BUSAN, South Korea — A little over 400 years ago, a small band of Korean soldiers stood watch at Geumjeong Mountain (???), high atop the ridge overlooking Dongnae-gu and watched as Japanese forces thundered across Busan towards them. The local troops were ill-armed and ridiculously outnumbered—but they would be the only men that day to hold their ground while their reinforcements abandoned them and ran from the oncoming Japanese who were clearing a path to China.
Sometime later—about 100 years ago—a smaller band of Korean men stood on the same ridge and watched as the then occupying Japanese troops quietly dismantled the very fortress they’d built 200 years before in 1702 to protect against such foreign invasions by Japanese and Manchu forces that occured over the centuries. This time, the Japanese were heavily armed with western artillery when they attacked and the Joseon kingdom chose to yield rather than fight the heroic fight that had taken place there 200 years before.
And then—somewhere around August of this year—A Korean businessman sipping Soju and an awkward expat (yours truly) leaned against a wooden railing on that very same ridge and watched the sprawl of Busan stretch into the East Sea. Through it all, the city still stands.
The businessman, donning an excess of hiking gear, leaned towards me and offered a swig of Soju. I declined. He shook his head and replied with a growl.
“Waygook,” he said, almost like he was giving advice. “You need to drink up here.”
Such is the spirit of Guemjeong Mountain and it’s 300-year old on again off again fortress Geumjeongsanseong (????). The huge mountain and its fortress tower over Northern Busan—all the way from Dongnae to beyond Beomo Temple to the north. It is at once the most beautiful place in the city—and an absurd exploration into the somewhat sad history of Korean land warfare.
Guemjeong is a measure of proof that the Korea of the past, slotted between two much larger powers, could have made some better strategic decisions earlier on. The mountain gets its first prominent mention in the history books in 1592, when the Japanese invaded and sacked Busan. The Japanese tried to be diplomatic at first, because their aims were simple: they wanted to take a march through Korea so they could wreak havoc on China.
Conquering Korea was not part of the plan, but rather the Japanese military aim was to take on China before they made another attempt to take over Japan.
The Japanese were still stinging from two invasions launched by China’s Kublai Khan through Busan into Fukuoka in 1274 and 1281. Though the Samurai fought valiantly in the face of the marauding style of Mongol warfare, both invasions were not stopped by the Samurai but –amazingly so– by typhoons in what would have otherwise been easy Chinese victories. The Japanese called the typhoons “Divine Winds” or in Japanese, “Kamikaze.”
Korea was referred to by Japanese military planners at the time as China’s “Sword in the heart of Japan.” The plan was to march up the sword, starting in Busan, and take over China. The Korean monarchy (a vassal state of China) wasn’t exactly keen on this, and respectfully declined.
Japan responded by flattening most of the southern part of the Peninsula in what would be one of the most brutal invasions in East Asian history.
Back then, what we call ‘Busan’ today was essentially two cities. Everything south of Seomyeon was called “Busan” and everything north was called “Dongnae” At the northern head of Dongnae was a fortress (aptly called “Dongnae Fortress” or ????). It still stands today–near the Chungnyeosal Shrine.
The First day of the invasion, May 24th 1592, the Japanese landed at the southern tip of Busan and crushed the coastal Korean forces. This mostly due to the Japanese being armed with muskets from Portuguese traders in the years prior to the invasion. The Korean army was well known for its effective and deadly accurate archers—but you simply can’t bring a bow to a gun fight.
In a single day–all of southern Busan was over run. The last remnants of Busan’s garrison fled to the ridge of Geumjeong. The fortress that would eventually defend the mountain had yet to be built, but they had to make a stand somewhere while awaiting Yi Gak, a general from the north who was rushing reinforcements in from the countryside. The hope of this band of soldiers was that they could hold out long enough for those additional Korean troops to arrive.
Things didn’t quite work out as they hoped. General Yi Gak, having heard how utterly crushed Busan’s garrison had been, turned tail and ran, taking all his reinforcements with him, deserting his Busan-based compatriots. The small band on Geumjeong was abandoned and left to take on the Japanese alone, as the fighting turned west to the fortress at Dongnae.
Dongnae fortress was situated on a hill that was the gate to Korea’s main thoroughfare. All the Japanese had to do was take that—and they’d literally have a wide open path to march unhindered up to Seoul, then known as Hanseong.
The last remnants of Busan’s Garrison crouched there in wait. 3,000 men in total facing superior numbers of well-armed, well-trained Japanese troops. They knew they were massively outgunned and that their reinforcements had ditched them—but these men still had honor and had no intention of going anywhere.
Historical documents indicate that the interchange between the opposing forces proceeded as follows:
The day after Busan burned, the Japanese forces completely surrounded Dongnae fortress with the intent on clearing their path to Seoul and eventually China.
The Japanese offered the Korean holdouts a chance to surrender. They called to the garrison, saying “Fight if you want to, or let us pass."
The Japanese didn’t want the fight. They simply wanted to get to China –there was no military logic in using up soldiers here in Busan when they still had to get through the more powerful Seoul forces before taking on the behemoth to the east with its endless mass of troops.
According to legend, the Korean commander called back to the Japanese commander—uttering one of the more badass lines in military history: "It is easy for me to die, but difficult to let you pass.”
