There was a time when no one would have dreamed of jet skiing or taking a cruise down the Han River. Biking, jogging, or picnicking along it would have also been unthinkable. And no one would ever considered ending a romantic date by taking a long stroll along its banks under the moonlight. The beautiful, pristine, and welcoming river that Seoulites know and love today was filthy and unsightly enough to be labeled as an ecological disaster a few decades ago. So how did it become the crowning jewel of Seoul’s cityscape? One can find the answers by following the currents of Korean history since, for centuries, those very currents have played the greatest role in shaping the story of the Han River.
The problems began with South Korea’s rapid economic rise and transformation during the 1960s. The country’s staggering development led observers to dub South Korea “The Miracle on the Han”. The Han River’s transformation during that period, however, was less than miraculous. It had become a glorified sewer whose main purpose was carrying the unsightly effluence of South Korea’s development into the ocean. This included chemicals and waste from mills, factories, homes, and the city’s sewage system. All of this pollution effectively ended the Han’s centuries-old reputation as a source of vitality and life on the Korean peninsula. Now, it repelled both. Wildlife avoided going anywhere near it and the fish and other life that couldn’t escape it wound up dead on its banks.
Between the 1960’s and 1970’s, the city of Seoul had yet to expand south of the Han. This meant that most Seoulites didn’t have to look at it or go anywhere near it. As a result, little was done about the Han’s dire state. Slowly, however, attitudes started to change. In the early 1980’s the Gangnam district was created to accommodate the city’s growing population. Seoulites starting migrating there to take advantage of the district’s competitive schools. Those who lived within sight of the Han were so appalled by it that they “literally turned their backs to [it]”.  They put up curtains around their balconies and used them for storage or made them into laundry rooms. For those who didn’t live near the river, they saw it everyday during their commutes across the numerous bridges spanning the river to Seoul’s city center. As the Han became more and more a central part of Seoul’s landscape, the pressure to finally clean up and restore it started to intensify.
Finally, after decades of neglect, such an effort gathered momentum in the mid 1980’s. In 1981, Seoul won the right to host the 1988 Olympic Games and the South Korean government was rightly worried that international spectators and athletes would look askance at the sad, filthy beast bisecting the center of the city. It is also fair to assume that Olympiads would have been less than enthused about holding rowing competitions in a river full of city waste and dead fish. So the Han was dredged, its jagged banks straightened and beautified, and its water purified and enlivened. By the time the 1988 Olympics began, the Han had been fully restored and became a source of pride for the city.
In the time since the Olympics successive Seoul city governments have done a great deal to develop the Han into an outdoor recreational destination.Walking paths, an 80 km biking path, camping sites, and outdoor gyms have been added. Most recently, floating restaurants, coffee shops, rest areas, and convenience stores have been built as well. The restoration of the Han has also led to redevelopment of many of the islands within it, such as Seonyudo and Yeouido, both of which now feature beautifully designed parks. All of these additions and developments have made the Han into a serene oasis outside the hustle and bustle of the surrounding city.
Despite all of the improvements made so far, the Seoul city government continues to find new ways to improve the Han. In late August 2015, the city government unveiled new plans to make the Han a more attractive tourist destination. The plan calls for removing roads and concrete banks and replacing them with trees and green spaces. It will also build a riverside cultural complex, currently named “Yeoimaru”, on Yeouido. The city plans on completing the improvements by 2019. The incumbent Seoul Mayor, Park Won-soon, has high hopes for the plan and sees great potential in it. Be believes that “[i]f the Han River revives and attracts people again, it will become a great tourist attraction” as well becoming” the second Miracle on the Han River.”