In October 1897, King Gojong – the last King of the Joseon Dynasty – declared independence from Qing China and proclaimed the formation of the Daehan Jeguk, or the Korean Empire from the confines of the Deoksugung Palace.
Just a year earlier, in aftermath of great power politics, his wife Queen Min had been assassinated by the Japanese, and he had fled with the Crown Prince to the Russian Legation in the Jeong Dong Quarter, seeking sanctuary. He would return to begin the reformation and modernisation of Korea that would be cruelly cut short by the Japanese in 1910.
Already by the late 1890s, Jeong-dong – the precinct sitting immediately beyond the walls of the Deoksugung Palace, was home to the few foreign legations and missions that established themselves in Korea. The Deoksugung itself, as if acknowledging this European influence, even contains Western style architecture alongside the traditional Korean.
The two most significant Daehan Jeguk era sites in Jeong-dong today include the Chungdung Methodist Church, the first church built in Korea, in 1897 – the first year of Emperor Gojong’s reign; as well as the Jungmyeongjeon, which was the Royal Library built in 1897. The latter is historically significant: when the Deoksu Palace was burnt down in 1905, the Royal Library became Emperor Gojong’s de facto offices for national affairs; and it was here that Emperor Gojong was forced to sign an unequal treaty with Japan in 1905, that eventually led to Korea’s annexation in 1910.
[There is a third significant building from the Daehan Jeguk era, which is the Myeongdong Cathedral, established in the Myeongdong district in 1898. It too is shown here.]
Today, the entire precinct is one of the most pleasant areas in downtown Seoul, being verdant, tranquil and the perfect place for a romantic date or a moment of calm and reflection.