A man returns to the place an old lover left him, his tears mixing with the rain, but finds nothing more than the memories he came with.
Ain’t that just it how it goes.
That fateful place was Samgakji, and the sad story was sung by Bae Ho (배호) in ‘돌아가는 삼각지,’ one of Korea’s most famous old pop songs. The song remains well-known even now, particularly, of course, in the neighborhood where it’s set.
Inside the Line 4 section of Samgakji Station is a small rest area cum tribute to Bae Ho. A gold-painted statue of the large-cheeked singer, dressed in suit and tie, sits on a bench with his guitar, while the song’s melancholic notes play from a speaker in the ceiling. On the wall is a painting: a collage of Bae, musicians, a faceless woman, and the old Samgakji rotary. Next to the painting, a Bae fan club has put up a small collection of photos of Bae taken during his short lifetime (He died of kidney disease in 1971, at the age of 29.), and there is also a photo of the rather wild-looking Bae Sang-tae (배상태), who composed the song in 1966.
A second tribute to the song can be found between Exits 12 and 14 on a traffic island in the midst of the Samgakji intersection. The song’s lyrics are carved into a stone slab, above which is an utterly bizarre statue of a stylized figure standing on one foot, arms raised, a ribbon wrapped around them as if they were a rhythmic gymnast. There was no connection between the statue and the song as far as I could tell, and it seemed as though whoever erected the structure just went with whatever was the first statue they could get their hands on.
The elevated rotary is long gone, but a spin around the current intersection gives a good overview of the area. There are new mixed commercial-residential towers reflecting recent development in the Yongsan area; old buildings that look like they’ve been around since before the war; stores selling company badges, camouflage jackets, and other military paraphernalia; and party supply stores selling Halloween costumes and real estate offices with plenty of English signage, a sign of this part of town’s significant expat presence. Unexpectedly there are also a lot of art stores, kind of on the chintzy side, almost all of which seem to have a predilection for paintings of galloping horses. Just how this last piece fit into Samgakji’s puzzle I’m not sure.
Samgakji Station sits at the west end of the sprawling U.S. military base (Noksapyeong sitting at the east), and the military, both American and Korean, is perhaps both the dominant characteristic of the area and, with the presence of the War Memorial of Korea, the biggest draw. I’ll get to that rather extensively before long, but first, a spin around the neighborhood.
Opposite the War Memorial and just a short walk from Exit 13, past the Seoul Regional Office of Patriots and Veterans Affairs and a signboard for BMW Military Sales, is Korea’s Ministry of National Defense (국방부). The ministry was festooned with two gigantic banners draped across its façade, which, taken together, were as good an advertisement for the ministry’s accomplishments as any I could think of. The first banner read, simply, ‘전쟁…’ (‘War…’) across a black and white photograph of an old man standing amid Seoul as it was then: a great pile of rubble. The second banner read ‘그 후 60년’ (‘60 years later’) and showed the 63 Building, the LG Twin Towers, bridges, and the lights of West Seoul reflecting in the Han.
As one might expect, it’s not just a place that you can stroll into – the sidewalk is patrolled at regular intervals by policemen, and the grounds are encircled by concertina wire and a fence that looked like it may be electrified, though I didn’t feel like getting too empirical on that one. Metal sawhorses provided a barrier at the main entrance, but, in what I think should be required practice for all military barricades everywhere, the ministry had attached flower boxes full of red, orange, and pink flowers to each of them.
On the same side of the intersection the character of an older Samgakji is apparent along Hangang-dae-ro (한강대로) and, especially, in the alleys off the main street. Out of Exit 14, I took the first left onto the slanting Hangang-dae-ro-62-gil (한강대로62길), which was lined with modest restaurants, grocers, and other small businesses. Some of them looked like they’d been around a while, though none looked quite as antiquated as the large Samgak Mansion (삼각맨숀) apartment complex just off the street to the west. The apartments were marked rather prominently on the station’s area map and may have been an enviable address at one point, but their current ramshackle, patchwork condition reminded me of another mansion, Chungking in Hong Kong, only on a smaller scale. Windows were cracked. The 삼 in 삼각 had disappeared. The apartments were the color of teeth yellowed from decades of cigarettes, the shade disrupted only by torn green awnings above windows and the plaster covering cracks in the façade, giving the appearance that the buildings were being held together by duct tape.
Near the entrance of Hangang-dae-ro-62-gil is a small alley, Hangang-dae-ro-62-ga-gil (한강대로62가길), running parallel to Itaewon-ro (이태원로) and known as Daegutang Alley (대구탕 골목). Seoul is dotted all over with specialty food alleys, sometimes featuring a dozen restaurants serving the featured dish; Daegutang Alley has two, but there’s one more daegutang place on the main side street and the alley is so short that the two places fill up half the lane so, OK, we’ll run with it.
