Suwon, South Korea
Hwaesong Fortress, a former royal residence, is the largest and most impressive surviving castle on the Korean peninsula. This huge citadel encloses a great compound which includes both the palace and parts of the old city center, so that it may also be considered a small walled city. After being heavily damaged in the Korean War, Hwaesong Fortress was reconstructed in the 1970s and 1980s, and became one of the most visited sited during the 1988 Olympic Games. It is now one of the most important historic sites, and one of the most popular tourist destinations, in all of Korea. The Hwaesong Fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The prehistory of the Hwaseong Fortress is as interesting, if considerably more morbid, than the history of the fortress itself. In 1762, Korea was ruled by one Yeongjo, a king who was unduly influenced by the machinactions of his courtiers. According to legend, members of the court convinced the king that his son, Sado, was dangerous and mentally unfit to rule. The king ordered the prince to commit suicide. When Sado refused, the king had him imprisoned in a rice chest, where the prince died a week later.
Sado’s son, Yi San, eventually succeeded his grandfather as ruler of Korea. To remove himself from the brutal court politics, Yi San decided to move his capital city from Seoul to Suwon approximately twenty miles away. The centerpiece of the new capital was the Hwaseong Fortress, a large fortified complex that was also home to the new royal palace. According to legend the citadel was dedicated to Yi San’s murdered father.
The Hwaseong Fortress was a powerful symbol of royal authority over the next two very turbulent centuries. It witnessed numerous conflicts, including the Sino-Japanese War and Russo Japanese War, and in the early 1900s the fortress was annexed by Japan along with the rest of the Korean peninsula.
Interestingly, Hwaseong’s most prominent military moment came in the 20th century, well after the end of Korea’s feudal era, when it was caught between the armies of North Korea and the United States during the Korean conflict. The fortress was badly damaged during the fighting. However, thanks to the excellent records kept from the fortress’ original construction, Hwaseong was able to be completely rebuilt to its pristine condition. It is Korea’s best surviving castle and one of the country’s most popular tourist sites.
The Hwaseong Fortress is almost large enough to be counted among the best walled cities. The outer wall runs for over three miles and encloses the old royal residence as well as small portion of the old city center. Almost the entire structure remains intact, making it larger than almost any other citadel in the Far East, including Japan and China. The battlements, while not particularly tall, are intricately designed to maximize the fortress defenses. Four imposing gates, including the massive Janganmun Gate, one of the largest in the Far East, provide access to the fortress interior.
The fortress interior is packed full of fascinating royal and military sites, including architectural and engineering elements that are extremely rare, such as the firing platforms used to defend against enemies who had already made their way inside. One of the highlights of visiting the Hwaseong Fortress are the period demonstrations, including the weekly royal guards ceremony and the daily martial arts performances.
The Hwaseong Fortress is located on the outskirts of Suwon, about 20 miles south of the capital of Seoul. It is one of the most popular tourist sites in the country. It is open daily. However, as of this writing no opening hours information were available. Admission is W1,000. Web: http://ehs.suwon.ne.kr (official website).
Korea was once home to many wonderful castles, but feudal conflicts, foreign occupation, World War II and the Korean War left few intact. Among the best survivors are Geumseong Fortress and the partially restored Geumjeong Mountain Fortress.