On Saturday, my wife and I visited Dongnimmunin in Seodaemun, an area in western Seoul. Dongnimmun, or Independence Gate, was constructed in 1898 by Dr. So Jae-Pil, a leading Korean reformer, and his supporters. The gate sits on the site of Yôngûnmun, the former western gate of Seoul dedicated to receiving Chinese envoys who arrived in Korea annually to collect tribute on behalf of the Chinese Emperor. Yôngûnmun, a symbol of Korea’s status as a Chinese vassal state, was demolished in 1895 amidst fervent pro-independence sentiment. The 1890’s were a turbulent time in Korean history, when Korea sought to exert its independence from a weakening Chinese Qing Dynasty and fought to hold off an expansionist Japanese Empire that annexed Korea as a colony in 1910. In 1897, Korean King Gojong proclaimed that Korea would be known as the Korean Empire in a vain attempt to insulate itself from Japanese influence. However, the "Korean Empire" lasted just 12 years, when the Japanese dissolved Korea’s monarchy and annexed it as a colony.
Today, Dongnimmun stands in Yôngûnmun’s stead as a symbol of Korea’s political and cultural independence. Despite its symbolic and rhetorical value, Dongnimmun is perhaps the least known of Seoul’s four city gates. The other three gates are Namdaemun (South Gate), Dongdaemun (East Gate), and Gwanghwamun, the main gate guarding Gyeongbok Palace, Korea’s former royal palace. Namdaemun and Dongdaemun are especially well known because of their large, neighboring street markets. All three are traditional, Chosun Dynasty-era city gates (Yôngûnmun was also a Chosun-era gate). In contrast, Dongnimmun is a newer, western-style structure reminiscent of the Arc du Triomphe in Paris and numerous other copycat structures built worldwide. Although the site where Dongnimmun is located is called Seodaemun, or "West Gate," no gate exists by that name.
Dongnimmun is a bit nondescript, standing in the shadow of an elevated highway. It is weathered with age, made of drab stone blocks, and a bit smallish in comparison to the other gates of Seoul. Two pillars from Yôngûnmun remain and stand sentry on either side of Dongnimmun. If one is unaware of Korea’s recent history, one might miss the significance of this place. However, a fuller understanding of the Independence Club, The Independent newspaper, and Korea’s move towards self-reliance in the face of Japanese aggression and Chinese disengagement bring a powerful sense of historical weight to bear on the site. The National Assembly web site has an article on the Independence Club, an influential group in the early years of the 20th century that, among other things, popularized the use of hanguel, Korea’s unique writing system. Dongnimmun is a visible manifestation of this period. Once you learn about the years 1895 and 1910 and Korea’s fledgling independence movement, the site really comes to life.