When you step into the alley the first two places on the right are daegutang restaurants, the wall opposite them plastered with beer and soju posters featuring celebrities in tight dresses holding shot glasses just so. If you continue along the alley, past the daegutang places you’ll find a restaurant specializing in cow head soup (소머리탕), should you feel adventurous. There was also, at the very end of the alley, a tiny used bookshop. The shop was the size of a large closet, and whatever books couldn’t fit on the shelves were simply stacked haphazardly floor to ceiling, in the literal sense of the description. These piles took up virtually all available floor space. The only exceptions were a one square-foot space just inside the entrance from where, presumably, a customer could tell the owner what they were looking for, in the hopes that he, miraculously, both knew where it was and could get to it without causing everything to collapse, and a slightly larger clearing in the back where the proprietor slept in a chair, three-quarters hidden by the wall of books that rose up between the spaces.
One of the two daegutang restaurants in the alley, Weon Daegutang (원대구탕) is an old-school place that’s been serving its cod soup in an unfussy setting of wood tables and straight-backed chairs for thirty-three years. Water is served in old makkeoli bottles that have had their labels peeled off, and maroon gas pipes run around the edges of the ceiling and lead to ancient-looking gas burners atop each table where pots of soup are cooked once an order is placed. The soup is a spicy concoction of a cod, red pepper paste, garlic, bean sprouts, and dropwort. When I say ‘a cod’ I mean ‘a cod’ and not just ‘cod’ in the sense of ‘cod meat.’ The whole thing goes in: head, intestines, organs, all of it. If that’s not your thing (and not all of it is mine), well, it’s pretty easy to pick out what you want. If that is your thing, you can opt for the naejangtang (내장탕), with extra guts.
On the west side of Hangang-dae-ro, heading out Exit 8 or 9 will shortly bring you to the rail tracks that run between Yongsan and Yeongdeungpo Stations. I climbed the stairs up to a pedestrian walkway that ran along a road over the tracks and watched for a bit as KTX and Saemaeul trains rumbled by underneath. On the opposite side new apartment towers lined up, but below me the area next to the tracks was occupied by tin roofed machine shops. Just north of these were the recently built Worldmark Apartments, mirroring those across the way, but to the south was an area of small alleys where trash was lined up in piles in front of buildings. A bit further in there were rows of abandoned low red brick buildings. At first I thought they maybe once housed factories, but peering in through broken windows at refuse piled up in former kitchens it appeared that they had previously been apartments. In any case they weren’t anything anymore, and the only sign that anyone still paid them any attention were the signs notifying citizens that the police regularly patrolled the area to prevent crime.
North of the station there’s precious little room to maneuver between the train tracks to the west and the military base to the east. Out of Exit 10, on the west side of Hangang-dae-ro, once you pass the Worldmark you quickly hit walled-off U.S. Army property, before eventually arriving at the USO Office, where a mural in front of the building features mountains, a sun, and some black birds, a few errant splashes of black paint looking as if someone had taken a shotgun to some of the latter. For civilians, the USO is of some interest as it runs popular tours to the DMZ and Panmunjeom, providing visitors with access to several sites other tours aren’t allowed to go, thanks to its military affiliation.
On the other side of the road, Exit 11 eventually leads to another U.S. government institution, the Embassy of the U.S. American Center in Korea, a reference and research center that aims to inform Korean citizens about U.S. policy and society. Before reaching this you’ll pass a number of old buildings squeezed into a quarter-block deep space between the road and the military base, almost every one of which looks like it’d be more at home in a Chungcheon-do village than in central Seoul. There are also a few real estate offices and notary and translation services targeting foreign clients, including one that arranged paperwork for international marriages but had rather hilariously mistranslated its services (국제결혼) as ‘Translation, Notarization, Interracial Marriage.’
Except for this thin strip along Hangang-dae-ro virtually all of the real estate northeast of the station is taken up by the enormous War Memorial of Korea (전쟁기념관), just steps from Exit 12. There are a few smaller entrances, but if you go into the grounds via the main entrance you’ll pass the prominent Korean War Monument (6.25 전쟁조형물), a tall gold, bronze and green tower flanked by two semi-circular sculptures of 38 people representing the citizens of South Korea in the war. Most of these are soldiers in various straight-backed, heroic poses that wouldn’t look out of place on the other side of the border, or civilians defiantly raising flags and lanterns, but in a refreshing bit of honesty this mythmaking is tempered by other figures who have fallen and are left to cry out for help.
In an oblong basin below the tower torch-shaped monuments acknowledge each of the countries that assisted the South’s cause in the war. Visitors will also find a kids’ experience zone here.
