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[Korea Encounters] Korea enters 'highway age' 50 years ago

Cars drive on the Gyeongin Expressway connecting Seoul and Incheon, published in The Korea Times April 9, 1970. / Korea Times Archive
Cars drive on the Gyeongin Expressway connecting Seoul and Incheon, published in The Korea Times April 9, 1970. / Korea Times Archive

By Matt VanVolkenburg


In 1968, Korea entered a new era by building something that both reflected and would contribute to its growing economy: expressways.

Construction on a freeway connecting Incheon to Seoul began in March 1967, but the great goal of President Park Chung-hee was to build an expressway connecting Seoul and Busan. Once completed, it would shorten what was then a 12-hour drive to a mere four and a half hours.

The plan was to build it in sections, first connecting Seoul and Osan and then moving south to Cheonan and Daejeon, while sections between Busan and Daegu and finally the difficult, mountainous stretch from Daegu to Daejeon would follow. Tolls collected from the first sections to open would help to finance further construction.

A newly built road, published in The Weekly Hankook Dec. 22, 1968. / Courtesy of Matt VanVolkenburg
A newly built road, published in The Weekly Hankook Dec. 22, 1968. / Courtesy of Matt VanVolkenburg

Construction started on Feb. 1, 1968, with the intention to spend 30 billion won and finish the project in late 1971. Calling the expressway the nation's "long-desired dream" at the ground-breaking ceremony, Park promised it would "facilitate balanced economic development between urban and rural areas."

There were mixed feelings about the plan. Some doubted whether it could be built on schedule, or even at all, while others were upset that the construction forced them to move their ancestors' tombs. Those living near the highway, however, were overjoyed to see the price of their land "soar incessantly."

When Korea Times reporter Chong Un-bung visited the road under construction in May and June, he was surprised to see that, despite having only 300 workers on site, Hyundai Construction would be ready to start paving by July. One reason for their efficiency was the use of heavy machinery on a large scale: "155 dump trucks, 59 bulldozers, 22 graders, and 19 Dynapacks." They were helped by a 350-man army engineering unit that worked on the most difficult section of road.

On Sept. 12, 1968, ground was broken for the Daegu-Busan section. At the ceremony, Park spoke of the road one day stretching to Panmunjeom and beyond. As The Korea Times put it, "The highway will serve not only as a main blood vein for a rapid economic development but also as a symbol for Koreans' fervent desire for early unification."

For this section, which would pass close to Gyeongju, four local construction firms were awarded contracts totaling 7 billion won. It was to be finished by late 1969, and Construction Minister Ju Won soon announced that the construction period for the entire project would be shortened by one year.

On Dec. 21, 1968, Korea's first two freeways ― from Seoul to Incheon and the Seoul-to-Suwon section of the Seoul-Busan Expressway ― were both opened to traffic on the same day. Park hailed it as "a revolutionary step for industrialized Korea."

An editorial cartoon published in The Korea Times Dec. 22, 1968. / Korea Times Archive
An editorial cartoon published in The Korea Times Dec. 22, 1968. / Korea Times Archive

The 23.4-kilometer Seoul-Incheon Expressway cost 3.3 billion won and took 20 months to construct, while the Seoul-Suwon section cost 2.9 billion won and took 10 months.

Tolls ranged from 100 won for small sedans to 500 won for large trucks, but these were waived for the opening day. Curious drivers who dashed off to Suwon at speeds of up to 120 kilometers per hour arrived in 20 minutes and said, "It was not driving but flying."

Vehicles are queued up at a tollgate in Seoul to enter the newly opened Gyeongbu Expressway, published in The Korea Times July 9, 1970. / Korea Times Archive
Vehicles are queued up at a tollgate in Seoul to enter the newly opened Gyeongbu Expressway, published in The Korea Times July 9, 1970. / Korea Times Archive

Park said at the dedication ceremony, "I am proud that Korea built the highway in the shortest period and at the smallest cost in the world," but this had consequences. Within three months, the Seoul-Incheon Expressway was in need of repair. Damage had been done to 500 square meters of road surface, and 49,000 square meters of asphalt needed smoothing. The construction ministry blamed the damage on the heaviest snowfall in 20 years that had fallen over a week-long period in January and had forced drivers to put chains over the car tires.

In February 1969, it was announced that the entire Seoul-Busan Expressway would be finished by the end of the year ― two years ahead of schedule. A month later, the new construction minister, Lee Han-lim, announced that the expressway was going to cost an additional 10 billion won beyond the original 33 billion won estimate. While rising costs and the need for round-the-clock work were blamed for this, rumors circulated that the 10 construction firms involved in the project had demanded more money from the government.

