A 19th-century `folk village' of Korean crafts and culture

THE history, tradition, and culture of 19th-century Korea are alive and well at the Minsokchon, or Korean Folk Village, just an hour south of the capital here. The village is expected to draw an enormous number of the visitors who've come for Asian Games, which started here Saturday, as well as those who will come to this country for the 1988 Olympics.

In a rustic setting of misty hills and gurgling brooks, thatched-roofed buildings resound with the ``voompah, voompah'' of woodworking saws, the whir of potters' wheels, the swish of wet hands against revolving clay.

More than a living museum, this is a Korean learning center. So the craftspeople -- exhibiting traditional tools, methods and materials -- take their roles in wickerworking, blacksmithing, brassmaking, and weaving quite seriously.

The builders of this village replica -- composed of 250 farm huts as well as a mansion and upperclass houses, craft quarters, and workshops -- pay close attention to detail in crafting their period furniture and architecture.

Though the village is regarded as a must-see tourist attraction, its quality and authenticity, size, and setting make one feel bolstered by the crowds, not annoyed.

Hordes of Korean school children in blue and white uniforms race down tree-lined paths past ceramic kilns, fan makers, bamboo weavers, and herb shops. When attracted by a particular exhibit, the children ogle the workers, mirroring their earnest looks.

The setting for the village would be enough to satisfy most visitors -- sequestered paths, bridges over brooks, hillsides where temples perch. The show of traditional crafts -- the weaving of cotton and silk, the making of paper and candy -- would be enough. The 19th-century mansion, the mill, the fine market area, with first-rate handicrafts, the bevy of fine Korean-style restaurants -- would be enough. But the village has much more.

At midday, for example, the shrill music of a Korean piper sounds, and traditional dancers take centerstage in the small, outdoor amphitheater, to give visitors an added bonus.

The music, as it turns out, is not merely tourist entertainment. Its origins go back to Korean folklore. The dances were an integral part of 19th-century life in farming and fishing villages, where people formed processions regularly to pay homage to the community's mythical gods and drive away evil spirits.

The modern-day re-creations of these dances -- with a piper in multicolored attire and performers beating drums and whipping long-trained headdresses in unison -- provide the perfect midday break.

Unlike the stale, lifeless attempts at some museums to exhibit the tools, architecture, and lifestyles of old, this 300,000-pyong (a ``pyong'' measures 6 ft. by 6 ft.) cluster of buildings, temples, schoolyards, pavilions, and restaurants is incredible. I was surprised to learn that what I had assumed would represent an enormous commitment by the Korean government to preserve and exhibit its national heritage was actually a privately-owned enterprise, only 15 years old.

A map of the village shows that it also includes a park for youngsters, an enormous public swimming pool, and a small horse track. The waterway that divides the village into two parts with aquatic scenes of floating swans is also sprinkled with shoreline gazebos, where visitors can rest or picnic.

Part of the reason for the appeal of the complex is its role as learning center. The Koreans who demonstrate traditional skills are not actors; they are actually here to learn and preserve those skills. They are engaged in a formal training program that produces salable goods.

Using the map to find your way through the village is the best way to locate the crafts that interest you most. The guides tend to stop at every hut, give a cursory explanation, and then move on in order to include everything.

But inevitably vistors will want to linger at some stops -- the kitchen where gluten candy is made from steamed rice and barley, for example, or the shop where silk is made.

The $4 guidebook is well worth the price for its lucid explanations.

Visitors should be prepared for an exhaustive tour. I was startled to discover I'd shot four rolls of film before midday. Favorite stops, according to our government guide, are the Kumryonsz Buddhist Temple, with its fantastic, multicolored gateways and ceramic tile roofs; the provincial governor's office, with its servant quarters; the Confucian school; and the marketplace.

If you decide to try a Korean-style meal in the marketplace, you'll remove your shoes, sit down at at a low-lying table on a raised floor, and sample kimchi -- a varied selection of spicy, pickled Korean vegetables ranging from cabbage to radish.

If you want to explore the model houses of fishermen and farmers, you'll see the cooking and living quarters and discover how storage and bathing were accomplished 100 years ago.

More elegant middle-class houses include drawing and sitting rooms.

And a Cheju Island house displays the unique stone and reed construction common on Korea's southern island, where winters are not as cold as in Seoul. Practical information

Hotels in Seoul can arrange day trips to the village for about $36, including transportation, food, and admission. My trip was by car, down the Seoul/Pusan Highway (Rt. 1) past lush gumdrop mountains and terraced rice fields. Admission to the village runs about $4, depending on the exchange rate.

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