Seoul’s modern history is a tumultuous one, but the city keeps her scars well hid beneath hard-earned layers of development and success. There are some areas, though, where the wounds have been left exposed, and you can get a glimpse of the troubles the capital and its people have been through. A good place to do that and to gain a deeper appreciation for how far the city and country have come is the area around Dongnimmun, or Independence Gate.
The station takes its name from the triumphal arch that sits just south of Exit 4. Near the intersection of Tong-il-ro (통일로) and Seongsan-ro (성산로), the large gray stones of Independence Gate (독립문) frame the south entrance to Seodaemun Independence Park (서대문독립공원). The arch was constructed in 1897 and modeled on France’s Arc de Triomphe, as seemingly all arches everywhere are. Previously this had been the location of a different gate, Yeongeunmun (영은문), where envoys from the suzerain Ming and Qing dynasties of China were received. Soon after the First Sino-Japanese war ended the gate was demolished, and a year later Independence Gate was completed. Near the gate is a statue of 서재필 (Seo Jae-Pil), a renowned independence activist and the man who was responsible for organizing the gate’s construction.
Opposite the arch, across Seongsan-ro, is Yeongcheon Market (영천시장). Covered stalls filled with produce lead down a side street to a larger covered market. Quite a bit longer than you first suspect when coming from the station, the market building houses, in addition to the usual suspects, a small supermarket and even places selling finches, goldfish, and fishing supplies.
Back beyond the arch, Independence Park is full of remnants of and memorials to Korea’s troubled past. The largest and most significant of these is the Seodaemun Prison History Hall (서대문형무소역사관), just up the path from Exit 5. When you reach the top of this short path you’re met with the sight of a red brick wall about ten feet high with an arched entryway reminiscent of the front of a barn. Next to the entrance rises a gray octagonal watch tower with small windows in each side. The tableau is at once stern and quaint: the sturdy bricks and squat dimensions give it an air of authority, but for anyone who’s ever seen or is familiar with modern super-max facilities it lacks the ability to intimidate. Its slightly nostalgic quality shouldn’t fool you about the horrors that occurred inside, though.
Built by the Japanese, the prison was opened in 1908 with a design meant to hold up to 500 inmates. A mere 11 years later it held 3,000, an indicator of how vigorous the Korean resistance was and how harsh the Japanese repression.
Visitors are taken on a self-guided tour that begins in the Exhibition Hall with an overview of imperialism in Korea, from the French landing on Ganghwa Island (강화도) to the Sino-Japanese War to Japanese colonization. It also tells you how the prison was expanded in the 1930s by a magnitude of 30 from its original 1,600 square meters in order to accommodate the explosion in arrests of Korean independence activists. What the history glosses over is that the prison was not shut down with the defeat of the Japanese, but was maintained by Korea’s subsequent dictatorships and put to use for their own nefarious purposes until finally being closed in 1987.
From the Exhibition Hall you pass into the Central Prison Building, which was the command and control center of the old prison and held the warden’s office. Here there is a variety of information on resistance movements, with basic information provided in English. There is also a memorial hall, where the mug shots of some 5,000 killed independence activists cover the walls. It’s a humbling sight.
In Prison Building No. 12 the exhibitions continue in the basement with displays on how inmates were interrogated and tortured by their captors. One of these was simply called water torture (물고문), and consisted of a prisoner being strung upside down by the feet while a prison guard either dunked his head in water or poured water from a kettle up his nose to make him think he was drowning. I suppose you would have argued that the Japanese were only using an ‘enhanced interrogation technique,’ though, huh John Yoo?
Above the interrogation and torture chambers, and in Prison Building No. 11 as well, concrete block and steel corridors of cells show the prisoners’ quarters: small wood-floored squares with heavy triple bolts on each door. When the prisoners were let out it was often to go to the Engineering Work Building, which housed some of the 12 factories that were set up in the prison, mostly to produce textiles and clothes. Finished goods were used both within the prison itself and also to bolster the Japanese war effort.
