When one thinks of the history of Seoul, thoughts usually jump to the north bank, with its palaces and walls, its monuments and markets. Much of the city south of the river didn’t even exist prior to the 1970s, and though it’s now the focus of much of Seoul’s economic, political, and cultural life, at times it can feel as if it’s lacking any history of its own. In truth, though, it was here that the city’s history and its pedigree as a capital began, when in 18 BCE the 54 member states of the Mahan Confederacy were united under the banner of Baekje, establishing one of the peninsula’s earliest kingdoms.
Behind Gangnam’s glass and steel, its wide avenues and European cars, traces of ancient history are there, if you know where to look. We first stumbled across the area’s relics at the Baekje Tombs in Bangi, but some of the most impressive hide in plain sight. Mongchontoseong Station takes its name after one of these, the large earthen fortress now inside Olympic Park that, along with Pungnaptoseong (풍납토성) to the north, formed the heart of Hanseong (한성), Baekje’s capital. If you didn’t know what you were looking at, it would be easy to initially mistake the fortress remains for a large hill, but the truth is that they’re some of the oldest remaining architecture on the peninsula.
To get to the remains, and most other things of interest in the neighborhood, start at Exit 1. Coming up the exit’s amphitheater-shaped stairs, at first all I could see was sky; then the red, white, and blue wings of the World Peace Gate (세계평화의문), pointing sharply like the wings on a heraldic eagle; and finally kids tracing aimless circles around Peace Plaza (평화의광장) on rented Segway-like motorized scooters. The plaza serves as an entryway to the enormous Olympic Park (올림픽공원), built for the 1988 Summer Games, and the way from the station to the Peace Gate is lined with modernized jangseung, village guardian totems, that rather practically double as light posts. Dominating the plaza is the gate, which soars 24 meters above twin pools, the undersides of its wings decorated with four spirits: turtle, tiger, dragon, and phoenix. In a small cauldron beneath the gate burns the Olympic flame.
The plaza around the gate had been turned into a playground, with families kicking soccer balls around, kids riding bikes and scooters, and a group of jugglers who had set up a portable badminton net and were practicing a routine throwing balls to each other across the net. At the rear of the plaza is a semicircle of flag poles flying the flags of all the ’88 Summer Games participants, as they were at the time of the games.
Behind all this is Mongchontoseong (몽촌토성). The earthen ramparts are fronted by Mongchon Lake (몽촌호수), a nervous smile connected to the Seongnae Stream (성내천). Climbing down some steps from the plaza, the kids’ delighted shrieks almost disappeared, and I was left with just the water. Banks of reeds lined its edges on both sides, and on the opposite shore the slope up from the water was dotted with bushes and then copses of trees. Even from here it was hard to spot the ancient walls, an earthen rampart off to the right being the only clear hint of the old fortress.
After I crossed the lake the fortress’ topography was easier to make out, the unnaturally smooth and steep hills giving it away. Still, it was hard to see them as a building, something with design and function, and not merely as an elaborate bit of landscaping. Part of this had to do, I think, with their current setting – in a park, surrounded by modern engineering – because in their day the structure was surely even more impressive. Now Historic Site No. 297, Mongchontoseong was built by connecting adjacent low lying hills, and further reinforced by the Seongnae Stream, to which a surrounding moat was connected. Wooden fences were also placed on the slopes to slow would-be attackers, and in a few spots re-creations of these have been erected. Preparation work for the Olympics resulted in six excavations at the site, turning up the usual archaeological gift bag of pottery, porcelain, and iron tools.
Walking paths now circumnavigate the base of the fortress hills, the earth’s steep ascent often resulting in lovely tableaus of trees silhouetted against the sky. Of course, paths also climb the hills, sometimes quite steeply, and I climbed one of these, past a vegetable field, to a lone gingko tree believed to be 530 years old. The path ran across the fortress ridge, where cool breezes compensated for the climb up. Dozens of magpies hopped about the slopes or perched in trees, and in the air a few feet above me fleets of tiny insects like dragonflies hovered, though they were too small to be that. In fact, I was surprised at how much ‘wildlife’ there was in the park. Besides the city’s ubiquitous magpies and an egret in the lake, I spotted several pheasants within the park, as well as a number of black and white rabbits, though at least one of these was so domesticated that it allowed two kids to pet it as it lounged under a tree, which is why I put ‘wildlife’ in quotes.
Also within the park is the Pit Hut Site (움집터 전지관), the site of four Baekje-era pit dwellings, protected within a monumentally ugly green building. Unfortunately the doors were closed when I showed up, but the sign outside explained that the dwellings were in the traditional hexagonal shape, approximately six by four meters, with hearths jutting out from the walls.
