Posted by: Matt Kelley | 15 August 2009

Independence Hall of Korea


August 15th is Gwangbokjeol (광복절) or Korean Independence Day, which celebrates the defeat of the Japanese during WWII and Korea’s liberation after 35 years of oppressive colonial rule.

In honor of the day, let’s head to Cheonan, South Chungcheong Province to visit the Independence Hall of Korea. The extensive complex was opened to the public in 1982, and serves to collect, preserve and display a wealth of data about the Korean civilization, with a special focus on the nation’s early 20th century independence movement against Japan.

20090815_pondAzaleas and the White Lotus Pond with the Monument to the Nation in the background (Courtesy of the Independence Hall of Korea).

Located about 25 minutes by bus from the Cheonan train station, the Independence Hall complex is situated at the base of a mountain surrounded by forests with buildings and grounds built on a massive scale. The Grand Hall of the Nation serves as the focal point for the entire complex. The 45-meter tall building is said to be the largest tile-roofed house in Asia, its physical plant being comparable to a soccer/football field. This symbol of independence and a memorial to the nation’s martyrs is accessed by a massive Plaza of the Nation. This 40,000 square meter open area includes two large bridges and a wrap-around White Lotus Pond with water fountains.

The main draws of the complex are seven exhibition halls that form a semi-circle behind the Grand Hall. Combined, the 23,424 square meters represent the largest exhibition facility in Korea. Here are brief descriptions of each hall:

20090815_hwangryongsa A model of the Hwangryongsa Temple, which was built in Gyeongju during the Silla Dynasty.

The first exhibition hall, titled “The National Heritage,” shows artifacts from the 4,000+ years of Korean civilization from prehistoric times through to the 19th century. In my opinion, highlights include a massive replica of the Monument to King Gwanggaeto the Great, which describes the history of the Goguryeo Kingdom. Another favorite is a model of a restored Hwangryongsa Temple (황룡사), which included a famed 9-story wooden pagoda. Sadly, it was destroyed by Mongol invaders during the Goryeo era.

20090815_exhibitsThe Independence Hall of Korea’s colorful, modern exhibits help to describe Korea’s modern independence movement.

In “The Ordeal of the Nation,” the second exhibition hall displays items representing the Korean independence and nationalist movements starting in the 1860s, when Korea was officially sovereign, but under increasing threat from regional powers – China, Japan, Russia, Great Britain and the U.S. – who all sought control over the strategic peninsula.

Exhibition Hall #3 is called “The Security and Protection of the Nation.” It describes independence movements such as the Uibyeong Movement, the Enlightenment Movement and the National Debt Repayment Movement.

20090815_newsclips International media responded to reports of massacres following Korea’s March 1st independence movement.

“The Cry of the Nation” is the name of Exhibition Hall 4. Focusing on the March 1st Independence Movement (삼일운동), the moving exhibits describe the nationwide series of protests against Japanese colonial rule, that began on March 1, 1919. Over the next two years, some two million Koreans participated in marches that were brutally repressed by Japanese police forces. An estimated 23,000 dead and wounded, with another 46,000 imprisoned. The nonviolent struggle would inspire similar movements in China, Egypt and the Philippines.

20090815_independencefightersSome of the brave guerilla fighters of Korea’s independence militia.

Exhibition Hall 5 is organized around the theme, “The Restoration of National Sovereignty.” As the name suggests, the exhibit chronicles the armed resistance movements by Korean fighters in Manchuria and elsewhere that were organized by the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai in 1940.

The theme of the 6th Exhibition Hall is “The Construction of the New Nation.” Displays describe independence movement activities and the Gwangju Student Independence Movement. This display was recently renovated and just opened to the public this month (August 2009).

20090815_kimguThis exhibit features Kim Gu, the first president of the Provisional Republic of Korea.

And finally, the 7th Exhibition Hall focuses on “The Korean Provisional Government,” where independence activists in Shanghai and elsewhere fought to regain Korea’s independence before the nation was liberated at the end of World War II.

20090815_map The Independence Hall site covers a large area, and includes both indoor and outdoor features.

In addition to the seven main exhibits are several ancillary features. The Circle Vision Theater is a 500-seat venue that plays “Korea, My Beautiful Land” on a 360-degree screen every half-hour from 10:30 until 17:30. The extensive grounds are divided into four additional outdoor sites:

The House of the Korean People displays various items of cultural and historic significance. The Reunification Monument features rainbow-shaped arches set atop a mound. And another site is a memorial for martyrs, veterans and others who perished during Korea’s independence struggle.

20090815_govtgenbldg The remains of the Government General Building of Japan, which used to block Gyeongbokgung Palace from view.

But my favorite part of the whole Independence Hall complex is a somewhat eerie outdoor exhibit located on the far west side of the complex. Designed to teach lessons of humility, giant pieces of concrete rubble are strewn about in concentric circles, where dirt paths and stone stairs lead down into a recessed area where the centerpiece of the Japanese Government General building stands. The building once stood inside Gyeongbokgung Palace as the seat of the Japanese Government in Seoul. As a reminder of the painful and humiliating Japanese colonial period, the building was demolished between 1995-96.

The Independence Hall offers many educational programs. Translation services can be pre-arranged for groups, in English, Japanese and Chinese. There are also extensive campgrounds, as well as pine and bamboo groves for relaxation.

More Information:
Official Site (in English)

Getting There:
→ From Seoul, trains leave Seoul Station for Cheonan every 10-20 minutes. The 1 hour 15 minute Mugunghwa train costs 6,000 won each way. The just over 1 hour Saemaeul train costs 9,000 won.

→ From the Cheonan Train Station (not the Cheonan/Asan KTX Station), catch bus #400 from the same side of the street at the train station. The 25-minute ride costs 1,100 won. Apparently, an obvious local bus can be taken from the KTX Station.

(A version of this text aired on TBS eFM 101.3 Radio on August 15, 2009.)

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