A walk through historic Jeong-dong: a Seoul neighborhood rich with diversity: The century-old path Gojong took to seek refuge has opened
Even before the sun rose on the morning of Feb. 11, 1896, the king adorned in woman’s attire hid himself in a palanquin and left Gyeongbok Palace to flee from Japanese troops, who had just murdered his wife, Empress Myeongseong, in what is known as the Eulmi Incident.
After the assassination, word quickly spread that the king would take refuge at the Russian Legation, a diplomatic office lower an embassy. Japanese troops surrounded the palace to keep watch for any sign of the king.
With the help of Honorable Princess Consort Eom Seon-yeong, two palanquins (one holding the king and the other holding the crown prince) left the Geonchunmun, or the East Gate of the Gyeongbok Palace, past Deoksu Palace (then known as Gyeongun Palace) and arrived at the Russian legation, about one kilometer (3,280 feet) away. The king stayed there for about a year. The king’s bid for asylum is referred to as the “Agwan Pacheon” today, and it is considered one of the most humiliating incidents in Korean history.
Part of the king’s escape route, known as the King’s Road, has recently been restored by the Cultural Heritage Administration. The route, which is only 120 meters (393 feet) long, opened for a month in August, allowing some to get a glimpse of what it would’ve been like for the king. Despite reopening as an attraction, the King’s Road hasn't gotten much attention as it reminds Koreans of a dark part of history. It sure is not a path of glory, but it is “certainly not a shameful secret,” says Ahn Chang-mo, professor of architectural history at Kyonggi University.
“Because Gyeongun Palace was too small to hold a parade of the royal guards to show to foreign delegations, King Gojong planned to use Gyeonghui Palace for parades,” said Ahn. “For easier access between the two palaces, the king established the path.”
According to Ahn, this path was already marked “King’s Road,” and lead all the way to Geonghui Palace, on a map created by Horace Newton Allen (1858-1932), who was then the United States Legation to Korea. Ahn added that the actual “King’s Road” can be thought of as “complete” when it ends not at the Russian Legation, where it currently stands, but at Gyeonghui Palace.
Unfortunately, this is the same path the king used for his exile. Ahn explained that is why the reopening of the path is somewhat “unwelcomed” by Koreans, because they regard it as the “king’s secret pathway of disgrace.”
Thanks to the popularity of the recent period drama on tvN titled “Mr. Sunshine,” which also attracted foreign viewers after it aired on Netflix with English subtitles, both Koreans and foreigners alike have been showing interest in the Jeong-dong neighborhood in central Seoul, where most of the drama is set, as well as Korea’s modern history.
Just in time, the Seoul Metropolitan Government plans to open the famous Stone Wall Walkway that goes around the Deoksu Palace in Jeong-dong by the end of this month. The Stone Wall Walkway around the palace, which totals about 1.1 kilometers, was disconnected for about 170 meters because it crossed into the British Embassy’s rear entrance. But after four years of efforts and cooperation between the Seoul Metropolitan Government, the Cultural Heritage Administration and the British Embassy in Seoul, visitors will soon be able to walk the complete trail without taking any detours. The drama came to an end yesterday with a high average viewership rating of 15.4 percent.
Prior to the opening of the completed Stone Wall Walkway and the King’s Road, the Korea JoongAng Daily introduces some of the spots in Jeong-dong where significant incidents took place during the Korean Empire.
1. Around Deoksu Palace
Start your tour at Deoksu Palace’s Daehan Gate located near exit No. 1 of City Hall Station. Jeong-dong today is still nestled among the modern buildings and the ancient palace - not much different than how it was during the Korean Empire. The American Legation was established here in 1883 and the neighborhood began to grow as a hub for Westerners coming to Seoul. After leaving the Russian Legation, Emperor Gojong did not return to Gyeongbok Palace but stayed at the Deoksu Palace, making Jeong-dong into the center of the Great Korean Empire and the heart of the city’s expatriate community.
Scenes featured in “Mr. Sunshine” showing an era of enlightenment with foreigners in western attire and people of Joseon in hanbok (traditional Korean clothes) coexisting, are indeed what Seoul, specifically Jeong-dong, looked like back in the day.
Deoksu Palace was also a lot bigger than it is today. It was originally the residence of Prince Wolsan, the older brother of King Seongjong. However, after the Imjin War, it became a royal palace because the other three palaces in Seoul - Gyeongbok, Changdeok and Changgyeong - were set on fire. King Seonjo was the first Joseon king to reside in the palace, but it went through diverse expansions and renovations after Emperor Gojong returned to the palace after taking refuge in the Russian Legation. At Deoksu Palace, Honorable Princess Consort Eom Seon-yeong gave birth to Prince Yi Un, the seventh son of Emperor Gojong, in 1897. According to the Cultural Heritage Administration, when Deoksu Palace was Gyeongun Palace, it was three times larger than today.
Go north and turn right before the Seoul Metropolitan Council Building and begin walking along the picturesque stone wall walkway known as Deoksugung Doldamgil. This winding road that follows the wall of Deoksu Palace is known for the urban legend which says that couples who walk along this trail will eventually break up. While some say it is merely an old wives' tale, modern historians say there’s a reason behind it. Until 1995, the Supreme Court, which also housed the Family Court, was located at the end of this stone trail. Couples walked down the trail to go and file for divorce for more than 70 years.
Visitors can also experience the new route in front of the main gate of the British Embassy. Since the palace and the embassy share one wall, the route has previously been prohibited to public access. According to the Seoul Metropolitan Government, the British Embassy showed concern at first, citing security issues, but soon identified the historic importance of completing the tail and gave the project a green light. Since this section is new, the Seoul Metropolitan Government said the trail is more up-to-date, and even has better lighting for visitors to take photos after sunset.
“There’s been a four-year effort to connect the Stone Wall Walkway around Deoksu Palace,” said Kim Hak-jin, an official from the Seoul Metropolitan Government. “It will be open at the end of October and we hope it could offer a tranquil experience for Seoulites and others.”
When the King’s Road temporarily opened for a month in August, Jeong Soo-young, 39, from Seoul, decided to walk the tail and “feel the heavy heart of Emperor Gojong of 122 years ago.” The road is narrow, only three meters wide and stretching just 120 meters (394 feet), but holds a lot of history. At the start of the road is the old Seonwonjeon site. In 1920, a year after Emperor Gojong’s death, Japan moved the Seonwonjeon in Deoksu Palace, where the former kings’ portraits were enshrined, to Changdeok Palace. The Japanese government used the site for other purposes, and in 1934, it established company housing for the Chosun Bank. This two-story building still exists today, abandoned. During the one-month preview, visitors could take a look inside the building which stands as evidence of Japan’s exploitation of the Korean Peninsula. The building had once been used as a dormitory for the American Embassy. However, the Cultural Heritage Administration said that it has decided to demolish the building that stands like a “tragic symbol.” When the King’s Road officially opens at the end of this month, the building may not be visible.
After taking few steps around the corner towards the Habib House, a signboard that reads “USG Property. Do not trespass” appears. Although this may come as a surprise to visitors who expect to experience the King’s Road without interruption, the Cultural Heritage Administration explained that it could not be helped as it is an agreement between the two countries.
“To open this road, we had to put up this sign so that visitors do not trespass beyond the point,” explained an official from the Cultural Heritage Administration. “This does not create any inconvenience for visitors using the road or the Deoksu Palace Stone Wall Walkway, nor does it force anyone to take a detour. We just have to put up this sign for security reasons.” In fact, the road was previously part of a tract of land owned by the United States. However, after learning that the site was of great historical significance, the United States agreed to exchange the site for a larger tract of land in Yongsan in 2011.
At the end of the King’s Road is Jeongdong Park. Atop a small hill in the park is a three-story white tower which used to be part of the Russian Legation complex. King Gojong stayed here for a year and administered state affairs. The building was destroyed during the Korean War, only leaving the tower. The area around the park is also the location of many firsts.
It used to be the home of Jeongdong Convent, Korea’s first catholic abbey, and the Chungdong First Methodist Church, which is also Korea’s first Protestant church. Paichai Hakdang was also established here in 1885 as Korea’s first modern secondary school and Ehwa Hakdang, the country’s first school for girls.
Less than 300 meters from the former Russian Legation is Gyeonghui Palace, which served as the secondary palace for the king. Located in western Seoul, it was also called Seogwol, or “a palace of the west.” For a time, both the Gyeonghui and Deoksu Palaces were of a considerable size that there was an arched bridge connecting the two. This bridge no longer exists today, but it often appeared in the drama “Mr. Sunshine,” where Go Ae-shin (played by Kim Tae-ri), the daughter of a noble family, frequently encounters Eugene Choi (played by Lee Byung-hun), a Korean slave boy who returns to his native country as an American soldier.
“The bridge was created to accommodate the emperor’s travel,” said Professor Ahn.
Due to its considerable size and location, the space served as the secondary palace for the king, serving as a residence for the king in times of emergency. Sadly, most of Gyeonghui Palace was lost to two fires that broke out in the 19th century during the times of King Seonjo and King Gojong. During Japanese occupation, what remained of the palace was dismantled and a school for Japanese students was established on the site. In the 1900s, the Korean government pushed forward with an initiative to rebuild Seoul’s five palaces, but only 33 percent of Gyeonghui Palace has been reconstructed, according to the Cultural Heritage Administration.
(current Ewha Girls’ High School’s 100th Memorial Hall)
Ever since the American Legation came to Jeong-dong, the neighborhood became a center of diplomatic activity. Other legations, including Germany, Russia and France, were soon established in the area. Most of the houses in Jeong-dong were tile-roofed houses, known as kiwa. Most of the legations first used hanok (traditional Korean housing) but later built western buildings and moved.
Because the neighborhood was so international, the Sontag hotel was established in 1902 on the site that is currently the Ewha 100th Memorial Hall of the Ewha Girls’ High School in Jeong-dong. It was the country’ first European hotel, composed of 25 rooms, and was operated by a German-Russian woman named Antoinette Sontag. In the drama “Mr. Sunshine,” a similar hotel named Glory Hotel appears, which modeled after the Sontag Hotel. However, according to Ahn, the Sontag hotel was two stories high, whereas the drama depicted the Glory Hotel as a three-story building.
“The highest building in Jeong-dong at that time was two stories,” said Ahn. “But like the actors say in the drama, the view from the second floor rooms of the hotel would have been indeed the best in Jeong-dong. It’s a shame that the hotel does not exist anymore.”
The Sontag Hotel was sold in 1917 and eventually demolished in 1922.
BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [email@example.com]