Skip to main content

Korea in the Mid-80s


Much has changed in Korea in the past 30 years. This is true for almost any country. It may be truer of the Republic of Korea than most other countries. In 1985 the only thing many Americans knew about Korea was what Korean War veterans told them or what they saw on the popular television show M*A*S*H. This article is from the perspective of someone who had never been outside North America.

The Arrival

Most U.S. service members assigned to Korea arrived at Osan Air Base. After landing the aircraft taxied past F-4 Phantom IIs in concrete pens under camouflage netting. After disembarking there were service members of various units ready to welcome their newest members. USAF RED HORSE members seemed the most conspicuous.[i]

The road from Osan AB to Seoul is about 30 miles (50 kilometers). It was mostly a rural area. Korea is a mountainous country. Korea was making a big reforestation effort. There were some small farms. Farms in Korea were tiny by U.S. standards. Farms were typically terraced. A stretch of the road was designed as an emergency airstrip in the event conflict broke out. There was also a checkpoint along the road. Vehicles carrying U.S. mail had signs on them stating “U.S. mail do not stop”.

Seoul is a large city. It had a larger population than any U.S. city. Seoul drivers were very good at making 5 lanes out of a 3-lane thoroughfare. The most popular car was a subcompact called a Pony. Often motorcycles would have stacks of boxes in the rear.

There is a mountain on what was the south side of Seoul, Namsan. Because of urban sprawl it’s now central Seoul. On top of Namsan is a radio tower called the Namsan Tower. The mountain, and tower, dominate the area.

In Seoul there is Youngsan Army Base. It is the headquarters for U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK). It is adjacent to a Republic of Korea (ROK) army base. The U.S. army base had civilian security guards with sidearms. The Korean army base had soldiers at the gate and another soldier at the opposite side of the street. There were turrets inside the wall with a soldier inside each turret. The main gate had anti-vehicle spikes and an armored vehicle behind them.

[i] RED HORSE – Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers

The Frontier of Freedom

There were two major annual military exercises, Ulchi Focus Lens and Team Spirit. During these exercises some U.S. Military personnel were billeted at hotels off base. At nearby restaurants there would sometimes be U.S. soldiers in Battle Dress Uniforms (BDUs) with gas mask cases strapped on. Many items were much cheaper in Korea than they were in America. Many U.S. personnel who were billeted in Seoul for the exercises went on shopping sprees on their off time.

In Youngsan, besides U.S. military personnel, there were members of the Korean Augmentation to the United States Army (KATUSA) personnel. These were Koreans who served with the U.S. Army. KATUSAs had to be proficient in English. There was also a British contingent at Youngsan. Sometimes the contingent was a Gurkha unit.

In an incident straight out of M*A*S*H, the base chapel commissioned a marker to honor Dr. Martin Luther King. The marker had 1986 as the date of Dr. King’s death and the image on the marker looked nothing like Dr. King.[i]

The U.S. Army 2nd Infantry Division (2nd ID) is stationed at the Demilitarized Zone, “the top of the ROK” as the Armed Forces Television and Radio would say. If North Korea invaded the 2nd ID would be the first U.S. ground unit to face the invaders.

North Korea would float balloons with propaganda into South Korea. It was forbidden for a Korean National to have such propaganda. U.S. Service Members were instructed to put such literature into boxes posted on base labeled for NK material.

U.S. and ROK forces discovered at least three infiltration tunnels. The first one discovered was a crawl through tunnel. A truck could drive through the largest tunnel.

There were two incidents where ROK patrol boats spotted North Korean speed boats in ROK waters. In both cases the speed boats opened fire and tried to escape. They didn’t get far. In one case ROK patrol boat blew the speed boat out of the water. In the other incident the ROK patrol boat shot up the boat, killing the crew. The UN contingent brought the speed boat to Panmunjom when protesting the North Korean truce violation.