By the end of 1969 the Seoul-Daejeon and Daegu-Busan sections were finished. Once again, within two months of opening the new Cheonan-Daejeon section, which had cost 5.7 billion won, it was already cracked and experiencing sinking in 20 places. In some places sand and gravel were showing, and buses were compelled to slow down to 60 kilometers per hour.

This was likely a good thing. In late 1969 it was reported that 29 people had been killed and 317 others injured in the 158 traffic accidents that had occurred on the highways that year. Carelessness and "lack of high-speed driving techniques" were blamed for many accidents. Fifteen were caused by local farmers jaywalking across the expressway because there were no nearby overpasses.

An accident on the Gyeongbu Expressway, published in The Korea Times Dec. 19, 1969. An adjacent headline claims five highway crashes occurred in the span of an hour. / Korea Times Archive
An accident on the Gyeongbu Expressway, published in The Korea Times Dec. 19, 1969. An adjacent headline claims five highway crashes occurred in the span of an hour. / Korea Times Archive

Horrified by the high number of traffic accidents, The Korea Times wondered "how to adapt ourselves to the new traffic circumstances." It recommended "a series of anti-disaster measures on highways and overpasses, to be enforced by the authorities in the face of the new highway age that has now been introduced to this country."

Once the Seoul-Busan expressway was finished, authorities tried to mitigate some of the factors causing accidents by setting up inspection stations, requiring drivers to take 10-minute breaks every two hours and limiting buses to a maximum 80 kilometers per hour. Six weeks after the freeway opened, however, a bus fell off a 40-meter-high cliff, killing 25 and injuring 22.

In late June 1970, with the Seoul-Busan expressway finished ahead of schedule, Korea Times reporter Ahn Joong-soo reflected on what he called the "largest single project the government has ever undertaken," which was "a unique achievement done entirely by Korean skill and Korean hands."

He listed the astonishing figures: "a total of 34.5 million cubic tons of earth... have been dug up, hauled and pounded on the road, and 25.9 million more tons of earth have been cut out for leveling," "310 bridges of 16.8 km in total length, with 29 longer than 100 meters, 18 interchanges, six tunnels running 2 kilometers, 465 footpaths underneath the road for farmers and 394 culverts for sewage systems have been built" along the 428-kilometer freeway. There was a cost, however: 77 workers had died.

A Korea Times editorial declared that "the entire populace cannot help expressing pride over the most invaluable and gigantic asset to the nation," one that had been built in 29 months and "eloquently" revealed "the high standards of our technical know-how." "It has brought the entire country into a one-day zone, shrinking the southern half of the peninsula virtually into a homogeneous community in the foreseeable future."

The opening ceremony was held before 50,000 people in Daegu Stadium. This was Daegu's biggest-ever gala ceremony and the city "was in a festive mood with all streets jammed by thousands of spirited people."

President Park Chung-hee is seen in Daegu for the opening of the Gyeongbu Expressway connecting Seoul and Busan, published in The Korea Times July 8, 1970. / Korea Times Archive
President Park Chung-hee is seen in Daegu for the opening of the Gyeongbu Expressway connecting Seoul and Busan, published in The Korea Times July 8, 1970. / Korea Times Archive

"We have now turned the impossible to a possible," said President Park, who declared that "one of our long-cherished dreams has come true," and added, "the successful completion of the expressway attests to our great potential as a nation."

"We have come to have a greater self-confidence," Park said. "If we step up our efforts towards early modernization with this self-confidence the day is not far off to obtain a self-sufficient economy and sustained prosperity."

Prosperity would present challenges, however. There were soon nine bus companies connecting Busan and Seoul that had 385 buses in operation, most of which had been imported from Japan, West Germany and the U.S. The deluxe, U.S.-made Crown Coaches were said to "make passengers feel as if they are in their living rooms," and ads promising luxury showed female bus attendants serving passengers coffee.

Travel companies in Seoul advertised vacation packages to Busan's Haeundae and, within a month of the freeway opening, the rock band Key Boys scored a No.1 hit with their song "Let's go to the Beach." As the years passed and the expressway system grew, millions took their vacations by the sea.

A map showing South Korea's first two expressways marked with nearby tourist sites is published in The Korea Times July 12, 1970. / Korea Times Archive
A map showing South Korea's first two expressways marked with nearby tourist sites is published in The Korea Times July 12, 1970. / Korea Times Archive

By the middle of the 1970s, however, Park's increasingly authoritarian government tried to discourage such wasteful consumerism. In a 1976 editorial, The Korea Times argued that "absurdly luxurious vacationing is a factor that may harm the spiritual consensus among the people." To the horror of Korea's austere government, shrinking the nation into a "one-day zone" had turned its people into "senseless vacationists" who engaged in "swaggering or decadent behavior."



Matt VanVolkenburg has a master's degree in Korean studies from the University of Washington. He is the blogger behind
populargusts.blogspot.kr.





