Behind only Seoul and Busan, Incheon Metropolitan City (인천광역시; map) is the third most populous city in Korea (2.9 million). It sits in the northwestern corner of South Korea. To the west ebbs the Yellow (West) Sea (황해; map). 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.
- 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)
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:
- Incheon International Airport — Korea’s largest airport.
- Incheon Port — Korea’s second largest port.
- Incheon Free Economic Zone — Korea’s first international business friendly districts.
Let’s take a deep dip.
Covering 1,063 km² (411 sq mi), Incheon is the largest metropolitan city in Korea.
- To the West: the Yellow (West) Sea (황해; map)
- To the North: the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)
- To the East: Seoul Metropolitan City (서울특별시; map; Seoul-si)
- To the South: Gyeonggi Province (경기도; map; Gyeonggi-do)
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? Only 40 are big enough for people. The remaining one hundred and thirteen (113) island-flecks float along unmanned.
Incheon’s most notable islands include:
- Yeongjong Island (영종도; map; Yeongjong-do) is Korea’s fourth largest. It is home to Incheon International Airport and Yeongjong City, one of Incheon’s Free Economic Zones.
- Ganghwa Island (강화도; map; Ganghwa-do) is Incheon’s largest island. It holds many artifacts from the Kingdom of Goryeo (고려; 918 BCE ~ 1392 ACE).
- Wolmi Island (월미도; map; Wolmido) was the site where UN Forces landed during the Battle of Incheon. Today it’s a tourist attraction.
Compared to the rest of Korea, Incheon is flat.
On the mainland and outlying islands, only a few pass three hundred (300) meters. The rest roll along between a hundred or two meters.
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; map; Gulpocheon) and the Gyeongin Ara Waterway (경인 아라뱃길; map).
In fact, the word for stream in Korean is “cheon” (천). Sound familiar? Yes, Incheon.
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 onto 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.
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.
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
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; map; Michuhol-gu) in Incheon.)
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 humiliated big brothers 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.
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?
One of those descendants, Queen Sundeok, birthed King Injong (인종). To honor his mother, Injong renamed the city “Inju” (인주).
Stream Is the Name
How? Well, he decreed that any smaller administrative district that ended in “ju” (주) must chop off the “ju” and add the name of the 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 fishers earn this esteemed title? Let’s find out.
Over thousands of years, larger nations and dynasties fought for influence over Korea. Here’s a short list:
- The Mongol Empire controlled the Goryeo Dynasty (1270~1356).
- The Joseon Dynasty paid tribute to China’s Ming Dynasty (1368~1636),
- and to the succeeding Qing Dynasty (1636~1876).
- Japan invaded and razed Korea twice over six years (1592~1598).
- Imperial Japan occupied Korea (1910~1945).
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
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
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.
Two years later, tensions boiling over, Korea capitulated. They signed the Ganghwa Treaty with Japan.
What were the treaty’s provisions?
- The Joseon Dynasty was to break off relations with China’s Qing Dynasty.
- Japanese citizens were exempt from local Korean law.
- Korea needed to open three ports to the outside world.
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.
Natural disadvantages plagued Incheon Port’s early years.
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.
Incheon Port is the second largest in Korea. In 2019, the port processed 3,087 container ships. (Busan Port [부산항: map], 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; map) 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; map) 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; map) is the smallest. It can dock medium to small container ships. The port also accommodates fishing vessels.
Incheon New Port (인천신항; map) sits 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:
- lighthouse — Palmido Lighthouse (팔미도등대; map).
- western style park — Freedom Park (자유공원; map).
- public museum — Incheon City Museum (인천광역시립박물관; map).
- protestant churches — Naeri Church (내리교회; map).
- movie theater — Aegwan Theater (애관극장; map).
- foreigner social club — Jemulpo Club (제물포구락부; map).
- modern car manufacturing plant — now the GM Bupyeong Plant (한국지엠부평공장; map).
- beach — Myodo Beach (묘도해수욕장), now defunct.
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 its 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
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
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.
After the overwhelming success of the invasion, U.N. troops marched into the Second Battle of Seoul (September 22~28, 1950). South Korea and U.N. forces retook the capital within six days and cut off the North’s supply roots.
Incheon’s international exposure formed a unique blend of people and cultural influences. Let’s take a closer look.
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.
