Tucked away in the bustling streets of Seoul’s business district lies a hidden gem: Seosomun Historical Park, a Catholic pilgrimage site. At first glance, Seosomun seems like a simple neighborhood park with eye-catching architectural features. But a darker story lies beneath these lush pathways; you can literally find it underground at the park’s basement-level museum. Read on to learn about what took place here and what there is to see and do. One does not have to be a Catholic or religious to appreciate this incredible place.
Seosomun (서소문), also called Souimun (소의문), was the northwest gate during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). It was also a bustling neighborhood for farmers, as produce from three southern provinces (Chungcheong-do 충청도, Jeolla-do 전라도, Gyeongsang-do 경상도) arrived here from Ganhwa Island (강화도). Therefore, it was one of the busiest parts of the general area known as Seongjeosimni (성저심리).
There was not a soul in Hanyang (Seoul) who was unfamiliar with this region. It was a hot spot for merchants to register their business, making trade a key element of one’s life. With its adjacent location to Uijuro (위주로), Joseon’s trade route to China, Seosomun was also known for diplomatic activities.
This seemingly vibrant atmosphere also carried a darker side. This prime location was perfect for public executions. Other areas for public execution included Danggogae (당고개), Saenamteo (새남터), and Jeoldusan (절두산). Even the laws of geomancy dictated that execution grounds should be located west of Sajikdan Altar (사직단) which led straight to Seosomun. The cherry on top? The Ministry of Punishment (Hyeongjo 형조) and the Correctional Tribunal (Uigeumbu 의금부) were located here.
The first recorded execution took place in 1504 under the reign of Yeonsangun (연산군), Korea’s most horrific figure. The record states that the criminal was dismembered and beheaded with head being put on display for public viewing. Following the death of King Jeongjo (정조) in 1800, the grounds were predominantly used for the execution of Korean Catholics. Of course, during an age where Confucianism reigned supreme, this foreign religion posed a grave threat to the social order. If we note the amount of Catholics and Christians in Korea today, it seems obvious that these executions only stirred up more passion and faith.
Korean Catholics Martyrs
Korean Catholicism is considered to have been established in 1784. For over 100 years following this, many Catholics were executed. One particular persecution to note is that of Sinyu (신유) in 1801. There is also the Gihae Persecution of 1839 (기해), and the Byeongin Persecution from 1866-1873 (병인).
All of this struggle is not without acknowledgment from the larger Catholic community. In 1925 at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, 79 martyrs from the aforementioned persecutions were beatified. Following this in 1968, 24 martyrs from the Byeongin Persecution received the same honor. In 1984, the 200th anniversary of the Korean Church, Pope John Paul II held a beatification ceremony in Seoul. The aforementioned 103, with an additional 44 from Seosomun, were made saints. As one can imagine, this was an incredibly emotional moment for devoted Korean Catholics. Although I am not Catholic, I feel the power and importance of this action.
The story does not end there. On August 16th, 2014, Pope Francis visited the Seosomun Martyrs’ Shrine before presiding over a beatification ceremony in Gwanghwamun Square. At this time, the Pope beatified the legendary Yun Ji-Chung (윤지청) and his fellow 123 martyrs. Among them, 27 had been murdered outside of Seosumun. Thus, these crossroads Seosomun have produced the greatest number of saints and beatified Catholics in Korea.
In September 2018, Seoul’s Catholic pilgrimage became Asia’s first Vatican-approved World Official Pilgrimage.
Due to the construction of railways that occurred during the Japanese Occupation of Korea (1910-1945), Seosomun was greatly affected. Additionally, buildings sprouting up in the following years reduced the role and size of this once famous distribution hub. The Seosomun Gate and its wall were pulled down by the Japanese in 1914 for city planning purposes. A great symbol of local history and the Catholic faith were lost in an instant. In 1927, a large fish market was built atop the execution site which has now moved to become Noryangjin (노량진).
Shockingly, it was not until 1973 that Seosomun became a public park. Even then, access was difficult due to the Gyeongui Line railway tracks and Seosomun Elevated Road. Lower levels were forced to house recycling facilities and a public parking lot, thereby shrinking the size even further.
