Changing of the guard: The future of Yongsan : Next steps for what has been a military base for over 100 years

Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print

Changing of the guard: The future of Yongsan : Next steps for what has been a military base for over 100 years


Since the Japanese invasion, Yongsan has been deemed military grounds, and the arrival of Americans did not change that until now. At the end of this year, the U.S. Army will be moving out and to Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi. At left is Yongsan in 1906, and at right is the base in 2017. [YONGSAN DISTRICT OFFICE]

The relocation of the Eighth United States Army, from the current Yongsan Garrison in central Seoul to Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi, is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year. When the relocation is completed, this vast area that has been restricted to the public for 111 years will be returned to the hands of the civilians. For many Koreans, the U.S. Army’s Yongsan Garrison in central Seoul has a historic significance than can be traced back to when Korea was under Japanese colonial rule. The JoongAng Sunday, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, was able to tour the Yongsan Garrison before the U.S. military’s final departure.

The Yongsan Garrison was created in 1906 following the invasion of the Japanese. Its location near the Gyeongbu Line and Han River was a perfect choice for supply centers. After buying the 390,000 square meter (96 acre) land from the Korean Empire in April 1908, a new army command center was built to house a battalion of soldiers to keep surveillance over dissenting Koreans.

A map released by the Yongsan District Office on July 12 shows how the inhabited region was planned to be used. An official from the Yongsan District Office said, “The records of the 1906 land purchase shows mass opposition of the villagers who were forcibly driven out.” At least 14,000 houses were recorded to be repositioned and lands were cleared out without regard for the fact that it was home to a cemetery with 130,000 bodies and 350,000 square meters of farmland. An entire village used to stand when the U.S. Eighth Army’s Dragon Hill Lodge currently stands. The only remnants from that time are statues of literati and children which have now been relocated to Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, along with the Eighth United States Army.

In the rear of the Republic of Korea/United Stated Combined Forces Command (ROK/U.S. CFC) building are granite doorposts that lead to the old Japanese Army training grounds.

The only sign of there being an iron gate in the past are the rusted steel bars sticking out of the granite doorposts. The stone wall at training ground was built along the Mancho stream, which used to visibly flow from Mt. Inwang in central Seoul. Most of the Mancho stream was covered with concrete after 1967. Yongsan Garrison is now the only place in the city where it remains visible. “It used to smell from the sewer when it rained, but after extensive construction it mostly went away,” said an United States Forces Korea (USFK) official.

About a minute after walking along the Mancho stream stood an old Japanese officer’s lodge that is now used by the Joint U.S. Military Affairs Group. Decorated with a small pine tree in its front garden, the yellow building has paint falling off its red brick structure.

This building was where the Soviet representatives stayed during the 1945 Moscow Conference during the U.S.-USSR Mutual Committee. Whether it was the Japanese, the Soviets or the Americans, anyone who had interests staked to Korea has rested within these walls, and continue to do so to this day.

Most Japanese barracks were two story buildings covered with red brick roofs. The five pointed star, a symbol of the Japanese Army, placed under the roofs demonstrated who the buildings were controlled by. Professor Kim Jong-heon of Paichai University, who conducted field study on the structures within Yongsan Garrison, said, “It is a rare sight to see 130 Japanese barracks congregated together, even in Japan. Yongsan can be considered a historic monument depicting the Japanese invasion of Korea and further continental territories.” Among the 1,245 buildings within the garrison, 132 are assumed to be from the Japanese colonial era.


From left: Granite guard posts lead to an old training ground of Yongsan’s Combined Forces Command building; Statues of children and literati in the Pyeongtaek army base - some of the cultural properties were left behind, while others were taken; Buildings on base that were built in 1908 are a rare sight and scholars stress the need for these buildings to be preserved; Originally, the Japanese planned to use almost the entire district of Yongsan, amounting to 9 million square meters (3.5 square miles,) but they were met with fierce resistance, and reduced the base’s size to nearly one third. [YONGSAN DISTRICT OFFICE]

USFK only permitted access to the Main Post, but to the north of the Main Post laid the prisons where bullet markings from the Korean War can be seen on their red brick walls. One of the more famous inmates was Ahn Doo-hee, who assassinated Kim Gu, an independence activist.

Access to the South Post was restricted, but it is said to be the location of an underground tunnel used to connect the command center to the governor general building. The underground bunker was used as an intelligence office and operations center. It was blown up during the Korean War, and the tunnel itself was “sealed with concrete” according to a USFK insider. The Japanese command center was used by the U.S. Seventh Infantry Division after liberation, and subsequently by the Ministry of National Defense as Army headquarters after U.S. military governance.

In front of the ROK/U.S. CFC building sat a grove of trees that looked to be about five stories high. The Seoul Metropolitan Government says such abundant natural resources make the area perfect for a park.

The Korean government declared its plans to make use of the empty Yongsan Garrison by turning it into a city park. President Moon Jae-in has pledged to create “a nature reserve park much like Central Park when the land returns to our hands.”

However, since the government has only just recently announced its intent for creating a park, coordination between government branches and the local district have not gone beyond a barely outlined blueprint. While the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Technology had planned to make use of the standing buildings for other purposes, it took a step back when the Seoul Metropolitan Government and environmental activists objected.

The local government thinks that it is necessary to shrink the remaining military controlled areas as much as possible. Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said “the areas have to be minimized for a park to fully function.”

The area that will be used as a park is liable to change in future, as discussions over how the ROK/U.S. CFC buildings and their importance to wartime operation control still continues.

Initial plans to have the buildings moved to Camp Humphreys were changed due to requests from active personnel on Yongsan. The remaining land containing the CFC building, called White House, and the operation center is estimated to take up ten percent or less of the park’s total 600 acres.

Head of Yongsan District, Seong Jang-hyeon, said, “The current proposal for the park is state-oriented and lacks the concern or data considering its history and locale. The government needs to observe the historic markings left by the inhabitants of Yongsan first if they plan to create something new.”


Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)

What’s Popular Now