The Loneliest Road in Korea: The King’s Road
Korean history has its fair share of tragedy, heartache, and loss. Like many countries, this extends into modern history as well, with the recent shock of President Park’s impeachment lengthening the list. In particular, one of the darkest moments and hardest to look back on for Koreans is the time of Japanese occupation, which saw Korea under the strict thumb of Japan for some 35 years. A particular incident from shortly before this tragic event also stands out in the minds of Korean, despite putting 100 years behind it. It begins at The King’s Road.
First, I want to set the scene. Imagine a chilly, February morning in late Joseon Korea. It’s quiet and grey – calendars read February 11th, 1896. The King at the time is King Gojong, the last monarch of the Joseon Dynasty, who is, at this time, disguised as a woman.
On this particular morning, Gojong needed to get out of Gyeongbokgung Palace as fast as possible. A palanquin was there to guide him away from Japanese troops who were surrounding the area. The negative situation between the two countries had grown significantly over the past year due to the Eulmi Incident, a murderous plot in October of 1895 that saw Gojong’s wife, Empress Myeongsong aka Queen Min, murdered and burned on palace grounds. It’s a story all Koreans know, and one that still pains many to think about today.
The King, as well as Crown Prince Sunjong, headed for the Russian Legation that February morning. The spot stood about 1 kilometer away from the palace in Jeongdong Park. Russia was the safest ally and Gojong presented them with an asylum bid, known as Agwan Pacheon (아관파천) that lasted for about one year. The road that he took from the palace to the legation was labeled The King’s Road by Americans living in Seoul at the time, and is known in Korean as Gojong’s Street (고종의길). The English name is most often attributed to Horace Newton Allen, founder of the acclaimed Severance Hospital at Yonsei University. The route is only 393 feet or 120 meters long and takes about 10 minutes to complete, but I imagine that those 10 minutes felt like a lifetime to the desperate Emperor.
Many Koreans consider the escape to be one of the most embarrassing moments in modern history. When the government announced its plans to restore the path in 2016, many citizens were angry, confused, and upset, remarking that it wasn’t something that should be open for public remembrance.
Many people have also said that Gojong was not a fit King, but I try to view the situation from another perspective. One of the first things Gojong did was purge pro-Japanese collaborators in an effort to regain control. He also formed a pro-Russian Cabinet to help strengthen power on the Korean side and planned reform projects that would help modernize the country. I admire his attempt to diffuse the situation rather than simply surrender. Admittedly, Korea was too weak to fight Japan on its own; Russia was one of the best allies that Gojong could have turned to.
There is something positive to turn to, however: when the asylum ended in 1897, Gojong officially declared the Great Korean Empire. Sadly, this had little effect as Japan annexed Korea after defeating Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. As many people know, the Japanese colonization of Korea lasted from 1910 to 1945.
If you’re visiting Seoul and would like to learn more about this time period, you can visit the Contemporary History Museum, Sodaemun Prison*, and War and Women’s Rights Museum*.
*This museum deals with sensitive issues such as kidnapping, r*pe and assault.
The Walking Route
As the King’s Road is rather short, I’ve constructed what I believe to be an informative and enjoyable walking guide with plenty of other great tourist attractions along the way. And while it makes sense to take the road to the Russian Legation from the front, it’s easier to find from the back, which is where this tour will start.
1. Jeongdong Park (정동공원)
At the top of a small hill in the park, you’ll see a three-story white tower*. This used to be part of the Russian Legation complex where Gojong took asylum. The building was unfortunately destroyed during the Korean War with only the tower remaining.
The park has a history even deeper than this, however, as it was home to many memorable buildings in times gone by. Jeongdong Covent, the Korean Catholic Abbey, and Korea’s first Protestant church, Chungdong First Methodist Church, all rested within the park. Additionally, Paichai and Ehwa Hakdang schools were also in this neighborhood, which were the country’s first modern junior high and the first school for girls, respectively.
Visitors may not enter due to dangerous conditions and ongoing construction. You can see the building from a distance, as well as a small photo display of new and older photographs. The short route ends once you reach the outside corner of Deoksugung Palace – it’s a large stone wall that you can’t miss.