In 2011, efforts to restore the land were launched with the help of Seoul’s Catholic community. In June 2019, Seosomun Historical Park was officially opened. The opening brought basement-level halls, a large sitting area, and the Chapel of Saint Jeong Ha-Sang among other incredible sights. To learn more about all one can do and see here, read on for our detailed guide.
Seosomun Historical Park: What to See
1. Seosomun Historical Park
The section below refers to the above-ground park. Seosomun is much more than a neighborhood park with pretty plants: read on to learn more about what you can’t miss.
Ttukke Umul, Executioner’s Well: The site of this former well echoes of the execution ground. During Joseon, the well was kept closed due to its habit of overflowing. It was when an execution had been finished that the top was removed for the executioner to clean his sword. Is this fact or fiction? We know this to be true due to financial records of tips given to executioners from a Catholic family. These tips would be paid for a swift and relatively painless death. The landmark was renamed Gaejeong Umul (개정 우물) during Japanese occupation, leading the neighborhood to be called Gaejeong-dong (개정동).
Martyr’s Memorial Tower: In 1984, the Korean Catholic Church built this tower to commemorate the saints canonized in the same year. Unfortunately, the original tower was demolished during renovations to the park in 1997. The current version was finished in 1999.
Chronicles of Seosomun Statue by Jo Wanhui: The front of this large, square slab commemorates the lives lost in the Catholic persecutions. Visitors can view the knife-like object as an expression of these killings. The back of the art piece shows small figurines lying down. When viewed with their shadow, one can see the Chinese character for ‘person’. This character is similar to the first letter in ‘Seosomun’ when written in Korean. Depending on the hour, the shadows grow and change in size as if living – breathing. The sculpture serves to remind us that we are all human, no matter what we place our faith in.
Homeless Jesus by Timothy Schmalz: My favorite sculpture in the art park, Homeless Jesus depicts a homeless person sleeping on a bench. If viewers take a closer look at the feet, it is obvious who this is by the nail puncture wounds. Upon its first installation, Homeless Jesus was forced to be removed as it was considered sacrilegious. However, the sculpture grew in popularity upon personal visitation requests of the Holy See. Moved by the imagery, he requested a copy to be made in Vatican City, where a homeless person was once found dead of hypothermia. Pope Francis blessed the statue himself. The sculpture in the Vatican was followed by others in Madrid, Dublin, Singapore, North Carolina and more.
2. Museum Entrance
Before making your way inside the museum, be sure to stop and check out the various art installations. Whichever way you come (I do encourage you to get lost), make sure you don’t miss these moving attractions.
The Moon Stays in the Sky Even When it Falls; Water Ends Up in a Pond Even When it Bursts: You’ll see this quote on your way towards the main museum entrance. This is a direct quote of Peter Yi Seung-hun (이승훈), Korea’s first baptized martyr who was executed in 1801.
Martyr’s Stocks by Lee Kyoung-soon: This large glass sculpture is located in the corner of the red-brick entrance. Visitors can spot a pile of ropes at the base of the sculpture. This represents the stocks criminals were to wear around their neck during executions. The sharp lines stretching up towards the red brick wall never seem to reach the sky. I feel sharpness not only from the statue, but from the turmoil many suffered from on these grounds.
Refugee Boxer by Yi Hwan-Kwon: When looking at this statue, you will note that the man featured here is not of Korean descent. He is from Cameroon and was one of the 855 people to receive refugee status in Korea between 2013-2018. While participating in the 2015 Military World Games in Mungyeong (문경), the boxer escaped his lodgings to seek asylum. Although the story is admirable, there is a deeper meaning to his presence in Seosomun. Prejudice against foreigners, particularly refugees, reigns strong in Korea today. The large nature of this sculpture demands attention and validation from the viewer. He is there: he deserves your respect and attention as much as the person beside you. The stretched nature of his body suggests a deformity, but rather begs the question of who we truly are.
3. The Museum
The museum is comprised of two main floors and various outdoor installations. You could spend over an hour pondering every piece, but it is the architectural genius that you must come for. Let’s dive into the best it has to offer.
Consolation Hall: This large, open area is half-hidden by its lowered ceiling made up of TV screens showing video installations. They surround you from all angles, with an altar-like structure in the middle. A fake stream dances through what appears to be platform seats.
