(473) Park’s Park
By Andrei Lankov
Seoul Grand Park is a terrific place, and it has something to offer to everyone. It includes a large zoo, a botanical garden, a theme park and many other, less significant, facilities. This is a place to spend an entire day: with kids, with a date, or just strolling around.
A great place ? funny, cute, and romantic. So, I was quite surprised when I read a book by Professor Song Chong-mok, the leading authority on Korean urban history, and learned more about history of this place. Seoul Grand Park is, essentially, a sort of unwanted legacy left by a WMD project. Yes, you are correct: WMD stands for the ``weapons of mass destruction.''
Back in the late 1960s the South Korean government felt insecure. It could be described as an anti-Communist, right-wing, pro-capitalist dictatorship, and this type of regime was on the endangered species list 40 years ago. In Indochina similar governments were crumbling under the pressure of the Communist guerrillas, and even in South America the Communist revolution seemed a real possibility. The ``hippie revolution'' and anti-war movement in the United States had undermined South Koreans' belief in U.S. support. Seoul politicians were afraid that in the event of some serious crisis the U.S. would leave Korea to its fate.
This meant that South Korean leaders decided that their country should be able to protect itself, even if American commitments were suddenly withdrawn. It needed sophisticated weapons, and, first and foremost, the nuclear device, the ultimate weapon of the modern world. President Park Chung-hee had no illusions: he understood that if his nuclear ambitions were to be discovered by the Americans, Washington would not look favorably on such an undertaking. But he was ready to take risks.
He needed a research facility, a secret research center located near Seoul but not within striking distance of North Korean artillery. The center could not be built by the state, since the American CIA would know about this project in no time. Hence, Pak came up with an idea that was much in accordance with the spirit of the time. He called Kim Chae-chun, his long-time friend and former military officer who, by that time, was engaged in an agricultural and food processing business, and asked him to purchase the necessary land privately. The money had to be borrowed from banks, which were instructed by the president not to ask too many questions.
Thus, in 1967-68 Kim's company purchased a large area of land near Gwacheon, ostensibly as part of an agricultural farm. However, the military project soon went awry. North Korea acquired long-range artillery, and the Gwacheon site was no longer secure. Pak's nuclear ambitions had to be pursued in some other place _ and so they were, the research facilities were subsequently built in Daejeon.
Thus, Kim was left with a large parcel of land he did not need in the first place _ and with a mounting interest owed to the banks. Park did not want to let him down, and set about finding a solution. In the autumn of 1973, the President visited the site himself and suggested that it be used as a large amusement park. This was the when and how of the birth of the idea of the Gwacheon complex.
Soon afterwards, Kim's companies went belly up. Like many other businesses in Korea, they did not survive the ``first oil shock,'' the sudden rise of oil prices in 1973-74. However, the government intervened on Kim's behalf and secured promises from the banks that they would not demand payment until the Seoul Grand Park started operations.
In late 1974, Park himself brokered a deal between Kim and the Seoul city government. According to the deal, Kim presented the Gwacheon estate to the city for development. In exchange, Seoul city would pay his debts and also provide him with some small royalties from the planned Seoul Grand Park. The litigation and maneuvers continued for few more years, since Kim was in a desperate position, especially after the assassination of his friend and patron, Park. However, the basics remained unquestioned: the planned nuclear weapon research site became the property of the Seoul city government, to be used for the construction of the Seoul Grand Park.
Construction began in 1978. The project envisioned a large complex centered around a zoo. In those days, Seoul had a small and completely outdated zoo located at the Changgyeong Palace (not the perfect place, perhaps, but it was the decision of the Japanese colonial overlords). The new zoo was designed with the participation of professional zoologists and zoo managers from overseas, and was indeed up to international standards. In May 1984, the new zoo was opened to the public. As of 2005 the zoo cared for 3,226 animals comprising 358 species.
The zoo was soon joined by the Museum of Modern Art (built in 1983-1986) and a large theme park (a sort of mini-Disneyland).
Well, what has happened to the nuclear ambitions of Seoul? As Park was afraid, the plans were indeed thwarted by the Americans, but not without some concessions. But that is another story, anyway…
Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul.