|A house formerly used by U.S. Forces Korea personnel and their families at Yongsan Children's Garden in central Seoul, is dwarfed by Korean skyscrapers in the distance, May 19. / Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar|
By Jon Dunbar
Yongsan Children's Garden opened on May 4 in 300,000 square meters of returned land from a corner of U.S. Army Garrison (USAG) Yongsan in the middle of Seoul. Inside, visitors can see landscape views rarely glimpsed until now by civilian eyes.
|A cozy neighborhood in Yongsan Children's Garden in central Seoul is dwarfed by tall Korean buildings in the distance, May 19. / Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar|
It took this reporter four visits to finally make it inside. On the second attempt the day after it opened, a worker at the gate near Sinyongsan Station on Seoul Metro Line 4 explained the reservation system, which is convenient to use, even for foreigners in English. No dates were available for almost two weeks, which is a pretty long wait. Finally, on returning on May 19, I was turned back due to having forgotten my passport. On a fourth visit, I made it inside ― but my camera didn't. While going through the intricate checkpoint inside the gate, they explained that the camera lens was too large to bring inside, something that hadn't been spelled out on the website. It was placed in a locker beyond the metal detectors, and consequently, all these photos were taken on a Galaxy S22 smartphone.
After entering the park, it became apparent why long camera lenses weren't allowed inside: the park is right next door to the new presidential office, located in a former defense ministry building.
|A giant inflatable Mashimaro is on display at Yongsan Children's Garden in central Seoul, May 19. In the distance is the presidential office, and behind that is N Seoul Tower. / Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar|
It also, of course, backs onto USAG Yongsan, which is still an active military installation, albeit a nearly vacant one, now that almost but not all personnel have been relocated about 60 kilometers south to USAG Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province.
This wasn't my first time on this land, as I had the good luck to tour the place in 2017 with Samia Mounts, a former resident. But at that time, discretion was required and we had to be careful about what we photographed. Now, it's totally fine to join the crowds wandering through these residential streets and see houses once lived in by U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) personnel and their families.
|A path leads the way up to open houses welcoming visitors to displays about the area's history at Yongsan Children's Garden in central Seoul, May 19. / Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar|
Some houses are open to visitors, with exhibits detailing the history of Yongsan, displaying art or offering libraries full of (Korean-language) books. One house shared the story of Sue Cosner, a resident here in her adolescence from 1967 to 1970.
|Sue Cosner's bedroom from 1967 to 1970 is preserved at Yongsan Children's Garden in central Seoul, May 19. / Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar|
Here and there, ancient Korean stone statues can be glimpsed, providing just a small sample of the wealth of historic sites located all throughout the base.
|An ancient stone statue is one of many found in recently demilitarized land at Yongsan Children's Garden in central Seoul, May 19. / Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar|
This U.S. military residential landscape feels alien to newcomers, with American housing and landscaping preferences applied to distinctly Korean land.
|American landscaping is a strange fit on Korean terrain, and multiple workers like this one were seen tending to the grounds all over Yongsan Children's Garden in central Seoul, May 19. / Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar|
Meanwhile, tall Korean buildings loom in the distance, reminding us that we're still in Korea. It must have been quite something for garrison residents to watch urban Seoul springing up around them.
|People walk along a road at Yongsan Children's Garden in central Seoul, May 19. In the distance are the skyscrapers of Korea built next door to the former U.S. Army garrison. / Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar|
It reminded me of the North Korean border city of Sinuiju, which saw the neighboring Chinese city of Dandong undergo rapid development in recent decades.
|A giant inflatable Mashimaro is on display in front of residences that once housed U.S. Forces Korea personnel and their families at Yongsan Children's Garden in central Seoul, May 19. Korean buildings loom in the distance. / Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar|
There's not much point to comparing the USFK's situation with Sinuiju's, other than to highlight that, to the general South Korean public, the interior of USAG Yongsan is as mysterious and inscrutable as North Korea.
But that is changing, with the opening of Yongsan Children's Garden, and before that Black Hawk Village. The transformation is likely to take several more years, but there is much more to be revealed.
Visit reserve-yongsanparkstory.kr to make a reservation and see for yourself.