Monday, July 05, 2010

Cheonggyecheon Museum and instant noodles and Coke from the '60s

If you believe the Korean government, Korea existed for thousands of years as a prosperous kingdom of people with funny hats for every occasion until it became a prosperous modern country. That's why most descriptions of Korean history point you to a palace, a folk village, or some other point in the distant, centuries-old past. What I've always found interesting is what could be termed pre-modern Korea to the developed, modern Korea of today, the period from maybe 1960-1990.

In the not-so-distant past, wooden shacks were built along the Cheonggyecheon, the Han River and other waterways of the city. The garbage from these shacks, among other things, choked and polluted Seoul. One of the most interesting things about this past is how quickly it was forgotten. The slums were rapidly removed and, naturally, no one preserved it nor wanted any part of it.

But, along the Cheonggyecheon in eastern Seoul, you can find a replica of a '70s riverfront slum, complete with a not-so-old-style convenience store. What's remarkable is the extent to which it is stocked with reasonably contemporary products. Sure, some of the toys indicate that they're from the '90s, and some bottles of alcohol suspiciously indicate the decade they're from, but you can find instant noodles in ancient packaging that says they cost between 5 and 30 cents. Other prices indicate the now-defunct jeon, which today is worth a tenth of a penny.

Across the street is the Cheonggyecheon Museum, which until August has an exhibition of leaflets from the Korean War. In a sign of maturity, these are both North and South Korean propaganda leaflets. The South Korean leaflets point to the overwhelming might of the UN and US forces, urging North Korean soldiers to simply give up. They also urge civilians to not give quarter to North Korean soldiers ("just say your house is too small") and to harvest their rice so the communists can't carry it away.

North Korean propaganda targets American soldiers, telling them that they're fighting a useless war for corporations and leaders, not for themselves. Pleasant Christmas greetings from the Korean People's Army and the Chinese People's Volunteer Army remind soldiers of what they're missing at home. Others teach American soldiers how to surrender in Chinese.

There's a great deal of Chinese propaganda at the museum, reflecting the sometimes-obscured prominence of the Chinese in the war. Both South Koreans as well as the Chinese used Chinese propaganda, dealing with both local and international concerns (Stalin, Hitler and other Europeans are featured). The Chinese is not translated into Korean, and the Korean isn't translated into English, so brush up on your Hangul and your Hanja before you go.

Together, the leaflets and the noodles indicate the paucity of contemporary materials from much of Korean history. Similar to pre-literary history where no one thought writing things down might be important, it seems no one in Korea considered that the country would be rich enough to one day have the luxury of considering its history. Pictures from that era, if they exist, are remarkably rare and of low quality. Even today, to some extent, the recent past is something of a source of shame rather than curiosity or novelty.

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