Almost any time you step onto the Korea University (고려대학교) campus, one of the sights you’re bound to see is large groups of high school students being led around by their teachers or KU student docents. They’re there to get a taste of the university life and, maybe more to the point, a bit of extra motivation for the suneung (수능), the university entrance exam that’s make or break for higher education aspirations. Because, with apologies to Myongji and Chonbuk National, this is one of the small group of universities in the country that high schoolers (to say nothing of their parents) aspire to, that entrance to which is seen as a guarantee of a life of prosperity and good social standing. The actual importance of attending KU (or Yonsei or Seoul National) is blown far out of proportion, of course, but the belief in it makes it self-fulfilling, and so high schools send their students here by the busload and the kids pose for group photos in front of the main hall.
To be sure, though, Korea University’s reputation is deserved. It’s consistently rated one of Asia’s best schools and boasts alumni that include former president Lee Myung-bak; physicist Kim Young-kee, the former deputy director of Fermilab; gold medal winning figure skater Kim Yuna; and Cha Bum-kun, considered by many the greatest Asian soccer player of all time. Ko-dae, as it’s colloquially known, is one of the country’s oldest universities and has strong historical ties to the Daehan Empire, the last iteration of the Joseon Dynasty before it was snuffed out by colonial Japan. The school was founded as Bosung College in 1905 by Yi Yong-ik, the treasurer of the royal household, with a royal grant from Emperor Gojong. After Yi’s self-imposed exile during the Japanese colonial period and a series of financial crises threatened the school’s future, it was taken over and revived by the politician and newspaperman Kim Seong-su (김성수) in 1932. (Kim also founded the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper.) In 1946, following World War II and Korean liberation, the school changed its name to Korea University. Today 29,000 students call it home, with a further 8,000 studying at its Sejong City campus.
The Anam campus can more or less be divided into three separate areas, but the main one is directly accessible from Exit 1. Instead of following the path up into campus, though, it’s worth walking a few dozen meters down Anam-ro (안암로) to arrive at the university’s main gate. Doing so offers the most dramatic entrance, as the gate’s stone pillars frame the handsome Main Hall (본관) and the sloping green lawn that runs up to it, with carefully trimmed hedges seeming to bubble up from the grass.
As I’ve mentioned before, with a few exceptions university campuses in Seoul tend to be drab collections of ugly mid-century buildings, not the sorts of places that make you want to pull out your leather-bound copy of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica and curl up under a tree for the afternoon. Along with Yonsei and Ewha, though, you could see yourself doing that at Ko-dae. Though it does have the occasional clunker – I’m looking at you student union – the campus is for the most part a lovely place, full of stone Gothic structures, modern steel and glass buildings, and plazas, all interlaced by wooded walking paths. Korea is a private university and well-funded, a fact that shows up in the campus’ details. Bushes and shrubs are perfectly trimmed. Stone lanters, Jeju-style harubong statues, and jangseung, village guardian totems, line the paths around the Centennial Memorial Samsung Hall. Even the campus’ manhole covers are custom-made, featuring the school’s snarling tiger logo.
Of the campus’ structures, two buildings in particular stand out, both for their beauty and their historical importance. The first is the aforementioned Main Hall, which dates to 1934. This striking building features a pair of three-story wings that flank a central five-story tower with a crenellated roof. Windows on the second floor are arched, while those above and below them are squared off. At the front the main entrance is framed by a pair of sculpted tiger heads while the rear door features roses of Sharon. Standing in front of the main hall is a statue of Kim Seong-su, dressed in a suit and waistcoat, holding a book in his left hand, and gazing out over the central plaza.
The second major building of note is the former Central Library (중앙도서관), which now serves as the graduate school. Here too a five-story tower stands between two three-story wings, though here these meet at a ninety-degree angle. The library’s design is also more elaborate, with semi-octagons set at each of the tower’s three corners, intricate windows, and battlements that run the length of the roof.
