Incheon
Metropolitan City

Tour Incheon, the gate way city to Korea.
The Stats
  • Incheon Metropolitan City (인천광역시; Incheon-si)
  • 1,063 km² (411 sq mi)
  • 2,936,214 people (3rd of 162)
  • 2,762 folks per km² (7,152 per sq mi)
Incheon Metropolitan City
A picture of Gyeyang Mountain (계양산) in Incheon, South Korea.
A picture of Gyeyang Mountain (계양산) in Incheon, South Korea.

Behind only Seoul and Busan, Incheon Metropolitan City (인천광역시) is the third most populous city in Korea (2.9 million). It sits on the northwestern corner of South Korea. To the west ebbs the Yellow (West) Sea (황해). Seoul hums to the east.

Incheon is part of the Seoul Capital Area (수도권). Along with Seoul and Gyeonggi Province, this conglomeration of around twenty-six million souls forms the world’s fourth largest metropolitan area by population and accounts for 65% of South Korea’s total population.

Some view Incheon as another one of Seoul’s commuter towns. However, the city claims its own unique identify and a few major economic engines, including:

Let’s take a deep dip.

Geography

Covering 1,063 km² (411 sq mi), Incheon is the largest metropolitan city in Korea.

Incheon is the only metropolitan city that borders North Korea. (Gyeonggi and Gangwon Provinces are the other two districts that lie on the DMZ.)

Land of Islands

Most of Incheon’s residents dwell on mainland Korea. However, the city’s islands make up most of the city’s landmass.

How much? Of Incheon’s 1,063 square-kilometers (410 sq mi), 701 square-kilometers (271 sq mi) are islands. That’s 66%!

So how many islands? One hundred and fifty-three (153).

Woah! A lot, right? Well, only forty (40) are substantial enough to accommodate people. The remaining one hundred and thirteen (113) island-flecks float along unmanned.

Incheon’s most notable islands include:

Flat Land

Compared to the rest of Korea, Incheon is flat.

The four tallest mountains — Mani (마니산; 469 m), Hyeolgu (혈구산; 466 m), Jingang (진강산; 441 m), and Goryeo (고려산; 436 m) — all live on Ganghwa Island.

On the mainland and outlying islands, only a few pass three hundred (300) meters. The rest roll along between a hundred or two meters.

Stream Land

The Han River (한강) skirts along the northern edge of Incheon. So no major river runs through Incheon. However, several streams flow through the city, including Gulpo Stream (굴포천; Gulpocheon) and the Gyeongin Ara Waterway (경인 아라뱃길).

In fact, the word for stream in Korean is “cheon” (천). Sound familiar? Yes, Incheon. More on that below.

Sand Land

Yearly, a blight washes over the Korean peninsula. Yellow Dust. What is it?

From February to April, strong winds gust through the Gobi Desert in Mongolia and northern China. It skims the fine yellow sand from the tops of dunes and carries it across the Yellow (West) Sea.

(The Yellow Sea earned its name because of its yellow sand sprinkled waves.)

Where does this sand go? You bet. Korea. And Incheon, Korea’s westernmost city, receives the first lung irritating dose.

Though Incheon sits on the front lines, its flat terrain allows the torrent of pollutants to continue eastward. Gyeonggi Province and Seoul’s hills and mountains do a better job trapping the fine particles.

A Pollution Kicker

Natural pollution wasn’t enough for you? Well, good thing China located its dirtiest factories to their coast.

The same seasonal winds that pick up yellow sand now carry industrial, 2.5PM particles spewing from Chinese factories. This can sometimes make air quality dangerous.

Temperature

Incheon dwells in the northern reaches of South Korea. However, the shallow Yellow (West) Sea takes a bite out of winter’s chill. The inland territories of Seoul and Gyeonggi Province reach higher summer and lower winter temps.

The Yellow (West) Sea also pumps globs of fog into Incheon’s atmosphere. Averaging forty-nine (49) days a year, mostly between April and July, the fog often combines with Yellow Dust to shade and cool the city.

History

Though Seoul may be the epicenter of Korea’s past and present, Incheon also played a vital role in the nation’s history.

The Two Princes

Just before the three kingdoms era, the Kingdom of Goguryeo (고구려; 37 BCE ~ 668 ACE) ruled the northern reaches of the Korean peninsula. 

According to legend, Goguryeo’s founder, King Dongmyeong, had three sons: Yuri (유리왕), Biryu (비류), and Onjo (온조왕). Yuri, the oldest, was the direct heir to the throne. 

The other two sons, Biryu and Onjo, weren’t content to live forever as princes, lounging about the palace with gaggles of concubines. So each headed south until they reached the Han River. 

