Dongjak’s best real estate sits on a large hill below the city’s southernmost bend in the Han River, giving it unobstructed views of the slowly moving waters and the northern half of the city spread out beyond them. It’s home to some 165,000 residents, all of them prominent though few famous, the identities of some of whom are known to no one, not even their families. They reside in Seoul National Cemetery, the enormous swath of hillside that takes up 353 acres southwest of the station and is the neighborhood’s defining landmark.
We’ll of course spend a good deal of time there, but first I want to take a brief tour through the rest of the neighborhood. This is not actually the easiest thing to do, as the neighborhood is pinned between hill and river and wrapped in a tangle of highway. Just outside of Exit 3 is one entrance to Dongjak Chunghyo-gil (동작충효길) (Dongjak Loyalty and Filial Piety Trail) a walking course linking Dongjak with Nodeul Station (노들역) via a greenbelt that runs up around the cemetery and through parkland. This is in turn linked to other courses that lead to Sadang (사당), Noryangjin (노량진), and Boramae Stations (보라매역), allowing you to traverse much of south-central Seoul on foot.
If you don’t take the very long, very steep staircase up to the trail and continue following the highway around to the right, you’ll trace a wall covered in both ivy and murals of independence fighters and landscapes related to the adjacent cemetery. This eventually leads to a small rest area on the sidewalk featuring Isu Waterfall (이수폭포), a small artificial falls and pond that’s nice enough itself, but which suffers from the multiple lanes of traffic whizzing by right in front of it.
The two other things that might be of interest to the casual visitor are both outside Exit 1. To the right is Humming Way (허밍웨이) a walking path running above Banpo Stream (반포천). One of the few places in the neighborhood where pedestrians can get a respite from traffic, it’s lined with firs and cherry trees, making it especially pretty in the spring when the pink and white flowers form a canopy overhead. A fence decorated with musical notes runs along one side of the path, while down below on the other the stream makes its way toward the river.
If instead you turn left out of the exit you can do the same. Haechi points the way to the Cloud Café (구름카페) on Dongjak Bridge (동작대교); follow him up the blue steps and you’ll find yourself walking along the highway, traffic alongside, in front of, and below you. Located on either side of the bridge is Cloud Café, one of several such elevated cafes installed in recent years as part of the riverside revitalization. I hadn’t been to any of them before and was keen to check it out and maybe take a break from walking around to have a coffee and gaze at the river for a bit. That is, if it wasn’t an overpriced bauble that was all style and little substance. I sat down and was handed a menu. Fried rice was 15,000 won.
Below the café is a rather sparse stretch of the Han River Park (한강공원), where bike and walking paths curve along with the river but very few of the features you might find in other stretches of the park. Underneath the bridge is a broad resting plaza, and just a bit further west is the spot where the Banpo Stream empties into the river.
The best reason to come to Dongjak, though, is to visit Seoul National Cemetery (국립서울현충원), the main entrance to which is just outside Exit 8. Established in 1955, it’s the burial site for presidents, soldiers, independence fighters, police, and other notable actors in Korea’s history.
It was a glorious spring day when I visited, the sun shining. A half-dozen or so photographers with tripods were set up around the 13-meter tall fountain just inside the entrance, capturing the arcs of water bowing up and down the two tiers of dragons and soldiers, all backgrounded by magnolias and the blossoms of the cemetery’s cherry trees, many of which are weeping cherry trees with willowy drooping boughs. In fact, the cemetery is one of the best places in Seoul for springtime cherry tree viewing, particularly if you want a more peaceful experience than the Yeouido carnival can offer.
And it in fact looked as if many of the visitors to the cemetery weren’t coming to visit gravesites or to pay their respects, but merely to take in the lovely surroundings and take advantage of its ample green space. The largest of these is just beyond the fountain at the entrance, an enormous grass lawn where kids ran around and families relaxed. Several tents had also been set up for some kind of event, and lousy techno poured out of big speakers while someone dressed in a giant bunny costume wandered about.
Quieter groups tended to gravitate toward the northeast corner of the grounds, which was particularly pretty, with the Hyungchoong Stream (현충천) terminating next to a small pond that was surrounded by evergreens and cherry trees. With the latter in bloom, it was incredibly idyllic.
