Daehangno District. Part 2, Marronnier Park

A large modern sculpture greets you at the entrance to Marronnier Park
A pretty urban park
Replica of Seoul National University campus that was on this site

Part 2 in Daehangno District, Seoul; Maronnier Park

Located on the former site of Seoul National University, Marronnier Park was opened in 1975 after the campus relocated to a new location in Gwanak and the area was redeveloped. I found a miniature replica of the university near the center of the park, which gives visitors an idea of what the area looked like before the university was moved.

edgearea copy
From one corner of the park the Daehangno Theater and Entertainment area begins
Coffee shop and street market

Marronnier Park is named after many horse chestnut trees (marronniers) growing in the park (maronniers originated from the Mediterranean). The horse chestnut tree tradition began with three trees that were left when Seoul National University moved and most of the buildings were demolished.

This small park has become the center of Daehangno. It has pretty fountains, a large children’s playground and an open-air performance stage, used by street artists and young musicians or dancers. Every week, there are various different performances, both traditional and more modern. Many restaurants, galleries, museums and theaters cluster around the park and famous Daehangno Street starts from one corner of the park.

A thriving shoes market
Bikes for rent

In the park is a coffee shop (where I stopped and it was very pleasant) and along the main street you’re very likely to see impromptu street stalls—the day I visited the park area, there was a large stall selling shoes, hundreds of shoes of all kinds, and many people were trying on shoes and buying.

You can also rent bicycles here (similar concept to the Vel’ibs in Paris), but I have to admit I would be way too afraid to try and ride in this traffic!



Daehangno District in Seoul: Part 1

A street in Daehangno
edgearea copy
The theater district stretches out from the edge of Marronnier Park

Daehangno District in Seoul

Get there on Metro Line 4, Hyehwa Station, exit 2.

Part 1: Introduction and Daehangno Street

Our Korean hosts at Seoul National University told us that the campus at Gwanak is relatively new and that it used to be located in Seoul city center. So, one day I decided to explore and find the original location. I did, and it turns out that this is a really interesting part of Seoul today—the center of performance culture, with a lovely park, and colorful murals.

One of the theaters
 ….If  you need to park your car

Daehangno Street is the center of performance culture in Seoul, with over 150 small theaters. This area is called the “Play Mecca”, “Theater Mecca”, or “Young Street” as well. This is where you an enjoy theater and impromptu performances by young artists. Daehangno area bustles with people who come to enjoy plays or musicals or just to stroll along the streets and soak up the ambience, especially on car-free weekends. Not many performances are in English, but attending one can still be an enjoyable spectacle. There are also many restaurants, bars and movie theaters.

At first this district was popular with mainly the twenty-something crowd but now it attracts diverse age groups as well. Young people still dominate the scene, but more families with children and middle-aged couples are coming, due to the variety and abundance of attractions offered.

replica copy
Replica of original Seoul National University campus here

But the area was not originally planned as a theater district. Keijo Imperial University was located here, during the first half of the 20th century, when Korea was under Japanese occupation (Keijo, or Gyeongseong in Korean, was the colonial-era name of Seoul). When Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, Seoul National University opened in its place. In 1975, the university’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and College of Law moved to its current Gwanak campus south of the Han River, and many of the school buildings were demolished.

But, the modern red brick building that had housed the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences was spared, plus three horse chestnut trees (marronnier) that are still reminders of the former university site. A park was created at this site, which people began to call Marronnier Park.

Part of Marronnier Park

arkoartsMore red brick buildings were built around the park, to complement the previous university building. These include Munye Theater (current Arko Arts Theater), which opened in 1981. In the 1980s, many theater groups started moving to Daehangno. At the same time, movie theaters, live-cafes, regular cafes and pubs sprung up and the area developed into a cultural and entertainment center.

When the Seoul Metropolitan Government officially adopted the name Daehangno in 1985, it hoped to create a global cultural destination like Montmartre in Paris, once the world’s mecca of modern art; or Tokyo’s fashion hotspot Harajuku; or London’s Piccadilly Circus. Daehangno has become a theater district widely known among performing artists around the world, so maybe the city’s ambitions did come true!

Tapgol Park in Seoul



Entrance to Tapgol Park
Sidewalk outside the park entrance leads to busy modern buildings

Tapgol Park

This small walled park of about 5 acres, on the edge of Insadong (probably Seoul’s most popular tourist district), is a useful place to sit and relax if you’re in the area for shopping, or visiting Jogyesa Temple or Unhyeongung Palalce. It’s also very popular with retired folk, especially men, who seem to gather there to chat and perhaps play a board game while listening to music on their radios. We’ve been into this park numerous times and it’s fun to sit and people watch. In spring, the leafy greenness is made even more beautiful with beds of bright flowering azaleas.

Besides being a tranquil pretty green oasis in the midst of busy Seoul, Tapgol also has a fair bit of history attached to it, some very old and some relatively recent and certainly not peaceful.

Old and new—Tapgol Park looking to Jongno Tower
The protected Pagoda

Opened in 1897, Tapgol Park was Seoul’s first western-style park, designed by King Gojong’s financial advisor, an Irishman called John McLeavy Brown.

At first it was known as Pagoda Park or Tapdong Park, named after a 15th-century relic—a 1467 stone pagoda from the Wongaksa Buddhist Temple once located here. Tap in Korean means pagoda. The Temple was destroyed in 1504 on the orders of a Confucian king. The 10-tier, 12-meter-high pagoda is a treasure of Buddhist art, but it’s a little hard to see the wonderful carvings through the glass cage around it (but definitely better to preserve it).


Pagoda detail


Pavilion in the park—where the Resistance Movement started

Another monument in the park is the tortoise stele Monument of Wongaksa (see above) built in 1471 to commemorate the founding of Wongaksa Temple in 1465. On the front and back are calligraphy and inscriptions recording the story. The turtle-shaped base is granite and the body is marble. Two intricately carved intertwined dragons, rising toward the sky holding a Buddhist gem, top the monument.

The park is also a symbol of Korean resistance to Japanese colonial rule. Historical note: Korea became a Japanese Protectorate in 1905 and a colony in 1910. Korea was liberated in 1945 after the surrender of the Japanese forces to the Allies. Korea never took well to Japanese colonial rule and by all accounts Japan tried hard to suppress all that was typically Korean. Hence the resistance.

This pagoda is part of Korean history
Statue of Son Byeong-hui
Murals telling the Resistance story

On March 1, 1919, Euiam Son Byeong-hui (leader of Donghak church, and educator) and 32 others signed and read aloud a Declaration of Independence under the 8-sided Palgakjeong Pavilion (see above). This was the first public display of resistance to the Japanese and sparked the March 1st Movement. They were all arrested and sent to the infamous Seodaemum Prison (which we visited on our last trip. More on that later). Many people throughout Korea protested against this, but the samil (March 1) movement was ruthlessly suppressed and hundreds of independence fighters were killed and thousands arrested in the park. Ten bronze bas-relief murals in stone frames around one edge of the park depict the heroic, but unsuccessful, struggle. They are well done and very evocative of what happened then. I took photos of most of the panels, so you can tell they made a big impression.


These murals tell a very graphic story
Heroic people indeed


(See more murals at end)
Memorial at edge of entrance plaza

Every March 1st, a memorial service is held here. You can read an English copy of the Declaration on the Memorial Plaque near the entrance to the park. Just inside the entrance is a large paved plaza, with the Memorial on the right. It has the Declaration and statues of two of the heroes. Just to the side is a bronze statue of Son Byeong-hui.

Park is open daily 6am-8pm and is free. Vendors outside sell souvenirs, flags, and snacks. There are clean public restrooms in the park.

Subway: Lines 1,3, or 5 to Jongno 3-ga Station and take exit 1.


Reading the Declaration of Independence


Korea in Other Places

Chicago’s Art Institute

A small sample of Korean culture in Chicago. The fame of old Korean pottery has spread around the globe. We’ve seen a wonderful history of Korean pottery in the National Museum of Korea in Seoul, but here it is in Chicago too, at the Art Institute, one of the world’s top Art Museums.

We visited the Art Institute in Chicago (mainly to see the special exhibition on Van Gogh’s Bedrooms) on our way to Korea last April. So, we decided to also look at the Art Institute’s special small exhibit on Korean Goryeo Pottery/Celadon.

It was a small exhibit, but each piece is perfect, mostly the delicate green color, very shiny and exquisitely crafted. It’s wonderful to see masterpieces from so long ago, each one a true work of art.

There were many ewers, some with floral or bamboo themes, illustrating the importance that bamboo has played in Korean culture for so long (I recently wrote about a Korean Bamboo Park, see here https://vivskoreanadventures.wordpress.com/2016/04/06/damyang-bamboo-park-juknok-won/ ).

Korean pottery seems to be distinguished from other Asian pottery in that it’s green,

Melon-shaped ewer with stylized floral scrolls. Celadon glazed stoneware with underglaze inlaid decoration with gold repair. Early 13th century

with an elegant classical style. The pieces were all made to be used by wealthy people—oil lamps, water jugs etc—to be used in the home or Temple.

Korea is very famous for pottery, so here’s a bit of background.

Quick History

(Summary taken from the information boards in the Art Institute)

Over the last 2,000 years, Korean potters have created ceramics of amazingly diverse form and technique. Probably the most distinctive are celadon-glazed stonewares that were commissioned for use by the imperial court, aristocracy, and large Buddhist monasteries during the peaceful and prosperous Goryeo dynasty (918-1392).

Initially emulating celadon imported from China, Korean potters created a soft green-glazed ware by firing iron-rich clay coated with an iron-oxide glaze in a reduction (low oxygen) kiln. By the 12th century, they had created surfaces of previously unseen luminosity by adding porcelain stone to the glaze mixture. These Korean celadons display a radiant bluish green “kingfish er” glaze. This was either left pure or enhanced with decorative motifs that were gracefully carved or pressed into a mold. Designs painted in underglaze iron oxide created bolder effects.

Oil bottle with chrysanthemum sprays, 13th century

The Goryeo potter’s most innovative contribution to the celadon tradition was inlaid decoration (sanggam). They created this by cutting designs into the unbaked clay and filling the grooves with creamy white and brown or reddish brown inlays. The white was primarily crushed quartz, and the darker color was melted and crushed glaze materials. The surface was then scraped smooth of excess inlay and the vessel glazed and fired. Inlaid designs include pictorial scenes, dynamically twisting dragons, and, very commonly, small, symmetrically placed chrysanthemum blossoms.

Most Goryeo celadons were elegant and functional vessels—wine ewers inspired by melons or bamboo, petal-lobed cups, and stands for wine or tea, small cosmetic basins, and flattened bottles possibly used for hair oils. The potter, however, also made intricately constructed and exuberantly fanciful pieces, such as the bird-shaped ewer (No 1 below).

No 1: Bird-shaped ewer with crowned rider holding a bowl. Goryeo dynasty, 12th century. In this whimsical ewer, an official with a formed head-dress rides astride a plump, crested waterbird. The birds’ wings are extended as if in flight and its tail swoops up to form the handle. Liquids could be poured into the round vessel held by the rider and out through the bird’s smiling beak.



Vase (Maebyong) with stylized floral sprays. Celadon-glazed stoneware with underglaze painting, 12th century (pic below).


Lobed vase with stylized floral scrolls. Celadon-glazed stoneware with underglaze painted decoration, 12th century (pic below).


Bottle with bamboo fluting. Celadon-glazed stoneware with underglaze carved and incised decoration, 13th century.


Gourd-shaped ewer with twisted rope handle, lotus leaves and floral sprays. Celadon-glazed stoneware and underglaze carved decoration, 12th century.


Ewer formed as a sprouting bamboo. Celadon-glazed stoneware with underglaze carved and incised decoration, 12th century.


Lobed cup and stand with chrysanthemum flower heads. Celadon-glazed stoneware with underglaze carved and incised decoration, 12th/13th century.


All delicately gorgeous! Master craftsmen so long ago.


Seoul’s New City Hall

The setting for Seoul City Hall (s)
Seoul Plaza with old and new City Halls
Old City Hall (with clock) and new City Hall directly behind

Our guide books on Seoul all mentioned the new City Hall in glowing words and especially mentioned the living wall. As one put it, “Seoul’s newest landmark is an eco-friendly building with the world’s largest indoor green wall.”

The Seoul Plaza in front of it is also touted as a special open space in the city, the symbolic center of the city, apparently able to handle gatherings of up to 100,000 people. One such gathering was during World Cup 2002, when thousands in Red Devil T-shirts gathered to cheer on the national team.buildingdesign

Front of new City Hall
The curved glass shape is very clear

After reading that, how could we not go to see this new marvel?

So, one day we did, combining it with a visit to the Deoksugung Palace complex on the opposite side of the road.

