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100% 용산 (Yongsan)

By Jeffrey S. Nesbit (Visiting Assistant Professor of Architecture) | This essay examines the current re-naturalization plans for the Yongsan district of Seoul, Korea and offers an alternative by considering the consequences of foreign offices distributed within the heart of the city.

Highly Condensed History

The city of Seoul has experienced a complicated history of authority exchange and cultural turbulence. Since the internal conflicts between three segregated Kingdoms beginning in 57 BC, continuous invasions by the Chinese and Mongols during Goryeo throughout 10th – 14th century, and the up-rising of the Joseon Dynasty until the beginning of the 20th century, Korean culture is bounded by strengthen, ingenuity, and struggle to maintain a rich cultural standard. By 1910, the Japanese fully invade Korea forbidding any use of Korean language, arts, or traditional attire making for a sterile cultural continuum. War again breaks out in the late 1940’s and after a continuous struggle between the Japanese, Soviet Union, and United States in the late 1950’s the city of Seoul is left almost completely destroyed. Although historically entangled in a complex and ever-changing status, the country continually rises up again and again. Today, Seoul is a massive urbanized megalopolis. Composed of almost half of South Korea’s population, this city possesses a rich history of conflict, economics, technology, and culture. This oscillation of power, politics, and military action imprint affects into the cultural palimpsest and urban strata throughout the city. This essay particularly examines the impacts of such historical heterogeneity in the district of Yongsan-gu, Seoul.

Towards the end of the Joseon Dynasty, the city of Seoul developed into a mature, well-ordered plan organized by a fortress wall built in 1396. Inside the defense wall, two primary axes of an east-west waterway, today Cheonggyecheon and Jongro, and the north-south corridor, set by the axis of the Gwanghwamun Palace Gate, now Sejong-daero, establish the base organization for a future downtown megalopolis[1].

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Figure 01. Historical map of Seoul during Joseon Dynasty, 14th – 15th century. (source: Seoul Museum of History)

Prior to Japanese Occupation Period, established by the Qing Dynasty from China, briefly utilized an area south of Seoul for strategic military positioning in 1882 during the Imo Incident[2]. When the Japanese invade the city in 1910, they begin to setup a military base outside of the fortress boundary mentioned above, in the same location as the Qing troops. This area, known today as Yongsan, was considered the southern fringe, hinterlands of the bustling early 20th century Seoul. By 1937, the Japanese had fully constructed a permanent military base with hundreds of compounds built of storage buildings, military offices, training facilities and various compounds for military activities[3]. Even the Japanese forcefully trained Koreans on these grounds in support of a Mongolia invasion by the Japanese. As the political and military climate shifts during the Korean War in the 1950’s the United States strategically infiltrates the city in an attempt to block the Communist Soviets from extending any further south of the Korean Peninsula. Again, the Yongsan land is re-claimed by a former military power, this time as the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK).

The large-scale land area of Yongsan, Seoul, South Korea has been occupied by multiple foreign militaries for more than a century. The once hinterland outside of fortress bounded Seoul now has become situated in a much more different position due to the rapid growth in recent decades. Today, as the maturity and growth of Seoul expands significantly beyond its historical boundary, southwards even past the Han River, Yongsan now sites as a massive urban void isolated within a contemporary Seoul[4].

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Figure 02. Walled city boundary in relation to Yongsan outside and south of Joseon wall. (source: diagram by author)

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Figure 03a-b. Urban growth patterns of Seoul from 1956 – 1995. (source: Contemporary City, Matteo Calati)

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Figure 04. Identifying Yongsan boundary as contemporary urban void. (source: diagram by author)

Plans for Relocation

In 1993, with the Clinton Administration, Korean President Kim Young-sam announces that the U.S. should move their forces out of Yongsan and return land ownership back to the Republic of Korea. In reaction to such requests, the USFK and Ministry of Defense (Republic of Korea) initiated plans to relocate all U.S. troops south of Seoul to Pyeongtaek[5]. This decision was reached as a reasonable alternative to keeping the influence of U.S. military “on the ground” in South Korea in attempt to provide significant defense against the radical North Korean regime. The relocation allows both the U.S. military to retain its presence while, after over 100 years of foreign settlement, returning the land back to the Korean government.

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Figure 05. Photograph of President Clinton and President Kim Young-sam, circa 1993. (source: National Archive, Clinton Library)

In 2012, the Ministry of Land, Transport, and Maritime Affairs organized an international competition in hopes to define an optimistic future for the 653-acres of Yongsan. The competition was a success in receiving hundreds of compelling anecdotes towards the future of such complicated historical land. The submissions ranged from developer-driven density schemes to radical and iconic high-rise tower proposals. Ultimately, the most sensible scheme called for a large-scale park, which cultivated ecologies and posed as a series of micro-scale public activities sensibly distributed amongst the large landscape. This winning proposal by the Dutch landscape architecture firm, West 8, continued on to develop the project further with the Ministry of Land. Even after many years of controversy and even the highly-publicized international design competition, the Ministries of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and United States Forces Korea (USFK) still had not reached a firm agreement to move military activity out of Yongsan-Garrison. According to the New York Times, “The American military had been scheduled to vacate 653 acres of prime real estate in Yongsan by 2016, relocating most of its personnel…” 89 km south of Seoul in Pyeongtaek. Even within the elaborated plans of “relocation”, the agreement proclaims “most”; 50 acres of Camp Coiner located within the northern boundary of Yongsan, will remain[6]. In addition, the US Embassy currently located in Gwanghwamun and made up of about 12,500 square meters plans to move into Yongsan. Meanwhile, and somewhat contradictorily, the Ministry of Land developed strategies for future Yongsan to be rehabilitated as a National Park. Recently, the Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo angrily cries out against the changes by stating, “The relocation of the U.S. Garrison is also a highly symbolic event that signifies the return of land back to the Korean people after being used by foreign armies…”[7]. As we look further into the plans of relocation of both the USFK and the US Embassy, it is evident “If the housing compound for American Embassy staff is included, the total area the U.S. will continue to use rises to 17 percent” and will remain American soil.

