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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

July 28, 1985|RANDY HARVEY | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL, South Korea — 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.

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