Along with the actual historical sites – and the people picnicking, strolling around in couple t-shirts, or having wedding photos taken among them – two museums where you can delve deeper into the area’s history can also be found on the Olympic Park grounds. The first of these, located near the fortress hills, is the Mongchon Museum of History (몽촌역사관), where the focus is the area’s history, from prehistoric times to the Silla period. The museum is quite small, and there’s little English explanation to accompany the displays of earthenware and ancient life (more is available in the museum’s English language brochure than was in the actual museum), but if you read Korean or have a strong interest in the city’s distant past it’s worth dropping in.
The other museum is the much newer and larger Seoul Baekje Museum (한성백제박물관), which can be reached by heading southeast down Wiryeseong-daero (위례성대로) after exiting the subway. It’s well signposted and will appear on the edge of the park after several hundred meters. While the Mongchon Museum is focused on the area, the Seoul Baekje Museum is, of course, focused on the Baekje kingdom.
Once inside the angular brick building, visitors are first greeted by a one-story tall cross-sectioned model of the wall of Pungnaptoseong, the royal fortress that was even larger than neighboring Mongchontoseong, estimated to have been 3.5 kilometers long, 43 meters wide, and 11 meters high, though over a kilometer is believed to have been washed away when the Han flooded in 1925. Past the wall, exhibitions trace both Baekje’s history and the lives of its people. English translations are only offered on display introductions, but it’s sufficient to get a basic grasp of things. After its 18 BCE founding, within about 350 years Baekje had unified the central Korean peninsula, eventually expanding its territory from Hwanghae-do (황해도), in what is now North Korea, all the way to the south coast by the late 4th century. In 475, however, the highly prized Han River valley was captured by the Goguryeo kingdom, forcing Baekje to move its capital south to Woongjin (웅진), what is now Gongju (공주), and later to Sabi (사비), what is now Buyeo (부여). The kingdom eventually formed an alliance with Silla and retook the valley from Goguryeo, only to be conquered by their onetime allies in 660. To illuminate what happened between 18 BCE and 660 CE, there are displays on how Baekje people ate, dressed, worked, prayed, played, and fought. Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism were all practiced in Hanseong, people played Go (바둑), and when they went to war they used the distinctive cactus-shaped seven-branched sword called a chiljido (칠지도), which also serves as the museum’s logo.
For kids the museum also has a small activity zone, where youngsters can try to reassemble pottery shards in a 3D puzzle, or pull a virtual dolmen stone over virtual logs by tugging on the rope attached to the ‘영차! 영차! 고인돌 당기기’ (‘Heave Ho! Heave Ho! Dolmen Pulling’) arcade console. The high score was 50 meters, and I sat and watched two small boys try to crack the leader board. Their cumulative total after several attempts? Zero meters. The museum’s roof features a garden and an observation spot, with free binoculars, where one can view the locations of both Mongchontoseong and Pungnaptoseong.
These two history museums make up only half of the museums within the boundaries of Olympic Park, however. Immediately next to the Baekje Museum is SOMA (Seoul Olympic Museum of Art) (소마미술관), boxy wood, metal, and stone buildings devoted to modern art. If arriving via Peace Plaza, visitors are greeted, if that’s the right word, by César’s large sculpture ‘Thumb,’ which is just that, though it could easily be mistaken for a finger two digits over, conveying an entirely different message to people approaching the gallery.
SOMA’s exhibits change regularly, and I happened to be there on one of the last days of its ‘Sphere, Body, Landscape: Healing Ground’ (구 체 경: 힐링 그라운드) exhibition. Fittingly, many of the works in this uneven show dealt with sport (though this isn’t always the case at SOMA). For whatever reason the museum chose 곽남신’s (Kwak Nam-Shin) incredibly unimaginative ‘달하고 놀기’ (‘Playing With the Moon’) to splash across its promotional material. The painting is a silhouette of a soccer player going up for a header, only the ball is replaced by the moon. It looks like something a slightly mystical jock would come up with for his high school art class. There was plenty of captivating work too, my favorite being 유영호’s (Yoo Youngho) new piece in neon and steel, ‘비욘드’ (‘Beyond’), which, starting from the doorway, ran all the way around the room reading ‘아아아아우우우우아아아아와…’ etc. Outside of the museum, sculptures are scattered throughout the park, the largest concentration of which are on the green between SOMA and the Baekje Museum.
Finally there is the Seoul Olympic Museum (서울올림픽기념관), which can be reached by veering left out of Exit 1 and walking down Olympic-ro (올림픽로) a short ways. The museum is divided into various ‘Places’ – the Place of Peace, the Place of Harmony, the Place of Prosperity, the Place of Glory – though there’s really no relation between the names and what’s displayed in each of them. The first exhibit focuses on the history of the Olympics, both ancient and modern, with special attention paid to Korea’s participation and accomplishments in the latter. Upstairs, the focus switches to the 1988 Seoul Games. Some of this is interesting – visitors can learn about Seoul’s bid process, trace the route of the torch relay across the peninsula, and learn about some of the XXIV Olympiad’s standout athletes. Some of it, though, is what happens when a curator doesn’t know how to say ‘no.’ Did you know that at the Seoul Olympics ‘3,400 pieces of mobile communication equipment were used’? Could you possibly be bothered to care?
Rather disappointingly, the museum made no attempt to address the political issues related to the Games, either domestic or foreign. There was no mention of the controversial tenures of Presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo or of the land seizures the government committed in the name of preparation for the Olympics. Even more conspicuous was the omission of any reference to Korean Air Flight 858, which, in an attempt to disrupt elections and scare countries away from attending the Seoul games, was blown up by North Korean agents less than a year before the opening ceremonies, killing everyone on board.
Outside of the park, much of the neighborhood is residential. Across Olympic-ro from the museum, rows and rows of apartment buildings sat behind the gingko-lined road: the older Jinju Apartments – paint peeling, some missing windows, their tenants having moved out, perhaps before redevelopment – and the new Parkrio development – full of 20-plus-story towers surrounded by manicured lawns and fountains – pointing up the difference between generations of construction in the area.
Walking straight down Olympic-ro from Exit 5, over manhole covers emblazoned with the Olympic rings and a pungmul dancer, after a couple blocks I came to the Seongnae Stream (성내천), where it runs its final stretch from Olympic Park to the Han. A path down to the stream begins just before the bridge, where there is also a sign advising pedestrians ‘노상방뇨 금지,’ ‘No public urination.’ Um…duly noted.
West of the bridge, the stream is nothing pleasant, still and algal due to what looked like flood control facilities that impeded the natural flow; then running through a concrete canal straight to the river. East of the bridge, however, where the stream passed through Olympic Park, it was lovely, sliding through narrow channels between thick beds of reeds and bird chatter, at times disappearing under low-hanging willow boughs. Tiny white butterflies flitted above daisies and delicate lavender flowers shaped like trumpet bells, and egrets and ducks were in the water.
West of the station, in the direction of Jamsil, the focus of the area switches from play to work, though the traffic islands separating the eastbound and westbound lanes of Olympic-ro reflect the neighborhood’s focal point, lined with statues depicting various Olympic events: a badminton player atop a giant birdie, a globular shot putter, stealth Transformer-looking figures that were meant to depict wrestlers, but looked suspiciously like ballroom dancers, locked hand in hand as they were.
When they need to blow off steam after work, the area’s salarymen can head to Bangi Food Street (방이맛길), the road running parallel to Olympic-ro, a block behind its European car dealerships and other businesses. At the street’s west end, near Jamsil Station, a silver metal arch over the road announces the entrance, and just inside visored ajummas were handing out restaurant flyers to passers-by, mostly workers on their way back to the office from their lunch break.
If there is a hoesawon heaven, then Bangi Food Street must be it. It’s lined with dozens and dozens of restaurants, bars, noraebangs, massage joints, ‘live clubs,’ a driving range, and about as many love motels as all of the former establishments put together. It was one of the biggest concentrations I’ve seen in Korea, if not the biggest. An escort business card from last night lay on the ground, not having been cleaned up, and part of me had an urge to come back on a Friday night to witness the staggering, tie-loosened festivities, devoted surely not to Zeus, but Dionysus.
Olympic Park (올림픽공원), Peace Plaza (평화의광장), and World Peace Gate (세계평화의문)
Mongchontoseong (몽촌토성) and Pit Hut Site (움집터 전지관)
Follow signs within Olympic Park
Mongchon Museum of History (몽촌역사관)
Follow signs within Olympic Park
02) 424-5138, 02) 424-5139
Hours | 9:00 – 18:00, Closed Mondays and New Year’s Day
Admission | Free
Seoul Baekje Museum (한성백제박물관)
Veer right onto Wiryeseong-daero (위례성대로)
Hours | March – October: Weekdays 9:00 – 21:00, Weekends and Holidays 9:00 – 19:00; November – February: Weekdays 9:00 – 21:00, Weekends and Holidays 9:00 – 18:00; Closed Mondays and New Year’s Day
Admission | Free
SOMA (Seoul Olympic Museum of Art) (소마미술관)
Veer right onto Wiryeseong-daero (위례성대로)
Hours | 10:00 – 18:00, Closed Mondays, New Year’s Day, Seollal, and Chuseok
Admission | Adults – 3,000; Teenagers – 2,000; Children – 1,000; Kids under 4, Senior Citizens, Veterans and the Handicapped – Free
Seoul Olympic Museum (서울올림픽기념관)
Veer left onto Olympic-ro (올림픽로)
Hours | 10:00 – 18:00, Closed Mondays, New Year’s Day, Seollal, Chuseok, and Tuesdays if the preceding Monday is a holiday
Admission | Free
Seongnae Stream (성내천)
Straight on Olympic-ro (올림픽로)
Bangi Food Street (방이맛길)
Left on Olympic-ro-34-gil (올림픽로34길), Right on first street