[FOUNTAIN]On the banks of an aorta“The milk line of Koreans” and “the main artery” are phrases often used to describe the Han River. Throughout Korean history, the state that sat on the banks of the Han River has always been strong. The river is also a symbol of the nation’s dramatic modern history. “Oh! Han River,” a comic book by Huh Young-man, was a must-read for university students in the late 1980s, and it was the first comic book in Korea to deal with ideological issues.
In 2001, Jo Jeong-rae published “Han River,” his saga about modern Korean history. In the preface, Mr. Jo wrote, “Our modern history is an era in which economic development was achieved at the same time that our separation was reinforced.” The Han River is the landmark which shows the two faces of “separation and economic development, absolutely contradictory concepts that cannot help but come into conflict.”
The familiar black-and-white photo of the shattered bridge over the river reminds us of the tragedy of war. The white sandy beach along the Han River used to be a popular gathering place for political events. The “Miracle on the Han” was a term created, echoing the “Rhine River Miracle,” to refer to Korea’s high-speed economic growth.
The image of the Han River in government-led promotional campaigns was mostly linked to rapid growth and industrialization. The development along the river was symbolic of Korea’s modernization. The Park Chung Hee administration, which achieved the “Miracle on the Han,” built apartment complexes on the islands and by the sandy beaches. Under the Chun Doo-hwan administration, the waterfronts were transformed into parks. The 63 Building, the tallest in Asia at the time, was built and cruise boats sailed the river. At the time, Jeong Su-ra, a pop singer, sang about a “fleecy cloud in the sky and a cruise boat on the river.”
After the democratization movement, urban aesthetics and cultural concepts were added to the Han River. Its bridges were decorated, green zones were set aside, and there was even a suggestion to build an opera house on one of the islands.
The river, however, also represents the pitfalls of rapid development. Environmentalists say the river current has slowed and that it has become a “dead lake.” People often leap off its bridges to their death. The collapse of Seongsu Bridge in 1994 exposed the dangers of rapid growth.
The Han River is the background of the new film “The Host,” in which a monster emerges from the river. It seems the Han River, despite the weight of history, has now become a subject of cultural creativity.
by Yang Sung-hee
The writer is a culture and sports desk writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.