5 times when Korean history was like Game of Thrones

headless mountain - Game of Thrones in Asia

Game of Thrones in Asia

I can’t get enough of it. But Korean history is basically Game of Thrones in Asia.

How much Korean history do you know?

Why would most people even bother?

That’s the last time you will ask yourself that question. I’ll be honest. I fell into studying Korean history to fulfill a credit I needed for graduation. It hooked me immediately, and I exhausted the university’s Korean history offerings. My fandom of Korean history was one of the main draws bringing me here in 2004. Yet when I went to these historical sites, they didn’t give much information. They’d give you info that was technically correct but totally uninteresting, like how tall and wide a building was and how many columns. Or that a place used to be in a neighborhood that doesn’t exist anymore and no one cares about anymore. It was from this frustration that I worked with historians to create The Dark Side of Seoul Tour. It took a year of research and the use of many old maps to pinpoint the locations of a lot of these events before we started. And we continue to develop and enhance this tour. Here are a few stories we have dug up.

The Alley of Ashes

Prince Suyang--after he succeeded in killing his nephew and became King Sejo
King Sejo

In the 1500s there was a 12-year-old king on the throne, King Tanjong. Unfortunately he had a very ambitious uncle, Prince Suyang. One evening, Suyang and his men camped out in some alleys near what is now Anguk Station. As Tanjong and his entourage passed by, Suyang’s men ambushed them.

They killed so many people that no one could count all the bodies.The stench from the rotting bodies was so bad they ended up just burning the area to the ground to get rid of the smell and to purify the land. After that, people called the alleys Jaegol, “the Alley of Ashes.” And today it’s officially called Jae-dong, “the Neighborhood of Ashes.”

The Bloody Hospital

Chejungwon. What later became Severance Hospital.
Credit: Yonsei University College of Medicine

Riots marked the waning years of the long lasting Joseon Dynasty. One such riot was the Gapshin Revolt of the 1880s. A pro-Japanese faction led it, determined to overthrow the monarchy and modernize Korea, similar to the Meiji Restoration in Japan.

Queen Min got wind of this before it happened and was able to procure Chinese troops just in time. After three days of fighting, where rioters invaded aristocrats’ homes and slaughtered their families, the soldiers suppressed the revolt.

A year after that, the first westerners were allowed inside The Hermit Kingdom. The first batch was a bunch of diplomats and missionaries. They introduced themselves to King Kojong, and he was like, “Nice to meet you, but please be patient as we find you some housing.”

Considering all the newly empty households as a result the Gapshin Revolt slaughter, some of the king’s advisers suggested he give the houses to the western barbarians. The king was appalled, thinking that his guests would be offended by the ghosts.

This was actually in one of the missionary’s journals. When the westerners found out how cheap the houses in that area were going for, they said it was no problem. They took them.

One such house, located around where the Constitutional Court now stands, was owned by a Korean general. He and his family were killed in the Gapshin Revolt. It was taken over by an American missionary doctor named Horace N. Allen, where he converted it into Korea’s first hospital. This later became Severance Hospital, which we still have today. He wrote in his journals how he had to scrub down some rooms because of all the blood and gore.

The Constitutional Court currently sits on the original site. That figures into modern history in that President Park Geun-hye was impeached there in 2017. We decided to cancel our tour that evening because a couple of protesters were killed right near our meeting spot, near the Constitutional Court.

Headless Mountain

headless mountain - Game of Thrones in Asia

There was an unusual circumstance for secession in the mid-1800s. The king didn’t have any legitimate sons to take over after he died. To remedy this, he adopted a boy from a related family. Before the boy came of age, the king died. The boy’s father, known as the Heungseon Daewongun, took over as regent and ruled Korea from around the 1860s to 1870s. He was also one of the greater assholes of the late Joseon Dynasty.

The Daewongun closed off Korea from the outside world and didn’t let it modernize. He wanted to turn Korea back toward an earlier period to make Korea great again (sound familiar to anyone?). His immigration policy basically was, if you see a foreigner on a beach, kill him on site.

He felt most alarmed by this new foreign menace called Christianity. A perverse philosophy in his opinion. For example, in Judeo-Christianity, the fourth commandment was to honor one’s father and mother.

Why wasn’t it the first? (See, Confucian society.)

So in the 1860s, he rounded up by from some accounts were 3,000 Catholics, put them up on a hill on the north side of the Han River, and decapitated them all. These were the Byeonin Persecutions of 1866. So many heads rolled that some said the Han River started turning red. And after this massacre, the hill was dubbed Jeoldusan, or “Beheading Mountain.”

Today, that’s where the foreigner cemetery is. If you go there, which is near Hapjeong Station, you can see shrines and tributes to these martyrs, including the chopping block used for the executions with the blood stains still on it.

Prince Sado the Insane

Rice Chest
Replica of the rice chest, where you can take photos in an instrument of death.