The new City Hall is a very modern-looking building from the outside, a long rectangular shape with glass walls curved upwards and out. It rises like a wave suspended above the Seoul Plaza, in this distorted shape to accommodate the stocky historic old City Hall which is directly in front of it, now rather dwarfed by the sleek newcomer.

The old City Hall was built in 1926 under Japanese rule and was the administrative center from 1945 (after Korea was liberated from Japanese rule) until 2008. It has now been converted into the Seoul Metropolitan Library. The two city halls are connected by an elevated bridge, a symbol of the link between the city’s history and its future.

Living wall, and glass


Rod and part of the living wall

The Seoul Plaza is pretty with green lawns, flower beds and a fountain, but didn’t seem as large as we expected. Security in the new City Hall is tight and only people with security clearance can get beyond the front lobby, except on a very organized visiting loop. Visitors can enter the lobby and go up to the 8th floor for a view down and out, accessed via a special elevator. You can do this freely, and enjoy the art exhibition(s) up there too.

The Seoul City Hall is a government building in charge of the administrative affairs of the city. Yoo Keri of iArc won the design competition for the new building. Construction took 4 years and the new building opened in August 2012. The 13-story building is almost entirely covered with glazing and the sides are really interesting with angled “leaves” interspersed with curvaceous glass bubbles. Many say that the architects wanted to project an image of “future architecture”. In addition to office space, the multi-purpose building includes a number of cultural facilities, a rooftop garden terrace and a library.


Looking down from the gallery level
Walking the gallery level

The lush multi-story green wall acts as an enormous air filter and is a symbol of the city’s intention to adhere to sustainable development. The living wall is indeed huge and amazing, and we enjoyed the art exhibition on the 8th and 9th floors.

We thought the new city hall was really interesting, as a sleek modern contrast to some of the old buildings nearby. However, some of my Korean students, two of whom are urban planners, tell me that many Koreans do not like the design of the new building and that there has been a lot of controversy over it. I guess that’s the way of most new things.

Anyway, it’s still worth a look, and the Green Wall is impressive.

Suseok, or Scholars’ Stones

At Unhyeong Palace
In Insadong
At an entranceway in Buchon Village

All around Korea, we saw rocks, both large and small, obviously strategically placed in public gardens, small garden borders, and at entranceways. We asked about these, and it turns out that stones are a big part of Korean culture and history.

The Korean name for these shaped rocks is Suseok, also called viewing stones. Such stones are similar to Chinese scholars’ rocks and Japanese suiseki.

Part of the gorgeous Bongeunsa Temple gardens in spring
On the campus of Seoul National University
At the entrance to Hoam Faculty House at Seoul National University

Suseok began as votive art over 3000 years ago, and began to be seen as worthy of scholars around a thousand years ago. Early on, important sites in the landscape were marked with shaped stones, similar to distance markers on post roads. Burial sites were also permanently marked by a large tumulus or mound, often surrounded by anthropomorphic-shaped stones, similar to those of Inuit memory markers.

This art form is usually on three scales: large installations of monumental shaped stones as ornamental gates or traditional entranceways; medium-sized shaped stones for landscape decoration within Korean gardens; and the smaller shaped stones for scholar’s tables, which was very important.

In Tapgol Park
At Unhyeong Palace

Suseok can be any color and a wide variety of sizes and shapes. In prehistoric times, Koreans worshipped nature, the sun, stars, water, rocks, stones, and trees. They especially believed that rocks had more power than water and other things in nature. So, the arrangement of rocks is considered one of the “essential” elements in designing a traditional Korean garden. Korean gardens are natural, informal, simple and unforced, aiming to blend with the natural world. Korean garden culture can be traced back more than 2,000 years. In recent years, 300 documents have been found, written during the Koryo (918-1392) and Choson (1392-1910) dynasties, that contain detailed records about traditional Korean gardens, many of which survive and can be visited today.

Koreans have recently rediscovered their stone garden tradition and there’s been a

In Yongsan Park, close to the National Museum of Korea

revival of interest in rock arrangements in gardens.

We can also find smaller ceramic versions of scholar’s rocks cast in celadon, used as brush-holders; and water droppers for scholar’s calligraphy, especially in the shape of small mountains.

Enjoy these photos of examples we found on our last trip to Seoul.