Cars drive on the Gyeongin Expressway connecting Seoul and Incheon, published in The Korea Times April 9, 1970. / Korea Times Archive
Cars drive on the Gyeongin Expressway connecting Seoul and Incheon, published in The Korea Times April 9, 1970. / Korea Times Archive

By Matt VanVolkenburg


In 1968, Korea entered a new era by building something that both reflected and would contribute to its growing economy: expressways.

Construction on a freeway connecting Incheon to Seoul began in March 1967, but the great goal of President Park Chung-hee was to build an expressway connecting Seoul and Busan. Once completed, it would shorten what was then a 12-hour drive to a mere four and a half hours.

The plan was to build it in sections, first connecting Seoul and Osan and then moving south to Cheonan and Daejeon, while sections between Busan and Daegu and finally the difficult, mountainous stretch from Daegu to Daejeon would follow. Tolls collected from the first sections to open would help to finance further construction.

A newly built road, published in The Weekly Hankook Dec. 22, 1968. / Courtesy of Matt VanVolkenburg
A newly built road, published in The Weekly Hankook Dec. 22, 1968. / Courtesy of Matt VanVolkenburg

Construction started on Feb. 1, 1968, with the intention to spend 30 billion won and finish the project in late 1971. Calling the expressway the nation's "long-desired dream" at the ground-breaking ceremony, Park promised it would "facilitate balanced economic development between urban and rural areas."

There were mixed feelings about the plan. Some doubted whether it could be built on schedule, or even at all, while others were upset that the construction forced them to move their ancestors' tombs. Those living near the highway, however, were overjoyed to see the price of their land "soar incessantly."

When Korea Times reporter Chong Un-bung visited the road under construction in May and June, he was surprised to see that, despite having only 300 workers on site, Hyundai Construction would be ready to start paving by July. One reason for their efficiency was the use of heavy machinery on a large scale: "155 dump trucks, 59 bulldozers, 22 graders, and 19 Dynapacks." They were helped by a 350-man army engineering unit that worked on the most difficult section of road.

On Sept. 12, 1968, ground was broken for the Daegu-Busan section. At the ceremony, Park spoke of the road one day stretching to Panmunjeom and beyond. As The Korea Times put it, "The highway will serve not only as a main blood vein for a rapid economic development but also as a symbol for Koreans' fervent desire for early unification."

For this section, which would pass close to Gyeongju, four local construction firms were awarded contracts totaling 7 billion won. It was to be finished by late 1969, and Construction Minister Ju Won soon announced that the construction period for the entire project would be shortened by one year.

On Dec. 21, 1968, Korea's first two freeways ― from Seoul to Incheon and the Seoul-to-Suwon section of the Seoul-Busan Expressway ― were both opened to traffic on the same day. Park hailed it as "a revolutionary step for industrialized Korea."

An editorial cartoon published in The Korea Times Dec. 22, 1968. / Korea Times Archive
An editorial cartoon published in The Korea Times Dec. 22, 1968. / Korea Times Archive

The 23.4-kilometer Seoul-Incheon Expressway cost 3.3 billion won and took 20 months to construct, while the Seoul-Suwon section cost 2.9 billion won and took 10 months.

Tolls ranged from 100 won for small sedans to 500 won for large trucks, but these were waived for the opening day. Curious drivers who dashed off to Suwon at speeds of up to 120 kilometers per hour arrived in 20 minutes and said, "It was not driving but flying."

Vehicles are queued up at a tollgate in Seoul to enter the newly opened Gyeongbu Expressway, published in The Korea Times July 9, 1970. / Korea Times Archive
Vehicles are queued up at a tollgate in Seoul to enter the newly opened Gyeongbu Expressway, published in The Korea Times July 9, 1970. / Korea Times Archive

Park said at the dedication ceremony, "I am proud that Korea built the highway in the shortest period and at the smallest cost in the world," but this had consequences. Within three months, the Seoul-Incheon Expressway was in need of repair. Damage had been done to 500 square meters of road surface, and 49,000 square meters of asphalt needed smoothing. The construction ministry blamed the damage on the heaviest snowfall in 20 years that had fallen over a week-long period in January and had forced drivers to put chains over the car tires.

In February 1969, it was announced that the entire Seoul-Busan Expressway would be finished by the end of the year ― two years ahead of schedule. A month later, the new construction minister, Lee Han-lim, announced that the expressway was going to cost an additional 10 billion won beyond the original 33 billion won estimate. While rising costs and the need for round-the-clock work were blamed for this, rumors circulated that the 10 construction firms involved in the project had demanded more money from the government.

