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Past & Present: 7
The Waters of Seoul — Han River
The river's history parallels the City's development
By Alan Timblick
President of The Seoul Times
Right up till the mid-70s Seoulites enjoyed their summer vacations on the sands of Han River. Tens of thousands of holidaymakers poured out to the Han River for sun and fun.

Seoul is justifiably proud to be the home of the"Economic Miracle on the Han". But what does the world know of the River Han? Can its fame match that of the Rhine, Seine, Tiber, Nile or Thames?

Today we will tell the story of the Han and its role during the development of Korea.

The Han River is about one kilometer wide as it flows through the city of Seoul. The volume of water is due to there actually being two rivers, the North Han, with its source near Diamond Mountain in North Korea, and the South Han, which is partly fed by the Imjin and Hantangin tributaries. The two rivers converge a few kilometers upstream from the point where they enter the City limits of Seoul.

There are very few major cities around the world which have as wide a body of moving water as the Han, fewer still have rivers flowing westward to the sea, although the historically classical place to establish a city is on the banks of a navigable river close to the sea where it can be supplied by water-based transport and enjoy the benefits of a trading center as merchants bring their goods by boat.

In the 1960s the Han river had wide sandy banks, just like the seashore. It is still possible to find sepia-tinted pictures of citizens relaxing by the water, even though thosewho could afford the time to relax may not have chosen to let their skin get too farmer-like dark from sun-tanning. Upstream, below the heights of Walker Hill, small pleasure boats were for hire where couples might take a pre-cooked meal and enjoy a romantic meander with a boatman navigating between the sandbanks and sheltered from the sun by a colorful awning. Larger craft also served as floating restaurants with exotic names like “Venice” and “River Nile”, although their appearance hardly lived up the titles. But on the whole the river was not used as a resource for recreation and fun.

It was also for work; the Han River was a laundry place in the past for the ajummas of Seoul.

Even as a means of navigation, the Han has been handicapped since the end of the Korean War. The 38th latitude line which divided the peninsula at the end of the Second World War ran north of Gaeseong and the estuary of the Han River where it runs into the Yellow Sea was well within South Korean territory. So at that time boats could sail from the ocean right up to the shores of the city, as long as they were of shallow draft, since the river was not at all deep.

The Korean War not only resulted in the destruction of all of the few bridges which spanned the Han, but, more permanently, left the dividing line several kilometers further south than the 38th parallel and since then the north bank of the estuary going westwards has lain within North Korea, turning the waters into a no-go neutral zone flowing under the guns of both sides. Navigation out to and in from the sea ceased altogether.

During certain times of the year the Han was not at all friendly to the residents of Seoul. Quite to the contrary. It became a dangerous threat during the rainy season when inevitably it would burst its banks and flood the nearby neighbourhoods, destroying property and leaving hundreds of families homeless.

Nor was the river a beautiful sight all the year round. In the drier seasons the flow would shrink to a trickle which meandered along the bed between muddy shoals.

Centuries of soil erosion from the mountains towering over the upper reaches of both the South and North Han Rivers had deposited grit and gravel downstream so that the river bed became ever flatter and wider. The additional quantity of water which descended in the monsoons was too much for the shallow basin to cope with, resulting in the widespread flooding already mentioned.

Up until the 1970s the River was not even perceived as flowing through the center of the city. Seoul was almost entirely based on the north side of the river so the Han was in a way the southern boundary of the city limit. There were very few bridges across the river (a topic for another chapter) and it actually acted as a barrier to developmentsouthwards within the larger basin in which Seoul lies.

The frenzy of bridge building began in the 1980s and continued through the 90s and even up to today. This was absolutely necessary since from the 1980s onwards there was a massive shift of population to the newly developing residential areas in Gangnam – the South-of-the-river zone which rapidly grew into a second, more fashionable version of Seoul. Before long the river became less of a divider and more of a link tying the two halves of the city together. As the prestigious schools moved from their original north-side foundations to the sprouting apartment complexes in the south, the more prosperous sections of society also migrated.