Viewing Costumes at Unhyeongung Palace

settingstonesTraditional costumes at Unhyeongung Royal Residence

I wrote earlier about this lovely unofficial palace in the heart of Insadong, Seoul. It’s a delight to just wander around and note the layout and architecture. It’s also very interesting, as many of the rooms facing the different courtyards are furnished and mannequins display the dress styles of various stations of life of the times.

If you stop to look closely and read the information boards you can learn a fair bit about how the people of those times dressed, and what was considered appropriate. It all seemed to be quite formal, and each article of clothing had a special name. It was also a little confusing to me, as some of the clothes looked very similar to each other. I guess I’m not familiar with the finer points and details.

I randomly picked some to share here. Enjoy! (Pictures are below each description).

First; After King Gojong’s ascension to the throne, Sanggung (Court ladies) and Nain (Court lady attendants) were assigned to Unhyeongung Palace to manage its housekeeping. Here we see them in the kitchen.


No 2: Sanggung (Court lady) wearing a blue-green dangui (or dangeui), a woman’s outer coat. King Gojong’s biological mother, Lady Heung-sun, is seated, wearing a pink dangui.


No 3 is a room in Norakdang (women’s quarters). We see royal women’s wear here in a beautifully decorated room.3norak


No 4: Lady Heung-sun was the mother of King Gojong. When staying at the Norakdang she wore a skirt and jacket called Chima and Jeogori respectively.


No 5: Dangui is a simple type of ceremonial dress that is put on over Jeogori and Chima. Court ladies wore dangui made of deep watermelon Jamisa, a kind of patterned silk.


No 6: The bodyguard escorting Lord Heungsun was called Cheonhajangin. They wore Kweja and Hyupsoo. A Hyupsoo is a kind of coat with narrow sleeves, made of naturally-dyed cotton or silk.



No 7: Policemen wore a long sleeveless vest of dark blue color, called Jeonbok, and a shirt with silk or cotton sleeves in white, called Hyupsoo.



No 8: Military officers wore Hyupsoopo, an orange silk coat with a red neckline, and Jeonbok, a long vest of hand-woven silk, tied with a deep blue sash called Kwangdae. When out in the field, they wore a Jeonrip, a black felt hat.



Seoul’s Unhyeongung Royal Residence

One of the grander buildings at Unhyeongung
Fine woodwork
Pretty peaceful gardens in the Royal Residence

Insadong is a vibrant area in the heart of Seoul, where it’s possible to experience some of the traditional Korean culture without going out into the countryside. There are art galleries, antique dealers, craft stores, traditional tea-houses and restaurants, some on small narrow streets with traditional architecture. I’m sure every visitor to Seoul goes to Insadong, and we were no exception.

However, there’s more to this area than shops. There’s Tapgol Park, and Jogyesa Temple, both of which I’ll talk about later. And there’s Unhyeongung Royal Residence, which is well worth a visit. It’s interesting that some of the city’s great historical sights are right in the middle of the modern business districts.

Modern Seoul is just on the other side of the palace walls
Beautiful brickwork on the outer walls

We visited Unhyeongung the first time we came to Korea in 2009, and again on our last visit this year. “Unhyeongung”

means “Cloud Hanging Over the Valley” Palace. No-one can really tell me where that name came from, but it’s a lovely place.

Often described unofficially as Seoul’s 6th palace, its charming wooden buildings are delightful to wander around and it’s far less crowded than the other big palaces. It was officially denied the title of “palace” as it was never actually occupied by a king. But, considering its size, formality and ground plan, it is more similar to an inner palace than the house of a high-ranking official; for example, the solid wooden structures, triple-fold windows, and sunscreen eaves. It was in fact the private residence of a king-to-be and his father.

Noandang, the men’s quarters
One of the men’s rooms
Brick chimney in one of the courtyards

Though not as striking or as colorful as the other five, it still gives an idea of life at that time and has a tranquil atmosphere. It’s a lovely little oasis in the city as, once you enter through the gates, the hustle and bustle of the city recedes, even though city buildings are very evident beyond the walls.

King Gojung (1852-1919), the 26th king of the Joseon Dynasty, was born and raised here until 1863 when he ascended the throne aged 12, with his father acting as regent. The modest and plain natural-wood design of this minor palace reflects the austere tastes of Regent Heungseon Daewongun (1820-98), King Gojong’s stern and conservative father. The Regent’s policies included massacring Korean Catholics, excluding foreigners from Korea and thereby closing the doors of the kingdom to foreigners, shutting down Confucian schools, and rebuilding Gyeongbokgung, the main royal palace.

