Korea may well be the best-kept tourist secret in the Orient. On a recent Royal Viking cruise to the area, I took advantage of an excursion to have a look. In the capital, Seoul, quite close to the downtown area you can find well-preserved palaces dating to ancient times. Short of a visit to the Forbidden City in Peking, it is here in Seoul that you can see the opulent splendor of a walled palace complex belonging to Oriental rulers. One of several, the Kyongbok Palace, was built by rulers of the Yi Dynasty in 1392, was destroyed in 1592, and then rebuilt in 1867 using the original plans.
The magnificence of the Oriental architecture is striking. Inside the complex are well-worn paths leading to parks, lagoons, pavilions, and multistoried pagodas. The main large buildings and colonnades present a monumental vista.
Three additional buildings in the complex are Kun-jung Jun, the ``Hall of Government by Wise Restraint,'' containing the throne room; Su-jung Jun, the ``Hall of Reflecting Upon Justice,'' the king's private office; and Kyong-hwe Ru, the ``Pavilion of Happy Meetings,'' a banquet hall built above 48 pillars surrounded by a lotus pond and reached by a decorative, Oriental-style bridge. Nearby on the same grounds are two museums, the new, modern National Museum of Korea (closed Monday), displaying mostl y ancient artifacts, with English titles under them, and the National Folk Museum (closed Tuesday), which features live demonstrations and explanations in Korean and English along with displays of tools, housing, food preparation, and customs of Koreans in olden times.
It takes a full day to see it all. It's best to start at the National Museum, where you can usually find the booklet ``Kyongbok Palace'' in English for $2.50.
A less splendorous palace is to be found at Kyongju in the south, part of a Museum Without Walls. From Kyongju you can also visit the royal tomb mounds, the Pulguksa Temple, and a serene Buddha of Sokkuram Grotto.
Korea was a surprise to me. The cities are clean; the roads are good; transportation is satisfactory; taxis are plentiful and inexpensive. Some of the hotels are luxurious, like the Lotte, the Hyatt, and the Hilton; others, like the Hamilton, are modest. But most of all, the people are friendly and open-minded.
The country is proudly preparing for the Asian Games in 1986 and the Olympics in 1988. T-shirts and mascots are already on sale, but more important, the various stadiums are ready and a spirit of enthusiasm permeates the country.
Before my recent visit there, whenever I heard the name Korea, like most Americans, I recalled the Korean war and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), where North and South still face each other, unable to resolve differences after 32 years. I knew that tourists could visit the DMZ, at Panmunjom, so I decided to go. Still, it seemed unususal that only one of the several sightseeing companies offering a trip had a printed leaflet with a map, a diagram, and colored photographs of the entire area, in English.
At the Joint Security Area we received a well-presented briefing, including slides, about the history of the DMZ and some of the incidents that occurred there -- the last one a defection in November 1984, which caused a skirmish that cost four lives.
The high point of the hour-long tour was the visit to the actual hut where negotiations take place. Our military guide admonished us not to touch anything or make any gestures, as the North Koreans were observing us at close range. Had the window been open, I could have touched them!
The hut was simple, the table equally so, with little flags of the two sides of equal height. The most dramatic thing in the hut was the line of tape dividing the table on exactly the 38th parallel. When negotiations are in session, this room is out of bounds.
Before the 1984 defection there were visitors to the DMZ from both parts of Korea. Now an average of nine busloads a day come only from South Korea. The bus trip costs between $20 and $28 for the half-day trip, an hour's drive from Seoul. You can also get to the DMZ by private car or taxi.
Korea's history confirms the tragedy of small nations anywhere, be it Estonia, Czechoslovakia, or this peninsular nation in Asia. One large neighbor after another has invaded and occupied it.
Legends put the beginnings of Korean history in the year 2333 BC. Korea as an organized state dates to the Age of the Three Kingdoms, 37 BC to AD 668. The Yi Dynasty ruled Korea from 1392 until 1910, with the capital in Seoul. During its existence, Korea has been attacked by Mongols, Chinese, and Japanese. The latest Japanese occupation lasted from 1910 to 1945.
It was Korea that formed the bridge over which much of Chinese culture flowed to Japan in ancient times, and you can recapture some of its ancient and more recent history during a short visit.
Today Korea, and especially Seoul, is a shopper's paradise. Some experienced travelers say that prices are well under those in Hong Kong. There are several locations with hundreds of shops and stalls that are reminiscent of the Algerian Casbah or the proverbial Persian markets. Heavy bargaining is essential. If you don't bargain, you meet the silent contempt of the seller. I must say, though, that it's hard to bargain for a good copy of a ``Members Only'' jacket when the starting price is $ 5! Of course, it is caveat emptor all the way.
The best place for successful bargain shopping is at the Great East Gate Market, a two-mile-long extravaganza (ask the cabdriver for Tongdaemun) or the other enormous open-air market at the South Gate (Namdaemun). Bargains are also found at Etaiwon, in the southern part of Seoul. For shopping without the sport of bargaining, try the Shopping Arcade at the best hotel, the Lotte; here you find an elegant milieu with Parisian prices in haute couture, furs, cloisonn'e ware, amethysts, and objets
d'art to satisfy the most demanding shopper.