The Long Winding History of Cheongyecheon

Cheongyecheon by Joshua Davies
Cheongyecheon by Joshua Davies

Just a few hundred yards from the Asia Society Korea Center office is Seoul’s most prominent and modern public recreation space, Cheongyecheon. Cheongyecheon is an 11 km restored stream that starts in the heart of downtown Seoul and courses through the neighborhoods of Jongno and Dongdaemun before it eventually empties into the Hangang River. Each week over 500,000 people walk alongside the stream, and it has become home to a variety of festivals, most notably the Seoul Lantern Festival. Go beyond its life as a tourist attraction however, and one will uncover a deep history of Cheongyecheon; one which has seen Korea transform firsthand.

The city of Seoul grew around the Cheongyecheon stream, which was fed by tributaries from the surrounding mountains. Due to the climate of Korea, the stream was often dry in winter and spring but would flood after the heavy summer rainfall. From 1406, one of the most prominent figures in Korean history, King Sejong, continued the work of his father, Taejong, of widening and deepening the waterway to protect the city against this flooding. The stream divided the northern and southern parts of the city. So, stone bridges were also built to connect the two sides. It was at this point that King Sejong decided to listen to the advice of his advisors and turn the stream into a sewer that would serve to drain the waste of the city, which it did successfully, for more than 500 years of the Joseon Dynasty.

By the time of the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910, the stream had degenerated into a polluted creek due to an increase in population and a lack of care. The Japanese were the first to give the stream its name we now know as Cheongyecheon and started to implement a plan to use the stream and its tributaries as a modern sewer system. With the fall of the Japanese after the Second World War, this planned work was never completed. The stream once again fell into a state of repair as many refugees settled along its banks after the Korean War. The whole area of Cheongyecheon became a symbol of hardship and poverty after years of colonialism and war.

Under the Park Chung Hee government, Korea experienced huge economic change and reform; from the building of infrastructure to a new focus on an export driven economy. The polluted sewer of Cheongyecheon was an obstacle to this development, so Park had the stream covered with concrete for roads, and in 1968, an elevated highway was built over it. In place of the huts that once housed the refugees, modern stores and industrial centers were built. This huge redevelopment project of the Cheongyecheon became a symbol of Korea’s post war economic boom often labeled the “Miracle of the Han River”.

After four decades of being covered by concrete, Cheongyecheon finally embarked on its next transformation. The industrial area around the roads had become rundown and outdated, while the elevated highway was synonymous with traffic jams and pollution. Although modern Seoul had developed into a clean and vibrant young city, the Cheongyecheon area was seen as an eyesore and a blot on downtown Seoul. Thus, when Lee Myung Bak became Seoul City Major in 2001, he kept his election campaign promise to remove the highway and concrete and restore the stream. The $281 million dollar project was completed in September 2005, and the area is now seen as a major part of Seoul life. It currently offers home to an increasing number of wildlife, cools down the area in summer, decreases the amount of downtown Seoul traffic, erases the north-south divide of the downtown area and, most importantly, increases the quality of life for citizens.

For many tourists who walk along Cheongyecheon unaware of its deep history, one can still see reminders of the past through the preservation of historical bridges and the highway supports left in the stream as a symbol of Korea’s economic development. There is also the Cheongyecheon Museum which is located in Majang and opened in 2006 to give visitors a glimpse into the stream’s past.