Sleeping room—-note the bedding piled up
Norakdang, the women’s quarters

As is common in the design of many Korean palaces, various buildings are arranged around different inter-leading courtyards, the whole enclosed by an outer wall that used to have four entrance gates. At Unhyeongung, each building has an information board in Korean, English and Chinese, so we can begin to understand what the function of each was.

In 1864 (1st year of King Gojong’s rule), Norakdang Hall and Noandang Hall were built, and in 1869 Irodang and Yeongnodang.

Noandang, the men’s quarters, was where Heungseon Daewongun discussed state affairs and received his guests.

Norakdang was the central place in Unhyeongung and larger than Noandang with nine rooms along the corridor. Here King Gojong and his wife Queen Myeongseong held their wedding ceremony in 1866 and important events like 60th birthdays took place. It was considered women’s quarters, and the calligraphy and other decorations are especially fine.

A room in Norakdang
Queen Myeongseoqng visited with the crown prince to celebrate the birthday of King Gojung’s mothe

Irodang Hall was also used as the inner quarters, probably of Regent Heungseon and his wife.

Many of the rooms facing the different courtyards are furnished and mannequins display the dress styles of various stations of life of the times, giving some idea of how people here used to live. As was the custom, women were hidden away in their own separate quarters on different sides of the courtyard.

When Heungseon Daewongun died, the house was inherited by his eldest son and then by his grandson. After the Korean War, a considerable part of the house was sold, so the size was much reduced. In 1993, the descendants sold it to the government and it was renovated and re-opened in 1996.

Notice the special stone through the gate

Allow at least an hour to wander around, passing through the packed-sand courtyards linked by walkways with trees and bushes. One of the walkways has a number of special stones, all different shapes and sizes. I think they are called “Suseok”, or “viewing stones” and are similar to the Chinese “Scholars’ Stones.”

Besides the main halls, notice the patterned outer walls and the chimneys. A small section of the palace is now an exhibition hall, with items such as a scale model of the residence, writing tools, traditional wedding outfits. The visitors’ office is in a room on the outer wall, as are two small rooms used for special exhibits. A small coffee shop and restrooms are also here, plus a hanbok (traditional Korean dress) rental stand. Many people like to rent a hanbok and have their pictures taken here (and in the other palaces). I’ll post some pictures of that later.

To get to Unhyeongung:

In the small museum

Subway Line 3 to Anguk, take exit 4.  Palace is free.

Closed on Mondays. Open 9-7 April-Oct, and 9-6 Nov-March.

Just for interest, the five main palaces are:

First, Gyeongbokgung Palace, which was the royal family’s residence during the Joseon Dynasty;

Second, Deoksugung Palace, which was first used as a palace during the reign of King Seonjo between 1552 and 1608, but has housed a number of kings since then;

Third, Gyeonghuigung Palace, which was built in the late Joseon Dynasty as a backup in case of emergency. It’s in the west of the city and is often called the West Palace;

Fourth, Changgyeonggung Palace, which was built in 1483 in the reign of King Seongjong to house the Dowager Queen Sohye. The grounds of this palace connect to Changdeokgung Palace, creating an independent palace compound.

Fifth, Changdeokgung Palace was built in 1405 as a second royal residence for King Taejong, and at times in history served as the main royal palace. This palace has the Biwon, or Secret Garden.



Baekje Museum, Seoul

View of park and fortress from museum roof
Rod at museum entrance
Maps of the old kingdoms

Baekje Museum, Seoul

This is well worth a half-day’s visit, combined with a visit to the Monchontoseong Fortress and Olympic Park. The park has cafes and coffee shops, and the museum has a café and restaurant on the top floor (we had lunch up there).

Seoul Baekje Museum, which is dedicated to the ancient history and culture of the old capital city of the Baekje Kingdom, is a fairly new museum in Seoul. It is located inside Olympic Park, overlooking Monchontoseong Fortress, and has pretty lawns and gardens in front of it.

Baekje armor
Timeline wall

As I wrote about earlier, in the area of Songpa, south of the Han River in Seoul, are remains of the Baekje Kingdom and many relics from excavations there. These discoveries led researchers to believe that this area was a base for Baekje culture for a long period.