Land Distribution and Contradiction

If we consider the situation as currently proposed, we have a total of 45 acres to remain American soil in Yongsan. The map below delineates the three primary zones agreed upon to remain. This is the core of the conflicting contradiction. The three zones include (1) Camp Coiner comprised of 20 acres and is slated to be the new U.S. embassy site (north), (2) United States Facilities and Dragon Hill Lodge area making up 10 acres (middle), and (3) the exisiting U.S. embassy housing (south, adjacent to current National Museum of Korea site)[8].

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Figure 06/07. Yongsan 2012 proposal, left, (source: drawing by West 8) and Yongsan land as currently agreed upon, right. (source: drawing by author)

The contradictory underbelly of the land distribution calls for a more sensitive evaluation of the juggling of land between the U.S. and Korea. If you recall from the beginning of this essay, the Joseon Dynasty had been organized along two primary axes. Well, it just so happens that the current U.S. Embassy building resides on this north-south line extended from the Gwanghwamun Gate. In fact, large portions of foreign offices have been populated across the central heart of downtown Seoul[9]. It seems contradictory to move the U.S. Embassy offices and housing into the Yongsan land. This 17% of Yongsan land being withheld from the Korean people is a result of an agreement to “swap” the current embassy site with already controlled U.S. soil.

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Figure 08. U.S. Embassy as currently sited along the Gwanghwamun axis. (source: drawing by author)

From Yongsan to Gwanghwamun proposal – 100% Yongsan

The plans for relocation have been delayed on numerous occasions since President Kim’s initiative 22 years ago in 1993. Although, the situation arises various complex issues due to the lengthy constituents involved, this proposal here intentionally challenges the parties to collaborate and employ an effective, intelligent plan to maximize Yongsan back to 100% Korean soil. It is our responsibility as military and political presence is Korea to defend our foreign allies as well as maintain and cultivate a prosperous future Seoul. As a direct participate impacting the status of urbanization and history of Seoul, the legacy of foreign military presence, including the Chinese, Japanese, and American activities should not necessary be forgotten, but could allow for continuous future growth. Therefore, this proposal here demonstrates an opportunity for strengthening related parties to work collaboratively and join together in order to form a hybridized solution. In fact, upon evaluating the current distribution of land and facilities, we have determined an opportunity for such cooperation. The 17% of land not in the plan to be returned to the Ministry of Land totals the equivalent of 25,000 square meter of floor area. In addition if we add the current U.S Embassy offices into the equation, the total required for a U.S. government controlled facility amounts to about 41,000 square meters. Considering this floor area and land mass offered by the 17% of Yongsan land, we could juggle the programmatic arrangements once more to achieve the true 100% Yongsan[10]. In doing so this proposal calls for consolidation of U.S. facilities in Seoul into one, “Whole-of-Government” facility. As noted above, the U.S. Embassy is located on approximately 2 acres of land along the Gwanghwamun axial corridor. The facilities currently located on Yongsan provides for a re-amalgamation from the occupation of 45 acres into this 2-acre site, thereby optimizing a 100% Yongsan future.

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Figure 09a-b. Land Distribution and Consolidation. (source: diagrams by author)

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Figure 10-a. Whole-of-Government Consolidation proposal; program blocks, 2015. (source: proposal by Haecceitas Studio)

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Figure 10-b. Whole-of-Government consolidation proposal, 2015. (source: proposal by Haecceitas Studio)

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Figure 11. Yongsan Competition proposal by West 8, 2015. (source: drawing by West 8)



[1] Both axes, Sejongdaero and Cheonggyecheon are still utilized today as primary thoroughfares for both vehicular circulation as well as highly active public space.

[2] The Imo Incident occurred on July 23rd, 1882 as a violent revolt by the Koreans against the provocation by the Japanese military. The Chinese military setup camp in order to prevent further conflict and cease control. This is a clear example of multiple countries actively engaging military and political interests upon Korean soil.

[3] Many of these Japanese-built structures and buildings still stand today although now occupied by the U.S. military.

[4] Today, Yongsan is considered the central geographical region of Seoul, as most of the new development over the last 25 years has been constructed south of the Han River, most significantly in Gangnam-gu.

[5] In Lee, Chae-Jin, (2006) A Troubled Peace: U.S. Policy and the Two Koreas., p 265-267.

[6] In Choe, Sang-hun (2014) “South Korea Delays Shift in Control of Military”, New York Times, October 24, 2014.

[7] Less than a month later in the English newspaper published in Korea, Chosun Ilbo reacts strongly in an article “Against Changes to Yongsan Relocation Plan”, November 12, 2014. The article describes 17% of the Yongsan land would remain American Embassy and USFK facilities as well as would cause for an additional W400 billion ($35 billion US) costs associated with such plans.

[8] Although most public announcements describe the U.S. handing over 100% of Yongsan to the Ministry of Land, it is obvious both the current plans and the competition master plan by West 8 leave out ambiguous portions of the land area. This can only be due to the fact that still 17% of land is planned to remain occupied by U.S.

[9] The British, Canadian, and Chinese Embassies all resides along or in close proximity to this primary north-south Gwanghwamun axis.

[10] As described in figure 09, the proposal calls for a consolidation of U.S. facilities, both Embassy and USFK outside of Pyeongtaek, creating a “Whole-of-Government” facility capable of significantly reducing the footprint area in the megalopolis of Seoul.


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