West of the monument, near the west gate, is the Statue of Brothers (형제의 상) where two soldiers stand atop a stone slab dome, one supporting the other, who is slumped up against the former’s torso, exhausted or dying. I didn’t spot any information about the statue on site, but the brochure available inside the museum claims that it depicts a real-life story about siblings who fought the war on opposing sides and reunited by chance on the battlefield. Inside the supporting dome are a couple of mosaics and plaques in the floor, again acknowledging the South’s nations-in-arms, each plaque listing the battalions they contributed as well as their dates of engagement.
A few steps from the Statue of Brothers is the Peace Clock Tower, which the same brochure helpfully explains is ‘the only clock tower in the world that symbolizes the Korean people’s sincere hope for unification and peace in the form of two girls,’ which puts it nearly on par with a clock that I own, which is the only rectangular analogue clock in the world that is made out of red paper and is used to record the amount of time that Charlie Usher’s pasta needs to be boiled. I give tours. $50. By appointment only.
East of the Korean War Monument is a replica of the Monument of King Gwanggaeto the Great (광개토대왕릉비), who was Goguryeo’s nineteenth king (391-413). The monument, which was established at the behest of his son, King Jansu (413-491), is a 6.39-meter high stone monolith whose four sides are inscribed with 1,770 Chinese characters documenting Goguryeo’s establishment, Gwanggaeto’s conquests, and, in a charming bit of housekeeping, the ‘rules of care’ for the monument’s guardians. The actual monument was originally built in Guknaeseong (국내성), Goguryeo’s capital (which was on the Chinese side of the Yalu River), but now exists in Jian, Jilin Province, China.
Also on the east side of the main building is the large Outdoor Exhibition Area where approximately 160 pieces of military equipment are on display. The various equipment is Korean, American, Canadian, Russian, and Chinese, and ranges from planes – training aircraft, fighters, transport planes, a hulking black B-52 bomber – to tanks to armored vehicles to anti-aircraft guns to rocket launchers to a Scud missile. There are also models of the North Korean semi-submersible that was used to land guerillas on the shores of Dadaepo (다대포), near Busan, on December 2, 1983 and of a South Korean naval patrol ship that visitors can clamber aboard and explore.
At the center of all this, partly surrounded by landscape ponds filled with fountains, lily pads, and koi, is the grand War Memorial building. Exhibitions inside trace a chronological history of Korean warfare and militaries, but the first steps that visitors take are designed to remind them that the site’s animating purpose is, after all, to memorialize. From the main rotunda visitors enter the Stars of National Defense hall, which commemorates fallen war heroes. Its pinlight ceiling and drifting projections of flowers on the white columns lining the walkway reminded me of nothing so much as a Korean wedding hall, however, an impression that was only strengthened by the young pair in front of me was dressed in couple-shirts and snapping off a quick selfie.
At the end of the Stars of National Defense hall is a room called Creation where a ray of sunlight shines down on a large black hemisphere that pours water over its edges into a circular pond. Super Zen.
From there visitors descend to the first floor and the War History Room (which, like the other sections, is actually several rooms). Here combat on the peninsula is traced from prehistoric times to the shifting alliances of the Three Kingdoms period, when Baekjae, Goguryeo, and Silla engaged in military confrontation with the Chinese Tang and Sui dynasties and vied for preeminence with each other. Also covered are ancient Korea’s conflicts with and subjugation to the Mongols and its chronic troubles with Japanese marauders. Plenty of ancient weapons are on display, including the fascinating hwacha (화차), a mobile piece of artillery developed in 1451 that could fire up to 100 rocket-propelled arrows at a time. For kids there’s a scale model section of Suwon’s great fortress, Hwaseong (화성), to climb around on.
Undoubtedly Korea’s most celebrated military figure is Yi Sun-sin, and plenty of space is given over to eulogizing the great admiral. If you’re unfamiliar, Yi was the man who designed the famous Turtle Ships (거북선), a scale model of which is on display here, and whose brilliant strategizing and knowledge of coastal Jeolla-do’s islands and tidal patterns were almost entirely responsible for the vastly outnumbered Korean flotilla’s defeat of the Japanese navy during the period of Japanese invasion known as the Imjin Waeran.
The War History Room’s final section wades into the Joseon period, containing more weapons, an explanation of the peninsula’s signal fire (봉수) system, displays of Joseon officers’ dress, and small displays of the weapons, dress, and relations with Korea of some of the era’s great powers, including the U.S., the U.K., Spain, China, and Japan.
At the end of the War History Room visitors return to the second floor where, on one side of the main atrium, they’ll find the Beautiful Island Dokdo Photo Zone (아름다운 섬 독도 Photo Zone). Here (mostly) kids posed holding small Korean flags in front of a photo of the islets and next to some plastic ‘rocks.’ Presiding over it all was a very enthusiastic ajeosshi in a Dokdo t-shirt who’d position the kids and then loudly encourage them to shout ‘Mansae!’ while their parents snapped away.