The Two Capitals

With his hundred royal servants, the youngest prince, Onjo, founded a new settlement seven-kilometers upriver from the Yellow (West) Sea. He named his it Wiryeseong (위례성), near present-day Hanam City and eastern Seoul.

Biryu, the middle brother, sank his roots downriver near the mouth of the Yellow Sea. He called his capital Michuhol (미추홀) (This first recorded settlement provides the namesake for the Michuhol District (미추홀구; Michuhol-gu) in Incheon.)

Dueling Brothers

Biryu soon discovered a key flaw to his capital’s location. Salt! It infused the soil and killed crops in their cradles.

So Biryu did the mature thing. He marched upriver to his younger brother’s thriving settlement and asked/demanded the throne in Wiryeseong (위례성).

Onjo refused. So Biryo did what any humiliated big brother would do. He apologized, admitted his mistakes, and asked his brother for help.

Just kidding. He declared war.

The battle didn’t last long. Wiryeseong’s fertile plains in the Han River basin fed bottomless bowls of rice. Onjo’s uber-nourished troops cut down his brother’s starved militia.

Shamed and defeated, Biryu committed suicide.

What happened to Onjo? He named his battle tested kingdom Baekje (백제) after the one hundred (백; baek) vassal underlings that followed him to Wiryeseong.

The Baekje Dynasty ruled the southwestern portion of the Korean peninsula for hundreds of years (18 BCE ~ 660 ACE).

And Michuhol? Baekje absorbed the town, and it chugged along as a fishing village until the wide world came a-knockin’.

Birth of a Name

Michuhol was Incheon’s original name? What changed?

During the Kingdom of Goryeo (고려; 918 BCE ~ 1392 ACE), the Incheon region was home to a royal clan. The family birthed seven generations of kings and queens.

One of those descendants, Queen Sundeok, birthed King Injong (인종). To honor his mother, Injong renamed the city “Inju” (인주).

Stream Is the Name

During the Joseon Dynasty, King Taejong (조선태종) renamed every smaller county. 

How? Well, he decreed that any smaller administrative district that ended in “ju” (주) must chop off the “ju” and add the name of region’s predominate topographical feature. Either:

  • “San” (산) for mountain, or
  • “Cheon” (천) for stream (large river).

Because streams defined the landscape in Inju more than mountains, “Inju” became “Incheon.”

(Today, twenty-one (21) administrative districts hold “cheon” (천) in their name; fifteen (15) have “san” (산).)

Incheon, International City

Incheon became known as one of Korea’s first international cities. How did a humble town full of fishermen earn this esteemed title? Let’s find out.

Hermit Kingdom

Over thousands of years, larger nations and dynasties fought for influence over Korea. Here’s a short list:

All this conflict and uncertainty caused Korea to turn inward. So much so, when western powers came knocking, suspicions flared. Battles broke out.

Port of Call

Towards the end of the Joseon Dynasty (조선; 1392 ACE ~ 1897 ACE), however, European and western powers began colonizing Asian nations — India, China, Vietnam. 

Japan worried. For hundreds of years, they saw the Korean peninsula as their first step towards becoming an imperial power. They didn’t want another nation snatching up Korea for themselves.

Ganghwa Island Incident

So, in 1875, the Japanese Imperial Army sent a boat armed with modern guns to Ganghwa Island, just off the coast in Incheon.

Living up to the “hermit kingdom” status, Korea reacted. They took the first shot. And Japan? Advanced rifles locked and loaded, they blew away Korea’s antiquated fortifications.

After news of Korea’s “hostilities” reached Japan, the Imperial Emperor sent warships to Korea’s largest port in Busan.

Ganghwa Treaty

Two years later, tensions boiling over, Korea capitulated. They signed the Ganghwa Treaty with Japan.

What were the treaty’s provisions:

  1. The Joseon Dynasty was to break off relations with China’s Qing Dynasty.
  2. Japanese citizens were exempt from local Korean law.
  3. Korea needed to open three ports to the outside world.

Which ports?

  • Port of Busan (부산시)
  • Port of Wonsan (원산시; now in North Korea)
  • And the Port of Incheon.

It took six years for the Joseon Dynasty to choose Incheon. Why?

Hanyang (present-day Seoul), the capital of the Joseon Dynasty, wanted access to a port. But, still fearful of foreign interference, they didn’t want “direct” access.

So, as usual, Incheon won (or lost) the bidding. They would receive this newfangled portal to the wide and scary world full of pirates and colonizers.

Port of Incheon

In 1883, the Port of Incheon (인천항) opened for international trade. Though Busan boasted Korea’s largest, Incheon’s port gained prominence for being the closest to Seoul.

Natural Disaster

Natural disadvantages plagued Incheon Port’s early years.

The Yellow (West) Sea runs shallow. Its depth averages forty-four (44) meters. (The Mediterranean averages 1,500 meters.)

