Prologue: Korea in the 1970s

As I briefly explain in the about page, I’m planning to retrace my grandmother’s visit to South Korea in June of 1979 by exploring and documenting her scrapbook, which is filled with photos, notes and other memorabilia.

When I first looked through the scrapbook, before I ever set foot in Korea, I didn’t know much about the country, especially its history. But I now know that her visit came at a turbulent time, and her subsequent correspondence with the people she met there hints at the major political and historical events that took place in the following decade.

In the 1970s, South Korea was developing quickly, leaving behind the poverty that had followed the Korean War. Military dictator Park Chung-hee, father of the recently impeached president, drove economic growth through export-oriented industrialization.

Although the government controlled many aspects of daily life, with curfews, censorship, and even dress codes, the standard of living was swiftly improving, at least in urban areas, with increasing access to education and modern comforts.

Starting in 1972, Park tightened his grip on the country by declaring martial law, implementing a new constitution that eliminated presidential term limits, and cracking down on dissent, leading to resistance and a growing push for democratization. In 1978, Park was reelected, though not by direct ballot. In October of 1979, he was assassinated.

But in June when my grandmother visited, Park was still alive and in power, and the South Korea she experienced appeared peaceful, prosperous, and changing fast. My grandma observed the political situation and the rapid and uneven development:

Although Korea’s government is actually a dictatorship, it seems to be a rather firm but gentle control without obvious resistance by the general public. There is a midnight curfew that is carefully adhered to by all. … There are also security checkpoints along the main expressways and at strategic crossroads with soldiers with weapons very much on guard at the roll-into-place steel barriers, but no harassment.

All of Korea seems to be either in the process of being torn down and rebuilt — block after block after block of new high-rise apartments to replace the mud/thatched-roof houses. New public buildings — new roads with planted and landscaped parkways — yet, some of the roads are swept by hand with a broom that requires one to stoop.

Seoul Gyeongcheonsa Pagoda
My grandmother, her hosts and travel companion sightseeing in Seoul, June 1979. Behind them is the 14th-century Gyeongcheonsa Pagoda, which at the time stood on the grounds of Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul and is now inside the National Museum. The building in the background was once the Japanese Government-General Museum and was demolished in 1997. More info on both structures can be found here.

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