The prevailing ethos of Yeouido is that size matters. There may not be a single one-story building on the entire island, and crossing some of the intersections have to qualify you for some sort of mileage rewards, but nowhere is this lopsided sense of scale more pronounced than on the island’s northwest tip, which is dominated by a trio of behemoths: the National Assembly complex, the headquarters of KBS, and the Yoido Full Gospel Church. Go big or go home.
Anyone who’s driven along one of Seoul’s riverside expressways has no doubt gazed out at the minty dome of the National Assembly (국회의사당) building, one of the city’s most recognizable. It squats at Yeouido’s western tip, the short, stout foil to its odd couple partner at the opposite end, the tall, sleek 63 Building.
Exit 6 will drop you off right next to the front gate to the National Assembly complex, and although there are large white gates across the entrance and several police guards perpetually on hand, the grounds are open to the public and you’re free to walk in. These grounds, surrounding the actual Assembly Building, are expansive and take up the better part of Yeouido’s very tip, and include everything from a newly built hanok to the National Assembly Greenhouse (국회온실). As one would expect at a national capitol, the path up to the building proceeds down the middle of a sprawling lawn, passing between a pair of guardian haetae at the outset before curving around a large fountain. Devoted as it is to business, Yeouido can feel rather barren on the weekends, and this sensation goes double at the Assembly. A friend and I were the only non-employees there on the Saturday we went (granted, it was February and blistering cold), and as we walked toward the enormous structure I kept flipping back and forth between feeling very small and slightly illicit, given the scope and location of my surroundings, and goofy and excitable, for the same reasons. In short, I felt like a tourist.
It is possible to view the inside of the National Assembly Building, but only on certain terms. For one thing, you can’t just stroll up and try to walk in the front door, as I did. The officers patrolling will very kindly (and maybe even in English) direct you to the back door. There you can enter the rear lobby, but that’s as far as you’ll go unless you’ve made a reservation for a tour three days in advance. Tours can be booked through the National Assembly’s website. Alternatively, you could get a job as a delivery boy for a local fried chicken place, as the helmeted youngster getting waved through security had.
A couple of curiosities make popping into the rear lobby worthwhile even if you haven’t booked a tour. One, visible beyond the security check, is a wall decorated with cartoon reliefs of suit-wearing guys laughing and striking funny poses, like actors in an old vaudeville show. I don’t know if this was slyly self-referential, a way for the artist or the Assemblymen to poke fun at themselves and keep their egos in check, but I’d like to think so. Would every national capitol have something similar. The other, prior to security and thus accessible to anybody and everybody, was a live feed of Dokdo (독도) on the channel KBS Live: Dokdo. And that’s it, just a single camera recording Dokdo, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. C-SPAN looks like Spike TV in comparison, though for an ambient background visual it’s not half bad.
*Unfortunately the Dokdo feed was not streaming through when Liz went to check it out.*
Back outside, I wandered through the grounds for a bit, which on weekends may be the quietest in the entire city. There was barely any sound save for the occasional squawk of the resident magpies. From the main building I made my way to the complex’s east corner, where you’ll find the National Assembly Visitor Center inside the Memorial Hall, which is open to the public without appointment.
A large section of the Memorial Hall is dedicated to the patriot Yoon Bong Gil (윤봉길), whom we talked about when we visited Yangjae Station. The rest explains the Assembly’s functions (though not so much its dysfunctions) and history. Gifts given to various parliamentarians are on display, as is the wreath that was presented to marathoner and Seoul Sub→urban favorite Sohn Kee-Chung (손기정) after winning the gold medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Several sections of the Hall are geared especially towards kids, and in fact, aside from my friend and me, small school groups were the only visitors present. Unfortunately for foreign visitors, almost no information at the Hall is presented in English.
Exiting the Assembly grounds to the rear, I stepped onto Yeouiseo-ro (여의서로), which is one of the best places in the city to take in Seoul’s cherry blossoms come spring. When in bloom, the trees form a low canopy of pink and white overhead, as if a city’s daydreams had slipped their mental confines for a couple of weeks. The annual spectacle of course draws immense crowds, but with the trees on one side of you and views of the Han River on the other, you might not mind for once.
Those river views, as pointed out on a guideboard at an overlook, take in Jeoldusan Martyr’s Shrine and the World Cup Stadium Park, and you can also watch trains on the 2 Line crossing from Hapjeong to Dangsan, looking like model toys as they do. Just below the overlook is the blue glass circle of the Seoul Marina (서울 마리나) where yachts and sailboats moored, waiting for warmer weather.