By the end of 1969 the Seoul-Daejeon and Daegu-Busan sections were finished. Once again, within two months of opening the new Cheonan-Daejeon section, which had cost 5.7 billion won, it was already cracked and experiencing sinking in 20 places. In some places sand and gravel were showing, and buses were compelled to slow down to 60 kilometers per hour.

This was likely a good thing. In late 1969 it was reported that 29 people had been killed and 317 others injured in the 158 traffic accidents that had occurred on the highways that year. Carelessness and "lack of high-speed driving techniques" were blamed for many accidents. Fifteen were caused by local farmers jaywalking across the expressway because there were no nearby overpasses.

An accident on the Gyeongbu Expressway, published in The Korea Times Dec. 19, 1969. An adjacent headline claims five highway crashes occurred in the span of an hour. / Korea Times Archive
An accident on the Gyeongbu Expressway, published in The Korea Times Dec. 19, 1969. An adjacent headline claims five highway crashes occurred in the span of an hour. / Korea Times Archive

Horrified by the high number of traffic accidents, The Korea Times wondered "how to adapt ourselves to the new traffic circumstances." It recommended "a series of anti-disaster measures on highways and overpasses, to be enforced by the authorities in the face of the new highway age that has now been introduced to this country."

Once the Seoul-Busan expressway was finished, authorities tried to mitigate some of the factors causing accidents by setting up inspection stations, requiring drivers to take 10-minute breaks every two hours and limiting buses to a maximum 80 kilometers per hour. Six weeks after the freeway opened, however, a bus fell off a 40-meter-high cliff, killing 25 and injuring 22.

In late June 1970, with the Seoul-Busan expressway finished ahead of schedule, Korea Times reporter Ahn Joong-soo reflected on what he called the "largest single project the government has ever undertaken," which was "a unique achievement done entirely by Korean skill and Korean hands."

He listed the astonishing figures: "a total of 34.5 million cubic tons of earth... have been dug up, hauled and pounded on the road, and 25.9 million more tons of earth have been cut out for leveling," "310 bridges of 16.8 km in total length, with 29 longer than 100 meters, 18 interchanges, six tunnels running 2 kilometers, 465 footpaths underneath the road for farmers and 394 culverts for sewage systems have been built" along the 428-kilometer freeway. There was a cost, however: 77 workers had died.

A Korea Times editorial declared that "the entire populace cannot help expressing pride over the most invaluable and gigantic asset to the nation," one that had been built in 29 months and "eloquently" revealed "the high standards of our technical know-how." "It has brought the entire country into a one-day zone, shrinking the southern half of the peninsula virtually into a homogeneous community in the foreseeable future."

The opening ceremony was held before 50,000 people in Daegu Stadium. This was Daegu's biggest-ever gala ceremony and the city "was in a festive mood with all streets jammed by thousands of spirited people."

President Park Chung-hee is seen in Daegu for the opening of the Gyeongbu Expressway connecting Seoul and Busan, published in The Korea Times July 8, 1970. / Korea Times Archive
President Park Chung-hee is seen in Daegu for the opening of the Gyeongbu Expressway connecting Seoul and Busan, published in The Korea Times July 8, 1970. / Korea Times Archive

"We have now turned the impossible to a possible," said President Park, who declared that "one of our long-cherished dreams has come true," and added, "the successful completion of the expressway attests to our great potential as a nation."

"We have come to have a greater self-confidence," Park said. "If we step up our efforts towards early modernization with this self-confidence the day is not far off to obtain a self-sufficient economy and sustained prosperity."

Prosperity would present challenges, however. There were soon nine bus companies connecting Busan and Seoul that had 385 buses in operation, most of which had been imported from Japan, West Germany and the U.S. The deluxe, U.S.-made Crown Coaches were said to "make passengers feel as if they are in their living rooms," and ads promising luxury showed female bus attendants serving passengers coffee.

Travel companies in Seoul advertised vacation packages to Busan's Haeundae and, within a month of the freeway opening, the rock band Key Boys scored a No.1 hit with their song "Let's go to the Beach." As the years passed and the expressway system grew, millions took their vacations by the sea.

A map showing South Korea's first two expressways marked with nearby tourist sites is published in The Korea Times July 12, 1970. / Korea Times Archive
A map showing South Korea's first two expressways marked with nearby tourist sites is published in The Korea Times July 12, 1970. / Korea Times Archive

By the middle of the 1970s, however, Park's increasingly authoritarian government tried to discourage such wasteful consumerism. In a 1976 editorial, The Korea Times argued that "absurdly luxurious vacationing is a factor that may harm the spiritual consensus among the people." To the horror of Korea's austere government, shrinking the nation into a "one-day zone" had turned its people into "senseless vacationists" who engaged in "swaggering or decadent behavior."



Matt VanVolkenburg has a master's degree in Korean studies from the University of Washington. He is the blogger behind
populargusts.blogspot.kr.







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