Few people know that central Seoul’s Jeong-dong neighborhood was called the “Foreign Settlement” or “European Settlement” in the late 1880s by its English-speaking residents. Today, this charming area is garnering attention as the public rediscovers its political and cultural significance.
Prior to becoming Seoul’s foreign enclave, most of Jeong-dong was occupied by Gyeongun Palace (Gyeongungung), which we know today as Deoksu Palace (Deoksugung). In fact, before 1880, foreigners could not live within the Seoul Fortress walls.
But eventually a road was built through the royal campus, and in 1884, the first American envoy to Korea, Lucius H. Foote, was granted two pieces of land for $2,200. The opening of the U.S. legation brought a rush of foreign settlement to the area. In fact, the two red brick buildings constructed for the British embassy in 1892 remain home to the U.K.’s head of mission.
Schools and churches were also established in Jeong-dong. Pai Chai, the first secondary school for boys, and Ehwa Hakdang, the first for girls, were founded by American missionaries. Two churches, the Chungdong Methodist Church and the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas, were opened in 1885 and 1903, respectively.
A passage from the May 1896 edition of Korean Repository provides an intriguing snapshot of Jeong-dong in the Joseon Dynasty’s waning days:
His Majesty, since he has come to live in the European Settlement, as Chong Dong is called, has become quite democratic. He sees people, talks with them informally, takes daily strolls in the Legation grounds and seems to enjoy life. … On their way, His Majesty saw several foreign children playing at the English Consulate, called them to him, shook hands and asked them a few questions.
Despite the pleasant scene, Jeong-dong was the site of considerable intrigue at the end of the 19th century. King Gojong must have seemed surprisingly poised just months after Japanese agents murdered his wife, Queen Min. In less than a decade, Gojong would be forced to sign the 1905 (Eulsa)Korea-Japan Treaty inside Jungmyeong-jeon Hall, which began the downward spiral to Korea’s formal annexation just five years later. Today, the building is restored to house a modern history museum and the National Trust for Cultural Heritage.
In addition to historic buildings, Jeong-dong is also home to many cultural institutions, including theaters, galleries and museums. As such, efforts are underway to spotlight the neighborhood’s unique mix of historic and cultural facilities.
Historic buildings in different styles and from different eras abound in the neighborhood, and present a special ambience since Jeong-dong has been relatively well-preserved. Among other highlights are the Seoul Museum of Art, the Salvation Army headquarters and Seoul Anglican Cathedral, which is located on the other side of Deoksu Palace.
Each year, the Seoul Metropolitan Government hosts a three-day “Jeong-dong Cultural Festival.” Next year, the Seoul Museum of History will stage “Jeong-dong 1900,” a grand academic conference and exhibition. Furthermore, themed walking tours featuring professional interpreters will be made available.
A proposed “Russian Legation Route” will trace the footsteps of the king to the former legation’s ivory tower.
As Jeong-dong experiences a renaissance of sorts, an “historic community” is expected to emerge among area stakeholders to protect and develop the neighborhood in a sustainable way. Perhaps the area will evolve into a park where Koreans and foreigners alike, can experience a well-designed storytelling program. It has taken more than a century for us to truly appreciate Jeong-dong’s historic importance during the tumultuous end of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty.
In the midst of everything, however, I make one request. Any tour must not repeat a common historical inaccuracy. Let it be known that King Gojong did not discover his fondness for coffee while sequestered at the Russian Legation in 1896. More than a decade earlier in 1883, the American businessman and author Percival Lowell, who served as a foreign secretary and counselor for the Korean Special Envoy to the United States, described the rare treat of being served coffee at the royal palace.
As we re-examine and re-tell Jeong-dong’s history, let’s ensure we focus on the facts.
The writer is chairperson of the Korean Heritage Education Institute. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org