Seoul: Gwanghwamun Square (and its Hidden Treasure Beneath)
Located in Jongno-gu, dividing Sejong Daero (Sejong Avenue) fronting Gwanghwamun Gate into two opposite lanes. The plaza itself is surrounded by places of cultural, political and economic significance, like headquarters of international companies (like Microsoft), media organizations (like Yonhap), and cultural centers/museums (like Seoul Museum and Sejong Center of Performing Arts). The US Embassy is also located at the vicinity.
Because the road leads directly to the Gyeongbokgung Palace, which was once the seat of power during the Joseon dynasty (and later by the Japanese colonialists), the wide avenue has been playing a great part in the development of Korea up to the present.
By the turn of the 21st century, there is no Gwanghwamun Square, but instead it’s just a plain island barrier separating the two lanes. However, the Seoul Metropolitan government in early 2000s made an initiative to make the city more pedestrian-friendly (the Philippine government must listen to this) and among the projects is the plaza in front of Gwanghwamun Gate. The plaza was opened to the public in August 1, 2009.
There are several subway stations surrounding the plaza, and there is one wide, sloped walkway at the middle of the plaza which connects to these subways. There are several stores, including a 7-Eleven and a stuffed toy shop, as well as restrooms just right at the entrance. This underground complex can be used to escape the brutal cold of the above ground, especially during November to March.
We also noticed that there are unusually lots of police buses surrounding the US Embassy at that time. I understand that the threat of North Korea is still high in South Korea, and the US Embassies are among those mostly hated in the world. (Even Manila’s own US Embassy is regularly assaulted by leftist groups.) Later we learned that the large police presence is due to the US Ambassador being knife-assaulted a week earlier by a South Korean North Korea sympathizer in Sejong Center for Performing Arts, which is just at the opposite side of the road. The ambassador survived, but geez, with a large cut on his cheek.
Despite the Plaza supposedly being off-limits to demonstrators, there are some who camped there, with tents and streamers. They are some of the families of the 300+ students who perished in a shipping tragedy in April the previous year, and are pleading the government to claim the bodies of their loved ones supposedly still in the ship.
Two statues adorn the Plaza, depicting the two persons which the Koreans revere: the statues of King Sejong the Great and Admiral Yi Sun-shin. Little did we knew that they are not just mere monumental structure, but there is a permanent underground gallery showcasing their life. History buffs like us will likely be interested in spending time to these museums.
KING SEJONG MONUMENT
The statue of King Sejong was completed shortly after the opening of the plaza in 2009. It is a bronze statue of the great king seated on his throne. A stone pedestal serves as the base of the monument. The pedestal is adorned with the list of the original Hangul (Korean) alphabet at its side. At the front part of the pedestal bores the label 세종 대왕 (Sejong Daewang), which means “Great King Sejong” in Korean.
A golden model of the Celestial Globe, which serves as a symbol of scientific progress during the king’s tenure, is at the front.
King Sejong cared for his subjects so much, and one of his concern is the illiteracy of the common people, especially among the poor. For long time due to Chinese influence in the country, Koreans are using Chinese characters (locally known as “Hanja”) in writing Korean. That’s why most palaces and other old structures in Korea have signages written in Chinese characters, and you may also have noticed in historical Korean drama where written props are in Chinese characters. In the old Korean society, the rich and the privilege have access to education. And this is complicated due to the fact that one must master at least TWO THOUSAND (2,000) Chinese characters for basic literacy! (This is still in practice in China and Japan where Chinese characters are still in use.)
Under King Sejong’s watch, the Korean Alphabet, nowadays called Hangul, was invented. The original alphabet, numbering 28 characters, was designed scientifically, and the designs for each of the characters are based in the shape of the mouth and tongue as well as the yin-yang philosophy. The alphabet was deliberately designed to be easily learned by anyone, and according to the “Hunmin Jeongeum” (훈민정음, ‘‘The Correct Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People”) which documented the alphabet:
Because the speech of this country is different from that of China, it [the spoken language] does not match the [Chinese] letters. Therefore, even if the ignorant want to communicate, many of them in the end cannot state their concerns. Saddened by this, I have [had] 28 letters newly made. It is my wish that all the people may easily learn these letters and that [they] be convenient for daily use.