When the Yellow (West) Sea’s tide recedes twice a day, it exposes a vast muddy underbelly. This is great for migratory birds. Horrible for oversized trade ships weighed down by cargo.

A Reclamation Nation

Once Japan gained influence over Korea, they developed an interest in maximizing Korea’s resources. So in the port’s early years, enterprising Japanese investors dreaded areas around Incheon’s port. But fighting nature with late 19th century technology cost a pretty penny.

However, when Japan annexed Korea in 1910, the Imperial state threw their economic and technological weight at the port. They built a double-lock gate to allow larger ships to enter the port and offload cargo quickly. And they connected the port to the newly built Gyeongin Rail Line (경인선), Korea’s first cross-country railroad.

Today’s Port

Incheon Port is the second largest in Korea. In 2019, the port processed 3,087 container ships in 2019. (Busan Port (부산항), however, processed 29,118 ships, nine times the volume.) Its reach extends into a third of Incheon’s economy.

Four harbors make up Incheon Port:

  • Inner Port (인천내항) includes a container pier that exports automobiles, grains, and other goods. Incheon Passenger Terminal 1 sits on the outward facing coast of the port. It sends domestic ferries to Incheon’s many islands in the Yellow (West) Sea.
  • North Port (인천북항) sits just east of Ganghwa Island. The port takes in raw goods — iron, wood, and flour — processes them in nearby factories, then tosses the products back onto ships and sends them down the supply chain line.
  • South Port (인천남항) is the smallest. It can dock medium to small container ships. The port also accommodates fishing vessels.
  • Incheon New Port (인천신항) on the edge of New Songdo City. The newest port, its modern facilities include Incheon Passenger Terminal 2, with international destinations to the Chinese cities Dalian, Qingdao, Tianjin, Dandong, and Weihai.

A City of Firsts

When the Ganghwa Treaty forced Korea to open up, the Joseon Dynasty tried to contain the “foreign influence” to Incheon.

So, Incheon became the first. And the first has its perks: a cornucopia of novel dishes, ideas, and more.

Here’s a curated list of things Incheon received before the rest of Korea.

  • Jajangmyeon (짜장면), or black noodles, came to Incheon first. Dock workers from China’s Shandong Province would mix a simple chunjang, or black bean paste sauce, into a bowl of noodles and chow down. The dish spread like a wildfire. Every district in Korea today boasts a Chinese takeout that delivers steaming bowls of jajangmyeon and tangsuyuk (sweet and sour pork).
  • Incheon was the first Korean city introduced to soccer (football) and baseball, Korea’s first and second most popular sports.
  • The first sections of both the Gyeongin Rail Line (경인선; 1889) — Korea’s first modern railroad — and Gyeongin Expressway (경인고속도로; 1968) — Korea’s first modern expressway — connected Incheon and Seoul.

Here are a few more quick hitters. Incheon claims the first:

Battleground Incheon

Incheon sits near the mouth of the Han River. Pre-automobile, the waterway was the fastest route to Seoul. This made Incheon — Ganghwa Island in particular — the rubber baby buggy bumper for Korea’s international tussles.

Here are some important clashes fought on Incheon’s shores.

  • The French Expedition to Korea (병인양요; 1866) kicked off when a regent of the Joseon Dynasty rounded up and executed French missionaries and Korean Catholic converts. In retaliation, France sent a fleet of ships to Ganghwa Island. Six-hundred (600) French troops captured the island and engaged in a series of skirmishes over sixty days. However, Joseon’s soldiers numbered over 10,000. They stopped the French advance and pushed them out. 
  • The United States Expedition to Korea (신미양요; Shinmiyangyo; June 1~June 11, 1871) occurred when three United States military vessels entered the Ganghwa Straight. Their mission was to establish diplomatic ties with Korea and determine the fate of the General Sherman, a merchant marine ship which attacked Joseon troops, fled upriver into the peninsula, then tracked down by Korean troops and destroyed. When the U.S. Naval vessel approached Ganghwa island, Korea fortifications sent volleys it’s way. The U.S. commander ordered troops to invade the island. The ensuing battle killed three Americans and two-hundred Koreans.
  • Battle of Ganghwa (운요호사건; September 20, 1875) occurred when a Japanese naval vessel lured Korean troops into a battle on Ganghwa Island. This led to the Ganghwa Treaty, which gave major concessions to the Japanese Empire.
  • Battle of Chemulpo Bay (제물포해전; February 9, 1904) was a naval battle just off the coast of Incheon. It was the first battle of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), in which Russia and Japan fought for control over parts of China and Korea.

Battle of Incheon

The most impactful military battle in Korea’s history happened in Incheon during the Korean War (한국전쟁; 1950 ~ 1953). Some background.

