my respects to Sejong the Great, I continued my exploration farther south to the royal tombs in Tumuli Park in Gyeongju, the capital of the Silla kingdom for 1,000 years. While these tombs are important from a historical perspective, the nearby mountains have some of the most photogenic remnants of Korea's past.

Tucked into the hillside on Mount Toham, the Unesco World Heritage Site of the Temple of Bulguksa and the Seokguram Grotto date from 774 and form a religious architectural complex.

The grotto contains a statue of Buddha that is considered a masterpiece of Buddhist art in the Far East. Visitors to this site can stay near Bomun Lake in the city of Gyeongju or continue on to Busan. With the high-speed rail system connecting Seoul to Busan, historical sites in the far south of the country have never been easier to access.

Changdeok Palace DonhwamunLocated at the west end of Mount Jogyesan is Seonamsa, another picturesque temple complex. The area is particularly photogenic in the spring, when the surrounding flowers bloom, and in the fall. A walk to the temple includes a view of Seungseon Bridge, designated as a national treasure and considered the country's most beautiful arched stone bridge.

For visitors with limited time to explore outside of Seoul, there are many well-preserved monuments to the past in the vicinity of the capital. Among the must-sees are Changdeokgung (gung is Korean for palace). The palace was added to the Unesco World Heritage Site list in 1997, with the approval committee describing the site as an "outstanding example of Far Eastern palace architecture and garden design."

Construction of Changdeok Palace began in 1405 and was completed in 1412 during the reign of King Taejong with the construction of Donwhamun, the vast palace complex's main gate. This largest of all palace gates was burned down during the Japanese invasion of 1592 and restored in 1608.

Changdeok Palace was the site of the royal court and the seat of government until 1872, when the neighboring Gyeongbok Palace was rebuilt.

Gyeongbok Palace was established in 1395 but destroyed by fire during the 1592-98 Japanese invasion of Korea. It was restored during the reign of King Gojong (1852-1919) and was home to Korea's last emperor, Sunjong, who lived there until his death in 1926. The National Palace Museum of Korea is located south of the palace's Heungnyemun Gate.

A number of folk villages such as Nagan Castle in Suncheon-si in southwest South Korea and the Korean Folk Village in Yong-in near Suwon excel in bringing the past back to life with re-enactors in period costumes plying their trades in carefully restored and re-created villages. Suwon is known for both its rich history and its cuisine, especially Suwon galbi (barbecue). Since even the most intrepid historian cannot live by ingesting knowledge alone, time should be spent filling one's stomach with what many epicureans consider to be the best Korean barbecue in the country.

And for those who want to explore historical sites in North Korea, the reclusive country on the other side of the 38th parallel, Beijing-based Koryo Tours (www.koryogroup.com) has a number of excellent travel options.

For more information on South Korea, go to http://english.visitkorea.or.kr.
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