In front of the old library and just a few quick steps from the subway is the Korea University Museum (고려대학교박물관). Founded in 1934, it’s the oldest and one of the best university museums in the country, with displays that cover university history, life in the Joseon dynasty, and both traditional and modern art.
Near the museum entrance is the Centennial Exhibition Hall, which will get you all caught up on KU’s history and traditions. A scale model of campus is recessed below glass panels in the floor, giving you a bird’s-eye view of the university’s layout. Exhibits cover the school’s development, from its founding to its current state, though many of the explanations end up sounding rather like a press release. Other segments deal with student admissions – accompanied by a photo of a freshman downing a huge bowl of makkeolli in the initiation ceremony known as sabalsik (사발식) – and the university’s history as a center of protest, which includes the 41-day military occupation of the campus ordered by Park Chung-hee, in 1975, in response to student pro-democracy demonstrations. In between you can also view old student ID cards, mock trial leaflets, a library admission ticket, string-bound textbooks, and an antique metal and wood school desk from the Boseong days.
The other exhibition hall on the first floor, along with another in the basement, is dedicated to rotating special exhibits that might cover anything from the history of the Goguryeo dynasty to contemporary painting.
Upstairs, the second floor’s exhibition space is divided into two sections. The first, History and Folklore, puts a strong emphasis on scientific advancements during the Joseon period. Visitors are immediately greeted by the Suseonjeondo (수선전도), a large, dark-brown, almost black, woodblock for printing maps of Seoul. It’s considered the finest work of its kind produced during the Joseon era. Also on display are an ancient compass, sundial, pocket atlas, an alarm clock that looks something like a black iron music box, and a silkscreen with an ancient world map painted on one half and a map of the heavens on the other. Particularly arresting is the Donggwoldo (동궐도), an enormous late-1820s painting of Changdeok and Changgyeong Palaces. The rest of this section sheds light on the more mundane, day-to-day existence of the Joseon people, and you can examine rice cake stamps, graters, and stationary boxes.
The second part of the exhibition space on this floor is dedicated to traditional art. In low-lit rooms visitors can view numerous tiny gold Buddha figurines, porcelain jars that were used to store placentas, and landscapes by the revolutionary painter Jeong Seon (정선), who was one of the first to depart from traditional Chinese techniques and form a more uniquely Korean style.
Most of the third floor is turned over to curatorial offices, but one last exhibition room puts contemporary artworks on display. Lastly, in the museum’s roof garden visitors can get a bit of fresh air, together with some small stone guardians.
Southwest of the museum and main hall, much of university life takes place in and around the plaza in front of the student union. This is where concerts occasionally take place and where student clubs set up booths during the beginnings of semesters. It’s also where a dirty yellow tent has been pitched for over a year, as someone has camped out in a lonely protest against the Higher Education Act and for higher lecturer salaries.
One of the buildings just off the plaza is the Media Hall (미디어관), on the fifth floor of which you’ll find Cinema Trap (시네마트랩). It sounds like the working title for ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ but is of course actually the university’s theater, where indie, foreign, and art house films are screened, providing a good alternative to the usual blockbuster fare.
Also just off the plaza is a CU convenience store, and I only mention this because it has the most bizarre feature I’ve ever seen in this sort of place. In the back corner, next to the drinks, is a room labeled ‘For women’s Relaxation & Beauty.’ Inside there’s a ‘Powder Zone’ – two make-up mirrors surrounded by large light bulbs like you’d see backstage at a theater – and a ‘Fitting Zone,’ which I assume is a changing room (Why?), though since the area was quite clearly marked off ‘For women’ I can’t confirm this.
Northwest of the central campus and up the slopes of Gaeun Mountain (개운산) are several dormitories, as well as the university Ice Rink (아이스린크), which is open to the public in the afternoons, year-round. The simplest route there is up Bugaksan-ro (북악산로) from Exit 2. The street takes you past some shipping containers painted camouflage – the local Marines office – and climbs uphill, with the campus on your left and apartments to your right. Eventually you’ll come to a road that leads toward a very large, traditional-style building: the Korean Studies Hall. Head towards it and on your right will be a driveway to the rink. If you see a bunch of guys with taped-up knees and enormous thighs – members of the KU hockey team – you’ll know you’re in the right place. In the building’s first floor there’s also a small shop that sells skating supplies: hockey, figure, and speed skates; helmets; sticks; cones for puck-handling drills; and NHL team t-shirts.