The Pusan Perimeter

After World War II, the U.S. and Soviet Union split the Korean peninsula. A communist dictator ruled the north, and a capitalist dictator controlled the south.

Tensions boiled over, however. In June 1950, the North Korean military swooped into the south and took Seoul within a few days.

Having lost its capital, South Korea engaged in a series of losing battles and retreated ever southward. By August 1950, the Northern Army pinned the southern nation into the southeast corner of the peninsula, called the Pusan (Busan) Perimeter.

For several months the southern army maintained a fingertip grip on a 230-kilometer (140-mile) border, fighting constant attacks on all fronts.

Invasion of Incheon

The democratic U.N. forces, controlled by U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, hatched a plan to save South Korea: an amphibious assault on (you guessed it) Incheon.

To maintain the element of surprise, a few days before the invasion, U.N. aircraft bombed the City of Gunsan a couple hundred kilometers south of Incheon.

On September 15th, 1950, General MacArthur landed two U.S. divisions (Marine and Army Infantry) on Wolmi Island. Immediately, they advanced into the Gimpo and took its airfield.

After the overwhelming success of the invasion, U.N. troops marched into the Second Battle of Seoul (September 22~28, 1950). South Korean and U.N. forces retook the capital within six days and cut off the North’s supply roots.

The Korean War continued for two years and ended in a stalemate. But the Battle of Incheon (인천상륙작전; September 15~19, 1950) gave the south a fighting chance.

Culture

Incheon’s international exposure formed a unique blend of people and cultural influences. Let’s take a closer look.

People

Incheon is the third most populous city in Korea. It became the third city to surpass 3 million residents In 2016. However, because of Korea’s sub-1.0 birth rate, the numbers creeped back under the mark.

Transplants

A good majority of Incheon-ites aren’t Incheon born. Where do they come from?

  • Almost a third comes from North and South Chungcheong Province. 
  • North and South Jeolla Province also account for a sizable chunk.
  • North Korean refugees also find strong ties with existing defectors in the city.

Military

Incheon is the only metropolitan city in Korea to border North Korea. Because of this, the South Korean military keeps a firm presence. 

The Incheon Sea Area Defense Command (인천해역방어사령부) patrols Yeongjong Island (영종도; Yeongjong-do), where Incheon International Airport sits. They perform joint amphibious defense and assault practice operations with U.S. forces.

Religion

Incheon stood on the vanguard of Christianity in Korea when Methodist missionaries arrived in Incheon in 1885. They built the first permanent churches (Naeri Church) on the peninsula and began a formal spread of Protestantism.

Incheon to this day, Christianity (particularly the Methodist denomination) holds many Incheon souls under its wings. Of Incheon’s 2.9 million souls:

  • 900,000 (31%) are Christian (640,000 Protestant; 260,000 Catholic).
  • 240,000 (8%) identify as Buddhist.
  • 1,600,000 (55%) are non religious.

Food

Incheon wrote the origin story for one of Korea’s most popular dishes. Let’s find the good grub.

Jajangmyeon (Black Noodles)

When Chinese dock workers needed to refuel during their lunch break’s meager minutes, they stuffed their growlers with a simple concoction of chunjang (black bean sauce) and noodles.

Koreans adopted the fast-casual cuisine. And today every corner of the country offers their quick take on the dish. 

The Jajangmyeon Museum (짜장면박물관) in Incheon Chinatown inhabits the building where the first formal restaurant in Korea that served the dish.

Naengmyeon Alley

Near Incheon Port, in Hwapyeong Neighborhood’s (화평동) back alleys, cheap dives serve a Korean specialty: naengmyeon (냉면).

What’s naengmyeon? Noodles (rice or buckwheat) served in a cold broth. Veggies and a boiled egg on top. Refreshing on a hot summer day.

Hwapyeong’s brand gained fame when local college students swooped by the alleyways to stuff their poverty-stricken bellies. The chilled bowls of noodles earned the nickname “wash basin naengmyeon.”

Multumbang Street

Multeombaeng Street runs through Yonghyeon Neighborhood (용현동). The name Multeombaeng (물텀뱅) has an interesting story.

In years past, Incheon’s fishermen would throw their unprofitable catch back into the sea. The sound of the wasted fish hitting the water (“mul”; 물) sounded to Incheon-ites like “teom” (텀) “baeng” (뱅).” So, “mul+teom+baeng” translates to “water + ‘fish-splashy-sound.’”

But who invented the dish? When lowly Chinese dockworkers found the dead fish washed ashore, they’d collect the meat, stew it up, and serve for free.

The free fish dish gained popularity. So locals formalized it and an industry was born.