In a rather disorienting contrast with the horrors and deprivations that once occurred here, the grounds of the prison are beautiful. The stately red brick buildings contrast with the bright green grass of what are some of the nicest lawns in Seoul, and the entire complex is surrounded by hills that are often shrouded in mist, and fronted by the rising peak of Mount Inwang. I haven’t been there in winter, but I’m sure that it would be equally lovely on a bright, crisp January morning, covered in a blanket of snow.
The one building that, fittingly, scars the lovely scene is tucked away in the far southwest corner. The Execution Building is a homely structure of unpainted wood planks that looks something like a frontier schoolhouse. Inside three benches face what looks like a miniature stage, where a noose hangs above a stool set on a trap door. There are even curtains, and one wonders if they were opened for the performance or closed before the final act, each its own respective type of cowardice.
Surrounding the Prison History Hall is the large Independence Park, which has many of the things your average neighborhood park would have – walking paths, exercise machines, basketball courts – but which also hosts a couple of structures related to Korea’s independence struggles: the Patriotic Martyr Monument (순국선열추념탑) and the Independence Hall (독립관).
The former, a tower of taegeukgis flanked by bas relief of scenes of famous activists, was erected by the Seoul Metropolitan Government on August 15, 1992. The latter, just a few meters away from the Independence Gate, went through a transformation similar to its neighbor. Originally called Mohwagwan (모화관) and used to entertain Chinese emissaries, it later hosted forums to promote independence. Destroyed by the Japanese it was reconstructed in 1996 and now the handsome dark brown wood structure houses memorial tablets and relics.
Across Tong-il-ro is the neighborhood’s other main feature: an entrance to Mount Inwang (인왕산), Seoul’s most spiritual mountain, and the trio of attractions found on its lower slopes: Guksadang, Seonbawi, and a carved Buddha.
If you step out of Exit 2 you should notice a sign pointing left up Tong-il-ro-14-gil (통일로14길) to Seonbawi and Inwangsan Guksadang. Past this the route isn’t well signposted, but the entrance isn’t too hard to find. From the station exit, make the sharp turn at the sign and follow the road up to the Hanok Restaurant (한옥). Take a right there, toward the steps that you should see in that direction. If you’re not sure, the friendly ajumma in the nearby convenience store will point the way, as she did for me. At the top of the steps is an inclined sidewalk with a wood fence on the right and I’Park apartments on your left. Here you should see a sign or two again. It’s only about 200 meters to the mountain path entrance.
At the entrance to Inwangsan is a brightly painted wooden gate, from which it’s just 150 meters to Guksadang and another 30 to Seonbawi. You’ll pass a few small temples on the way up, including Seonamjeong Temple (선암정사), where a vicious-looking pair of door guardians scare off evil spirits, one wielding a scimitar, the other holding a boulder over his head.
I could already hear the sound of drums coming from above, and just a few more steps took me to their source at Guksadang (국사당), a wooden shrine in the familiar burgundy with emerald trim, finished off with bright and intricate detailing. Vivid robes in several different bright colors hung from a thin rope across a doorway, and inside was a large central altar stacked with fruit and flowers and bearing a pig head, its mouth stuffed full of money. Several shaman assistants in all white hanbok sat inside, a couple of them on smoke break. Off to my right I noticed a monk in gray robes and wide-brimmed straw hat ascending some steps, a big plastic bag full of groceries in either hand. As soon as he disappeared through a gate the drums, which had gone quiet, took up their cadence again, this time joined by a pair of cymbals and a piri (피리), the keening traditional Korean flute. The female shaman, or mudang (무당), dressed magnificently in royal blue robes and a red hat with two pheasant feathers sticking straight up, began to walk around rhythmically in front of the alter, her eyes closed.
Guksadang is the country’s most important shamanist shrine, said to house the spirit of King Taejo, founder of the Joseon Dynasty. Originally located on Namsan, it was rebuilt here after being demolished by the Japanese in 1925. Korean shamanism is an animist religion or, maybe more accurately, belief system, and one of its primary features is the gut (굿) (pronounced goot), a rite performed by the mudang to do everything from pray for a bountiful harvest to initiate a new shaman.