Inexpensive rowboats for hire could carry 10 passengers at once.

And yet still the River did not get its due attention. Apartments built close by, with potentially splendid views across the shining water and towards the distant mountains, literally turned their backs to the river. Balconies shaded by curtains and venetian blinds served as storage areas and only the gimchi pots, washing machines and the drying laundry enjoyed the river breezes.

With over half the population residing in the south, the river became what it is now, a waterway running right through the heart of the capital city. It was no longer a kind of irrelevant adjunct on the edge of the inhabited area, and it now required the full attention of the city authorities.

The awarding of the honour of hosting the 1988 Olympic Games gave a boost to forming new policies for the Han. Since the site of the main stadium was to be at the so-far undeveloped quarter of Chamsil, on the South bank, the need for access roads and infrastructure called for the building of a riverside highway which would be raised high enough to avoid flooding. This provided an opportunity at the same time to raise the banks on both sides which would deepen the river and allow more water to flow.

In the winter ice-fishing, skating and games took place on the frozen river.

A major transformation of the river thus took place during the 1980s, in time for the Olympics.The river bed was dredged. Grassy areas on both sides created where the people could walk, relax and enjoy sports. Highways were built along the riverside both north and south to accommodate more traffic, and the water of the river was cleaned up by removing most of the upstream sources of industrial pollution. A flood control system was also created with a barrage across the river which could adjust the flow of water according to the season. Now at last there was a real prospect that the river could be tamed.

Certainly the population took full advantage of the new playgrounds. In thesweltering heat of summer , families who may not have had home air-conditioningwould camp out together in the evenings, cooled somewhat by the night breezes,and try to steal a few hours of sleep. At several locations public swimming pools were created, though the densely packed bodies dipping in them may have had hardly any room actually to swim.

During the term of office of Lee Myung Bak as Mayor of Seoul further improvements were made. In particular cycle paths, which doubled as tracks for in-line skaters, were laid down. The river was becoming increasingly associated with the popular craving for physical well-being and became a Mecca for exercise to the apartment-dwellers of Gangnam.

But still the changes were not finished, and under the next Mayor Oh Se Hoon a comprehensive project to make more intensive use of the waterway and to vastly improve accessibility got under way. The Han River Renaissance Project envisaged a far-reaching transformation which would concentrate more and more activities on the river itself and on its banks.

Thus, the bridges were turned into night attractions, with cafes suspended above them and coloured lighting at night giving each bridge a unique character. Banpo bridge became a source of a rainbow fountain. Floating islands of exotic shapeswere launched and water taxis became a means of transport up and down the river, avoiding the road-bound traffic jams.

Even more ambitious plans were proposed: to bury the highways on either bank below water level and cover them over so that the dwellings bordering the river could have direct access to the banks.

And, re-writing the geography of the City, the long-awaited Gyeongin canal connection between the Han and the West Sea, emerging south ofGangwha Island and just north of Incheon once again provides a link between Seoul and the ocean, although so far it has seen little or no usage.

Already one may spot the occasional white sail steadily tacking along the river with the grace of a crane bird and in the summer wind-surfing has become quite popular. But plans to create a series of jetties and marinas promise to turn the Han into a paradise for water sports, with craft of various sizes and shapes populating the stretches between the bridges. There was even a proposal to build a grand opera house on one of the midstream islets, but this is currently on hold.

The Han does have tributary streams running into it at several points along its course though the city.

The Renaissance Master Plan also envisaged embracing these streams so that water and the pleasing objects which float on water may be brought closer to and into the center of Seoul.

It may be a long way from Venice, and budget restrictions have put such costly investments on ice, but we may have a real hope that a cooler and greener Seoul may also be, in some respects, an aqua-city.

Alan Timblick serves as President of The Seoul Times. He grew up in England, graduated from Oxford University, and has lived in Seoul for over three decades. A former banker, he also worked for the Korean government as head of Invest Korea and for Seoul City as head of the Seoul Global Center.






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