Seoul Experiences: Jeoldusan and Yanghwajin Foreign Missionary Cemetery (절두산 & 양화진외국인선교사묘원)

For all its flashing neon lights and fast-pace energy, many forget that Seoul is steeped with often bloody and tragic events over its many centuries. Just a few 100 meters southwest of the bustling Hapjeongdong intersection, where Hapjeong Station is located, lie two sites often overlooked- or even unknown- by visitors let alone native Seoul citizens. There, at Jeoldusan and the Yanghwajin Foreign Missionary Cemetery, a momentary opportunity for quiet contemplation and reflection is offered for everyone even if these sites do possess a decisively macabre past.

These neighboring sites are located near the Han River on Seoul's western side where a stone's throw away was once a historic ferry port not far from where Yanghwa Bridge, one of Seoul's main Han River bridges, now stands.

Historically, this area along the Han River was known as Yanghwajin meaning "willow-flower ferry dock". Its higher water levels made it a prime destination for larger ships coming in from the ocean via Incheon to dock making it an important center for commerce. However, this also meant that large foreign military ships could easily attack the capital which made this the site of numerous battles and skirmishes in Korea's history.

This is where France sent three of its military ships in 1866 as an act of intimidation as a response to first, the persecution and martyring of French priests in Korea, and secondly, to pressure Korea into opening its ports for trade. Though they were turned away eventually, this is what led to a greater persecution of Korea's Catholics (both foreigner and local) called the Byeongin Persecution of 1866 in which literally thousands met their deaths (but more on that a little later).

At that time, Korea was ruled by Heungseon Daewongun the father of Emperor Gojong who governed as regent in lieu of his then young son. The Daewongun ruled Korea with an iron fist and was a strict traditionalist who strove to turn Korea fully back to its Confucian roots. As such, he was a strict isolationist who not only pushed for avoiding trade and treaties with other foreign powers altogether but naturally any cultural or religious influences as well. This is the period where Korea's former nickname as the "hermit kingdom" came to be.

The increasing number of European Catholic priests and their slowly growing followers particularly irked Daewongun who used the French's small "invasion" near here as a means to eventually order the roundup and execution of thousands at Jeoldusan in what would become known as the Byeongin Persecution in 1866. The means of execution was typically by beheading, which is what gave the current name to the hill located behind the tradition port here- jeoldusan or "beheading hill".

The number of people who were executed here are estimated to have been as high as 8,000- perhaps more- which not included priests but followers of the Catholic faith including women and children. Possessing significant historic value for the Catholic faith, the Catholic Church became owners of this property upon which a church and memorial museum was later built in 1967.

The church along with the memorial museum now sits on this former bloody hill, which was once described during the peak of the persecution, as having the heads of thousands scattered below. 

The church and museum has become a pilgrimage site for locals and visiting members of the Catholic faith including a famous visit by Pope John Paul II many years ago. The small museum doesn't allow pictures inside but it offers a look at some of the lives of the martyrs as well as a in-depth look at what a horrific scene this seemingly peaceful site must have looked like during the peak of the persecution.

Interestingly, the museum asks if you're Catholic at the entrance as those of the Catholic faith are allowed in for free (though they do accept donations) and others have a small admission fee (2,000 KRW).

The church was having service when I visited, as it was a Sunday, so I did not enter the church. If you do go, please be respectful of those worshiping. As the church sits on a hill, you do have to climb a few steps to get to it.

Around the grounds of Jeoldusan you'll find many different statues and art pieces scattered about. Most are dedicated to the martyrs including specific individuals.

The various memorial and art pieces, sprawling natural surrounding, and sparse people gives Jeoldusan a very tranquil atmosphere. Being along the banks of the Han River also offers some wonderful viewpoints of the city but it does make you think how ironic it is that such a lovely and peaceful site today could serve as the backdrop to the horrific bloodshed it once saw.

Small grotto for the Virgin Mary.

Just next to Jeoldusan is the Yanghwajin Foreign Missionary Cemetery which also comes with a long and interesting (though thankfully bloodless history).

In the years that followed after the Byeongin Persecution, Emperor Gojong ascended to power in Korea and began turning away from his father's isolationist foreign policies which, in turn, brought about the influx of many Protestant missionaries to Korea.

One such missionary was the doctor H.N. Allen who, in 1884, treated and saved the life of a relative of the royal family. Thereafter, the foreign missionary community formed a close relationship with the royal family who once looked on them with suspicion and weariness. However, missionaries were still barred from openly evangelizing to the locals which is why this is where many of Korea's first modern educational, medical, and social institutions were established. For example, this allowed Gwanghyewon, the first modern hospital in Korea, to be established which would be the predecessor to Seoul's modern-day Severance Hospital. Ewha Womens University's roots would also trace back to this same period when it was established in 1886- Korea's first modern educational institute for women.

In 1887 a dysentery epidemic swept through Seoul and Dr. Heron, the then superintendent of Gwanghyewon, himself succumbed to the the disease while treating patients at the hospital. At that time, foreigners were not allowed to be freely buried on Korean soil and the closest burial grounds for foreigners were in present-day Incheon. Unfortunately, Dr. Heron's death was in the middle of summer where Korea's notably high temperatures and humidity would mean it would be impossible to properly carry Dr. Heron's remains to Incheon.

At the petition of the local missionary community and the then American diplomat, they lobbied the Korean government to ask for a suitable ground in the capital to bury Dr. Heron and future foreigners. After several back and forths, the grounds in Yanghwajin were officially given permission to serve this purpose.