Continue uphill on Bugaksan-ro and you’ll eventually come to the entrance to Gaeun Mountain Neighborhood Park (개운산근린공원), which covers the summit of this small Seongbuk peak. In addition to the building housing the district assembly you’ll find a sports center, tennis and badminton courts, weights, and a few pavilions where old women like to gather to chat. There’s also a large dirt field not far from the entrance that holds a soccer pitch and a basketball court. It also had a covered gateball court where the elderly members of a club were having a hit-about while one of their group made unintelligible announcements through a fuzzy speaker. The field sits on a small rise, and even if you’re not the athletic sort, should you find yourself in the park it’s worth the walk up for the wonderful view of the surrounding mountains that it offers.
The bulk of Gaeun Mountain Park is left to nature, though, and numerous dirt paths run up and down the slopes, between spindly pines and low bushes. The park’s relatively out of the way location means that it doesn’t see too many visitors, so a walk here is very quiet, with few sounds save birdsong, and the opportunity to observe the local wildlife: magpies poking around in the underbrush or a squirrel scampering up a tree, a pinecone in its mouth. You’re well-protected here too, as adjacent to the park is the base for the Korean army’s Unit 5858. (Official motto: ‘When one 58 ain’t enough.’)
Returning to Jongam-ro, I drifted north and after a while came across a small plaque in the sidewalk denoting the old Bukbawi Paddies and Dry Field Site (북바위 전답터). The paddies were in use until the end of World War II, at a spot near what’s now Jongam Middle School, which is a few blocks back of the main street. According to the plaque, sacrificial rites to the god of the mountain that were performed here still take place today.
From the plaque I crossed Jongam-ro and went down Jongam-ro-6-gil (종암로6길), toward what was labeled on maps as Goryeo Market (고려시장). Not an actual market, it’s a couple condensed blocks of old, beat-up buildings with dirty awnings and peeling paint, where they have paint at all. For those interested in the lower rungs of Seoul society, though, they’re pretty fascinating. The buildings are all three stories; cheap restaurants occupy a few spots on the ground floors, while most of the rest of the buildings hold clothing factories where women sit at sewing machines stitching together shirts and pants, and machine shops where high-pitched whirs escape from machines grinding away at metal. Up narrow, cracked concrete stairs, the third floors of some of these buildings also have what must be some of the meanest apartments in Seoul. By chance, one of the apartment doors happened to be open and its owner away, giving me a chance for a quick peek in. The apartment was barely bigger than a walk-in closet; a sleeping mat took up half the floor, there was a tiny sink set into one wall, and a few pieces of clothing and cheap plastic bowls were scattered about. The bathroom was out in the hallway: a couple of urinals set into the wall and toilets and showers behind the sort of cheap, ill-fitting metal door that you see on the bathrooms of old restaurants. In winter it must be freezing. Whoever lived here was clearly well down on their luck.
Before reaching Goryeo Market, if you turn right on Wolgok-ro (월곡로) and again on Wolgok-ro-2-gil (월곡로2길), then keep right onto Hoegi-ro-3-gil (회기로3길), you’ll come to Seoul Art Space Seongbuk (성북예술창작센터). Though not quite as interesting as the Art Spaces we visited in Mullae or Sindang, the one here is still worth a look if you’re in the neighborhood. Like at other Art Spaces, much of the building is given over to artist studios, which aren’t necessarily open for public viewing. Other studios are available for rental to artists and musicians in two- or three-hour blocks. There’s of course exhibition space here as well, and on the second floor I popped into a small gallery where an installation called ‘틈새로 보이는’ (‘Seen Through a Gap’) by Yi Sol was on display. The installation consisted of flat white pillows and several dozen electric tea candles spread across a deep gray floor, while overhead an orb-shaped light was covered in splotchy black, white, and gray paper, like a moon. At one end was a white, leafless tree. The effect was something like a chic lounge crossed with a diya-filled river on Diwali.
