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The Changing Han River
A new Seoul exhibit of old photographs shows the river in its relatively pure state
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
Published 2008-09-17 17:39 (KST)   

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A boat awaiting the spring thaw - Seonyudo Park Exhibit
©2008 Robert Neff
Seonyudo Park, located on an island in the center of the Han River, is currently holding an exhibit of pictures taken along the Han River during the 1950s and 1960s.

The Han seen through fishing nets - Seonyudo Park Exhibit
©2008 Robert Neff
The Han River holds a special part in my life both as a historian and a resident of Seoul. A walk along its banks reminds me just how much Seoul, and for that matter, Korea, has changed. In Korea's past, the river served not only as a southern defense but also as a means of transporting goods from the coast and the interior to Seoul.

The pictures of this exhibit show the Han in its relatively pure state, but as Korea modernized, the river fell victim to the side effect of rapid growth -- pollution.

Carrying water from the Han - Seonyudo Park
©2008 Robert Neff
Prior to the 1988 Olympics, the banks of the river were bare and uninviting; shunned for the most part by the citizens of Seoul. But during the past two decades, the Han River and its banks have been transformed, through a series of grassy parks, into a beautiful sanctuary: an escape from the hustle and bustle of metropolitan Seoul and the oppressive heat of summer. It is known as the Miracle of the Han.

A family laundry Outing - Seonyudo Park Exhibit
©2008 Robert Neff
Families, many with small tents, spend their days playing on the vast expanses of grass, looking at the beautiful flower gardens, catching dragonflies, playing basketball on one of the many courts, or bicycling, jogging, or rollerblading on one of the many well-maintained paths that line the riverbanks. Many of the elderly sit quietly together under the shade reminiscing about the past, or watch the vigorous activities of the youth with age-inspired envy. The air is filled with the animated chatter of neighbors and friends, laughter of children, and the contrasting smells of sweet flowers and the fishiness of the river.

Boys on a tower of boats - Seonyudo Park Exhibit
©2008 Robert Neff
I don't remember much traffic on the river when I first arrived, but now it is filled with boats and people. Riverboats filled with tourists and families lazily go up and down the river in contrast to the water skiers and windsurfers who speed about in youthful exuberance and daring, dodging the small river taxis that rush their customers to their destinations up and down the river.

Small boys playing with their boat - Seonyudo Park Exhibit
©2008 Robert Neff
The banks of the river are lined with fishermen who sit patiently behind their ranks of fishing poles (some with as many as 10 poles) waiting for a fish to take their bait. The fishermen are, for the most part, elderly men, but in the last couple of years the number of younger adults and women has increased. Some have nothing more than a hat to protect them from the heat, but others are more prepared, veterans of the river, and have the comforts of tents, parasols, mats, and coolers filled with drinks and food.

The catch of the day - Seonyudo Park
©2008 Robert Neff
Most of the fishermen release their catch, unless they are pungo, ingo (two species of carp) or chango (eel). The chango are often eaten, but the other two are usually taken home and made into medicine. The medicine made from the ingo is said to be good for women and fertility while the pungo are good for general well-being, especially for the elderly. Not surprisingly, chango are made into a medicine for male stamina, and more than a couple of "wise" old fishermen swear that it is better than dog meat. But how safe are these folk medicines, especially if the fish themselves are unhealthy?

Boys sledding under the Han River bridges - Seonyhdo Park Exhibit
©2008 Robert Neff
While most people agree that the Han River of today is far better than the Han River of the early 1980s, many are convinced that the river is still polluted. Floating garbage is an obvious indicator, but more ominous are the numbers of dead fish that float lazily down the river. Several years ago I don't remember seeing many dead fish, but this past summer, while riding my bike over the bridges, I was frequently alarmed at seeing large dead fish floating in the water. It was explained to me that the heavy rains caused the water to churn and the polluted water at the bottom of the river was forced upwards; killing the fish. On the other hand, to be fair, I observed a large number of very healthy carp swimming along the empty riverbanks during this past Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving).

Facilities along the river - Seonyudo Park Exhibit
©2008 Robert Neff
Several years ago, conveniences along the river were Spartan at best. Families were forced to pack their own food, or have Chinese food or chicken delivered to them by one of the many motorcycle deliverymen who roamed up and down the river searching for business. Motorcycle deliverymen are still present, but now they are forced to compete with the many new convenience stores located on the banks of the river which advertise "chicken and beer in just ten minutes."

Going home along the Han - Seonyudo Park Exhibit
©2008 Robert Neff
The Han River will continue to change. There has been talk of dredging the river so that larger craft can make their way from Inchon to the capital - utilizing the river once again as a source of transportation. The city government has also constructed man-made islands to serve as recreational sites, and various exhibits throughout the city promise even more changes to the river. Like all things in Korea, the Han River is doomed to change for the better or worse.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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