Thus, Seoul's first official foreigners' cemetery came to be which would go on to become the final resting place of some of modern Korea's major influential including Horace Underwood and his family (who founded Yonsei University), Mary Scranton (founder of Ewha Womans' University), Korean independence fighter Homer Herber, and many more.

The cemetery sits right next to a parking lot for the church as well as the nearby Yanghwajin Park which is why there's a sign at the entry forbidding pets, exercise equipment like bikes, and food and drinks on the cemetery grounds. They also ask that you be silent, though I'm sure talking quietly won't get you into trouble.

In little rows, you'll see the various burial plots of numerous foreigners from this past era (the rough equivalent of expats in Korea today).

I noticed that for many buried individual here, the tombstones held a short message about how much the individual buried underneath had loved and wished to be buried in Korea.  Non-Koreans who have come to Korea and fallen in love with the country in today's globalized age are common but during the late 19th/early 20th centuries in which life here truly must have been as different as living on another planet for these Europeans and Americans, it's amazing to think there were so many who gave their heart, soul, and life for their adopted home country.

Even after its difficult beginning, the cemetery would go on to face many more threats to its survival. By the Japanese colonial period the cemetery was in desperate need of repair after decades of use and despite the foreigner community raising funds for it, the usage of the collected funds was denied by the provisional Japanese government. The same community would then be exiled entirely from Korea during WWII leaving the burial grounds to further disregard. Even after that war ended, a few decades later came the Korean War where the surrounding Yanghwajin's important strategic location came to be the cemetery's further bad fortune as it was hit by shells and artillery from the fighting which left the area devastated. You can even see some shell marks on some of the headstones today which are considered the luckier ones as some stones became outright illegible and unrecoverable.

By the 1970s, its existence were further threatened with the construction of Seoul's subway line 2 as the city wanted to relocate the cemetery to make way for the new subway line. The committee overseeing its care was able to successfully block the efforts and over the next decade the grounds were significantly cleaned up as by then it had essentially become a garbage disposal site where criminal activity was on the rise. By the cemetery's 100th anniversary, a successful initiative was made to restore the grounds and create a memorial and cultural center to commemorate those who had been interred here which has, hopefully, now offered them a lasting peace.

This cemetery, which came to be through the hard-earned efforts of the local expat community almost 150 years ago thus stood the sands of time weathering through wars, redevelopment, and modernization to serve as the final resting place of many who significantly shaped Korea's modern age as well. While there are many living in Korea today who knows the many significant deeds and contributions of some of the better known individuals resting here, there are others whose stories and acts have now been lost to history unfortunately. The ground's most famed residents today have buildings, foundations, and an ongoing legacy to their names but for many, all that remains is their tombstone here- a lone testament to the country and people they grew to love.

Especially sobering is the section of the cemetery grounds reserved for the babies and infants. Born into families of missionaries, educators, community/social developers, rows of tiny tombstones are all that's left of these young souls. Such a devastating personal tragedy occurring in expat families in today's age alone is quite harrowing to think about but I can't even begin to imagine what it must have been like for the families of this period when even a letter back home would have taken weeks, if not months to reach. Their faith, inner strength, and community must have been the only things that enabled them to find peace. With that on my mind, I had a lot of memories of my first few years adjusting to life in Korea through which I know now I developed some true grit. The difference between the families resting here and myself being that I had instant communication, technology, and many other luxuries at hand to help me through it all.

Final Thoughts:
Even for non Catholics and Protestants, both Jeoldusan and Yanghwajin Cemetery holds significant historic value that should appeal to history lovers. Even if you're not a history buff, the peaceful if not somber atmosphere it provides will come as welcome contrast for those looking to momentarily escape the high energy of Seoul.

As an expat myself, I particularly recommend both locations to other expats in Korea today. I know all about the sudden pangs of homesickness and of the fed-up attitude we can adopt of the differences in life here and back home. But for me, the visit here certainly gave me an appreciation of the many modern perks we enjoy without much thought (Skype, Facetime, a globally-lauded modern airport that services most corners of the planet, etc) and helped to contextualize how Korea has also quickly progressed in the last few centuries- even despite weathering through devastating wars and conflicts.

Jeoldusan (절두산)

6, Tojeong-ro, Mapo-gu, Seoul
서울특별시 마포구 토정로 6 (합정동)

From exit 7 of Hapjeong Station, walk straight about 40 meters until you see Yanghwajin-gil. Turn left and walk along this street southwards for about 500 meters until you get to the entrance of the Jeoldusan grounds. You'll know you're in the right place as the Jeoldusan office will be on your left. Go further in the grounds to see the church and museum on the hill.

Phone number:

Hours (for the museum):
9:30-5PM (closed on Mondays)

Homepage: (Korean only)

If you reserve your visit at least 2 weeks in advance online, admission for non Catholics is 1K per person. Unfortunately the site online to reserve in advance is in Korean only...

They do not accept credit card for admission.

Yanghwajin Foreign Missionary Cemetery (양화진외국인선교사묘원)

46 Yanghwajin-gil, Hapjeong-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul
서울특별시 마포구 합정동 114-3

Similarly to the directions for Jeoldusan, come out of exit 7 of Hapjeong Station and walk straight for about 40 meters until you see Yanghwajingil. Turn left and walk southwards on this street for about 300 meters until you see the Yanghwajin Park grounds on your right.

Phone number:

10AM- 5PM (closed on Sundays)



Guided tours are offered Mondays through Saturdays at 10AM, 11:30AM, 2PM, and 3:30PM (excluding major holidays). However, tours must be reserved in advance online. The tours take approximately an hour.

The grounds itself is open to the public from Mondays to Saturdays, 10AM-5PM.