The interior of the building itself was also decorated with installation works. Among these were the walls of the basement, which were lined with Duplo-like plastic blocks that formed abstract landscapes. Marshmallow-y sprites floated around above them. The building that the Art Space is in used to be a public health center, and remnants of this have been kept as a reminder of its former life. An x-ray machine stands next to bookshelves in the first floor lounge, an old blue and white exercise bike sits next to the third floor elevator, and up on the fourth floor is a dentist chair that’s seen its last patient.
Servicing one of the country’s largest universities, you’d be tempted to think that there’d be a surfeit of nightlife around Korea University Station, but that’s surprisingly not the case. (Ko-dae’s nightlife tends to be focused on the area around Anam Station, which sits between the main part of campus and the science buildings to the southwest.) Instead, the neighborhood is largely residential and strikingly modest, despite being neighbors with a wealthy private university. Streets are filled with simple apartments, cheap eateries, and things catering to the local student population like coffee shops, comic book cafes, and gosiwon (고시원), small rooms rented to students that often provide free rice, kimchi, and ramen. One of the city’s refurbished streams, the Jeongneung (정릉천), runs east of the station, but that same restoration hasn’t gone into the buildings overlooking it, whose bricks are stained with age and need repairs.
The Jeongneung is a narrow channel flanked by wide banks that are part sandbar, part vegetation, and part stone, all running beneath an elevated highway. As usual, there are walking and bike paths alongside it, and there’s also a small artificial waterfall that empties into the stream, pouring out of a wall on one side of the road.
The neighborhood east of the stream is largely similar, full of very modest apartment buildings and small businesses, but it also has a distinctly intellectual air, at least along Hoegi-ro (회기로), easily reached by Exit 3. Hoegi-ro connects Korea University and Kyunghee University, and en route you pass the campus of the Korea Institute of Science and Technology; the Seoul campus of KAIST, Korea’s top science and technology school; and the Forest Research Institute.
At the corner of Hoegi-ro and Hongneung-ro (홍릉로), you’ll also find the King Sejong the Great Memorial Hall (세종대왕기념관), dedicated to the memory of the country’s favorite son. Hang a right on Hongneung-ro and the entrance will be on your left. Outside the main hall, several statues and artifacts relating to the fourth king of the Yi dynasty are on display. Most obvious is the large statue of Sejong, nearly identical in style to the one in Gwanghwhamun Square. To the right are several stone guardians – both military and civilian officials – taken from Yeongneung (영릉), the royal tomb of King Sejong and his wife, Queen Soheon, which is located in Yeonju, Gyeonggi-do. There are also accompanying stone rams and horses, the last of which is missing its head. Examples of scientific advancements that occurred under Sejong’s reign are also on display outside, including the supyo (수표), a water gauge that was used to measure the height of the Cheonggye Stream. (Supyo Bridge (수표교) is so named because it was near here that the device was installed.) The one on display here is believed to have been installed in the late Joseon period. To the left as you face the main building are a memorial tower and a sculpture in the shape of a ‘ㅎ’, a nod to Sejong’s most famous invention, Hangeul, the Korean script. There’s also a podium on which weddings take place, as the memorial hall also serves as a place where you can get married in a traditional ceremony if you’re so inclined.
Would King Sejong approve of his memorial hall doing double duty like that? It’s hard to say. One thing he certainly wouldn’t approve of is the memorial hall’s museum. It’s bad. Like, really bad.
