By Jon Dunbar
“To me, Yongsan Garrison is like North Korea.”
An odd sentiment, but understandable when you think about it; both are like an inaccessible foreign country to the civilian population.
I heard that comment almost a year ago at an event by Yongsan Legacy (YSL), an NGO working to document the living memories of Yongsan Garrison as it disappears from the center of Seoul.
“Yongsan: The Unreachable Land,” and “Yongsan@Heart” a new exhibit at the Yongsan War Memorial, provides a catch-up lesson on the more than a century of history most Koreans have missed out on, and gives a sneak preview of what’s on the other side of those concertina-wire-topped walls.
“Yongsan Garrison is still recognized as a forbidden space most Koreans cannot easily reach or visit, so the history of this space is largely unknown,” said historian Kim Chun-soo, who organized the exhibit. “This exhibition was designed to examine the history of Yongsan Base at the time of transition when it is transformed into a park and to think about how to build a park in the future.”
For over a century, the space located within what we now call Yongsan Garrison has been virtually inaccessible to the public. On domestic online maps, the U.S.
Forces Korea (USFK) property is censored out, covered over with an unconvincing mat of trees. From the ground, we are told not to look too closely, not to photograph the base. From almost all angles it seems uphill from us, with all we can glimpse over the high walls being dull burgundy buildings. But from within the base, we can observe that many of these buildings do have colorful signs welcoming the few in the know, into clubs, bowling alleys, bars and more.
The base also has schools, U.S.-style suburban housing, a hospital and more to make it seem like Small Town USA. And as the exhibit shows, it has other traces of previous eras, such as a Japanese-built prison, the Namdan Altar, Joseon-era tomb markers and a reconstruction of Mancho Stream which still runs underground from up on Mt. Nam, down beneath Gyeongnidan-gil, under the base and then out to the Han River to the south.
One blown-up photograph shows U.S. planes over Yongsan in September 1945, around when the Japanese forces officially surrendered to the U.S. Below, Mancho Stream stretches toward the Han, with many bridge crossings visible. Today, that portion of the stream is buried under a street that runs through the middle of Yongsan Electronics Market. Other pictures show the horrific floods the Yongsan region was once prone to.
So much history has unfolded behind those high walls, and so much of Korean society has felt the influence of this secretive military installation in myriad ways, many of which historians are still working to trace.
It really is unprecedented for a city to gain this much land, right in its very center. We won’t know what it will be like until it happens, but suddenly citizens will find passage from Itaewon to Yongsan Station or Seoul Station to be much quicker than now. Plans are already underway to build a park that will incorporate most of the land returned to Korea. There is information on various plans, and visitors are invited to write their own suggestions on cards.
Personally, I hope Korean people who have missed out get the chance to see Yongsan Garrison with their own eyes, after the handover but before reconstruction begins.
“I know negotiations will start next year, and the central government also plans on a temporary opening as soon as possible,” said Kim, who is helping Yongsan Park’s design team on the history and culture of the base.
The exhibit documents past history through maps and images dating back to Joseon, as well as showing what’s to come, but it doesn’t leave out the legacy built here. Life-size 2D figures of real people who’ve lived and worked on base appear at the end of the exhibit, including not just military personnel but also civilians and people whose time in Yongsan led to greater things, showing the base was not just a military machine but also produced tailors, engineers, educators and more. The cutouts also contain bio information on the back and recorded voices. Each week the exhibit will add more figures.
On a Friday afternoon, the exhibit received robust foot traffic. People young and old walked through, striding over a giant floor map that welcomes guests over the walls of Yongsan, some relishing the experience and others totally oblivious.
Today, exhibitions like this are our best way to see what’s over the fences. But a day will come when the gates open and we can see it for ourselves.
“Yongsan: The Unreachable Land” is on display at the War Memorial of Korea until May 5. Yongsan @ Heart is part of the “Yongsan: The Unreachable Land” and it is also on display in the special exhibition room 2 of the War Memorial Korea.