Also in this corner of the complex is a trio of exhibition halls that form three sides of a large parking lot. To the south is the Relics Exhibition Hall (유품전시관) where possessions of soldiers, independence fighters, and patriots are on display: clothing, boots, books, letters, calligraphy sets. Also displayed are some of the belongings of Presidents Syngman Rhee (이승만), Park Chung-hee (박정희), and Kim Dae-jung (깁대중), all three of whom are buried elsewhere on the grounds. To the east is the Memorial Hall (현충관), where films on the cemetery and national patriots are shown by reservation to groups of 15 or more. And on the north side is the Photography Exhibition Hall (사진전시관), where photos and timelines of the independence struggle, Korean War, and modern life in both North and South Korea can be viewed.
A steady stream of cars was making its way into the cemetery when I visited, possibly to make up for the previous weekend’s hansik (한식), the traditional spring day for visiting and cleaning graves, when the weather had been rather dismal. I followed the vehicles back to where the gravestones, neat as teeth, were arranged in 55 terraced sections, the sections divided in two by the stream. Each tombstone bore a name and rank on its front, a date and location of death on its back, and had a small plastic vase of fake white or purple flowers in the earth next to it. The stones stood still and erect, aligned with as much military precision in death as in life.
I walked up the hill that formed the western half of the cemetery and partway up arrived at a Graveyard for Meritorious Citizens No. 3 (유공자 제3묘역). Buried here were Park Tae-joon (박태준), the founder and CEO of POSTECH and POSCO and an ex-prime minister, and Jeon Myeong-se (전명세), a KAL pilot who, in 1971, saved 60 people and foiled a hijacking attempt by throwing himself on top of a grenade. In other Graveyards for Meritorious Citizens victims of the 1983 bomb blast at the Martyr’s Mausoleum in Yangon, poets, and Ahn Ik-tae (안익태), the composer of the national anthem, are buried.
Up a set of stairs from the Graveyard for Meritorious Citizens No. 3 was the Graveyard for Patriots (애국지사 묘역), where by complete chance I stumbled across the gravesite of Seo Jae-pil (서재필), a.k.a. Philip Jaisohn, which was located at the far right of the section’s last row. Seo was the man who was primarily responsible for the construction of Independence Gate (독립문), and we talked about him quite a bit in that post. Also in this plot is the tombstone of one of three foreigners buried at Seoul National Cemetery: Frank W. Schofield, a Canadian veterinarian and agitator for Korean independence. The other two non-Koreans interred here are Gang Hui Lin and Wie Xu-fang, Chinese nationals who fought with the South during the Korean War, Gang being killed in action, Wie passing away in 1989.
Behind the Graveyard for Patriots was the Altar to Heirless Patriots (무후선열제단), where the memorial tablets of 133 independence fighters are kept, including that of Yu Gwan-sun (유관순). Next was a section devoted to members of the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai (1919-45) and then, at the very top of the hill, the three pillars of the Memorial to the Unknown Warriors (대한독립군 무영용사 위령탑).
I followed the road and walking path east around the upper ridge, passing tour groups and people kitted out in hiking gear until I reached the gravesite of President Park Chung-hee, which sits on the best real estate in the entire complex, with a commanding view of the Han River below. Described in the literature, rather richly, as Korea’s ‘fifth to ninth President,’ Park is buried alongside his wife, Yuk Young-soo (육영수), beneath matching earthen mounds atop stone plinths. Small brass urns sat before each, and a larger bronze urn, smoking with incense, rested on an altar in front, while off to the side a large stone stele capped with the presidential twin phoenixes bore the names of the president and his wife. Some of the visitors bowed solemnly to pay their respects; others read the stone monuments inscribed with poems or snapped photos of themselves in front of the graves.
Just down the hill from Park’s burial site was that of President Kim Dae-jung. Although it too had a presidential stele, an engraved poem, and an incense urn, it was a considerably more modest affair. Kim was buried beneath a simple earthen mound, sans stone plinth, that was half-mooned by two earthen ridges behind in. A crucifix was set on the small marble altar in front.