It’s never a good sign when the museum attendant has to turn the lights on for you, as she did when I visited. Nor is it encouraging when everything bears that musty old museum smell. As for the displays, it’s hard to figure out under what rhyme or reason they were put together. The first room that visitors enter is dedicated to displays of traditional musical instruments; I might be betraying my ignorance here, but I’ve never heard of Sejong having any significant connection to or influence on the country’s music, so this struck me as an utterly bizarre way to start things off. The next room began to get into the king’s signature contribution to Korean culture, Hangeul, and displayed old books written in the script, as well as posters displaying the physical positioning of the mouth and larynx used to produce the language’s sounds. OK, great, except it’s all done in as dry a manner as possible, and there are absolutely no English explanations on anything at all.
And things only get weirder. The next room displays old printing blocks and cosmological maps (great!) and, right alongside them, Hangeul magnets, iPhone stands, and bright pink and purple stencils that kindergarteners can use to trace the alphabet’s shapes.
Things conclude in the museum’s special exhibition room with what looks like it’s been the special exhibition since the place opened. Tangentially related (I suppose) to the museum’s focus, the room is filled with shelves of old typewriters, along with a few stenography machines and early laptops. I have a bit of a fetish for typewriters, so this wasn’t entirely disappointing to me, but it has to be said that the Sejong Memorial Museum was probably the biggest let-down of any museum I’ve come across in Seoul. Hell, even the Dokdo Musuem was better. Unless you’re a Sejong diehard, you’re probably better off giving this place a miss and going instead to the royal tombs of Yeonghwiwon and Sunginwon (영휘원과 숭인원) next door. These are the burial sites of Lady Eom, Emperor Gojong’s favored concubine, and Yi Jin, Eom’s grandson, respectively. Though they’re actually closer to Korea University Station, we covered them when we visited Hoegi, so instead of rehashing everything here, for more information I’ll kindly direct you to that post.
Korea University (고려대학교)
Korea University Museum (고려대학교박물관)
In the Centennial Memorial Samsung Hall (100주년기념 삼성관)
Hours | 10:00 – 17:00, closed Mondays and public holidays on weekdays
Admission | Free; Admission fees for special exhibitions occasionally apply
Cinema Trap (시네마트랩)
5th floor of Korea University’s Media Hall (메디아관)
Korea University Ice Rink (아이스린크)
Straight on Jongam-ro (종암로), Left on Bugaksan-ro (북악산로)
Hours | School year: 15:00 – 17:00 weekdays, 14:00 – 18:00 weekends; Vacation: 13:00 – 17:50 Mon – Sat, 14:00 – 17:50 Sunday
Admission | 6,000; Skate rental 3,000
Gaeun Mountain Neighborhood Park (개운산근린공원)
Straight on Jongam-ro (종암로), Left on Bugaksan-ro (북악산로)
Bukbawi Paddies and Dry Field Site (북바위 전답터)
Straight on Jongam-ro (종암로)
Goryeo Market (고려시장)
Straight on Jongam-ro (종암로), Right on Jongam-ro-6-gil (종암로6길)
Seoul Art Space Seongbuk (성북예술창작센터)
Straight on Jongam-ro (종암로), Right on Wolgok-ro (월곡로), Right on Wolgok-ro-2-gil (월곡로2길), Right on Hoegi-ro-3-gil (회기로3길)
Jeongneung Stream (정릉천)
Straight on Gosanja-ro (고산자로)
King Sejong the Great Memorial Hall (세종대왕기념관)
Straight on Jongam-ro (종암로), Right on Hoegi-ro (회기로), Right on Hongneung-ro (홍릉로)
Hours | Mar – Oct: 9:00 – 18:00, Nov – Feb: 9:00 – 17:30, Closed Mondays, New Year’s Day, Seollal, and Chuseok
Admission | Adults 3,000, Students 1,500
Yeonghwiwon and Sunginwon (영휘원과 숭인원)
Straight on Jongam-ro (종암로), Right on Hoegi-ro (회기로), Right on Hongneung-ro (홍릉로)
Hours | February – May 9:00 – 18:00, June – August 9:00 – 18:30, September – October 9:00 – 18:00, November – January 9:00 – 17:30; Closed Mondays
Admission | Adults 1,000, Children 7-18 500