News October 2023 Perspective Online

My Streetcorner in Seodaemun: A Neighborhood Keeps Its History


By Ted A. Campbell
As written and published in Seoul Times.

I have been staying at the Shilla Stay hotel on the corner of Saemunan and Tongil streets in an area of Seoul called Seodaemun. The word Seodaemun literally means “west gate” and it denoted one of the eight historic gates of the city of Seoul. Seodaemun is a very modern part of the cosmopolitan city of Seoul that is home to ten million people.

But as I’ve lived here for a week, I have come to know Seodaemun as a place that keeps its history.

The name of the Shilla Stay hotel is from the Kingdom of Silla that governed most of what is now Korea—north and south—between 668 and 935 CE. Later in the five centuries of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897 CE), Korea was an independent country with Confucianism at its cultural foundation. The Joseon dynasty moved its capital to Seoul early after 1392 and built a fortified wall to protect the city. The wall of Seoul had eight historic gates. The “West Gate” (Korean: Seodaemun) was built in 1396 and although it was commonly called “West Gate,” and gave the name Seodaemun to the surrounding neighborhood, its proper name was the Donuimun or “Loyalty” Gate. Sadly, it is the one gate of the city that no longer exists: it was destroyed by Japanese occupying forces in 1915, but a photograph exists of the Donuimun-Seodaemun Gate taken in 1904 by Presbyterian missionary Horace Underwood and it shows an electric tram line running through the gate:

The “Loyalty” (Donuimun) or West Gate (Seodaemun) with an Electric Tram Car; 1904 photograph by Horace Underwood

Although proposals have been made to rebuild the Seodaemun gate, the project has been judged impractical, but there is now a video display in the street adjacent to the site: by placing one’s hand on the video screen, a view of the old Seodaemun Gate appears amidst the contemporary scene of the street, a very creative way to call to mind the history of a place:

Contemporary Video Image of the Seodaemun/Donuimun Gate Imposed Over a Current View of the Street

The province of the Joseon kingdom in which Seoul was situated was called Geonggi, and the Geonggi Governor’s palace was located just outside the Seodaemun Gate. The current location has an ultra-modern office building with the insignia of DL Engineering and Construction, a Korean corporation that builds bridges and other engineered structures in East Asia (see

DL Engineering and Construction Donuimun Tower

The office tower is named Donuimun, and just outside the front of the tower building is a small historical monument noting that it was the historic location of the Geonggi Governor’s palace and provincial offices:

But this small marker is flanked by two other markers commemorating the execution of Catholic martyrs for the Christian faith within the Geonggi provincial offices.

The Joseon dynasty’s embrace of Confucianism as the state religion of the kingdom had led to the persecution of some Buddhist teachers in the past centuries. Western Christian missionaries including Jesuits had come to China in the 1500s and had begun to develop missionary churches, facing persistent opposition from Chinese authorities. In Korea and as in Japan, covert Catholic communities numbering tens of thousands of Christians had grown up led by lay people only in the early 1700s. By 1784 in Korea they were able to send missionary priests, though this period of openness closed after only two decades. China, Japan, and Korea all experienced waves of anti-foreign sentiment in 1801. In China, this was the Boxer Rebellion. In all three countries, Christians were captured and often executed.

Several Catholic Christians were executed at the Geonggi offices in Seodaemun. One Korean convert named Jo Yongsam, who had taken the Christian name Peter at his baptism, was executed here. Before his execution on March 27 he said, “There are no two masters in heaven, and no man can have two hearts. All I want is to die once for the sake of God, and I have nothing else to say.” Francis the Bishop of Rome proclaimed in 2014 that Christians should recognize Peter Jo Yongsam among the “blessed” Christian martyrs, and Bishop Francis encouraged Christians to honor the memory of Blessed Peter Jo Yongsam every year on March 27. Two monuments in front of the DL Donuimun Tower commemorate the executions. An older monument is in Korean only, but a newer monument in English and Chinese as well as Korean is part of a more recent series of monuments on the history of Catholicism in Korea:

Peter Jo Yongsam’s words “There are no two masters in heaven…” might be a renunciation of the Confucian belief in the eternal complementarity of Yin and Yang. His words remind me of St Augustine’s account in his Confessions of his rejection of the eternal dualism he encountered among the Manicheans of his time and his eventual rejection of their teaching in recognizing that evil is temporal and only the good, only God, is eternal.

162 years after the execution of Peter Jo Yongsam, a Pentecostal congregation developed on the same site (1963), under the leadership of David Yonggi Cho (1936-2021). This congregation reached out to its neighborhood, organized believers into small groups for support and encouragement, and grew very rapidly. They built a multi-story church building along the same block as the DL Tower if not in fact the same location where the DL Tower would be constructed:

Full Gospel Church Building in Seodaemun

Consistent with Pentecostal teaching, the congregation and its leaders encouraged believers to experience the baptism of the Holy Spirit described in the second chapter of Acts. The congregation that originated in Seodaemon later moved across the Han River to Yoido, and for several decades now it has been recognized as the largest Christian congregation in the world with an estimated membership of 800,000 members.

Korean Christians are much closer to a history of persecution than American Christians: for Koreans, the memory of persecution persists strongly from the early twentieth century, and Korea’s close neighbors China and Russia have openly opposed Christian evangelization.

As I look out the window across the traffic intersection I can see the DL Tower most prominently to my left, and I can barely see the three little monuments relating to the Geonggi provincial offices and the executions that were on that site. Then I see Saemunan Street extending to my left past the site of the Full Gospel Church and then on to the site of the Donuimun Gate. A tall building at that point has a huge image of the Donuimun Gate that I can easily see from here, seven or eight blocks away.

What Seodaemun teaches me is that local communities can find creative ways to bring their history with them into the future. I hope that American neighborhoods can find ways like this to bring our history—even painful parts of our history—into the future with us.

Ted A. Campbell
18-21 May 2023