The Palaces of Seoul: Deoksugung

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Just so you can position yourself better, Deoksugung Palace is a short walk away from City Hall station in downtown Seoul.

A few facts

Deoksugung is a walled compound of palaces where members of the Korean royalty resided until the colonial period at the turn of the 20th century. It counts among the Five Grand Palaces that were built by the kings of the Joseon Dynasty.

Deoksugung Palace originally belonged to Wolsandaegun (1454~1488), the older brother of King Seongjong (1469~1494) of the Joseon Dynasty. It became a proper palace when Gwanghaegun (1575~1641) ascended the throne and gave the palace the name Gyeongungung in 1611. Afterwards, the name was changed back to its original title of Deoksugung.

Notes from my visit

As I had expected from my first palace visit, there was a grandeur rivaling some of the well known western castles. It was hard not to notice the stark contrast between the palace and it surroundings of concrete.

It seems that walking along the stone wall is a popular activity for workers of the area on their lunch breaks to escape the concrete jungle. I encourage you to follow this same road to explore the neighborhood. In fact, this walk will eventually take you to what is left of the Russian Legation building. Only the tower, the basement as well as the hidden passage leading to Jeonggwanheon in the Deoksugung Palace remain today. The building was restored in 1973 and stands above a nice park at the back of the palace. This being said, I don’t think you can go inside, at least I couldn’t on the day of my visit.

The Russian Legation building is where King Gojong and the Crown Prince fled on February 11, 1896 after the assassination of Queen Consort Min to avoid suffering the same fate. It is on October 8, 1895, that a band of fifty Japanese men armed with sword neutralized a unit of the Korean Royal Guard. Twenty of these men entered the queen’s wing and pulled all the women outside to be questioned. Their aim was to identify the queen and assassinate the woman who was considered such a grave threat to Japanese domination of the Korean Peninsula.

 (What remains above ground of the Russian Legation)

The buildings

The buildings inside are a great display of traditional Korean architecture. If you visit, do pay close attention to the details of the canopies and the painted wood used in the construction.

The one building that sticks out in terms of architecture is Seokjogwan, with its Greek architecture. Seokjogwan had many purpose throughout its existence. Now, the east wing serves as a Palace Treasure exhibition, and the west wing is used as part of National Modern Arts Center.

Another building of interest is Junghwa Hall, one of the historical centers of Deoksugung. It was the center of politics during the period of Daehanjeguk (the Great Korean Empire) and served as the backdrop to critical discussions on national affairs among the country’s great leaders. When you visit it, pay special attention to the two dragons that decorate the canopy above the throne of the king.

Finally, Jeonggwanheon was the first western style building built in the palace in 1900 and this is the entrance to the secret passage to the Russian Emissary mentioned above.

Also, while you are on the grounds of Deoksugung, I would advise taking the time to visit  the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. The museum has four locations: Gwacheon, Seoul, Deoksugung and Cheongju. The visit to the Deoksugung location is included in the price of the palace entrance.

Bring your camera

A private company sponsors the change of the guards. In this neat display, actors portraying Josea-era guards take their roles very seriously as they parade in the court. If you manage to get close, this could make for some very good pictures.

Also, if it strikes your fancy, you can rent traditional costumes to ensure that you bring home that priceless portrait.

My visit of Deoksugung opened my appetite and I found myself walking up the street, along the stone wall, until I found a nice place to have some delicious Dolsot Bibimbap. Bibimbap would become one of my restaurant staple, as you will be able to read in one of my upcomig posts.

After my lunch break, I did some more walking which brought me to a bookshop where I purchased a children story about a rabbit in order to practice reading. I must say, Korean has the advantage of having an alphabet. It makes it easy to learn to pronounce the sounds behind a symbol. However, it doesn’t make it easier to actually learn vocabulary.

From there, I sat at a canal to read until I got approached by two students who bravely asked me if they could practice their English with me. So we spent some time chatting about just about anything. Considering how shy Koreans are, the students displayed a lot of courage in approaching me!

Finally, after a full day, I headed back home to the apartment.

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