On August 25, 1985 the pilot and navigator of a Chinese Air Force Ilyushin Il-28 defected to South Korea. The pilot and navigator attempted an emergency landing in a field. The Il-28 crashed and the navigator, Sun Wuchun and a Korean civilian on the ground died in the crash. The Il-28’s tail gunner, Liu Shuyi, was unaware of the defection attempt. South Korea returned Liu Shuyi to the People’s Republic of China. The pilot, Xiao Tianrun, defected and the Republic of China Air Force gave him the rank of colonel.

On February 24, 1986 Chen Baozhong, a Chinese Air Force squadron commander, decided to defect to South Korea in his Shenyang J-6 fighter. As Baozhong approached South Korea scrambled jets. Air Raid sirens sounded in South Korea. A reporter on television reported “This is an actual state!” In Itaewon, a shopping area near Yongsan Army Base, shopkeepers shuttered their shops and hurried home. Taxi’s shuttled military personnel to Yongsan. South Korean fighters escorted Baozhong to Suwon Air Base.

South Korea would have air raid drills. This included an annual nighttime air raid drill in Seoul. All lights would go out in the city. Air defense searchlights would go on and go through various maneuvers.

[i] In the M*A*S*H episode “Dear Mildred” a Korean sculptor commissioned to make a bust of Colonel Potter put “Asian eyes” on in the face.


Itaewon is an area geared to foreigners. Most major U.S. military bases had an area just outside the base similar to Itaewon. These areas were nicknamed “Vils”. Itaewon had a main street of shopping arcades, restaurants, coffee shops, and some night clubs. There was a Wendy’s. McDonalds didn’t open in Korea until 1988. In the mid-1980s walking into Itaewon from Youngsan Army Base you would see shop keepers and almost all Americans. As you walk through Itaewon the percentage of Americans would dwindle and the percentage of Koreans would increase to the people being almost all Koreans. In years earlier the percentage of Americans was much higher. In the Mid-80s Korean Airlines[i] would generally have the lowest priced tickets to places south of Korea. The catch was their planes would stop in Korea. This would help boost Korean tourism. An anomaly in Itaewon was an Islamic Mosque. Islam started in Korea during the Korean Conflict with the arrival of Turkish troops. Saudi Arabia bankrolled the construction of the mosque in Itaewon. One block over from Itaewon’s main street was a street lined with night clubs and houses of prostitution.

Korea was gearing up for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Many of the souvenirs were for the 1988 Olympics. Conversely, the anti-Soviet souvenirs were going away. There were many clothing stores that had tailor made clothing. One wood carver specialized in making Christian items. Lacquerware was also very popular.

[i] Later named Korean Air.


Seoul was a mixture of old and new. The original city walls were built in the 14th century. The city had eight gates, two of them survived intact in the mid-1980s.[i] Arsonist Chae Jong-gi heavily damaged the south gate, Namdaemun, by fire on February 10, 2008.[ii] In a small park in the city there is a small stone bridge dating from the 13th century.

There most upscale shopping place was the Lotte department store. Later they built an indoor and an outdoor theme park over and adjacent to the market. Having English writing on T-shirts and other such apparel was trendy. Sometimes the spelling or grammar was wrong.

One bus company had a turtle as its logo. It may seem odd to have a creature that represents slowness as a logo for a transportation company. Korea built the first armored ships, called turtle ships, in the 15th century. Admiral Yi Sun-Shin used turtle ships in his defeat of Japanese naval forces at the end of the 16th century.

The marquees at movie theaters had large paintings instead of theatrical posters. The theaters had assigned seating. Assigned seating in U.S. theaters was a thing of the past in the 1980s. American movies were popular. Rather than dubbing they used subtitles. The movie “F/X”, which didn’t do well in the U.S. box office, was popular in Korea. The mini-series “V” was popular on Korean television. Korean was dubbed for this mini-series and the subsequent TV series. Marc Singer, who played the male lead, Mike Donovan, has a voice similar to the men in the Kennedy family. The Korean voice for Mike Donovan sounded like a 300-pound body builder. There were two types of female voices that could be described as silly and scheming.