Seoul, the capital and heart of Korea today, was also for hundreds of years the capital of this ancient kingdom of Baekje. The Baekje Kingdom survived 678 years (18BC-660AD), and the capital was here for 493 years (18BC-475AD). Baekje moved its capital south to Gongju City in 475.

Neolithic milling stone
Bronze Age mirror
Baekje brick with landscape pattern

Many large settlements were already established in the Neolithic Age and their traces still can be found in the numerous areas including Poongnap Fortress, Mongchon Fortress and Seokchon-dong tomb complex. Since ancient times the Han River, running through Seoul City, has been an essential transport route and helped to create fertile farmlands along its banks. This allowed Seoul to become the industrial hub that was the stage for several wars during the Three Kingdom period (Baekje, Shilla and Goguryeo). 

In recent years, tens of thousands of Baekje-era relics were excavated from the Poongnap Fortress telling the hidden historic stories beneath them.

Baekje gilt-bronze incense burner
Baekje gilt-bronze crown
Baekje Museum—note the ramp on the right leading up to the roof garden

To systemically preserve those relics, to review the 2000-year history of Seoul, to lead research on further excavations and to act as an educational resource, the city established the Seoul Baekje Museum on a site overlooking the Mongchon Fortress in the Olympic Park. Construction started in 2004 and was completed in Oct 2010, but the museum only opened officially in April 2012. It’s an impressive museum, not only for what it showcases but also for the building itself, now a landmark in the park that has won numerous architecture awards.

Part of roof garden
Viv sits in a model of a cow-cart on the roof
Model of a Baekje boat, called a Baekjaebang

The exterior of Seoul Baekje Museum resembles the outline of Mongchon earthen fortress, partly designed in the shape of a vessel to evoke the importance of the Baekje kingdom as a maritime powerhouse. They were skilled ship builders, crafting boats with a flat bottom and one sail (although some say there may have been two sails). The slanting feature of the building on one side represents a vessel in the ocean. Baekje developed its national power mainly by trading with China and Japan through the Hangang River and Yellow Sea. It is also designed to harmonize with the surroundings, thus the brown color and the grassed slope leading up to the roof garden.

Plan of a Baekje boat
Baekje toilet bowl for men

The Seoul Baekje Museum showcases the long history of the region since the Paleolithic period, focusing on the Hanseong period of Baekje (18BC-475AD) in particular because this was the time when the area of present-day Seoul became the Baekje capital city. With its capital established along the Hangang (river) the Baekje flourished in this area, a fact that had powerful influences on neighboring countries.

There is lots of information in English alongside an engaging display of maps, models, artifacts and replicas, making the era come alive. The main point that emerges is that the Baekje culture was very advanced culturally.

 The vast Lobby has a cross-section of the Pungnap Earthen Fortress, which is three-

Fortress wall in the Lobby

floors high. A thin layer was taken from the 43-meter wide and 9-11-meter high fortress wall for this wall exhibit, and it’s displayed with a full-scale model of workers constructing an earth rampart.

Exhibition Hall 1 focuses on Prehistoric Civilization in the Seoul area and the Dawn of Baekje. This tells the story of Paleolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age and early Iron Age civilization in Seoul area, especially in the riparian area of the Hangang (river).

Baekje loom

Exhibition Hall 2: Here the history of Baekje is displayed from its founding in this area and its growth over 495 years. Besides showing the life of the people at that time, it also describes how Baekje became a bigger power and interacted with China and Japan. One interesting exhibit is on how their tombs changed, from stone mound tombs to stone chamber tombs.

Exhibition Hall 3 shows the confrontation between the Three Kingdoms—Baekje, Goguryeo and Silla—and the history of the Baekje after the fall of its capital in Hanseoung and move to Gongju.

The museum is free and open daily 9am-7pm except Mondays and January 1st. The mayor of Seoul may also decide to close it periodically for special days.

You can get a self-guided audio tour for smart phones.


Hunting Down History: The Baekje Kingdom


Viv stands on steps up onto fortress wall

promenadesignMongchontoseong Fortress, in Olympic Park in Seoul

In the area of Songpa, south of the Han River in Seoul, are remains of the Baekje Kingdom, notably two earth-wall fortresses and many relics from excavations there.

Mongchontoseong Fortress is inside the Olympic Park, a very large green park with wilderness areas, lakes and other interesting features, the main one being the Fortress.

Take the subway to the station of the same name on Line 8 and follow signs to World Peace Gate. Once inside the park there are big boards with maps and information to guide you round.

