(556) Birth of Yeouido Park

2011-05-12 : 16:45

By Andrei Lankov

If you, dear reader, have ever visited Yeouido, you probably had a stroll in Yeouido Park, a long strip which stretches across the entire island.

This is a nice place indeed, especially in the early afternoon when teenagers perfect their skateboarding skills and stern-looking housewives are busily doing their daily exercise routine, while tired office workers are enjoying their brief moment of relaxation. Few people pay attention to the unusual shape of the long and narrow park, and even fewer are aware of why its shape is so peculiar.

Yeouido Park ― or rather its shape and its location ― is an interesting reminder of the years when the North-South confrontation was extremely tense and another Korean War looked like a distinct possibility.

One might be surprised to learn how many peculiarities of Seoul city planning reflect purely military concerns of the 1960s. The spectacular Bukak Road (the winding road with spectacular views which cross the mountains behind Cheong Wa Dae, the presidential office) was built to ensure that North Korean commandos would not approach the city center unnoticed. The Namsan tunnels, which are so vital for the city traffic nowadays, were designed with a double purpose in mind: in case of the outbreak of a war, they would become huge shelters.

As a part of efforts aimed at moving the major political and administrative institutions further from the close DMZ, preferably to a safer southern bank of the Han River, in the late 1960s the South Korean government decided to develop the Yeouido island. Until then, it was a sandy islet, frequently flooded in late summer. Perhaps, its only claim to fame was it being the site of the first permanent airfield (built in 1916) which then became the first airport of the Korean capital.

According to a new plan, developed in the late 1960s, the National Assembly and a number of other important government agencies were to be moved to Yeouido which was to become a “second downtown” of the Korean capital. Military-wise, it made perfect sense: Yeouido is an island, but it is very close to the southern bank of the Han River, so essentially it is protected from the dangerous North by a broad strip of water.

In October 1970 President Park Chung-hee was riding in the car with the mayor of Seoul discussing the Yeouido construction project. During this talk the president ordered the building of a huge square on the center of the Yeouido island. The proposed square was to become one of the world’s largest: 1,350 meters long and 300 meters wide, it was to have enough space for 600,000 people.

The vast plaza was given the name of the May 16 Revolution Square ― in those days, the May 16 Revolution was grand name used to designate the military coup which brought Park to power in 1961. Later it was renamed and acquired the politically neutral name of Yeouido Plaza.

When architects were ordered to draft a plan for the square, they first suggested a version of famous Washington Mall ― a long area covered with grass lawns. However, such giant lawn would necessarily have a soft surface and it was deemed unacceptable. A soft area would not be suitable for the other purpose the square was to have, of which very few people were aware of at that time.

It was assumed that in the case of war, the square would become a landing strip, used for the evacuation of major government agencies which were located on the island. So, plans had to be re-drawn, and a vast cement-paved space replaced the lawn idea. The result was, well, uninviting: a vast barren space, a sort of semi-desert, in the middle of the city.

Incidentally, in the 1990s builders discovered in the vicinity of the square a large and, obviously, completely forgotten bunker built in the early 1970s. For all intents and purposes the bunker was designed as a shelter for high-ranking officials.

However, military planners understood that the vast open space in the vicinity of parliament and other major government agencies might become a boon for the invading forces, too. They were obviously afraid that if North Korean Special Forces were to stage a sudden raid on the downtown areas of Seoul, they could use the square as a convenient landing area for gliders with commandos. Thus, every night a number of obstacles and barricades were erected in the square, ensuring that North Korean gliders could never land there.

In 1996 it was decided that it was not a good idea to have a large and bare concrete space in the middle of the city, so the square was redeveloped as Yeouido Park (and it was opened in 1997). This park is 1.2 km long but merely 250 meters broad, and this peculiar strip-like shape betrays its origin as an emergency evacuation airstrip. But nowadays few of the park’s visitors know about this half-forgotten page of Korea’s recent past.

Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at anlankov@yahoo.com.