SEOUL: ALL DRESSED UP AND RARING TO GO
SEOUL is ready. The wide waters of the Han River have been cleansed. Ribbons of concrete highways stretch across the city. Gleaming subway cars flow into clean underground stations. Modern glass-fronted skyscrapers crowd the city center. The street peddlers and their carts have been moved out of sight. Even the walls of all the automobile tunnels have been covered with white tiles. Everything is in place for this ancient city to host the XXIV Olympiad. The largest Games in Olympic history begin on Sept. 17. The city expects to receive some 13,000 athletes, 14,000 media representatives, and over a quarter of a million visitors.Skip to next paragraph
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Seoul has come a long way to get to this moment. The founders of the Yi Dynasty chose it as Korea's capital at the end of the 14th century. The city was a natural fortress, flanked by mountains on three sides, with the Han River to the south, flowing from east to west.
Historic Seoul remained within that basin formed by the natural barrier of the river until well into this century. The centrality of that old capital persists today in Seoul's downtown business district, still the core of the now-sprawling metropolis. Remnants of old palaces, city walls, and gates sit amid monuments of modernity.
The Seoul that is hosting these summer Olympic Games is in many ways another city, a modern city that has grown on top of and around the old Seoul. The origins of modern Seoul begin darkly, with the 40-year period of Japanese colonialism that only ended in 1945. The Japanese built up the city, creating streetcar suburbs surrounding the traditional center to house the colonialists.
Not long after the end of Japanese colonial rule, Seoul was occupied again - this time by the invading communist troops of North Korea in the early phase of the Korean civil war. During that war, almost a third of the city was turned into ruins.
When the fighting ended, Seoul became a magnet for those displaced by the war. The city swelled with squatters - refugees from the North, returning citizens, and migrants from rural areas. They filled the hillsides with shanties and makeshift dwellings, creating settlements called ``moon villages'' that persist to this day.
This flood into Seoul is the basis of the new city. Ask the average citizen of Seoul where he or she is from and the answer will invariably be another part of Korea. According to city planners, only 15 percent of the present population were born in Seoul.
Starting in the 1960s, the city began to boom, as did the rest of South Korea. ``There was great economic development through the 1970s,'' says Do Myung Jung, the director general of Olympic planning for the city government. ``But the side effect of development was the large influx of population into Seoul.''
The city burst its old bounds, spilling across to the southern bank of the Han. The Rev. Jack Trisolini, a Roman Catholic priest who first came to work in the Kuro district of southern Seoul in the late 1950s, describes the area then as still largely rural. Today, it is a dense jumble of factories and apartment blocks, with hardly an open space.
The growth of the city, says Mr. Do, brought problems with it - lack of transportation; pollution; and housing shortages. ``We have a huge amount of population in a small area,'' Do explains. All main roads flowed into and out of the old city, causing increasing logjams of traffic. The main shopping centers were there as well.