The Cheonggyecheon Stream defines the history of Seoul. Ghosts still lurk its winding path. Learn the surprising stories behind the stream that Seoul never left well enough alone.

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  • General
    • 10.84 km
    • All northern Seoul’s water gathers here and flows eastward to Jungnangcheon outside Wangsimni (between Hanyang University Seoul Campus and Gunja Vehicle Office)
      • Source is Suseongdong Valley in Inwangsan
    • Then goes west to Han River
    • Symbolizes the urban development of Seoul
    • Throughout its history, it’s always been reshaped
  • Joseon Era
    • Originally named Gaecheon – “Open River?”
    • Susceptible to flooding. Private houses regularly got flooded
    • First water removal project started
    • King Yeongjo (1694-1724)
      • Mobilized 200,000 to carry out full-fledged river opening projects for 57 days
        • Dredging, cross-slope stone shafting, altering the flow path, making it straighter
      • Still had to be repaired regularly, and it still flooded
        • Would regularly dry up in places
        • Junk would stop it up
        • Sewage would stagnate
    • Dredging continued from the 1790s through the Colonial Era
  • Colonial Period
    • Changed the name to Cheonggyecheon
    • Dozens of corpses were dumped there every day, plagued with wastewater
    • (1917) first sewer repair plan but held up because of post-WWI depression
    • (1920s) Obstruction and sanitation of river became a big issue
    • (mid-1930s) Chosun Urban Planning Ordinance
      • Full-scale urban planning
      • increased budget
    • (1937) Started covering the tributaries, creating today’s winding roads
      • Partially covered main stream
      • Expanded roads and installed sewers
      • WWII slowed this down
  • Korean War
    • Shantytowns popped up around it
    • The stench freely flowed, especially during flooding season
  • Republic of Korea
    • (1958) Covering project continued
    • (April 1960) First stage completed and created a highway
    • (1967- Aug 15, 1976) Construction of Cheonggye Overpass
      • Covered 5.4 km on one part and 2.4 km on another
      • Mayor of Seoul was Kim Hyeon-ok, the original Bulldozer
        • also oversaw Namsan Tunnel, Gwanghwamun Underpass, Myeong-dong Underpass, Sewoon Shopping Mall
        • And Wau Apartments!
    • Ghosts were said to still inhabit the area from the unknown corpses that kept getting dumped in the river before then
  • Cheonggye Overpass Era
    • Surprisingly, this is kind of romanticized
    • Lot of vendors selling EVERYTHING
      • Most famous for used books, antique shops, miscellany
      • “You can assemble a tank (or a submarine) by going around the Cheonggyecheon once”
      • It is said that the development team obtained a 155mm artillery barrel to make a rocket combustion chamber when the Baekgom Missile was developed under Park Chung-hee
    • (1970s-80s) Cradle of electronics markets
      • Expensive B&W portable TVs, where people could watch TV in the mountains
    • Tropical Fish Market
      • Between Dongdaemun and Dongmyo
      • Exotic animal market, really
      • Crocodiles, tortoises, birds, insects, along with controversial medicines
      • Many were smuggled
      • Lots of abuse
        • hamsters would burn alive in the summer and tear each other’s flesh
    • Manic feeling in these markets – the place to find rare and illegal things
      • This included Japanese products/movies/manghwa/music because Japanese imports were illegal
      • Along with Itaewon, those were Korea’s exposure to foreign pop culture
      • Early K-Pop acts found their roots in obtaining CDs in Itaewon and Cheonggye Markets (Seo Taeji)
    • Even without the Cheonggye Restoration, the market would have died out with the Internet, similar to Yongsan
  • Cheonggyecheon Restoration
    • (1990s) Aging structure was of concern
      • Cheonggye Overpass was over 30 years old and in danger of collapse, as what may happen when you build a structure over a waterway
        • U.S. military advised not to go on it
      • The centers of Seoul had moved to places like Gangnam, lessening the need for the overpass
      • Overpasses cut off districts and were eyesores
    • Professors Noh Su-hong and Lee Hee-du (Yonsei) and novelist Park Kyung-ri created the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Research Society Symposium
    • The third symposium in 2002, potential mayoral candidate Lee Myung-bak attended
      • Promised to restore the Cheonggyecheon if elected
    • (July 1, 2003) Construction began. Completed (Sept 30, 2005)
    • Problems
      • Compensation
        • Garden Five
          • (Jan 2003) Negotiations for relocation 
            • Seoul City only wanted to select alternative sites
            • Refused to compensate for business losses or to delay the project 
            • No signed agreements or documents from the city, even for what they were promising
            • Lee Myung-bak had a habit of not using documents or leaving a paper trail
              • “When a policy is announced, it can be implemented as it is. Unlike corporations, the government does not negotiate with anyone over policy. Therefore, no contract is required.”
