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The Admiral's lookout
Earlier in the evening, this spot in Gwanghwamun Plaza was full of families, children playing in the fountains beneath the statue of 16th-c. Admiral Yi Sun-shin. After dinner, with the kids gone, I got a moment of calm.

For decades, this statue was cut off from the public; it presided over the multi-laned main boulevard of central Seoul, isolated in a constant sea of traffic. A few years ago, this part of the city was re-designed: families, students, businessmen have all re-claimed it on pedestrian terms. Free concerts on summer nights and the occasional political demonstration keep this part of the city lively.

(Yi Sun-shin, sometimes referred to as 'Korea's Lord Nelson,' is famous for having invented iron-clad warships and turning back the Japanese invasions of the 1590's.)

Night Watch
Beneath the upswept eaves of Gwanghwa-mun (the main gate of 14th-c. Gyeongbok-gung Palace), a haetae keeps watch. These mythical lion-dogs were reputed to eat fire and stand for justice.

Seoul has had more than its fair share of war and fire through the centuries; this gate and its guard continue, somehow, to keep their optimism...

Six centuries in the making
On my first and last nights of a month-long stay in Korea, I found myself in Gwanghwamun Plaza. Re-designed and re-opened to the public just a few years ago, the square is now the pedestrian and monumental centerpiece of Seoul's historical core.

When the city was established as Korea's capital in the 1390's, Gwanghwamun was built as the main gate to the first royal palace of the Joseon dynasty. Meticulously restored in 2010, the stone-and-wood portal again presides over the city's central boulevard which has been transformed to include a vast lawn, a kid-friendly lit-up fountain, an underground museum that links up to the subway system and neighboring skyscrapers, and monuments to two of the nation's heroes. King Sejong the Great (1397-1450) and Admiral Yi Sun-shin (1545-1598).

On spring evenings, free concerts are held here; one of the city's largest bookstores is accessible via an underground passage; embassies are nearby...Backpack-toting students on their way home from school, grandparents watching their grandkids play in the fountain, suited salarymen walking off their well-watered dinners--this is the place to soak up a Seoul evening, strolling around medieval architecture, lit up from the glare of large tv screens posted on the nearby skyscrapers...