Sinpo International Market

Sinpo International Market (신포국제시장) is a traditional market that sprang up after Incheon Port opened. You can find several original and pure dishes at the market, including:

  • Dakgangjeong (닥강정) is Korea’s take on fried chicken. First introduced by African-American soldiers during the Korean War, the recipe developed in different directions. It often involves spreading a sticky, sweet sauce on fried chicken.
  • Shinpo Woori Mandu (신포우리만두) is a snack bar chain that started in Sinpo Market. It is the first to create jjolmyeon (쫄면), or chewy noodles.

Incheon vs. Seoul

Incheon is a critical member of the Seoul Capital Area. So one might assume Incheon and its big brother neighbor coexist on the best of terms. 

Yes and no … Mostly no.

Bed Town

Korea’s population density doesn’t allow for the cul de sacs and green lawns of traditional American suburbia.

But Korea has commuters. Many workers drive or take trains from smaller encampments into unaffordable metropolises.

Koreans call these smaller commuter cities (often populated by millions) “bed towns” (베드타운). Like, your office town is Seoul. And the town where your bed stays is Hanam City.

Incheon is close to Seoul. So it must also be a “bed town.” Hold up!

  1. Incheon has industrial facilities that employ a good number of workers. So many Incheon-ites work in Incheon.
  2. While rail and roads provide great access to Seoul from eastern Incheon, the rest of Incheon lacks quick access to the capital.
  3. Some Seoulites hold prejudices towards Incheon residents. The public power brokers in Seoul often overlook Incheon citizens for important positions.

Pollution Relocation

Seoul and Korea’s historic economic gains brought choking pollution to the air and water. To quiet public outcry from wealthier Seoulites, politicians needed to relocate the capital’s dirty industries:

  • landfills.
  • thermal power plants.
  • docks overstuffed with coal.
  • industrial parks with smoky factories.

Where to put them? A town not too far away. An area where past governments placed unfavorable industries (like international ports)? You guessed it. Little sister Incheon.

Economy

Put together South Korea’s nine (9) provinces and seven (7) metropolitan. Where does Incheon rank? Twelfth (12th). Why so low? It’s a story of rags to riches to rags.

But don’t count Incheon out. They have a few unique economic spark plugs firing. Let’s check under the hood.

Industry

A few decades ago, Incheon made a big bet on one of Korea’s largest corporations. And while the city took a tumble backwards down several flights of marble stairs when the conglomerate went belly up, it continues to claw its bloody paws back up the economic banister.

Some history.

Daewoo Disaster

During the Miracle on the Han (1961~1997), the Daewoo Group (대우) had an outside influence in Incheon’s economy. The second largest conglomerate in Korea kept large electronics, car, and heavy industry manufacturing companies Incheon.

In 1997, a wave of financial tidal waves washed over Asia. The economic downturn forced the chicanery by Daewoo’s chairman (Kim Woo-choong (김우중)) into the light.

Daewoo imploded by 1999. And with it, thousands of Incheon jobs, and a good chunk of the city’s tax revenue lay under the mega-corps rubble.

Incheon’s Industrial Players

Incheon still lags the rest of the country in terms of industrial output. But, major players still chug on.

The Korea’s first car manufacturing plant, the General Motors owned Bupyeong Plant (한국지엠부평공장), still churns out Cadillacs and Buicks in Incheon’s Seo District (서구; Seo-gu; West District). 

And some of Korea’s major food manufacturers — Daehan Mills (대한제분주식회사), Dongawon (사조동아원), and CJ CheilJedang (CJ제일제당) — processing facilities next to Incheon Port. Why? Logistics.

Ships brimming with rice, wheat, and other raw goods swing into port and offload their goods. Factories suck up the ingredients, jet them through ovens, then package and upload the finished products back onto waiting ships.

Incheon Free Economic Zone

To combat the major blow of Daewoo’s collapse, Incheon became the first city in Korea to establish a Free Economic Zone in 2003.

Free Economic Zone? What’s that? In order to attract more companies and jobs to the city, Incheon gives businesses a few perks:

  • Huge tax breaks to companies that invested or built in the city.
  • Build modern infrastructure and business-friendly neighborhoods.
  • Schools and more services for international clientele.

Incheon carved out three specific neighborhoods to place their Free Economic Zones:

  • Songdo International City — a self-proclaimed smart city with hyperconnected public works and millions of square feet of LEED certified “green buildings.”
  • Yeongjong International City — including Incheon International Airport, the site boasts leisure complexes, office space, and foreigner casinos. 
  • Cheongna International City — on the mainland opposite Yeongjong Island, this business district holds manufacturing facilities and office space. 

The land where Songdo and Yeongjong Cities sit was once under the Yellow Sea. But massive reclamation projects created manufactured land to build gleaming skyscrapers and more.

Incheon International Airport 

Incheon International Airport (인천국제공항) is South Korea’s largest and most vital airport. It’s also one of the world’s leading hubs for passengers and cargo, as ranked by leading institutions Skytrax and Airports Council International.