I followed Yeouiseo-ro around the tip of the island before it curved back down toward the south and led me past the headquarters of KBS, which takes up several square blocks. Slugging it out with the National Assembly for Yeouido real estate supremacy, the headquarters are easily distinguished by their many broadcast towers and the several story-tall banners advertising KBS shows draped on the sides of several buildings. If getting to KBS is your goal you can do so by going out Exit 4 and swinging your first right. The street opposite the studios and several side streets are lined with restaurants, and if you’re a serious fan of K-pop or K-dramas it’s a fun area to grab a bite, as restaurants display autographs of celebrities that have noshed between recordings.
On the other side of Uisadang-ro (의사당로), via Exits 1, 2, and 3 is a small grid of backstreets filled with the familiar collection of restaurants, bars, and noraebangs, only in generally more upscale versions. A large banner advertising the newly christened New Frontier Party (새누리당) was another tipoff that the guys tipping back pints here aren’t just your normal customers.
Exit 3 or Exit 4 will also quickly get you to the terrific Yeouido Park (여의도 공원), a long block-wide strip running the width of the island, that we mentioned when we visited Yeouinaru and covered more extensively in our post on Yeouido, so I’ll kindly direct you to those posts for info on the park.
Walking southwest from Exit 4 or Exit 6 to the island’s edge brings you to the Yeouido Ecology Park (여의도 생태공원), a strip of land between Yeouiseo-ro and the narrow channel separating the island from the mainland. While engineered, it’s been engineered to be as natural as possible. There’s little to do here but stroll past banks of reeds, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you prefer your parks to have a bit more to do, go out Exit 1 and walk straight to the Hangang Park (한강 공원), or take the scenic route through Yeouido Park.
If you head to the park from Exit 1 you’ll no doubt notice what looks like a college basketball arena on your right side, just before the river. The enormous cross out front, however, makes it clear that hoops are not the object of worship here. Taking up a full city block, the Yoido Full Gospel Church (여의도순복음교회) is the world’s largest in terms of congregation, numbering approximately 800,000 nationwide. And no, that’s not a typo. Started by Pastor Cho Yonggi (조용기) in a friend’s home in 1958 it has grown to include not only a metropolis’ worth of congregants, but also 527 pastors, a church that accommodates 25,000, a university in Korea, another in the U.S., a TV channel, and ownership of the Kookmin Ilbo newspaper.
I grew up Catholic, and despite the fact that I no longer am, I continue to have a deep fascination with religion, and Christianity in particular, and witnessing a service at the world’s biggest church had been on my to-do list for some time. So with no excuse to postpone it any longer, a friend and I went to the 1 p.m. service (one of seven that day) to witness Church XL.
We arrived shortly after 12:30 and the scene on the surrounding streets wasn’t actually all that dissimilar from that outside a major sporting event, if I can go back to the basketball comparison for a moment. Hawkers had set up sidewalk stalls to sell puffed rice snacks and tteokbokki; others offered religious books and even clothing. The moneychangers may not have been in the temple, but they were certainly right outside.
I could hear music coming from inside as I walked up the long flight of stairs to the main entrance, which, for me at least, was a mildly intimidating experience. I’ve always preferred my churches small and intimate, but the enormous scale of the steps and the building and the long climb to the top felt exactly the opposite – like an assertion of the church’s authority over me, rather than a welcoming into it.
This feeling of being overwhelmed continued after I stepped inside. The pews were already almost completely full and the pre-service warm-up was in full swing, the sound system blaring gospel hymns at arena-decibel levels. A pastor at a small dais was leading the songs, swaying, snapping his fingers, and waving his arms in the air. Backing him up was a line of 12 singers, including eight pretty girls in modest navy and pewter skirts. These featured singers were backed up, in turn, by a choir that must have numbered close to 100, its members decked out in impeccable white robes with ruby red scoops around the necks. Providing the music was a grand piano, the biggest organ I’ve ever seen, and a full orchestra in an honest-to-god orchestra pit being directed by a conductor in full white tie and tails. Meanwhile, most of the congregation was clapping along and at least half were singing as well, following the lyrics that ran across the bottom of the dozens of flat-screen TVs mounted throughout the church, as if we were in the world’s largest karaoke bar. Above the lyrics, the images on the TVs flipped between the action occurring on the altar and shots of the crowd waving their hands in the air and adding their voices to the din. It was so loud that I had to raise my voice just to be heard by the person next to me.
My friend and I made a beeline for the very last row of seats, where we’d be less conspicuous and could gaze out over the scene. Everything was enormous. 15 minutes before the service the church was packed to the brim. As more parishioners came in, the ushers – the women in blue and white hanbok, the men in white jackets like waiters at a dinner club – set out woven mats in the main aisles for them to sit on. Still others just sat on the steps. Cameramen with professional grade equipment on their shoulder wandered around in front of the pulpit, and other cameras, mounted to booms, pivoted around to get aerial views. In the middle of the building two sound engineers sat at a banquet table-size mixing board, the kind you normally see at major concert venues. It felt less like an actual Mass than some movie producer’s idea of a Mass, and I half expected that at any moment Michael Bay would walk out yelling, ‘Cut! Cut! Can we get some blood dripping down the cross? And I need more intensity out of your sermon. The Antichrist is about to crash through the roof and I need the right build-up people!’