This particular rite was a memorial service being performed for the surviving family, which consisted of the widow, some sons and daughters, and one grandchild, who seemed far more interested in his ice cream than in what was going on around him. Indeed, the expressions on the sons and daughters’ faces were mostly ones of forbearance; indulging mom in a belief they themselves had lost.
I lingered outside for a bit, trying to make myself inconspicuous, unsure of whether or not I was welcome, but just as I was about to leave one of the assistants, a woman with a small streak of hot pink in her hair, waved me around to the side and invited me in, and I sat down to watch the ceremony.
Guts are hard to reconcile with modern Korea, but they’re still a common occurrence at Guksadang. This particular one mostly alternated between the shaman intoning, bouncing, and walking about in front of the altar, and inveighing in a chant-talk before the family. It also involved more costume changes on the shaman’s part than you’d see at most pop concerts. The most curious moment came partway through when the family was ushered outside to sit on the temple steps. They were then given a large sheet of white crepe paper to hold over their heads, onto which the shaman sprinkled first water, then sesame seeds that had been in a bowl together with eggs and what looked like feces. Several colorful flags were then waved above them, followed by a pair of knives that the shaman banged together, tapped on each family member’s head, and stabbed the air with. Finally, she took the paper, lit it on fire, and waved it in the air before taking a sip of liquid and spitting it in a spray over the family’s heads.
The ceremony was long – after this climax everyone went back inside for more of the back and forth of chanting and posturing before the altar – and when it reached a point where it began to turn into a session of genuine mourning I quietly made my leave, hiking the 50 meters up to Seonbawi (선바위) (often Romanized as the Zen Rocks, Taoist Rocks, or Immortal Rocks). Called this because they are said to resemble a pair of robed monks absorbed in meditation, they’re a popular spot for women to visit to pray for a child. My secular mind was unable to make out anything even remotely monk-like in their appearance. What they mostly look like is a giant chunk of half-melted butter that someone then took swipes out of with their fingers, or like an ooze creature that had risen up from the ground only to glimpse Medusa and be turned into stone. You might not be after a child, but the rocks do offer magnificent views across the city, taking in Namsan, Jongno Tower, and the folds of mountains ringing the city. It’s a peaceful view, and it’s likely the only sounds you’ll hear will be the drumming carrying up from Guksadang and the cooing of the dozens of pigeons that like to hang out on the rocks.
On your way back to the station, you might want to stop by the Rock-carved Buddha (마애불) that’s down a pathway to your left if you’re standing facing the steps to Seonbawi. Frankly, it’s not very impressive. About two meters high and lacking in intricacy it left me a bit disappointed, though it undoubtedly suffers from comparisons to the area’s more fascinating surroundings.
Independence Gate (독립문)
Yeongcheon Market (영천시장)
South on Tong-il-ro (통일로), cross Seongsan-ro (성산로)
Seodaemun Independence Park (서대문독립공원)
Exit 4 or 5
Seodaemun Prison History Hall (서대문형무소역사관)
Mar – Oct: 9:30-18:00; Nov – Feb: 9:30-17:00; Closed Jan. 1, Seollal, Chuseok, and Mondays (Tuesday if Monday is a holiday)
Adults: 1,500; Teenagers: 1,000; Kids 7-12: 500
Mount Inwang (인왕산)
Left on Tong-il-ro-14-gil (통일로14길), right at Hanok Restaurant (한옥), up stairs and sidewalk
Follow the path leading up from the parking lot on your left after passing through the Inwangsan’s entrance gate; approximately 15 minutes from the station
Follow the path up from Guksadang
Rock-carved Buddha (마애불)
Standing at the base of the stairs to Seonbawi, follow the path to the left
Parts of this post first appeared in the March 2012 issue of SEOUL magazine.