              • Left
            • More demands – only one document was given
            • Kinda tricked them because the group created for relocation was only temporary and had to be revived each year. So every agreement evaporated.
          • Oh Se-hoon also did something akin to this, including talking of relocating to Garden Five, when demolishing Dongdaemun Stadium
          • Garden Five ended up becoming a shit show
          • Some merchants predicted this and just moved to other areas
          • We’ll get into that disaster in another episode
      • Restoration Issues
        • Archaeological
          • Old bridges and Joseon relics emerged and would need construction to stop for evaluation and preservation
          • 2MB held a press conference and declared that they weren’t of historical value
            • Couldn’t delay construction–mayoral term is ending, presidential election coming
          • Relics sitting at the sewage treatment plant
            • Some were restored and in the Seoul Sewerage Science Museum (someone needs to talk to their PR)
          • Bridges weren’t correctly restored
            • BUT Supyo Bridge still has its original form at Jangchungdan Park
            • We’ll go into the bridges in another episode
      • Traffic
        • Biggest dissension at the time
          • Experts didn’t satisfactorily reply to this
        • Still the traffic has not been solved
        • Road expansion is impossible
        • Irony: Discussion of partially restoring the overpass
      • Environment
        • Artificialness
          • The original source at Ingwanan is mostly dry
          • The lost waterway from there is now roads
          • Pumped in a mixture of Han River and groundwater 4:1
        • The upstream part is all artificial and sculpted while it gets wilder and more natural downstream
        • Strange fish species
          • Accused Seoul of dumping fish into the river (refused)
          • May be other people added odd fish
        • Excessive e. Coli and other fecal bacteria detected
          • Though accounts from Joseon inhabitants and foreigners at the time–the stream was always stinky
          • Don’t drink it or wade in it–think of it as Venetian canal water
        • Misconception: It’s not supposed to be a natural stream. Think of it more as a water prop in a garden
      • Costs
        • Claim: 1.8 billion won per year ← may be just the water cost
        • 7 billion won per year — around 20 million per day
    • Effects since opening
      • Reduced the heat in the inner city
        • Water plus and opened wind path reduced temp by 3 degrees
        • And for the first time, no more flooding, all over Jongno
          • Everything runs into the Cheonggyecheon
          • It’s closed sometimes when the flooding can get big
      • Urban renewal
        • People said the area around it was becoming slummy, not just urban decay (like Pimatgol)
      • Raised land prices
      • Urban river maintenance has spread to other townships, even overseas
        • Not all good–Busan’s version has been quagmire for 10 years
  • Opening ceremony (April 2010)
  • Cheonggyecheon 2050 Master Plan
    • (2013 announced) Long term restoration of Cheonggyecheon to 2050
      • Solve problems of historicity, ecology, and maintenance
    • Short term plans (2014-2018)
    • Mid-term (2019-2030)
    • Long Term (2031-2050)
    • What it entails
      • Plant more native trees to create a more natural effect
      • Remove weirs and make it more naturally curvy (S-line, baby!)
      • Return Supyo Bridge to original position
        • By then end, Supyo, Gwantong, and Ogwan Sumun Gate will be restored
      • Baekundongcheon and Junghakcheon will be revived and connected to stabilize water supply
      • Complete maintenance of pedestrian priority street and surrounding facilities
    • It will not restore it to its original state
      • It needs a constant supply of water, and the original stream didn’t have that. It ran in cycles.
      • It will not change its path, like a natural river