A few more steps down the hill was the gravesite of Korea’s first president, Syngman Rhee, and his wife, Franziska Donner Rhee. The entrance was guarded by two rather chill tigers, beyond which was a single large burial mound atop a stone base, where both president and first lady rested. Stone lanterns flanked the grave, and the by now familiar presidential stele and brass urn completed the scene.
Between Kim and Rhee’s tombs lay an unexpected little historical site, whose scruffy and worn features were at odds with the trim, modern, and sharp-edged tombs all around it. In a little wooded section surrounded by pines was Seoul Tangible Cultural Property No. 54, the Graveyard for Lady Changbin An (창빈안씨 모역), a concubine to King Jungjong (중종). After entering the court in 1507 at the age of nine, she became a court lady at 22 and eventually the grandmother of King Seonjo (선조), which explained the rare appearance of a Sindobi stele at her gravesite, according to the on-site plaque. The grave was originally constructed in 1550 in Gyeonggi-do, Yangju, Jangheung-ri, but later moved here.
Southwest of the presidential tombs was the Charnel House (충혼당), a spotless new building serving as a reliquary of the past. The first story of the building was occupied by rooms with floor to ceiling shelves of glass compartments, most of which were still empty. Those that weren’t held cylindrical containers the size of rice cookers, each neatly wrapped in plain white cloth. Inside each container were the remains of a soldier that had been found, and each container was accompanied by a small label that listed a serial number, the body part, the date and location it was discovered, and a list of other things found with it. Room 122, shelf 122075, container #13082040038: Femur (right); Gangneung, Mino-ri (강릉 미노리); 4/28/2008; film (1), plastic helmet (1), buckle (1), bulletproof chinstrap (1), belt pieces (3), boots (2), spats (2).
The second floor had a similar setup, but instead of unearthed remains there were ceramic urns holding the ashes of cremated soldiers (and those of some of their wives). Each urn was accompanied by a card bearing a photo of the deceased, his name, and the place and date of his birth and death. I had thought I was alone in the building, but as I left I noticed a woman, perhaps in her twenties or thirties, sitting cross-legged on the floor, unmoving, gazing at one of the urns in the bottom row.
In the middle of the grounds and serving as something of a focal point for the cemetery is the Memorial Hall, where the memorial tablets of some 104,000 soldiers whose bodies were never found are kept, together with the remains of 7,000 unknown soldiers from the Korean War.
Access to the Memorial Hall comes via the Memorial Gate (현충문), which was flanked by glass sentry boxes, the cheap-o appearance of which was contrasted by the whip-smart figures of the unmoving men inside. They were dressed in white caps and crisp navy blues, with yellow tassels looped through their epaulets and belts, standing stock still and holding their rifles by their barrels at their sides. Just as I arrived, two other soldiers, navy men by the looks of it, arrived to take their place, and the men switched out in a sequence marked by rhythmic counting and the clicking of shoes and rifle stocks on stone.
Through the gate I walked up to the large tower of the Statue of Souls Raised to Heaven (영현승천상) where incense filled the air between the statues of soldiers and independence fighters. Tablets and ashes are housed in a chamber beneath the tower, where the walls are covered in stone slabs engraved with the names of the missing and the unknown. On the ground below are vases and bouquets of flowers, framed black and white photos, and the occasional personal affect, like a wooden walking stick. From a distance, the names, geometric and monochromatic, appear like an abstract design, like a wallpaper pattern you could select at an interior design store. As you get closer and the lines come into focus they resemble a code, imbued with significance and meaning, until you hone in on a single name, 명정남, and it becomes an entire story contained within three syllable blocks – a birth, a struggle, a death. And that is the nation: a sum, a codex, a history, a story built three painstaking syllables at a time.
Dongjak Chunghyo-gil (동작충효길)
Isu Waterfall (이수폭포)
South on Sapyeong-dae-ro (사평대로)/Dongjak-dae-ro (동작대로)
Humming Way (허밍웨이) and Banpo Stream (반포천)
Cloud Café (구름카페) and Han River Park (한강공원)
Left out of exit, Up stairs to Dongjak Bridge (동작대교)
Seoul National Cemetery (국립서울현충원)
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