*Construction will finish in late 2020.
Address: 21-18 Jeongdong-gil, Jeong-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul | 서울시 중구 정동 정동길 21-18
Opening Hours: 24/7
Entrance Fee: Free
2. The King’s Road
Through a small, almost hidden doorway to the right of the Russian Legation tower stands a small Dancheong gate. You will see a Korean soldier standing at the front, making sure no harm comes to the protected area. This is the ending point of the King’s Road, but where our tour really begins.
The King’s Road was originally part of an area of land owned by the United States. In the earlier part of the century, the US embassy planned to build a dormitory for staff on the land, but upon discovering the history behind this strip of ground, an agreement was made with the South Korean government to keep it free of US construction.
If you follow this pathway, you will see that the path is rather jagged and imperfect. Small ditches for rainwater line the left side, and just above the tiled roof of the wall, you can make out a crumbling facade on your left. More soldiers face you between the two walls, their faces somber just as the atmosphere.
The walk is short – take your time. Take it slowly. Listen to Koreans passing by and the stories they share about this time and place; hear if they are filled with hope or sorrow. How do you feel? Can you put yourself in Gojong’s shoes? Do you feel any cowardice in his actions? This is a great time to reflect, reconsider, and learn.
Opening Hours: 9AM – 5:30PM (Closed Mondays)
Entrance Fee: Free
3. Joseon Savings Bank
Blink and you’ll miss it, mostly because it’s hidden by construction barriers, is the Joseon Savings Bank just to the left of The King’s Road. The old bank is currently under construction and will be transformed into an exhibition space as part of the Jeongdong Urban Regeneration Project.
The building is a staple of colonial architecture and was built by the Japanese government to replaced Deoksugung Palace’s Seonwonjeon (선원전), a shrine for Kings of the Joseon dynasty, which was burnt down in 1920 by Japanese forces. You may recognize the name from the same building in Changdeokgung Palace, which moved there The building has two floors and a basement. It has been vacant for over a decade, but will soon be a tourist attraction alongside the neighboring structures. Will you be the first one there? A whopping 1.5 billion won will be put into remodeling the house, as well as a restoration project of Seonwonjeon, which is planned to be completed in 2039. A temporary opening of the space is planned for 2030. Only another decade to go!
4. Jeongdong 1928 Art Center
Difficult to miss when you’re making your way to the end of The King’s Road, the old Central Hall of the Salvation Army now houses a museum for the organization as well as the Jeongdong 1928 Art Center. You can’t miss it – look for four towering Greek pillars and you’ve found your place.
Bramwell Booth, the original Chief of Staff of the Salvation Army, visited Korea in 1926, nearly 20 years after Japan first colonized the region. Members of the Salvation Army in Korea raised funds for Booth’s 70th birthday, which in turn paid for the construction of the building. It was finished in 1928 after only a year of construction and was used for officer training until 1989.
Jeongdong 1928 Art Center has now replaced most of the building, which officially opened in late 2019. Visitors can experience a vivid cultural heritage through numerous cultural and artistic performances. Of course, it is also home to a cafe and is a great, new lace for a short coffee break and a little bit of extra history.
Address: 1-23 Jeong-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul | 서울 중구 정동 1-23
Opening Hours: 10AM – 8PM
Entrance Fee: Free
5. Ehwa Girls High School 100th Memorial Hall
The history I’m about to introduce you to today is a history that is sadly no longer visible. That is the history of the Sontag Hotel, where Ehwa Girls High School 100th Memorial Hall stands in the present day.
When the American Legation was built in Jeongdong, the neighborhood became a hot-spot for diplomats. Other countries followed suit, establishing their allegations in nearby plots. In traditional style, many of them were built as hanoks in their first model.
Due to this high international crowd, a hotel was a necessity. Thus began the Sontag Hotel, established in 1902. It was Korea’s first European hotel. It held 25 rooms and was two stories high, and was run by Antoinette Sontag, a German-Russian woman whose life inspired the Glory Hotel from the popular drama series, Mister Sunshine. Interestingly, it was said to be the highest building in the area at the time. Unfortunately, the hotel was sold in 1917 and demolished officially in 1922. Limited photographic evidence remains, but we can gaze into this plot of land and imagine what used to be.
Address: 26 Jeongdong-gil, Jeong-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul | 서울 중구 정동 정동길 26
6. Stone Wall Walkway
The Stone Wall Walkway is one that surrounds Deoksugung Palace. It’s a very picturesque feature in downtown Seoul and is a prime place for bankers to take an afternoon stroll. While the area can be busy, it’s certainly worth visiting if you’re taking The King’s Road Walking Route.
And while it’s beautiful, that’s not the only thing it’s known for. It possesses an urban legend that says couples who walk here will eventually break up. But is it really a legend? Until 1995, the Supreme Court, also home to the Family Court was located at the end of the stone pathway, meaning that those looking to file for a divorce would have walked those very steps. Now that you know this, you can pass along the information and impress your Korean friends!
Address: City Hall Station Exit 3 | 시청역 3번 출구
7. Deokgusung Palace
One of the most visited palaces in Seoul, Deoksugung has shrunk to about 1/3 of its original size. It was originally home to Prince Wolsan, the older brother of King Seongjeong, but is now more famously remembered for its affiliation with King Gojong, who resided here after his asylum at the Russian Legation. It was also where his seventh son, Prince Yi Un was born.
The palace holds many histories and legends, which you will learn more about as you explore the grounds. It’s unique from its neighboring palaces, Gyeongbokgung and Changdokgung, for its square-shaped layout, modern art museum, and remaining Western fittings (which were removed or hidden from the other palaces for tourism’s sake).
Address: 99 Sejong-daero, Jeong-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul | 서울 중구 정동 세종대로 99
Opening Hours: 9AM-9PM (Closed Mondays)
Entrance Fee: 1,000 won Adults, 500 won Children
8. Gyeonghui Palace
Gyeonghui Palace was once a large palace that was more often used in times of emergency. Most of the palace was lost in two fires during the reign of King Seonjo and King Gojong (even more reason to hate the guy, eh?). The remaining structures during Japanese occupation were torn down and used for a Japanese school.
After colonization, the Korean government announced plans to rebuild the five main palaces in the area. However, today only about 33% of Gyeonghui has been reconstructed. It is also considered the be some of the most haunted grounds in Seoul, which you can read and learn more about from our friends at The Dark Side of Seoul through their podcast and website.
Address: 45 Saemunan-ro, Sajik-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul | 서울 종로구 사직동 새문안로 45
Opening Hours: 9AM – 6PM (Closed Mondays)
Entrance Fee: Free
8. Sajik Park
Famous for its alter, Sajik Park is one of the most popular places for a stroll in the area and is located just next to Gyeonghui Palace.
‘Sa’ literally means the diety of the earth, while ‘jik’ is in reference to the diety of the five grains. The alter here was thereby used for good harvest wishes, rites that were regularly held in the area in early Joseon. It became a park in 1922 under the recognition by the Japanese government.
Come here to visit the alter, children’s playground, or the statues of Confucian leaders Sin Saimdang and her son Yulgok Yi Yi*. If you’re a hiker, following the path upwards to the foothills of Inwangsan Mountain.
*These may be temporarily moved due to ongoing construction.
Address: 12, Sajik-ro 9-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul | 서울특별시 종로구 사직로9길 12 (사직동)
Opening Hours: 24/7
Entrance Fee: Free
How can one truly feel about The King’s Road? I’ll use the word that I mentioned earlier, it really is tragic. There’s no denying that. But as a historian, and someone who is very proud of Korean heritage, I think it’s important that we look at past wounds with fresh eyes. For some, this path marks a dark end, but for others, it could mean a final fight, a final push to try and make things right, in any way that the King felt like he could. There’s also no denying that the land and palaces around this road are just gorgeous and should be visited as well. How do you feel about it? Would you like to walk it? If you take this path, take it slow. Really soak in the history as much as you can.