June 6 Bukaksan Seoul Fortress on Memorial Day

Wednesday June 6 was Memorial Day 현충일 (顯忠日 hyeonchung-il) in Korea and a national holiday.

It was a hot and sunny day and so we went for a walk around Bukaksan, the mountain behind the Blue House (the president’s residence) which has also had its share of drama – in 1968 a group of North Korean commandos climbed over the mountain on a mission to assassinate the South Korean president, Park Chung-hee. The attempt was bold but unsuccessful and there’s a tree on the mountain with bullet holes from the incident. (see below)

At the start of our walk we saw a helicopter – maybe it was the one taking President Lee Myung-bak to the  service in Seoul National cemetery which is held on this day to honour the men and women who died in military service and in battles such as the Korean war.

Bukaksan used to be a military security area and was not opened to the public until 2006. And because of its proximity to the Blue House there are still plenty of policemen on military service on patrol along the walking routes, and taking photographs is forbidden in the areas on the mountain that look out over the Blue House. Visitors need to show ID and fill in forms (in Korean) before entering the area. (there is an online application form in English on the website Bukaksan – still need to take ID though. We did see some unfortunate hikers turned away for forgetting their ID cards…

 The fortress wall is about 18.2 km long and links four mountains – Bukaksan (342m), Naksan (125 m), Namsan (262m) and Inwangsan (338m).The original wall was constructed at the start of the Joseon period (1392-1910) when the capital of the new dynasty was moved to Seoul and workers and engineers were brought in during the agricultural off-season to build it.

Over the Joseon period the wall had building and repair work done particularly during the reigns of King Sejong and King Sukjong – the stone bricks get larger and sturdier towards the end of the period (see the different stones above). Then in the early 20th century parts of the wall started to be knocked down to make way for modern life – streetcars. (and more was pulled down during the Japanese colonial rule, 1910-1945)

Walking around the fortress wall there are great views out across Seoul. The residential area we can see below near Bukaksan is very wealthy and the place where yangban aristocracy lived during the Joseon period. The houses here are detached and must cost a fortune!

There are plenty of lookout spots around the wall to see the views of the city. And even on a bank holiday it wasn’t uncomfortably busy on the mountain.

Ancient and Modern Walls

Here we can see security from the ancient and modern eras.

On the right is the wall first constructed in the Joseon period to protect the new capital. On the left is modern fencing and barbed wire to stop people straying into military zones. Not the prettiest fence I’ve ever seen but I suppose it wasn’t built for aesthetic purposes!

It all makes for an interesting walk with the mix of nature and trees, the historic wall and fortress, panoramic views, and the ever present modern day attention to security.


The 1/21 Incident Pine Tree

The sign by the tree tells us that on January 21 1968, Kim Shin Jo and 31 North Korean soldiers of the 124 unit came to make a surprise attack on the Blue House (and assassinate the president). But after fighting with police they fled to Bukaksan and Inwangsan (mountains). And from that fierce battle 15 traces of bullets were left in this tree. So since then this tree has been called the 1/21 Incident Pine Tree.

 I’ll post the Korean sign with my English translation later.

The assassination attempt failed but the North Korean commandos came very close to succeeding. They were highly trained and so confident that they finally marched right through Seoul (!) dressed in South Korean army uniforms and passing check points until they made it to within 100 metres of the Blue House. But then a policeman, Choi Gyushik, became suspicious and questioned them and they couldn’t answer. He drew his gun but was shot dead. However, the alarm had been raised and the North Korean commandos fled. There was a battle and out of the 31 infiltrators one escaped, 29 were shot dead, and one was captured (Kim Shin Jo). Read a CNN article on Kim Shin Jo here. A statue of Choi Gyushik stands near Bukaksan.

Statue of policeman Choi Gyushik who foiled the 1968 North Korean assassination attempt with flowers on memorial day



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