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; map; Yeongjong-do), where Incheon International Airport sits. They perform joint amphibious defense and assault practice operations with U.S. forces.
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.
Incheon wrote the origin story for one of Korea’s most popular dishes. Let’s find 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.
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.”
Multeombaeng Street runs through Yonghyeon Neighborhood (용현동; map). The name Multeombaeng (물텀뱅) has an interesting story.
In years past, Incheon’s fishers 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
- 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.
Korea’s population density doesn’t allow for the cul-de-sac and green lawns of traditional American suburbia.
But Korea has commuters. Many workers drive or take trains from smaller encampments into unaffordable metropolises.
Incheon is close to Seoul. So it must also be a “bed town.” Hold up!
- Incheon has industrial facilities that employ a good number of workers. So many Incheon-ites work in Incheon.
- While rail and roads provide great access to Seoul from eastern Incheon, the rest of Incheon lacks quick access to the capital.
- Some Seoulites hold prejudices towards Incheon residents. The public power brokers in Seoul often overlook Incheon citizens for important positions.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- New Songdo City — a self-proclaimed smart city with hyper-connected 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.
The 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul maxed out Gimpo International Airport’s (김포국제공항; map) 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.
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.
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; map), Yongyu (용유도; map), Sinbul (신불도), and Sammok (삼목도; map) were a cluster of islands huddled together a few kilometers off the coast of the Seo District (서구; map; Seo-gu; West District) in Incheon.
Why this spot?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
In 1992, construction began on Incheon International Airport, with plans open by 1997. The Asian Financial Crisis at the end of the millennium 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.
Incheon is one of the world’s busiest airports. 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:
Incheon has a stew of notable neighborhoods with unique histories and characteristics. Let’s tour a few.
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.
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.
So, New Songdo is just a bunch of fancy buildings? No, engineers set aside much of the reclaimed space for pedestrians and parks, including:
- Songdo Central Park (송도센트럴파크; map) includes a deer park. New York’s Central Park inspired its design.
- Sunrise Park (해돋이공원; map) is a mass of spiraling walking paths and a music fountain.
- Moonlight Park (송도달빛축제공원; map) holds an art center and an annual cultural festival.
- Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea (잭니클라우스골프클럽코리아; map) is an LEED certified golf course.
Though the kingdoms of Korea had a closed door policy for over a millennium, 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; map), next to the Incheon Port. There they set up shop, made homes, and started new lives.
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; map).
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.
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.
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.
- Jajangmyeon Museum (짜장면박물관; map) 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; map; 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.
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.
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.
But General Choe U (최우) had an idea: uproot the royal court and army from Goryeo’s capital Kaesong (개성시; map; 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.
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. The 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.
Here’s a brief rundown of other important neighborhoods in Incheon.
Yeongjong Island (영종도; map; Yeongjong-do) sits about three (3) kilometers off the coast of Incheon. Before 1992, it was four separate islands:
- Yeongjong (영종도; map) — largest; eastern
- Yongyu (용유도; map) — 2nd largest; western
- Sinbul (신불도) — smallest; middle-south
- Sammok (삼목도; map) — 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.
What does that mean? Each economic zone in Incheon fulfills a brand.
- Songdo City promotes itself as a gleaming future city.
- Cheongna City provides advanced manufacturing space.
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.
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.
An assembly of Islands in the Yellow (West) Sea form Onjin County (옹진군; map; Onjin-gun) — five large islands, dozens of small ones, and many uninhabited specks.
The Gyeyang District (계양구; map) wedges between the Seo District and Seoul.
Because Gyeyang boasts greater access to Seoul, it’s Incheon’s only real “bed town.”
Gyeyang District holds the eastern half of the Ara Bicycle Path.
Additional highlights found in Incheon include:
- Yeonan Pier (연안부두; map) sits near Incheon Port. It includes a passenger terminal where ferries take passengers to Incheon’s outer islands. Incheon Fish Market (인천종합어시장; map) is nearby.
- Freedom Park or Incheon Jayu Park (자유공원; map) is Korea’s first modern park, built in 1888. After the Korean War, Incheon erected a statue of American General Douglas MacArthur, who led the Battle of Incheon.
- Songwol-dong Fairy Tale Village (송월동 동화마을; map) is a neighborhood near Incheon Port. After years of poverty, Incheon finally invested in the neighborhood in 2013. You’ll find mural covered houses, Disney sculptures, and endless photo-zones.