The Japanese had no retort–and so they lay siege to Dongnae for eight solid hours. Busan’s last defenders managed to keep the Japanese out while suffering massive casualties. So much so that there were enough dead bodies piled in front of the fortress for the Japanese to make a bridge onto the walls. Once they got inside, the battle for Geumjeong and a clear passage north to Seoul, was over. On the Korean side, there were no survivors.
The rest, as they say, is history.
The Story of Geumjeong Mountain Fortress (????)
A hundred years after the Japanese invasion, and two subsequent invasions by the Manchus from China in 1627 and again in 1637 the Joseon King Sukjong decided to build a fortress on Guemjeong in hopes of defending further invasions. First completed in 1702, it was quite impressive—a huge wall completely encircling the mountain with a big’ol fortress in the middle. No foreign invasion would break these walls.
However, Joseon leadership failed to take into account the bitter cold during winter on the mountain top. The frigid chill coming in off the sea caused the entire fortress to fall ill. Disease eventually wiped out the garrison. Finally, Korea abandoned the fort for a little over a century.
After working out the logistics on maintaining the fort and its troops, Geumjeongsan operated another hundred years until Japan took over in 1910. The Koreans had prepared for a brute force invasion—and they could have attempted to defended themselves. But this time—the Japanese came with diplomatic approval from western powers and a massive military machine.
There was no real resistance to the Japanese Occupation. Japan took over the peninsula and Guemjeongsan was destroyed.
What stands on top of the mountain today was part of a restoration project begun in 1972. The East, West and South gates were restored in 1974 and the north gate was rebuilt in 1989.
Getting to Guemjeong is simple enough and requires little in the way of a massive invasion force. Just take the Orange Line, getting off anywhere past Myeongnyun subway station and walk east towards the mountain. The park has entrances all along its perimeter—and they all eventually lead to the mountaintop.
However, you’ll get the best hiking if you get off at the PNU station and take a quick cab ride to the East Gate (Just say: “guem-jeong-san-seong dong-man”). From the East Gate you can follow the ridge all the way up to the greatest heights and stunning 360 degree views of Busan and the surrounding mountains. On a clear day you can also spot the Japanese island of Tsushima far off in the Korean strait. From the this high point on the ridge, you can walk all the way down to the North Gate and then on to Beomosa Temple.
However—if you’re less into nature and sublime sights and just want to get drunk on a mountain with the local ajeossi—then Guemjeong won’t disappoint. You can get off at Oncheonjeong (125) and then take a bus (or a 20 minute walk) to Guemjeong’s south entrance. From there, it’s a 3,000W cable car ride up to Guemjeong’s South Gate. There, a series of tiny trailer-bars cling to the slopes. On any given day there are good number of hikers there, sitting in flimsy chairs and drinking while they watch the clouds float by.
And those people—the semi-intoxicated and incredibly friendly hikers—are probably one of the best parts of ascending the mountain. These people are incredibly serious about their gear. You’ll see them decked out in neon, day glow nylon shirts and vests, wielding steel hiking poles and sporting boots hardcore enough to survive a nuclear holocaust.
You might even spot one of the local junior baseball teams training by rushing up from the East Gate to the North Gate as quickly as possible. Keeping all this in mind—you’ll get some of the best people-watching in the city up on Guemjeong.
I’ve only been in Busan two months—and I’ve been on the mountain most of my weekends. There are enough trails and sights here that it could take a whole year just to explore them all. In addition to the main paths—little capillary trails knife their way through the thick growth of mostly pines all up and down the mountain. These trails will lead you everywhere from massive ravines, to quietly prattling mountain streams, to the completely gorgeous and eden-esque valley between Busan and Gimhae.
However, if you hike along the wall to the northwest from the North Gate–you’ll eventually hit the highest peak Guemjeong has to offer (You’ll know when you get there.) From there—on clear days—you can get a pretty solid view of Gimhae to the west, and Jinhae to the southwest. Most of all, its nice to watch all of Busan’s indistinguishable high rises fade out into the East Sea. You get a pretty decent view of everything from Haeundae to just south of Seomyeon to Sajik.
Up there–at a height where the clouds are just beginning to kiss the treetops–you get a sense of what Korea truly is. There, you’re above all the neon and advertisements and superficial nonsense associated with life in the big city. You tower over the last 60 years of development–above all of the stress a robust society puts itself through–and see a 360 degree view of what really makes up the soul of this Peninsula. From there Korea is not the economic powerhouse nestled in its valleys; it instead looks every bit the quiet, peaceful mountainous country once known as “The Land of the Morning Calm.”
While the natural aspect is astounding, there is little in the way of historical fondness to be had. Whenever a war reached this mountain—it was always the last stand or the final insult. Trekking around Guemjeong is to be done for the spirit of the place. Because the passion and tenacity of the original men who gave their lives on the ridge 400 years ago is still alive today. It’s simply changed from war cries and chants to the smiling eyes and warm laughter of the people who instead find peace in the sunshine high up on the mountaintop.
Getting there: You can take any of the subway stops on Line One after Myeongnyun-dong and head east towards the mountain. You can't miss it. There are trails all along heading up. If you aren't up for the hike, get off at Myeongnyun-dong and walk about 20 minutes east until you get to the cable car which takes you to the top.