So that’s only 28 letters to learn, compared to the 2,000 or more needed for literacy.
For an untrained eye, Korean writing looks much like Chinese characters with circles randomly placed among the “characters”. In reality, Korean alphabets are grouped into a block, which is equivalent to a single Korean syllable. So a Korean “block” consist of at least two up to five or six individual Hangul letters. Only to learn where each characters must be placed in a block.
Today, it is not only the Koreans who benefitted with King Sejong’s alphabet. Today, Because of the surge in popularity of KPop and Korean dramas, many Filipinos are eager to learn Korean as well as writing them. One of our flock, Tristan, can read Hangul which did helped in our journey in Korea (though most Korean signages have English translations.)
KING SEJONG EXHIBIT
When we went to Gwanghwamun Square, the weather is brutally cold, with temperature rarely exceeding ten degrees. Even our winter coat, gloves and scarf lent by a kind friend seem to be not enough. As we went around King Sejong’s monument, we found a doorway at the back. We thought it was an office of some sort (and we want to warm ourselves for a while), but upon entry, we were surprised that there is a stairway that leads to a… museum.
It is a gallery depicting the life and works of King Sejong, one of the greatest king of Korea. Aside from the Hangul alphabet, his rule also saw significant scientific advancement and cultural upheaval. There are interactive exhibits as well as a small auditorium which shows videos on the life of King Sejong (which I suspect are clips from a Korean drama about King Sejong, which was actually made).
YI SUN-SHIN MONUMENT
Another prominent figure that dominates the Gwanghwamnun Square is the monument of Admiral Yi Sun-shin. He is a revered figure to Koreans, and we have learned that the Korean Navy cadets have the tradition to bow before his statue.
The monument long predates the Gwanghwamun Square, built in 1968. When the open plaza was built, the statue was temporarily removed, renovated, and placed back in place.
The statue of Yi Sun-shin, in a standing position and holding a sheathed sword at the right hand, stands over the upper part of the L-shaped stone base. At the lower part of the base is a model of the turtle ship.
Those who learned of ancient Korean history may have learned the connection with Yi-sun-shin and the legendary turtle ship, called in Korean as “Gobukseon”. There are several “Gobukseon” models scattered around Korea, among them is in the gallery beneath the Admiral’s monument and in the Korean War Memorial.
One of the legendary battles which made the admiral famous and so revered, is the battle of Myeongnyang where, with only thirteen ships, Admiral Yi managed to defeat the invading Japanese navy which count to almost three hundred! With wit and determination, the Korean navy managed to destroy many Japanese battleships, with no ship losses and minimal human casualties at their side. Because of Admiral Yi Sun-shin, the Japanese abandoned their plan to invade Korea in 1598, and well, their invasion was well delayed until 1910.
The legendary battle of 13 vs 300 was immortalized in the movie “Roaring Currents”, which was released in 2014. The movie became number one box-office hit in Korea.
YI SUN-SHIN EXHIBIT
Underground, the exhibit of King Sejong is directly connected to the exhibit of Yi Sun-shin. It showcased the technologies of the Korean and the Japanese navies of the 1500, the tactics deployed by the opposing navies, as well as Admiral Yi’s achievements as an admiral. There is a large model of the turtle ship, and though it is not life-size it is still large that visitors can enter, and it shows the inner workings in the turtle ship. There is also a Lego model of Admiral Yi’s monument inside enclosed in a glass.
- Before visiting the monument of King Sejong and Yin Sun-shin and their respective galleries, it is recommended to watch first the Korean dramas and movies depicting their lives. KBS (one of the local TV stations) produced TV series about these persons, and a movie “Roaring Currents” was also produced which told of the Battle of Myeongnyang led by Admiral Yi.
King Sejong Gallery – FREE
Yi Sun Shin Gallery – FREE
- Seoul Subway Line 3, Gyeongbokgung Station, exits 4,6,7, walk towards Gwanghwamun Gate. In front of the gate is the Gwanghwamun Plaza.
- Seoul Subway Line 5, Gwanghwamun Station. Exit 9 directly leads to Gwanghwamun Plaza.