Yoido Island is in Seoul. In May 1985 the skyscraper, called among other names, DLI 63. It was the tallest building in Asia. DLI 63, and the Namsan Tower, are the best views of Seoul. At the time photography from the observation deck was prohibited. The ROK didn’t want to give North Korea some bargain basement photoreconnaissance. The building also had 3 subfloors. There was a large aquarium within the subfloors. It had a large food court. A couple of times when I visited the building it seemed I was the only westerner in the building. Yoido Island also had a Korean War Museum. The Museum had a banner in Korean that read Remember 25/6/50[iii]. This was the date North Korea invaded South Korea. The museum had an impressive collection of Korea War era artifacts.

In Seoul there is the Jongmyo Royal Shrine. It is dedicated to perpetuating memorial services for deceased kings and queens. Seoul has five main palaces. These date back to the 14th century. Gyeongbokgung Palace had storyboards telling the story of Empress Myeongseoung.

Empress Myeoungseoung who was the first wife of Emperor Gojung. She was against Japan gaining influence in Korea. After attempts to silence her politically failed the Japanese decided on assassination. The Japanese government recruited a group of ronins to assassinate Empress Myeoungseoung. The ronins killed Empress Myeoungseoung and her handmaidens.

There are many churches in Seoul. In the mid-80s the Christian population, mostly Presbyterian, was about 15%. The Roman Catholic population was about 3%. At Catholic masses women would cover their heads. This tradition had virtually disappeared in the U.S. a decade earlier. April was Buddha’s Birthday. They had a parade on Yoido Island. At the temples they had religious celebrations.

While steeped in tradition much of the city was new. There was a theme park at the outskirts of the city. It was similar to theme parks in the United States. They had game rooms that had slot machines. Other gambling was generally prohibited. There were casinos in some Hotels that catered to foreigners.

The Seoul rail system extended to the neighboring cities of Inchon and Suwon. Today Seoul and Inchon form a large metroplex. The stations were clean. One of the filler stories during the 1988 Seoul Olympics coverage highlighted the Seoul rail system’s cleanliness and efficiency.

[i] Many were destroyed during the Japanese occupation. A couple were rebuilt.

[ii] This gate was rebuilt in 2013.

[iii] This differs from the American date convention of MM/DD/YY.

Outside Seoul

Outside of the large cities the countryside was mostly rural. The biggest seated Buddha in South Korea is at a Buddhist temple in Nammireuksa. There is the Korean Folk Village. The village is to give Koreans an understanding of how Korean villagers lived in times past. Seoul is 35 miles (55 Km) from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). In the mid-80s the furthest north most South Korean civilians could go was Imjingak. It is on the bank of the Imjin River. There is a park at Imjingak which has monuments related to the Korean War and postwar North Korean atrocities. One of the monuments is a locomotive on a track. This monument expresses to hope that one day this train can travel north. Inside the DMZ there is a rusting locomotive. On the other side of the river is the heavily fortified area before the DMZ. The DMZ is a ribbon of land that stretches the width of the peninsula. Inside the DMZ there are animals that are extinct in other parts of Korea. This includes the Korean tiger, which was the mascot of the 1988 Olympics. There are also two villages, one on each side of the border. On the south side the village is a working farm. The North Korean village is a “Potemkin Village”. The only people who go into that village are maintenance workers. Panmunjom is where representatives of both sides meet to discuss matters related to the ceasefire. While Korean citizens weren’t normally allowed at Panmunjom there were tours for foreign tourists and U.S. military personnel.

A Time of Change

Korea lifted the midnight curfew in 1980 and by the mid-80s it had a thriving night life. Chun Doo-Hwan served as President of the Republic of Korea from 1980-1988. In the mid-1980s there were many protests demanding his ouster from office. Often these protests turned violent. People didn’t have to be at a protest site to get a whiff of tear gas.

Korea was making great economic strides. It was a backward, war torn country 30 years earlier. In the mid-80s it was no longer a third-world country. Other countries wanted to follow the Republic of Korea model. Koreans believed the 1988 Olympics would put the Republic of Korea on the map. Korea matured politically and advanced economically and culturally.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Robert Sacchi