Past the Dokdo Photo Zone is what is for most visitors probably the section of the museum that’s of most interest: The Korean War Room. It begins with explanations of the peninsula’s post-WWII division and the events leading up to the war’s outbreak when North Korean troops crossed the 38th Parallel on June 25, 1950, the day after a longstanding emergency alert for Southern forces had been lifted and half of the troops sent home on leave.
Continuing on, the section traces the disastrous early stages of the war, when Seoul fell in just three days and the South Korean army was so underprepared, undermanned, and under-matérialed that its pilots had to resort to leaning out the side of training aircraft and literally dropping bombs with their hands. The museum goes on to explain the war’s first great turning point, Operation Chromite, when, pushed back to the Nakdong Perimeter, MacArthur’s forces undertook their equally daring and desperate Incheon landing, leading to the recapture of Seoul and the U.N. forces’ push north to the Chinese border, before the entrance into the war of the Chinese army altered the course of the conflict yet again, ultimately resulting in the stalemate that still exists today. In between the military narrative visitors can also take in more displays of munitions, photographs, dioramas, and propaganda leaflets.
The section ends with one great paean to the United Nations and the allied forces that came to South Korea’s aid, explaining their various roles and unique contributions, the diplomatic negotiations to bring peace to the peninsula, and the post-war assistance the country received.
Finally, visitors arrive at the Expeditionary Forces Room and the ROK Armed Forces Room, which document the South’s military post-Korean War. Displays cover the army’s roles in Vietnam, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and peacekeeping missions in Somalia and East Timor, among others. Space is also devoted to the ongoing incidents of North Korean provocation, including the 1968 attempt to infiltrate the Blue House and assassinate Park Chung-hee, and the more recent shelling of Yeonpyeong Island (연평도) and the sinking of the Cheonan (천안함). And just to keep you from getting too comfortable there’s also an explanation of what would happen if a one-megaton nuclear weapon were detonated in Seoul. Spoiler alert: everybody dies.
Military buff or not, the War Memorial offers one of the best museum experiences in Seoul, with excellent English explanations and a good mix of history, models, and interactive displays, including simulations of the Incheon landing, Korean War combat, and target shooting with a K-2 rifle. Thanks to its sheer size and the amount of things on display you could easily spend several days here.
Where it falls short, and this is rather predictable for a museum of its type, is in its interpretation of historical events, which is frequently a bit too rah-rah for its own good. Based on the displays here you’d think that if the U.S. had just gotten out of the way and left the Vietnam War to the Koreans the South would have won and Saigon would still be Saigon. More troubling is how certain aspects of the Korean War are whitewashed or reduced to dishonest simplicity. The museum mentions the blowing up of the Han River Bridge during the frantic evacuation of the capital at the outset of the war, but gives no mention of the grand fuck-up it was, of how it was done in a premature panic, stranding the South Korean Fifth Division on the north bank and, more tragically, killing hundreds of refugees who were on the bridge at the time. The museum also paints a disconcertingly one-sided account of the Jeju Uprising, simplistically portraying it as the elimination of Communist guerilla forces. This is one of the most complex episodes in modern Korean history, and while the South Korean government had a legitimate need to quell a Communist rebellion on the island, it did so using brutal methods, including rape, execution, and the burning of an estimated 70% of villages on the island.
Despite this shortcoming, the memorial should be required visiting for anyone with an interest in Korea’s history or anyone living here as an expat. For a great many of those of us who are foreigners here, our home country’s history and Korea’s history can’t be pulled apart. Whether we come from the U.S. or China or the Netherlands, the actions and decisions of our fathers and grandfathers and their Korean contemporaries both condemned and rescued South Korea and gave its people reason to both curse and fete us. Our forefathers were there for the ‘전쟁…’ and now we find ourselves here for the ‘그 후 60년’. For expats, the question of why, exactly, you are where you are is always there. For expats in Korea, any answer has to start at least sixty years ago.
Ministry of National Defense (국방부)
Straight on Itaewon-ro (이태원로)
Daegutang Alley (대구탕 골목) and Weon Daegutang (원대구탕)
Left on Hangang-dae-ro-62-gil (한강대로62길), Left on Hangang-dae-ro-62-ga-gil (한강대로62가길)
Weon Daegutang – 02) 797-4488
Straight on Hangang-dae-ro (한강대로)
Embassy of the U.S. American Center in Korea
Straight on Hangang-dae-ro (한강대로)
The War Memorial of Korea (전쟁기념관)
Straight on Itaewon-ro (이태원로)
Hours | 9:00 – 18:00, Closed Mondays, (Tuesday if the preceding Monday is a holiday)
Admission | Free