Part of fortress wall


Walking the walls

The Korean people have lived through a history of division and then unity, followed by more division and then unity. In the past, the peninsula was divided into smaller states and then was re-united by whoever was in power.

As a very brief summary, the major kingdoms of the past were the Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla, which were then united into the United Silla Kingdom. This was later followed by the Goryeo Dynasty, and then the Joseon Dynasty. The Joseon Dynasty lasted around 500 years and was the last unified kingdom before the Japanese invasion in the early 1900s.

We wandered around the park and along the fortress walls, reading the information boards, and later went into the new Seoul Baekje Museum. As we did this we began to get an idea, a picture in our minds, of what this ancient place was.


Some of the excavations in the fortress

In the Three Kingdom Period on the Korean peninsula, the Baekje Kingdom was centered around this area of the peninsula, along the Hanggang River, as it was called then. Its main city/town was known as Hangseong. Archaeological excavations and research from Samguksagi (the Historical Record of the Three Kingdoms) are proving that Baekje had two capital earthen fortresses (sometimes called castles). The first, Pungnaptoseoung to the north, was built in the early Baekje Kingdom before the 3rd century, and was an important center of marine transportation. The second, Mongchontoseong a little south of the first one, is thought to have been built under the reign of King Geunchogo after the 4th century and served as a high fortress overlooking the entire area in case of a war. It was built at the end of a natural slope extending from Namhansan Mountain, and the natural landscape of the Hanggang River was used as part of the wall. So, it was here that Baekje was able to lay its foundation as a powerful kingdom.

?an old tomb stone
View of modern Seoul and World Peace Gate from the fortress

We didn’t actually go to the Pungnaptpseong Fortress, but learned that this was where 30,000 troops of Goguryeo (one of the other Kingdoms) under King Jangsu attacked Hanseong, Baekje in 475. It is said that the castle surrendered after the 7-day attack and that Baekje King Gaero (reigned 455-475), who was in the southern section of the castle, tried to escape to the west, but was killed.

But, we spent quite a while rambling around what’s left of the Mongchontoseong Earthen Fortress. The place attracts many visitors, as it is a significant historical site and is pretty with fields of canola flowers, barley and grass. There are many walking paths, and we saw numerous working Koreans taking advantage of this space to walk during their lunch break.

As you walk along the top of the now-grass-covered earth walls you get a good view out over the park and to modern Seoul and huge groups of apartment buildings. In this park, too, we saw a number of squirrels and pheasants, and heard many other birds.


Gommal Bridge

The fortress/castle is a 2.3 km-long earth fortress wall (about 1.4 miles), in a roughly circular shape, the walls ranging between 6-40 m (about 20-131 feet) high. The area inside the castle walls is 216,000 square meters (about 54 acres). Songnaecheon Stream flows along the walls and serves as a moat. A pretty bridge crosses at one point. This is the Gommal Bridge (Gommal-Dari). “Gommal” means a bridge found in a dream village. “Gommal”, derived from the archaic “Ggummaul”, is an old Korean word for “Mongchon”. The information board explains that “this classical and beautiful Korean word was given to this bridge in March 1986.”

Laid outside the castle wall are wooden barricades. Houses and other buildings have been

View of modern Seoul and World Peace Gate

found here, along with storage pits and a pond. Thousands of pieces of earthenware, Chinese-made porcelain, bone, armor, and such, have all been unearthed here.

At one spot in the center of the fortress enclosure you find an ancient site of dug-out huts and some old tombs remaining, with stone chambers and soil mounds typical of the early Baekje period (200-475 AD). They are closed off, so you cannot actually get into them, but you can see where and how they were situated. Also found in the area was a hearth proving pre-historic habitation, as well as stone tables, fragments of stone swords and Baekje earthenware. These discoveries led researchers to believe that this area was a base for Baekje culture for a long period.

Seoul Baekje Museum

The small Mongchon Museum of History on the north side has historical relics discovered during the excavation of Mongchontoseong Fortress and Pungnaptoseong Fortress. Notable are some precious golden relics of the Baekje kings, a seven-pronged sword called Chiljido (that testifies to the outstanding iron-smelting skills of the time), and many pots. The history of human settlement here goes way back. The museum is free and open daily, except Monday.

There is much more to see in the Seoul Baekje Museum, also in the Olympic Park. More on that later.