In the 1700s, the king had a problem with his son, Prince Sado. Sado had a habit of raping and murdering the palace servants. But since he was of royal blood, the king couldn’t execute him like a common criminal. So his father gave him two choices, do the honorable thing and commit suicide or take what’s behind door number two. He chose the latter, where his father locked him inside a rice box on the grounds of Changgyeonggung Palace. He died from starvation after eight days.

Sado’s son ended up becoming King Jeongjo, who’s considered one of the greatest kings in Korean history. Did lots of great things for the people and also built Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon. In fact, if you visit Hwaseong, there are replicas of the rice box his father died in so you can take a picture of yourself in it. Sweet, huh?

There’s another camp of historians that claim that Sado wasn’t crazy at all. His father was–crazy enough to lock his son in a rice box. But it’s the winners who write the history.

The Tomb Bridge

Korea's only ghost tour. Seoul walking tour.

Time for a little love story. It’s between the founder of the Joseon Dynasty, Yi Seong-gye, and his second queen, Sindeok. Back then, the king had two queens, a queen from Jeonju–the Jeonju Queen–and a queen from Seoul–the Seoul Queen. Sindeok was the Seoul Queen. She and the king were very much in love. Who didn’t like her so much were the sons from the Jeonju queen, mostly because Sindeok kept promoting her sons to be ahead of them to be in line for the throne.

Unfortunately Queen Sindeok became ill and died. The king was so brokenhearted that he made the unusual step of building an elaborate tomb for her on palace grounds, around where the British embassy now stands. As the king was in mourning, his prime minister supposedly hatched a plot with Sindeok’s sons to kill the sons from the Jeonju queen. The fifth son from the Jeonju queen heard about this and convinced his brothers to do a pre-emptive strike. They killed Sindeok’s sons.

The king was so horrified that he abdicated the throne and gave it to the oldest heir from the Jeonju queen. The fifth son, who was the ambitious and crafty one, somehow convinced his older brother to let him have the throne. He later banished him.

During his reign, a flood hit Seoul, washing out a bridge on the Cheonggyecheon Stream.

This man hated Queen Sindeok so much that he dismantled her tomb and used the stones, some of them upside-down, to rebuild it so that people would always walk on top of her grave.

It still stands there today, and tourists, lovers, and families walk over it without knowing its morbid history. There are, in fact, two unread plaques there detailing the story I just told, but Sindeok is demoted to concubine.

Like I said, the winners write the history.

These are but a few stories embedded in the dark recesses of Korean history. There are great accomplishments, particularly those involving King Sejong and Admiral Yi Yung-shin. But every country has its dark moments.

If you want to hear more of this history, sign up for The Dark Side of Seoul Tour. It runs five days a week. We have a regular version and, for the hardcore, an extended version.

DISCLAIMER: I have a feeling some of the more academically inclined who live only to correct others will start a comment with, “Well, actually..” Before you bother, keep in mind that there are some embellishments here for dramatic effect, but the basic facts are still there.

Chicken & Beer Night

I really get happy when someone signs up for the Chicken & Beer Pub Crawl. I just love Korean chicken and beer. I don’t get to go out for it much these days unless someone signs up. We had five with us this week. The weather was unusually chilly and blustery, but we somehow got through. Here are pics from our first stop. It’s a classic style chicken hof. They do the old school Korean fried chicken, but they have some more modern chickeny hits as well.

2016-05-03 19.30.44

From the right is original fried chicken. Then yangnyeom, which is sweet, garlicky, and a little spicy. Then garlic, which is baptized in stewed chopped garlic. Behind it is one of their signature dishes. It’s fried chicken with spicy sea snail noodle salad and some canned peaches. Just felt like ordering it on a whim. Most like it, in fact. Not pictured was some pa dalk–boneless fried chicken on shredded leeks with a peanut glaze.

2016-05-03 19.31.10

This all went down with domestic Korean beer. Say what you will about Korean beer, but after the craft beer revolution, I discovered that craft beer doesn’t work well with Korean fried chicken. The old school lager matched it perfectly.

This was the first of three stops. I have no pics because it was just such a fun night. Forgot.

If you want to join us on a Chicken & Beer Pub Crawl, sign up here.

Behind the Scenes of the Dark Side of Seoul Tour

Dark Side Regular_Extended

“He dismantled her tomb and rebuilt the bridge using the stones–upside down–so people would always walk on top of her grave.”

The real reason I got interested in Korea was its history. When I was in college, I took a course in Korean history to help fulfill a degree requirement. It turned out so enthralling that I took another semester of it and continued studying it after college. It’s Game of Thrones in Asia. It’s chock full of “You won’t believe what happened next” stories.

You wouldn’t get that impression when visiting Korea’s famous sites. The people who put together the tourist materials have a knack for surgically removing any life from historical places. The plaques next to buildings say things like, “This building is *** meters wide and *** meter long. It has *** columns. It was located in the ***-dong neighborhood, which used to be part of the ***-dong neighborhood.”

Did I put you to sleep?

Yes, that information is technically correct, but it doesn’t say WHY this is historic. It’s from this frustration that I started working on creating the Dark Side of Seoul Tour. People outside of Korea don’t know Korean history. Honestly, after living here for over 12 years, I’ve realized that people who grew up inside Korea don’t know as much as well. There are some Koreans who get upset that I do a tour about what they think isn’t the “correct” history.