It all might seem over the top, and it did to me, but there’s no denying that the end product is gorgeous. The music and singing were, simply, perfect, far and away the most impressive I’ve ever witnessed. The conductor got into it as if he were conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, sweat dripping off his forehead (Clearly visible on the 12 TVs I could observe from where I was seated.), an ecstatic look on his face. The church’s acoustics and sound system are top rate too, and carried the music to us in the very back as crisply and as clearly as if we were sitting in the front row. If you’re a fan of classical or gospel music, service here isn’t a bad idea for a free concert.
The centerpiece of the service was a (long) sermon by Pastor Cho himself, who, I have to admit, has a certain gentle gravitas. His delivery has been honed to a honeyed smoothness by decades in the pulpit, punctuated every so often by a laugh line or a firm knock on the altar when he wanted to make a point. Three-quarters of the way through, Cho paused to lead a couple songs and then break for a few minutes while congregants went into their own private reveries. Not everyone, but many of those present began to rock back and forth or lift their hands above their head, all the while chanting. I tried to make out if they were speaking in tongues, as some American Pentecostals do (Which raises an interesting question: Do Korean speakers speak in tongues differently than English speakers do?), but the thousands of voices were too many, blurring together in one loud murmur like water over stones in a brook. Then Cho struck a chime and everything stopped.
When the sermon ended the ushers fanned out to collect donations, the orchestra struck up, and, in what had me shaking my head in two different ways – ‘Oh, you’ve gotta be kidding me,’ and ‘Wow. Wow.’ – an opera tenor took the stage and, if I can use the term in church, absolutely killed it. I mean, Sixth Commandment pounded into dust killed it.
The experience as a whole was a disorienting affair. For everything that was inspiring or beautiful – the music, the parishioners’ enthusiasm – there was also something that I found deeply weird or unsettling. In the middle of Mass the service paused so that FGTV (The church’s television channel.) could air a commercial-documentary (commermentary?) on Cho’s recent trip to hold a service in an Abu Dhabi cricket stadium. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s even something commendable about bringing Mass to the Christians of a country where it’s difficult to practice, but the video opened with a purposefully sinister vibe: shadowy images of mosques, Islamic flags, and women in burqas, followed by barren desert and sand blowing across the road, which the video tried to play up into a sandstorm (which, it was mentioned, just so happened to stop an hour before Cho’s Mass). This was all backed by ominous music, the clear implication being that Islam is inherently hostile and that Cho’s trip was both brave and crusading. On top of this, miracles were professed, one of which was a South Asian man testifying that before the service his shoulder was sore and now it wasn’t. Not to be a wet blanket, but Tylenol will do that.
The other moment that reminded me why I find megachurches like this to be discomfiting and borderline manipulative – more about the cult of personality around the leader than about Jesus – was the declaration by Cho in his sermon that he had been visited in a dream by angels, and that these angels had told him the day, but not the year, that he would die and go to meet God: March 16, a date about which there’s something more than just vaguely messianic.
Anyone who’s studied their Bible, or simply gone to a professional sporting event in the U.S. will know John 3:16: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’ By proclaiming this date as the prophesied date of return to the Lord, one draws a parallel between themselves and that begotten Son that’s none too subtle. Or humble. Cho’s achievements with his church may be beyond doubt, but there are other aspects of his life that are not. In March of last year he was criticized for suggesting that the devastating Tohoku tsunami was divine punishment for Japan’s materialistic ways, and in September federal prosecutors opened an investigation into allegations that he had embezzled 23 billion won in donations to help his son recoup stock losses and to purchase property in the U.S. Considering this, Cho might do well do double check with his divine messengers to see if perhaps he had gotten the dates switched, and his return ticket was actually stamped June 31 instead. Which, incidentally, could hint at a much more modest and undeniable message, Luke 6:31 – ‘And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.’
National Assembly (국회의사당)
Hours | M-F 9:00 – 18:00, Weekends 9:00 – 17:00, Closed on holidays
Seoul Marina (서울 마리나)
Yeouido Park (여의도 공원)
Exit 3 or 4
Yeouido Ecology Park (여의도 생태공원)
Straight, Right on Yeoui Park-ro (여의공원로)
Straight on Gukhoe-daero (국회대로)
Hangang Park (한강 공원)
Straight on Gukhoe-daero (국회대로)
Yoido Full Gospel Church (여의도순복음교회)
Straight on Gukhoe-daero (국회대로)