Step back in history on the Mt. Bukak Hanyang Fortress trail
The northern side of the Mt. Bukak Hanyang Fortress trail has become one of the most popular walking courses since its opening on Nov. 1, attracting about 6,000 visitors during weekends.
This 1,768-meter (5,801 feet) trail begins from Rabbit Hole, or Entrance 1 in Buam-dong, northern Seoul, and stretches all the way to gokjang, or an overhang of the fortress that acts as an observatory today. The area that this route goes through had been a forbidden land for the past 52 years after the so-called "Jan. 21 incident" also known as the "Kim Sin-jo incident" in 1968, where 31 armed North Korean commandos infiltrated South Korea to assassinate then-president Park Chung Hee.
Now with its opening, avid trekkers, who always wished to explore one of the best-preserved trails in Seoul, as well as regular citizens who want to witness firsthand the historical site that changed the course of relations between North and South Korea, all rushed to experience the new trail.
It was in fact one of President Moon Jae-in's campaign pledges to fully open the mountain to the public by the first half of 2022. The southern side trail of the fortress that connects from Sukjeongmun Gate to Samcheong Park, stretching about 3,000 meters, will open by 2022.
Other mountain trails like Mt Inwang, the Uiryong Road as well as several other trails of Mt. Bukak had also been closed since the incident but gradually reopened.
Along the trail, visitors can make several historically significant stops, "which will be quite different to other trails around the fortress in Seoul," said Hong Seong-gyu, a cultural heritage tour guide who took local reporters on a guided walking tour on Nov. 6.
About 10 minutes into the walk from the Rabbit Hole, visitors will encounter a military defense fort that has not been used since the 1980s. Han Sang-gyeong, an official from the Presidential Security Service said the Blue House thought about removing it but decided to leave it as a piece of modern cultural heritage. There's also a guard post that can be used as a photo zone near by, Han added.
Although President Moon said the "trail now belongs to the public," signs that read "Do not enter: Military Facility" are erected along the trail.
Han explained that visitors should stick to the path as the area is still controlled by the military.
"Plus, we hope to protect the wildlife that thrives here, untouched by human hands during the past 52 years," he said, adding that the government could also develop an eco-tour after more research is conducted on the ecosystem of the area.
When visitors reach the gokjang, they can enjoy a panoramic view of Seoul and Hanyang Fortress, also known as the Seoul Wall, or Hanyangdoseong in Korean, that stretches down the mountain. A clear view of the Gyeongbok Palace can be enjoyed here, just one of the reasons swarms of visitors arrive every weekend.
"There are two gokjang, one in Mt. Bukak and one in Mt. Inwang," said Hong. "But this gokjang in Mt. Bukak boasts a greater view."
"The wall constructed during the reign of King Taejo in 1396, followed by King Sejong in 1422, King Sukjong in 1704 and then during King Sunjo in 1800 all look different," explained Hong.
"The walls constructed during the reign of King Sunjo, which are the latest, are the easiest to find as the stone blocks were well trimmed in squares measuring 60 by 60 centimeters."
Hanyangdoseong was built to safeguard Hanyang (present Seoul), the capital of the Joseon Dynasty and to demark the boundary of its center. It served as a city wall for 514 years, longer than any other city walls in the world.
It was first constructed during the reign of King Taejo in 1396 in two separate projects. It is also not too difficult to spot walls remaining from this time as rough natural stones were used and the colors of these stones are the darkest.
During the reign of King Sejong, large areas of the wall was reconstructed. During this time, the natural stones were chiseled into kernel shapes. The walls were again refurbished during the reign of King Sukjong and the stones were shaped into standardized dimensions of 40 to 45 centimeters in length and width.
Although it's fun to spot the different walls of the different times, Hong says the highlight of this trail is the pine tree dubbed "Jan. 21 pine tree" which is marked by bullets from the "Jan. 21 incident." It appears about an hour and 20 minutes into the walking course.
What exactly happened on Jan. 21, 1968?
The historical significance of this trail owes to its popularity. To really appreciate this historic trail, one should understand what had happened here 52 years ago.
The tale of the so-called "Kim Sin-jo incident" begins on Jan. 17, 1968.
At around 10 p.m., 31 armed commandos of the North Korean army unit 124 infiltrated the South by cutting the barbed wire on the South side's of the military demarcation line.
The 31 men travelled 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) on their knees, crawling and concealing themselves from a small ferry point called Gorangpo in Yeoncheon, Gyeonggi, until they reached the frozen Imjin River. Then they traveled through the desolate Mt. Papyeong.
They had disguised themselves as South Korean soldiers by wearing uniforms with tags that read "26th Division," which is a South Korean Army unit located in Yangju, not too far from the Imjin River and Mt. Papyeong. They were fully armed, each carrying a rifle, 300 rounds of live ammunition and some grenades.
On the early morning of Jan. 18, the armed commandos arrived at Mt. Sambong near Mt. Papyeong. There, they spent the night. On the afternoon of Jan. 19, they encountered four brothers surnamed Woo, who had come to the mountain to cut wood. They captured the Woo brothers and sent a message back to the North asking what they should do with the four men. But the answer came back in a code which they failed to decipher. After a show of hands, the North Koreans decided to let them go.
"The rule was to kill them all and I voted to kill them," said Kim Sin-jo, the lone survivor of the incident in a recent interview with JoongAng Sunday, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, who helped to tell the story in more detail, though Kim said he can't be certain of the exact dates and times. Kim is now residing in the South, working as a church pastor.
Kim said his fellow commandos decided to release them as the Woo brothers said things like "Why did you come so late?" as if they were waiting for this moment.
"We were educated by the authorities of North Korea that many South Koreans support the North Korean regime and believed that the Woo brothers were supporters," Kim recalled.
At around 9 p.m., the Woo brothers reported the incident to the police and three hours later, the news arrived at the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The armed communist guerrillas finally arrived at Mt. Bukhan in the early morning of Jan. 20. After coming down the mountain, they were particularly careful about not getting spotted but were taken aback when they encountered a temple that was not indicated on their maps.
The Jingwan Temple was established in 1011 but collapsed during the Korean War (1950-53). The reconstruction of the temple was taking place during the time.
"We weren't told anything about the temple from the North so we were shocked to find it there and a dog kept barking so we became terrified," recalled Kim.
From there, the 31 men took off their South Korean military uniforms and dressed themselves in regular clothing. They initially planned to bury the uniforms underground but because the soil was frozen, they decided to just hide them underneath a large rock.
They were supposed to have reached Mt. Bukak by the 20th, but "because we were all tired and pressed for time," they decided to attack the Blue House by passing through Segeomjeong Hill in Jongno District, central Seoul. But the Korean government was already on their tails and the first gunfire took place at around 10 p.m. on Jan. 21.
The North Korean commandos shot Choi Kyu-sik, who was then the chief of Jongno Police Precinct who stopped them on the street for questioning. The 31 men dispersed, each running for their lives in different directions. Kim ran south, rather than toward Segeomjeong Hill or Mt. Bukak like the other men. They were no more than 300 meters from the Blue House when they were challenged.
"If I ran north like the others, I wouldn't be able to be here and have this interview," said Kim.
Kim was caught by South Korean soldiers and "surrendered" — a word Kim wants to use instead of being "captured alive," as described in other news reports and documents.
"We came to attack the Blue House," Kim was quoted as saying in the JoongAng Ilbo report printed the following day.
Until Jan. 23, a total of 27 commandos from the North were killed. Three were found dead in Yangju, while two are thought to have made it back to North Korea.
After the incident
The foiled plot triggered a slew of countermeasures against possible Pyongyang-instigated guerilla attacks.
Before the Kim Sin-jo incident, South Korea did not have so-called local reserve forces. Since the incident, South Korean soldiers who have completed their mandatory military service get automatically placed on the reserve list and are obliged to undergo annual training for the following eight years or so. This is to make sure the soldiers, despite completing their mandatory military service, continue to be trained regularly so that they can be mobilized should a war break out.
The system of issuing the identification cards and registration numbers that every South Korean receives upon birth registration began after the Kim Sin-jo incident to make sure every citizen could be identified.
Another special unit was formed in the aftermath of the incident, which led to another bloody chapter in Korea's turbulent modern history.
The "Silmido 684" unit was formed in April 1968, named after a barren islet off the west coast of Incheon on which the members — known to be social outcasts and convicted criminals — were assembled. Then President Park Chung Hee recruited 31 of these men — the same number as the armed communist guerrillas from the North — for a revenge attack. They were trained for nearly two years, but in August 1970, while the unit was still in training, President Park made public a plan to negotiate peaceful reunification between the two Koreas, apparently because he didn't want to, or was told not to, disrupt the budding U.S.-Soviet détente, which rendered the special commando unit irrelevant.
Left in limbo, the Silmido unit rebelled on Aug. 23, 1971. They killed their trainers and set out for the nation's capital. Landing at Incheon, the rebels commandeered a bus and arrived in Seoul to encounter a barricade of soldiers. A gun battle that took place that afternoon left most of the outnumbered rebels dead. This incident was concealed from the public by the South Korean dictatorship until the early 1990s. The story became more widely known following the 2003 release of the movie "Silmido."
And of course, following the incident, vast areas of Mt. Bukak where shootings took place to kill the fleeing North Korean commandos had become off-limits for the public. Even Bukak Skyway, which has become a popular date course for love birds, was constructed under then-President Park's orders because of the incident. The roads were established in efforts to develop regions outside the Blue House while at the same time restricting movement into neighborhoods near the presidential residence.
The newly opened trail of Mt. Bukak opens from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during winter. During the government's Level 2 social distancing regulations, the trail will remain open, but will close should the level be upgraded to Level 3.
BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [email@example.com]
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