If the term “correct history” doesn’t make you cringe, I suggest you read some George Orwell. Here we are with people taking to the streets and with international organizations criticizing the Korean president for forcing schools to only use government-approved textbooks, laying out their own “correct” histories. Listen, just look at the news on the internet, radio, newspapers, and television. You’ll have multiple reporting on the same event, with modern recording equipment, and they all have different accounts of news events. History is even more vague.

With that said, I worked for over a year, researching all I could, using multiple resources, before I started the tour. I consulted with real life historians, and I still do. One of the historians went on the tour after I started it. I was nervous that I had gotten some facts wrong. In fact, not only did I get everything right, he added more tales to the tour. This isn’t, as I think one person put it, some preppy white boy making stuff up about Korea. Everything has been researched and backed up. In fact, the story that utilizes the quote at the beginning of this post comes from plaques in Korean and English right there on the Cheonggyecheon River.

True, though, some of the more modern stuff is anecdotal. And the ghost tales of hitchhiking spooks and voices in wells are just that–ghost tales. I believe that ghost stories and urban legends are reflections of a society’s anxieties. A spooky yarn is but one more window into a culture.

Dark Side Extended1

I’ve been doing the tour since 2013, and I still don’t get tired of it. The “Extended Edition” is what the tour originally was–a two-and-a-half hour walk through northern Seoul. But it’s long. Some people really loved it. Others grew tired after a while. During peak season it became an issue. Young people would convince their friends to come along, who really were more interested in clubbing afterward in Hongdae than learning about Seoul’s dark history. I called them the “club kids.” They’d straggle along in the back, talking the whole time while I was telling stories. And then they’d go and give negative reviews that I made up everything–the same stuff that they weren’t even listening to. I had one tour where one faction almost got into a fight with some ruder-than-usual club kids. After a few people got too tired to finish the 2.5 hour tour and one person even had an asthma attack, I decided to split it into two versions. Now only the hardcore take the full tour.

We’ve had a few tales inside the tour itself. Some self-proclaimed clairvoyants have claimed to see the same little girl following us during the first half. One person started hyperventilating at a place where a massacre had occurred. We had a homeless man join us out of curiosity, who wandered away when he figured out it was in English. We’ve been kicked off of palace property by guards and let inside closed palaces by guards. Just recently, I was telling some news about the attack last year on the American ambassador. Soon after I told it, the actual ambassador walked by us and said hello.

In the end, this is all about having a good time. We have no agenda on this tour. We don’t want to make Korea look bad. If anything, we want to make Seoul more interesting. The most common feedback I get is that guest get a deeper appreciation for Seoul. They thought of it before as a generic Asian concrete neon city. Now they see it as a rich complex place that has a tale to tell.

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A Little Hollywood

New Girl

A few weeks ago I just had one person sign up for the Ultimate Korean BBQ Night Out. Even though I really don’t make money when one person signs up, I still love doing the tour. I meet the most interesting people, and we both have a great time.

He was a young bearded man from L.A. on his way to go surfing in Indonesia. As we were enjoying our BBQ, I asked him what he did.

“I’m a sit-com writer.”

He writes for the hit series “New Girl.” Now, I’m not just a food junkie. I have other interests, and one of them is how writers rooms work, especially since TV started actually getting good when I left for Korea in 2004. I listened to podcasts from Ronald D. Moore (“Battlestar Galactica“) and the guys behind “Lost.” At first I listened to them to find out details about the episodes I had just watched. But I found the process of writing itself more interesting as I listened. So we talked a good bit about his job and the other writers and show runners he knew–including Ron Moore.

Just fascinating.

So the pub part of the tour went a bit wild. He was game to try anything, and we tried about half the different types of Korean tipples available. A great time was had by both of us, and I think I have a new friend if I visit L.A.


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The Apple Watch

Ultimate Korean BBQ Tour

We had two guests for the Ultimate Korean BBQ Night Out last night. A lovely young woman from Malaysia, and an American living in Japan. The American works for Apple, and he was sporting the new iWatch–the first one I’ve seen in the wild. We all got to play with it a bit. One thing I noticed about the iWatch is that when you wear one, you make others think you are bored and need to go somewhere else because when you receive a message, you look at your watch. I’m of the generation that is programmed to think that when someone is looking at his watch, he is bored or needs to leave. It’s a new dynamic to get used to.

The BBQ was good, as always. We trekked around the pigs feet market a bit before heading to the pancake market and pub. This was the first tour with the new time slot, so I was worried places would be too crowded, but they were just crowded enough. We ordered some pancakes, makkolli, and Komju–the new low-alcohol grapefruit flavored soju. I always order a variety because everyone likes something different, and it’s hard to predict who will like what. We tried a bottle of honey makkolli later that evening, but the consensus was it wasn’t as good as the other ones. We had talked of going out for some Korean fried chicken afterward, but everyone was too full by the end.

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