Let’s take a flyby.

History

The 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul maxed out Gimpo International Airport’s (김포국제공항) capacity, which lies on the western edge of Seoul. Add a raging economy, and South Korea was going to need a bigger airport. A world-class one.

The national government scouted the country for the perfect site. They selected, then abandoned Cheongju (청주), which lies 120 kilometers (75 miles) south of Seoul.

Why? The bigwigs in Seoul didn’t want noisy planes buzzing overhead. But they also didn’t want their international flights to include a half-day’s drive. So, they chose a nearby city used to accepting Seoul’s dirty industries: Incheon.

But where to build in Incheon? “How about the sea,” planners decided.

Muddy Sea

The Yellow Sea on both China and Korea’s shores doesn’t run deep. So when the tide recedes, you’ll often see endless acres of mud.

For humans, the site may not be archetypally beautiful. However, the sticky, brown flats reveal an underbelly of crustaceans and squiggly sea creatures: Migratory birds take a vital pit stop here and gorge their starved bellies. 

China and Korea dumped tons of earth and erected concrete embankments to grab more and more acreage from the Yellow (West) Sea over the past few decades.

These reclamation projects had devastating effects on wildlife. However, China and Korea gained valuable land along their clustered coasts.

Four Become One

Yeongjong (영종도), Yongyu (용유도), Sinbul (신불도), and Sammok (삼목도) were a cluster of islands huddled together a few kilometers off the coast of the Seo District (서구; Seo-gu; West District) in Incheon.

Why this spot?

  1. A shallow channel ran between these four islands. It was easy to dump tons of sand and gravel between them and create a new, unified island.
  2. This created real estate not only saved the county some dough, the uninhabited terrain avoided furious citizens calling for blood on city hall’s steps.
  3. Last, noisy, smoke billowing factories abound in the airport’s neighboring Seo District. A few more planes added to the mix wouldn’t bother anyone.

Construction

In 1992, construction began on Incheon International Airport, with plans open by 1997. The Asian Financial Crisis at the end of the millenium delayed airport’s christening till March 2001.

However, construction didn’t stop once the first plane landed. The airport continues to go through a series of five phases expand its facilities:

  • Phase 1 (1992~2001) built Passenger Terminal 1, runways 1 & 2 and cargo terminals.
  • Phase 2 (2002~2008) constructed runway 3, a passenger concourse, and expanded the cargo terminals.
  • Phase 3 (2009~2017) built Passenger Terminal 2, a government complex, and improved transportation networks, including the Airport Railroad (AREX).
  • Phase 4 (2018~2023) will expand Passenger Terminal 2, remodel Terminal 1, and build a 4th runway. 
  • Phase 5 (2024~2029) will build a 3rd passenger terminal and 5th runway.

Operation

Incheon is one of the busiest airports in the world. In 2019 it ranked:

  • Fourteenth (14th) worldwide (6th in east Asia) in passenger traffic (71,204,153 passengers).
  • Fifth (5th) worldwide (3rd in east Asia) in cargo traffic (2,764,369 tonnes).

The airport is also hub to Korea’s major airlines, including:

Notable Neighborhoods

Incheon has a stew of notable neighborhoods with unique histories and characteristics. Let’s tour a few.

New Songdo City

Click on any news story featuring Incheon. New Songdo City (송도동) will pop up somewhere in the b-roll. Why?

New Songdo City is a planned neighborhood. Incheon conceived it in 1994. But the national government gave it a boost with a round of funding in 2009.

Reclamation Nation

Before shining buildings rose in New Songdo, the site lived under the Yellow (West) Sea.

Like Yeongjong Island, where Incheon International Airport buzzes, civil engineers chose a shallow bit of coast off Incheon’s coast. Then, they filled in six (6) square-kilometers (2.3 sq mi) and erected barriers to create the terra firma where the neighborhood sits today.

Green City

New Songdo’s foundation wounded the natural world. But the city’s environmentally friendly mission helps ease the pain.

At a cost of over $40 billion (₩45 trillion), engineers designed almost every aspect of the city to achieve one goal: reduce energy and waste. They:

  • stuck sensors on everything to measure traffic, energy, and water usage.
  • created twenty-two (22) million square feet of LEED (or Green Building) certified office and living space.
  • installed pneumatic disposal chutes that send trash underground, where it’s sorted, recycled, and/or incinerated.

New Songdo’s 100-plus buildings account for almost half the total LEED certified spaces in South Korea.

Green Space

So New Songdo is just a bunch of fancy buildings? No, engineers set aside much of the reclaimed space for pedestrians and parks, including:

Chinatown

Incheon Chinatown is Korea’s first recognized Chinatown. It occupies a corner of the Jung-gu (중구) close to Incheon Port. While the neighborhood reached its peak long ago, an authentic aroma wafts down its streets.

