The burnt orange glow of subway line 6 has always been synonymous with anticipation. Itaewon is situated smack in the middle of the line, and hipsters, youngsters, and foreigners exit the carriages in droves.
Turkish pistachio baklava greets passengers outside one subway exit. The warmth of Pakistani sour soup snakes up and down the alley to the mosque on a hilltop. On the neighborhood’s other extremity, sunny Mediterranean dishes are served amid Buddhist incense and woodwork. Below a tree-lined outcrop, Neapolitan pizzas emerge from a grotto that resembles a bohemian burrow.
On the night of Oct. 29, 2022, however, death throes engulfed Itaewon as 156 young people perished from asphyxiation in human piles. More than 130,000 people arrived in Itaewon by subway to celebrate Halloween. However, given other modes of transportation, the actual crowd might have been bigger. The tragedy took place in a sloping alleyway connecting Itaewon’s main road and its popular street lined with bars and clubs.
Given the alley’s convenience — it connects a subway exit, a large hotel, many Instagrammable spots, nightclubs, and restaurants — thousands of people were packed into the 4-yard-wide, 43-yard-long street. Even as they tripped and fell, more people barged from behind, generating a human cascade. Many of those who were trampled died instantly, while some still standing went into cardiac arrest from shoulder-to-shoulder, chest-to-chest pressure.
Itaewon’s attraction attests to its imprints of the past and present, conjuring many mixed feelings. With its smorgasbord of cuisines, immigrant populations, and party scenes, Itaewon has long been at the forefront of South Korea’s multiculturality. In the past, foreign troops and merchants sojourned here. Even though it evokes Korea’s historical weakness and foreign influence, political, military, and cultural novelties originated here. As a microcosm of the country’s early modern history, Itaewon traces Korea’s trajectory from agony to modernity and points to where the nation should head next.
ITAEWON’S ORIGIN AND HISTORY
Scholars debate the linguistic origin of Itaewon. Since the name derives from Chinese characters, three homonyms compete for original legitimacy. The simplest version posits that pear trees abounded in Itaewon in the mid-17th century, hence the name “the house of pear trees.” The second interpretation goes back slightly earlier. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a Japanese warlord who unified his country in 1590, invaded the Korean Peninsula in his expansionary zeal from 1592 to 1598. A third of the farmland lay desolate. More than a quarter million Koreans died, and countless women were raped. Defeated Japanese soldiers settled in Itaewon, leading some to claim that the name derived from Itain, “people from different places.” In a similar vein, the last interpretation alleges that Itaewon means “the circle of different placenta,” after the Korean women who bore children of Japanese soldiers after enduring various forms of atrocities.
Yet, Itaewon’s checkered history runs longer. Just as the painful memories of Japanese invasions and sexual violence gave rise to its name, its history tells of Korea’s subjugation and privation: Foreign occupiers also favored Itaewon and set up garrisons there.
Just as the painful memories of Japanese invasions and sexual violence gave rise to its name, Itaewon’s history tells of Korea’s subjugation and privation.
Throughout the 13th century, Mongols occupied the area for their war against Koreans. Later in the century, Kublai Khan, one of Genghis Khan’s successors to the Mongol Empire, established a logistical command here in his failed effort to conquer Japan. In 1637, when China’s Qing Dynasty invaded Korea, Chinese soldiers encamped in Itaewon and trafficked approximately 60,000 Koreans — 5% of the population — to China as slaves. The same year, Korea’s Chosun Dynasty capitulated and became China’s tributary state. In subsequent years, Chosun built ships offered to China near Itaewon.
In 1876, Chosun opened up Korea’s ports and started the process of modernization based on Western models. As the authorities funneled Korean rice to Japan, however, farmers and commoners struggled to secure enough rice, prompting exorbitant price surges. Meanwhile, a new elite military force adopting Japanese skills received preferential treatment, whereas soldiers of existing forces from underprivileged backgrounds received rotten and infested rice as their payment.
When the military arrested the remonstrating soldiers, hungry people from Itaewon rebelled en masse in 1882. Soon, the rebellion spread across Seoul. Temples, palaces, and Japanese establishments came under attack. In order to reassert its influence over East Asia, Qing China dispatched and garrisoned thousands of troops in Itaewon, who quelled the uprising through massacres. Having forced Chosun to ratify a trade treaty that affirmed Korea’s status as China’s client state and Chinese merchants’ privileges, the troops remained in Itaewon for another two years.
Toward the end of the 19th century, Japan replaced China as the dominant regional power. Vying for supremacy over the Korean Peninsula led to the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894, resulting in a swift Japanese victory the following year. Japan ousted the Quing forces from Yongsan, the district encompassing Itaewon, and stationed their own troops there. After defeating the Russian Empire in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, Japan gained naval control around the Korean Peninsula, and Russia recognized the Japanese control of Korea.
In 1908, the Japanese military installed a base next to Itaewon, allowing Japan to officially annex Korea in 1910. Itaewon’s crucial role in Imperial Japan’s global warfare continued. For example, for its invasion of China’s Manchuria in 1931, Japan dispatched soldiers quartering around Itaewon. From then on until the end of World War II, Japan conscripted and trained Koreans in Itaewon and sent them to death throughout China and the Pacific.
Following the Japanese surrender in 1945, the United States 7th Division took over the base and hosted Soviet forces to discuss the terms of Korea’s division under their trusteeship. When three years of US military rule ended in 1948, South Korea inherited the military infrastructure, establishing the Capital Security Command and the Army Headquarters. Yet, peace was short-lived, as North Korea invaded the South in 1950 to unify the peninsula under the communist leadership, sparking three bloody years of the Korean War. In 1953, the US 8th Army moved into the base to deter the North’s future aggression. In 1957, the UN Command also relocated from Tokyo.
Despite its vicissitudes stemming from Korea’s historical fragility and foreign powers’ ambition, Itaewon was Korea’s gateway to modernity and multiculturalism. Due to its centrality and proximity to Han River and Namsan Mountain, it served as one of four entry checkpoints into Hanyang, Seoul’s medieval name. Owing to the huge footfall from tourists and foreigners, barter shops thrived from very early on. During the Chosun Dynasty, Itaewon and its larger vicinity, the Yongsan district, threaded the entire peninsula, converging and crisscrossing goods and people from everywhere.
It developed as a port, where boats carrying grains from all over docked and traded. Merchants congregated here as their operational base. In the late 19th century, Germans, British, Chinese, and Japanese competed here for trade influences. One of the first steamships ever to cruise the Han River was dubbed Yongsan. The region also ushered in Catholicism, as France built Korea’s first Catholic school. By 1900, trams traversed Itaewon.