For Whom the Bell Tolls
By 1st Lt. Lauren Linscott, 8th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published July 23, 2017
KUNSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea --
As we approach a ten-foot-tall bronze bell, the heady feel of history weighs heavy in the air. Perhaps it’s the plexiglass dividers separating onlookers from the 18-ton giant or the patina that accentuates its ancient engravings, I know this bell carries a story from long before I was born.
It’s not until it rings, though, that its age is defied by the strongest, sweetest reverberation, carrying over the grounds of the museum courtyard, mixing with the sounds of traffic by the nearby highway. How perfectly fitting in a country that meshes the ancient and the modern together like the shaking of hands between old friends.
As one of the nearly 100 United States Forces Korea service members extended an invitation to tour Gyeongju by the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs, I had the opportunity to see some of the most ancient fixtures of the Republic of Korea, like the 1,200-year-old Divine Bell of King Seongdeok, alongside enterprises driving the commerce and industry of the nation on an international scale. More importantly, though, I saw how the old and the new complimented each other and truly create a topography that is modern-day Korean culture.
Upon viewing a palace constructed in 57 BCE, pagodas still standing proud 13 centuries after they were built, and museums housing artifacts used by generations 23 times removed from ours, I was able to place myself in a Korea devoid of the LED lights and smartphones for which it’s now famous. However, none of these sights would have been possible without these modern “trappings.”
In the last 40 years, the Republic of Korea has made a concentrated effort to revitalize areas of ancient importance. Using current technology to excavate, rebuild and restore sites within its city limits, as well as the large income now flowing into the area, Gyeongju has given its historical sites a sense of sacred importance. There’s a feeling of walking amongst ancestors of the Korean Peninsula, even with the hubbub of modern life encircling the perimeters.
In the midst of touring locations which existed thousands of years ago, my USFK peers and I witnessed the production process at the Hyundai Motor Company, which ships hundreds of thousands of vehicles to every corner of the globe. A leader in the Republic of Korea’s economy, the Hyundai brand can be seen on highways around the world and is continually one of the best-selling in countries as far-reaching as Brazil and the Czech Republic. By all accounts, as Hyundai expands as a company, it also expands Korea’s influence on the world economy and business landscape, with other large companies such as LG Electronics and Samsung Electronics also contributing to this national effort.
The hum of drills, forceful pump of hydraulic lifts, and cacophony of metal meeting metal on the assembly line at the Hyundai Motor Company was completely opposite from the sounds emanating from the solemn Bell of King Seongdeok, but both are mutually dependent on the other.
Koreans have been at the forefront of innovation for decades, starting with the mastery of soybean cultivation 4,000 years ago– a legacy which continues today– and now including the development of curved smartphone screens and 3D holograms. Without the success of these products and the companies producing them, the sites I visited would have at best been run-down and at worst no longer bearing any traces of ancient importance.
While the sounds of metal meeting metal are not nearly as harmonious as water lapping up to palace steps, magpies calling out to each other at the temples or the deep bass of a bronze bell, this trip taught me that Korea needs all of these sounds. The even greater realization from the trip was that the responsibility to protect those sounds and the space they occupy lies with me and the other U.S. service members who toured Gyeongju alongside me. We may not have the same national history as our Korean counterparts, but the tours of duty we serve in Korea weave together our personal stories and the story of this country forever.
When the Divine Bell of King Seongdeok rings out, it will not only tell the stories of the Silla Dynasty, the division of this country during the Korean War, or the technological progress this country has witnessed; it will also speak our names.