History

Though the kingdoms of Korea had a closed door policy for over a millennia, they paid tribute, interbred royalty, and shared military aid to both the Ming and Qing dynasties.

During the Joseon Dynasty and for centuries before, many Chinese soldiers and merchants stationed themselves just south of Hanseong (Seoul) in Yongsan (용산). 

However, after the Ganghwa Treaty (1876) broke Korea’s tributary alliance with the Qing Dynasty. All Chinese forces vacated the peninsula.

Many of the remaining Chinese migrated eastward to the neighborhood of Jemulpo (제물포), or present day Michuhol District (미추홀구), next to the Incheon Port. There they set up shop, made homes, and started new lives.

Cultural Fountain

Over time, more Chinese migrants settled in Korea, bringing architecture, food, and businesses to this little corner of Incheon. In 1884, Incheon established the township that would become Incheon Chinatown (인천차이나타운). 

Immigration peaked in the early 1900s. Farm workers came to Incheon to capitalize on an agricultural boom and to provide cheap labor for the expanding port.

In 1901 Zhongshan Primary School opened. It taught over 1,500 students ethnic Chinese.

(Now known as Jungsan Overseas Chinese School (화교중산중학교), the school still enrolls over 400 students.)

A Decline

In 1971, the Korean government imposed the Foreign Land Acquisition and Management Act (외국인 토지 취득 및 관리에 관한 법). The policies limited immigrant families to owning only: 

  • One 200 pyeong (평; 660 sq m; 7,117 sq ft) residence.
  • One 50 pyeong (평; 165 sq m; 1,779 sq ft) business.
  • Pyeong in Korean is used to measure space. One pyeong equals 3.31 square meters or 35.58 square feet.

The rules gave plenty of living space for Chinese families. But it put a tourniquet around Chinese businesses. Many large restaurants and businesses in Chinatown closed.

Adding to their pain, in 1973 the government halted the sale of rice to Chinese businesses to promote local Korean snack restaurants. While Korea reversed the policy after three months, more Chinese restaurants shuttered.

Chinatown Highlights

The Korean government designated Incheon Chinatown as a special tourist zone in 2001.

Though government policies drained the neighborhood of legacy businesses, you’ll still find a strong ethnic core. About a fourth of Incheon’s Chinese population lives in Chinatown.

Highlights include:

  • Jajangmyeon Museum (짜장면박물관) inhabits a building that was once a large Chinese banquet hall called, Gonghwachun (공화춘). The hall owner built the structure in 1908 using Qing Dynasty architectural style. The restaurant was one of the first to sell jajangmyeon, or black noodles. In 2006, Incheon designated the building a Cultural Heritage Property. In 2012, after a two year remodel, it reopened as a museum depicting the history of jajangmyeon in Korea.
  • Three Kingdoms Mural Street (삼국지벽화거리; Samgukji Mural Street) is a long streetside wall covered in 160 murals. The pictures include descriptions and retell the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
  • A Chinese monk (황합경) built Uiseondang (의선당) in 1883. It is one of the first Chinese monasteries constructed in Korea.

Ganghwa Island

Ganghwa Island (강화도; Ganghwa-do) is the fourth largest island (302 square kilometers; 117 square miles) in South Korea.

Its name can translate to flourishing (hwa; 화) river (gang; 강). Why? Ganghwa is a delta, formed from the Han River’s silt runoff.

The island’s also provides the namesake for Ganghwa District’s (강화군; Ganghwa-gun), which includes fifteen other islands, like Seongmo (석모도) and Gyodong (교동도) Islands.

Before 1995, Ganghwa was a part of Gyeonggi Province. And though it’s within Incheon’s jurisdiction, the island lies closer to Gimpo City (김포시) than mainland Incheon.

History

Some say Ganghwa Island’s history mirrors Korea. Several pivotal battles and events took place on its shores that changed the country’s destiny. Let’s look at the major ones.

Mongolian Invasion

During the Kingdom of Goryeo (고려; 918 BCE ~ 1392 ACE), the Mongols invaded the Korean peninsula. During the first invasion (1216~1219), Goryeo’s army bent. But it didn’t break. So the Mongols retreated to the north and regrouped.

second invasion was imminent, however. And they had no answer for the almighty Mongolian cavalry. Their horses would stop all over the weakened Korean army.

But General Choe U (최우) had an idea: uproot the royal court and army from Goryeo’s capital Kaesong (개성시; known then as Songdo). Replant everyone twenty-five (25) kilometers south on Ganghwa Island.

Why? Everyone knew the Mongolian Army and water didn’t mix. 

General Choe U whisked King Gojong (고려고종) across the Ganghwa Strait, then ordered the military to build fortifications on the shores of both the island and mainland.

