Incheon, Gateway to Korea

  • onNovember 11, 2014
  • Vol.5 Autumn 2009
  • byOh Junghee

1. Black Flower
Kim Young-ha, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2004, 356p, ISBN 89-8281-714-X

2. The Diary of Kim Gu
Kim Gu, Dolbegae Publishers
1997, 472p, ISBN 978-89-7199-255-5

The city of Incheon occupies a strategic point of entry into Korea on the Yellow Sea, 40 kilometers west of Seoul. Currently known for Incheon International Airport, Korea’s most well-known airport, the city was also the site of the Battle of Incheon, a decisive move led by General MacArthur in the Korean War.
As of 2009, the population of Incheon stood at 2,750,000, making it the third largest city in Korea behind Seoul and Busan. But as recently as 1883, when the port of Incheon was forcibly opened by Japan and the West, it was just a small fishing village with just over 2,000 residents. The population increased by over 1,000 in just 120 years after the port opened, and the small fishing village was completely transformed into a modern city. As a result, Incheon accompanied the glory and shame of Korea’s modern history more than any other city. It was both a foreign concession under Japanese, Chinese, and western powers, and the port from which many Koreans left as migrant workers. Kim Young-ha’s novel Black Flower depicts the lives of those people who left as migrant workers from Incheon. People left their hometowns and flooded to Incheon in the hopes of finding work building the harbor and railroad. Even prison convicts were mobilized to help build the harbor. Special facilities were needed to enable commercial ships to enter the port, where tide levels vary dramatically. Kim Gu, who played a leading role in the founding of the Republic of Korea and who was also known by his pen name Baekbeom, also labored in Incheon before escaping prison. In his biography, The Diary of Kim Gu, he captures the appearance of Incheon in the early days of the opening of the port.

Since modernity entered Korea through Incheon with the opening of the port, traces of western modernity were left behind. The first modern park, church, school, and other buildings can still be found in the heart of the city, including the houses where western, Chinese, and Japanese residents lived. Though much was destroyed in the Korean War, the city contains relatively more relics of this era than any other city in Korea.

With the end of World War II, Japan conceded defeat and retreated, and Korea was divided into North and South. With national division and the Cold War, Incheon Port could no longer fulfill its role as the center of the western coast of the peninsula. Then, in 1950, the city was leveled during the Battle of Incheon. The UN forces’ amphibious landing changed the tide of the Korean War, but destroyed the city in the process. Oh Jung-Hee’s Chinatown depicts the poverty that took hold in Incheon after the war. Through the coming-of-age story of a girl who moves with her family to Incheon, Chinatown takes a critical look at the backdrop of the Chinese concession that was formed during the opening of the port, and astutely captures from a female point of view the destitute lives of the Chinese who were pushed out of their own country and the Koreans who flowed to the city in search of work.

Starting in the 1960s, then President Park Chung-hee, who aggressively pursued industrialization, focused on Seoul and Incheon as key sites for the realization of his goals. He created the so-called Seoul-Incheon Manufacturing Zone, built an expressway, and concentrated the factory district on reclaimed land from Incheon’s coast and salt flats. The population grew as young people left farms to move to the city in search of factory work. Living conditions in the city could not keep pace with this highspeed development and the rapid pace of industrialization. The city was congested and lacked housing, roads, schools, and parks. Problems associated with industrialization began to arise. The air became polluted, and workers began to demand respect for their rights. Eungang-si, the city depicted in Cho Se-hui’s A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball, was based on Incheon. The “dwarf ’s” children fight with capitalists while working in factories in Eungangsi. This gray city looks like a hopeless place, but as the author points out, it is fundamentally a city of love. The story is a clear allegory for how hope can never be abandoned so long as people have love for each other. In addition, the bestselling young adult novel Children of Gwaengiburimal is also set in Incheon. Gwaengiburi is the unusual name of a coastal village in Incheon. The story is both a realistic and heart warming portrayal of the happy lives of the children who live in this poor neighborhood. In this novel as well, Incheon is depicted as a city of minorities living in the shadow of Seoul.

Oh Jung-Hee, Hollym Publishers, 2007, 151p
ISBN 1-56591-206-3

A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball
Cho Se-hui, Iseonggwa Him, 2008, 351p
ISBN 978-89-951512-0-4

Currently, Incheon is preparing to take a new leap. New infrastructure is being built to clear away the shadow of industrialization. The entire city is being revitalized. The new city of Songdo that is being built is aimed at becoming an international city, and the city is taking on an ultramodern appearance. In addition, the old heart of the city that was formed during the period of the opening of the port is being culturally revitalized, as represented by the Incheon Art Platform. The port warehouse district is being transformed into art studios, which are set to open in October. Also, the Asian Games will be held in Incheon in 2014, and the Global Fair & Festival will be held this year. These large-scale events plan to demonstrate Incheon’s new direction as a city of the future. Incheon is a dynamic city, indeed. Even now, some talented writers somewhere could be using their imagination and exquisite prose to capture this city on paper.

Children of Gwaengiburimal
Kim Joong-mi, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2001, 274p, ISBN 89-364-3344-x