Special Exhibition Hall: I just so happened to visit during a Buddhist art exhibition. It was an honor to see another spiritualIt’s being displayed here despite the ground’s long Catholic history.
Sky Square: This is the real show-stopper. Sky Square is a large spatial concept that stretches up from the B3 level to the ground level and opens up to the sky. It is here where the rawness of stone and earth meets the heavens. Consider this more than architectural eye candy; it is a multicultural space that allows visitors to delve into outdoor exhibitions and performances.
Hero: Located in Sky Square, this large needle sculpture will be one of the first things to catch your eye. The artist has elongated the statue of a person to create ‘Hero’. Following the name, the statue reminds us that we are all at risk of distorted and prejudiced views of others.
Through the Narrow Gate: This outdoor installation is done through a small stream of rocks that leads to a narrow entrance, symbolizing pilgrimage.
4. St. Chong Ha-sang Chapel
This chapel was built to commemorate Chong Ha-Sang and his family who were martyred outside of Seosomun. During the Gihae Persecution, Chong wrote ‘Sangjaesangseo (상재상서)’, the first theological defense of Christianity that protested the injustices of killings Catholics. His father and older brother had also been martyred in 1801 when Chong was only 6 years old. Chong died in 1839, following in his family’s footsteps. His mother and older sister also died as martyrs. Over the span of 38 years, five members of the same family sacrificed their lives to live their truth. They are a rare legacy in Catholic Church history around the world, not only in Korea. The chapel is built in honor of them.
Pieta by Jang Jun-Ho: This statue shows a mother cradling the head of her son. We can see a resemblance in her situation to the Virgin Mary after the death of Jesus Christ.
Jeong Ha-Sang’s Family by Cho Sook-Uey: This bronze work shows Paul Chong Ha-Sang carrying his father on his back. He is holding a staff that pays homage to God. With this staff as his only support, we can see how Paul’s faith carried him through hard times. His older brother is shown following behind with their father’s book. He is wearing traditional Korean mourning attire to show his devotion to his father and his faith. Their eyes look upwards to Heaven, where they place their trust. Chong’s mother is shown leaning against a palm tree branch with an elongated body that symbolizes the long life she lived before dying peacefully in prison.
Three Nails by Jo Jun-Jae: This statue is a combination of three large nails that symbolize Jesus’s crucifixion. If one looks at it from varying angles, the nails are anthropomorphized into a face. It symbolizes the deep pain and sacrifices many Koreans have given to the Catholic faith.
What to Do
Museum Library: The small library is located on the first floor of the museum just past the entrance. It appears that registration is required, although I believe it is free. Many of the books are based on the Catholic religion, however that is not the only genre available. Additionally, there is a nice children’s section. This is certainly a comfortable option for those looking to find a secluded place to study in Seoul.
Biannual Concerts: The museum hosts classical music concerts twice a year with talent from Korea and around the world. To make a reservation, check out the park’s website (link below).
Picnic Day: Although this option isn’t advertised by the park, the lush lawns make for a perfect picnic destination. Despite their perfectly manicured turf, many families and social media stars were lounging around the garden and making themselves comfortable. This doesn’t appear to be a ‘keep off the grass’ situation.
Catholic Pilgrimage: If you are a Catholic yourself, considering taking the Seosomun pilgrimage. A full route can be seen at the museum or on their website. Additionally, look for groups that will travel together after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Outdoor Performances in Sky Square: Of course the Sky Square is the perfect backdrop for a concert! Check the website for fun musical events that make for a perfect summer afternoon (link below).
Cafe and Gift Shop: The museum has a nice cafe offering refreshments and nibbles. There is a large table with comfortable chairs that is also good for studying. Enjoy the museum shop as well; Catholic items and handmade Korean goods are available for sale.
Address: 5 Chilpae-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul | 서울시 중구 칠패로 5
Opening Hours: 9:30 am – 5:30 pm [Tuesday – Sunday], 9:30 am – 8:30 pm [Wednesdays, March – November] (Closed mondays, January 1st, Seollal, Chuseok)
Group Visits: Reservation required for groups of 10 or more
Parking: 6am – 11pm
Website: Click here