The strategy worked. The invading army conquered deep into the peninsula. But, they never took Ganghwa Island by force.

The Mongolian Invasions lasted over twenty years (1231~1259) and six campaigns. And while the Mongols exhausted the Kingdom of Goryeo and made them a vassal state, Ganghwa Island remained a stronghold for the royal family.

Today you’ll find many important Goryeo artifacts populating on the Island, including the Goryeo Palace (고려궁지).

More Battles

Here is a quick list of other important historical facts about Ganghwa Island:

  • Joseon Dynasty kings exiled military and political opponents to the island.
  • Ganghwa Island was one of the primary sites where the Joseon Dynasty executed Catholic missionaries and Korean converters.
  • The French Expedition to Korea (1866) was a battle between Joseon Dynasty and France. French invaded Ganghwa to retaliate against Catholic missionaries’ martyrdom.
  • United States Expedition to Korea (1871) occurred when America entered Korean territory to establish diplomatic ties and investigate what happened to a merchant marine vessel. When Joseon troops fired on the U.S. vessel, the American commander invaded Ganghwa Island.
  • As discussed above, in 1876 a Japanese military boat pulled the Korean military into a conflict on Ganghwa Island. The clash gave Imperial Japan an excuse to exert their diplomatic and military might. They forced Korea to sign the Ganghwa Treaty, which expanded Japan’s influence on the peninsula.

More Neighborhoods

Here’s a brief rundown of other important neighborhoods in Incheon.

Yeongjong Island

Yeongjong Island (영종도; Yeongjong-do) sits about three (3) kilometers off the coast of Incheon. Before 1992, it was four separate islands:

  • Yeongjong (영종도) — largest; eastern 
  • Yongyu (용유도) — 2nd largest; western
  • Sinbul (신불도) — smallest; middle-south
  • Sammok (삼목도) — 2nd smallest; middle-north

What happened? Incheon International Airport.

When the nation needed a new, world class airport, they chose these humble plots in the Yellow (West) Sea and filled in the shallow tidal flat between them to create a mega island.

More Than an Airport

Yeongjong is the sixth largest island in Korea (126 km²; 49 sq mi). While the airport claims half the space, you’ll find more than just planes and glitzy terminals.

On the eastern portion of the island lies Yeongjong International City (영종국제도시). This purpose-built neighborhood is a part of Incheon’s Free Economic Zone.

What does that mean? Each economic zone in Incheon fulfills a brand.

So what is Yeongjong City? K-Vegas.

Developments focus on creating amenities that might draw foreigners from the large international portal, including:

  • casinos (foreigner-only).
  • 5-star hotels & resorts.
  • shopping malls.
  • convention centers.
  • a marina.
Incheon Bridge

Incheon Bridge (인천대교), completed in October 2009, connects mainland Incheon to Yeongjong Island. It is the longest cable-stayed bridge in Korea (tenth longest in the world).

Wolmi Island

Wolmi Island (월미도; Wolmido) isn’t much of an island anymore. As Incheon reclaimed sections of the Yellow (West) Sea, Wolmi became a peninsula. 

During the Korean War, troops landed on the island of Wolmi during one of Korea’s most important conflicts: the Battle of Incheon. After the war, the U.S. Military established a base on the island.

In 2001, the military withdrew and Wolmi Park emerged. A seaside tourism industry followed. Today a theme park and countless coffee shops populate the shores of Wolmi.

Seo-gu

The Seo District (서구; Seo-gu; West District) occupies the largest area of land (137 sq km; 53 sq mi) on mainland Incheon.

In years past, the factories, landfills, and other “dirty industries” swarmed the region. However, Cheongna International City and the Ara Bicycle Path helped revitalize the district’s image.

Ongjin County

An assembly of Islands in the Yellow (West) Sea form Onjin County (옹진군; Onjin-gun) — five large islands, dozens of small ones, and many uninhabited specks.

Bridges extend to only two Onjin County islands: Yeongheung (영흥도) and Seonjae (선재도). You’ll need to hop on a ferry to see the remaining islands.

Baengnyeong Island (백령도; Baengnyeong-do) marks the furthest western point of South Korea. It bobs just below the DMZ, about 200 kilometers (124 miles) west of the peninsula.

Gyeyang District

Gyeyang District (계양구; Gyeyang-gu) wedges between the Seo District and Seoul.

Because Gyeyang boasts greater access to Seoul, it’s Incheon’s only real “bed town.”

Gyeyang Mountain (계양산; Gyeyangsan; 396 meter peak) gave the district is name. If you climb to the mountain’s top on a clear day, you can see 63 Building on Yeouido Island in Seoul.

Gyeyang District holds the eastern half of the Ara Bicycle Path.

More Highlights

Additional highlights found in Incheon include: