Field Report:  Deoksugung Stone Wall Road, Seoul, South Korea (23 March 2019)

After exploring the old royal palace of Deoksugung, I left by way of the main gate – but didn’t stray far. There’s quite a bit of history to discover in the neighbourhood if one can spare the time for a leisurely walk.

First, a reminder of our present whereabouts.

I’d just left the former royal palace of Deoksugung (덕수궁)

…and I can say first hand that there’s a lot to see within its walls. (Read my previous post to learn more.) But there’s also plenty to see in the streets surrounding the palace, even if one chooses not to stray far from Deoksugung’s perimeter. After all, this area was the main diplomatic quarter of Seoul in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with foreign powers setting up their legations and cultural institutions close to one of the seats of royal power.

These historic landmarks can be found along, or within walking distance from, the so-called Deoksugung Stone Wall Road (덕수궁 돌담길, Deoksugung Doldam-gil): a roughly 1.1-kilometre long path that runs around the perimeter wall of Deoksugung. Do note that even though I’ve titled this post under that name, my walk actually covered more ground than the Doldam-gil proper (if understood to be just the streets around to the palace wall), shooting some distance to the west before swinging back east and rejoining Doldam-gil at its southern section.

North from Deoksugung’s main gate, then left at the first corner. This stretch of road leads straight to the British Embassy…

…which is why, for security reasons, the pedestrian path detours into the Deoksugung compound just before the embassy gate.

Before following the route through a hole cut into the palace wall, I stole a glance of the British Embassy – from behind panes of security glass, of course.

Although an entrance fee is required to enter Deoksugung, pedestrians may use this special walkway free of charge. To keep things fair, physical barriers and patrolling staff – no doubt aided by a barrage of security cameras (both obvious and concealed) – help ensure that ticketless passers-by don’t sneak into the paid area.

From here, I caught a glimpse of the rear part of the Seokjojeon hall (barely visible through a screen of trees and vegetation).

Once safely past the section of the British Embassy compound that sits closest to the palace, the path darts back out of Deoksugung…

…and transforms into a rather beautiful road flanked by two very different barriers. On one side, the tile-ridged Korean-style stone wall of Deoksugung; on the other, the Western-style brick perimeter fence of the British Embassy.

To my mind, the scene recalls the opening lines of Rudyard Kipling’s The Ballad of East and West:

Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!

I followed the street until it terminated at a modern, asphalt-paved road. Crossing to the other side, I continued along a sloping detour that took me up to a slightly higher level, but on the same line as the walled street I’d come from on a short while earlier. I suspect the two parts were once joined – perhaps by a natural slope long since cut away – into a continuous route from the Deoksugung compound.

Here the path was still hemmed in by walls, but entirely of Korean design on both sides. This is a newly restored section known as Gojongui-gil (고종의 길), so named because it was supposedly used by King Gojong of Joseon (the future Gwangmu Emperor of Korea) during his famous flight to the Russian Legation in 1896.

A signboard mounted next to the walkway describes its history thus:

The 120 m-long path leading from the stone wall of Deoksugung Palace to Jeong-dong Park to the Russian Legation is thought to be the one taken by King Gojong (r. 1863-1907) when he took refuge in the Russian Legation in 1896. The path became part of the U.S. Legation in 1892 and was returned to Korea through a special arrangement in 2011. In 2018, the path was refurbished based on drawings drawn up in 1896 through surveys made by the U.S. Legation, photos taken in the early 1900s, and other relevant materials.

The path’s restoration is part of a long-term project to restore sections of Deoksugung that were destroyed or parcelled off to foreign legations in the late 19th century. It’s worth noting that this programme isn’t without controversy. For example, to make way for the planned reconstruction of Seonwonjeon – a compound connected to Gojongui-gil where portraits of former Joseon kings were kept – two houses built in the 1930s (during the Japanese colonial period) are slated to be demolished, if they haven’t been torn down already as of this writing. The loss of these houses, which in other places might be regarded as urban heritage structures, would only exacerbate a growing void in the fabric of Seoul’s urban history. As the Korean capital’s last remaining vestiges of Japanese rule slowly disappear, one is faced with a landscape dominated by reconstructions of ancient Joseon on the one hand and ultra-modern infrastructure on the other … with a good chunk of the 20th century all but expunged from the visual, physical, tangible record.

Regardless of one’s feelings about Japan’s brutal occupation of Korea – and its undeniably painful consequences – the open mind can’t help but wonder if this new architectural censorship will take things to another, perhaps equally misguided extreme. After all, if one reads Seoul as if it were a picture history book, how would one react to the sight of whole chapters viciously torn out?

Now then, a bit of space to reorient our thoughts. I think the atmosphere’s become a little heavy in these last couple of paragraphs, so let’s draw in some of this cool, refreshing, spring Seoul air (noxious vehicle exhaust and all) and proceed to our next stop.

The tile-roofed gateway in that last picture opens out onto a path that leads down into Jeongdong Park (정동공원), a small Western-style green space complete with gazebo at its centre.

Overlooking the park is a white-painted tower: the last surviving remnant of the former Russian Legation, levelled to the ground during the Korean War.

Completed in 1890, the large building to which this tower was once attached became a place of refuge for King Gojong, who ruled the country from here – under the protection and influence of Imperial Russia – from February 1896 to February 1897.

In the old photograph of the Russian Legation that follows (taken sometime before 1906), you can just about make out the tower with its distinctive paired windows near the centre of the image.

From the park, I headed south and turned left (eastwards) on Jeongdong-gil, moving closer again to Deoksugung. I had a specific target in mind – more on that shortly – and didn’t linger for photographs…

…but there are a number of attractive old buildings on this street that might be of interest to visitors. For example, one might pause to appreciate (from outside a security fence) the old brick building on the grounds of Ewha Girls’ High School, founded in 1886 and related to the well-known Ewha Womans University in Seodaemun.

I did pause to take a snapshot of one vintage pre-war structure: the former Seoul office of the Singer Corporation, dating from the 1930s.

After walking further down the road from the old Singer building, I turned left into a narrow side street and reentered Deoksugung…

…or at least I would have reentered it, had I gone back in time to the late 19th century when part of this neighbourhood was added to the palace grounds. Within that annexed parcel of land stands Jungmyeongjeon (중명전), the history of which will be told by this well-informed signboard – click to enlarge – since I can’t be bothered to do so myself, haha.

It’s a rather handsome building, simple yet dignified, as befits an emperor’s private library and (for a few years) temporary residence.

Unfortunately, this hall was also the setting for a very painful episode in Korea’s modern history: the 1905 signing of the Eulsa Treaty, viewed as one of several key steps leading to the Korean Empire’s total annexation by Japan in 1910. I won’t go into detail here, except to say that one should try to read widely – certainly beyond the bare bones set out in the related Wikipedia article – in order to try and make sense of this complex and controversial event.

Not surprisingly, the exhibits within Jungmyeongjeon are focused mainly upon the Eulsa Treaty. The visual centrepiece is a recreation of the meeting that concluded the “agreement” – if one can even call it that – featuring life-sized representations of the key players.

I returned to Jeongdong-gil and continued southeast, passing a church dating from the late 19th century (when the opening of Joseon brought in a wave of foreign missionaries). No pictures from my camera – I was in a bit of a rush – but here’s Google Street View to the rescue again.

I eventually reached a small roundabout and took its eastern branch. Had I detoured more to the south from here, up a pedestrian walkway running through a garden, I would have reached the Seoul Museum of Art – housed in a 1928 colonial-era building formerly used by the Korean Supreme Court.

East of the roundabout, the road becomes Deoksugung-gil as it skirts the southern boundary of the palace it’s named after. Lovely, lively place with pedestrians out for a stroll and street vendors peddling snacks … except I was feeling out of energy at this point and couldn’t be bothered to snap more than one picture.

In time, I made it to Sejong-daero – the wide north-south road running through the ancient heart of Seoul – and back to the main gate of Deoksugung, from where I’d begun my visit earlier. The key landmarks here (apart from the palace itself) are right across the street from Deoksugung.

If you’re wondering why the subway station serving this area is named “City Hall” … well, wonder no more. The seat of Seoul’s metropolitan government is right across the street from Deoksugung, standing on the northern side of an open area known as Seoul Plaza. It was formerly housed in a pre-war building erected by the Japanese authorities, but that’s now been repurposed as a library; government functions now reside within the massive glass-and-steel structure rising behind it like a tsunami. (As I’ve mentioned in this previous post, that might be no coincidence given Korea’s difficult relationship with its neighbour.)

I didn’t bother to take snapshots of either building this time, as I’d seen them many times before – but here are pictures from one of my older field reports to help set the scene.

In any event, it would have been difficult to photograph Seoul City Hall at that moment without catching this as well: a long, loud procession of protesters making their way to Gwanghwamun Plaza just north of here.

It’s something a regular visitor to Seoul becomes used to after a while, especially in this particular neighbourhood. Protesters need space, and the wide open grounds of Gwanghwamun Plaza and Seoul Plaza seem to rank highly amongst their favourite playgrounds.

As for myself, I had another place in mind for the approaching evening: the warm, cosy confines of my hotel room.

Cheerio.

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