Posted by: Matt Kelley | 19 August 2009

Video: Tapgol Park

(Here’s another post connected with Korea’s Independence Day. -Matt)

During the summer, Korea’s national flower, the mugungwha (무궁화) or Rose of Sharon, is in bloom across the city. And each year, August 15th is celebrated as Gwangbokjeol (광복절), or Korean Independence Day. But before Korea’s liberation, millions of Koreans participated in activities to free themselves from Japan’s brutal colonialism. And perhaps the most important site in that struggle is Tapgol Park (탑골공원), in central Seoul’s Jongno District.

20090819_tapgolpavilionThis octagonal pavilion was where a student read Korea’s Declaration of Independence on March 1, 1919.

Completed in 1897, the park was commissioned by King Gojong to be Korea’s first Western-styled park. To that end, he enlisted an Irishman, John McLeavy Brown, who served as the king’s Chief Commissioner of Customs, to design the public park. His plan called for the removal of dozens of houses, the installation of benches and fences and landscaping, and the construction of an octagonal pavilion as the park’s centerpiece.

20090819_originalparkMany homes were removed to create Tapgol Park. The Wongaksa Pagoda and tablet are still there today.

It was on that very spot on March 1st, 1919 that a college student named Chung Jae-yong read Korea’s Declaration of Independence, a document that had been signed earlier that day by 33 nationalists at the nearby Taehwagwan Restaurant.

Virtually simultaneous proclamations of Korean independence occurred across the country that day, and over the next year, some two million Koreans joined in 15-hundred protests. These demonstrations were savagely put down by Japanese forces, resulting in over 23,000 dead and wounded and 46,000 arrests.

20090819_doorAlthough its Seoul’s first “Western-style park”, Tapgol Park incorporates traditional Korean architecture.

But the mass independence movement, called the Samil Undong (삼일운동) or March 1st Movement, precipitated the founding of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in Shanghai the following month, and inspired similar nonviolent resistance movements in India, the Philippines and Egypt.

20090819_sohnbyeonghuiSohn Byeong-hui is regarded as one of Korea’s finest independence patriots.

Today’s Tapgol Park is mostly a place for relaxation for Seoul’s elderly residents. Outside the park’s western wall are fortune tellers waiting under colorful tents. Inside the park, older gentlemen in fedora hats and canes chat and play games together. Around them are statues of Korean patriots, like Sohn Byeong-hui (손병희), and a series of bas-relief plaques depicting Korea’s independence movement. Most notably, however, the park is also home to two prominent historical treasures.

20090819_basreliefAttractive bas-relief plaques depict Korea’s independence movement.

One of them is a remarkable, ten-tier marble pagoda enclosed in a protective glass box located at the park’s northern end. The “tap” in the park’s name means pagoda, and this public space’s massive namesake was constructed in 1467 as part of a newly commissioned Wongaksa Temple (원각사).

20090819_wongaksapagodaThe Wongaksa Pagoda is one of the finest examples of Joseon Dynasty stone art.

The only remaining stone pagoda from the Joseon Dynasty, the Wongaksa Pagoda (원각사지십층석탑) is 12 meters high and features carvings of lotus flowers, mythic creatures and Buddhas. The Four Heavenly Kings are also carved on each tier. The pagoda was restored in 1947 and is appraised by many art historians as one of the dynasty’s finest examples of stone art. It was designated Korea’s National Treasure #2 in 1982.

20090819_turtleThe base of the marble and granite tablet once called the “sleeping guardian of Seoul.”

National Treasure #3 is also at the park. A five-meter-tall marble and granite tablet featuring a dragon top and a turtle bottom was once called the “sleeping guardian of Seoul.” Today, the 500-year-old monument is also protected by a pavilion.

20090819_fanmanOutside the park’s front gate along busy Jong-ro, a man paints fans.

Although Tapgol Park has historically been the site of mass gatherings in Seoul, these days, most demonstrations have moved elsewhere. Nevertheless, it remains an attractive urban sanctuary that helped launch Korea’s modern independence movement.

Getting There:
→ Tapgol Park is located along Jong-ro between Seoul Metro Line 1’s Jonggak Station (exit #3) and Line 1 and 3’s Jongno-3ga Station (exit #1).

(A version of this text aired on KBS World Radio on August 12, 2009.)

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