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The gates and walls of Seoul

August 21, 2009


Dongdaemun today






Dongdaemun today

Okay, most people who have been in Seoul for more than a year know that Seoul was once a fortified city - meaning a city with a wall around it. This was to prevent the capital from attack by invaders but also to control who moved into and out of the city through its 4 large and 4 small gates. But how many gates were there, and where?

This article seeks to clear up a little of the confusion surrounding Seoul's portals - not the internet kind.

A note on names
Each of Seoul's major gates has two appellations - one usually a descriptive name, giving the gate's location and size, and the other an honorific name, expressing some desirous quality. The meaning of these latter names in English differs depending on the source consulted. This can make things confusing. In an effort to straighten things out, Korea.net presents this table showing both names and the meaning of the latter:






Great North Gate


rule solemnly


Jaha Valley Gate


showing the correct thing


Great South Gate


exalted ceremonies




bright light


Great East Gate


rising benevolence


Small East Gate


distribution of wisdom


Great West Gate




Small West Gate


promotion of justice

This depiction of old Seoul shows the locations of the old city wall and gates, as well as the mountains.


















This depiction of old Seoul shows the locations of the old city wall and gates, as well as the mountains.

At the start of the Joseon Dynasty the capital was moved from Gaeseong to Hanyang (Seoul's name then). There was some semblance of wall, but it was in need of repair and extension. The plan was to make the fortress wall about 18 kilometers long, and to link the four major mountains that bounded old Seoul: Nam-san, Bugak-san, Nak-san and Inwang-san. It took some time to complete this project, since building could only occur when there was enough labor. Korea was an agricultural society, so this meant labor was only available when people were neither sowing nor harvesting crops.

Namdaemun in the past






Namdaemun in the past

The wall constructed then was further upgraded during the reign of the Great King Sejong, the one who invented Hangeul, Korea's alphabet. Although the city's population was only about 100,000, he mobilized more than 300,000 people in the cold winter month of January to complete this project. After this, the fortress wall was maintained and only substantially added to once, in 1704, when King Sukjong had it repaired fully and the northern fortress of Bukhan-san Fortress to bolster the city's defenses.

 The rebuilt Hyehwamun






The rebuilt Hyehwamun

The 20th century brought modernity to Seoul with a shock, both before and during Japanese colonization (1910-45). A foretaste of this was in 1899, when Seoul's first streetcar, or tram line, was being built between Cheongnyangni in the city's east and Seodaemun in the west. A section of wall between the East and West Gates was demolished. Later, another section in the south around Namdaemun was destroyed in order to facilitate a tram line from Yongsan to Jongno. There are some old pictures and postcards that show a tram running through Namdaemun itself. Seoul itself was expanding, and the old city walls were a hindrance to progress. Under Japan, Seodaemun, Seosomun and Dongsomun were destroyed completely. The last was reconstructed in recent decades, along with a section of wall there.


Artist's conception of the reconstructed Namdaemun








Artist's conception of the reconstructed Namdaemun

Of the four gates, until recently, only Namdaemun and Dongdaemun were open to the public. A work of arson in early 2008 severely damaged the former, and it is under repair until sometime in the next

decade. A section of wall on either side of the gate is to be reconstructed, too.

Now, the sections of the wall left standing have been designated Historic Site number 10.  They can be found in the mountainous areas of Seoul - a small section on Namsan in the south and a much longer section in the north of Seoul on Bugak-san. This section, and Bukdaemun with it, was long off limits to civilians, because they came too close to the presidential complex of Cheong Wa Dae. The gate itself was closed  in 1413 along with Seodaemun, on the advice of Cho Yang-sun, a renowned scholar of "pung su" (what is known in English - borrowed from Chinese - as feng shui). He argued that it blocked the energy of Gyeongbok Palace, where the royal court lived. It was only in April 2006 that people were allowed to walk along the wall and approach the gate.

Sukjeongmun today






Sukjeongmun today

However, security is still an issue and people wanting to go there must bring a passport and registration card and write a written application form to visit the gate and wall. You can find the application form and more information on the website (English, Chinese, Japanese and Korean). There is also a telephone number (02) 730-9924, or 1330 for free interpreting.

The north gate also has an offline information center, which is situated next to Samcheonggak - itself well worth a visit. From here you can submit your application and make a fortress hike. To find out more about it and how to get to Samcheonggak, click here.

The old north gate and wall in the past







The old north gate and wall in the past


A helpful and attractive English language brochure on the fortress wall of Bugak-san has been jointly released by the Culture Heritage Administration, and the Korea Cultural Heritage Foundation. It can be found at most good tourist inmformation centers, such as the one at Gwanghwamun intersection in downtown Seoul, near edit 6 of Gwanghwamun subway station.

For a long article in Korean (with spectacular large photographs and diagrams showing the construction of the gates and walls) see this website.

By Jacco Zwetsloot
Korea.net Staff Writer & Editor