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Mungyeong Saejae Pass

A famed mountain pass crossed by centuries of travelers and scholars.

Mungyeong Saejae Pass (문경새재) was a critical point along the Great Yeongnam Road, which connected the capital of the Joseon Dynasty (1392 ~ 1897; 대조선국) to the kingdom’s southeastern regions.

Why critical? The Sobaek Mountain Range (소백산맥), which runs from Korea’s east coast down to the bottom of the peninsula, forms an unavoidable obstacle. Before tunnels and aircraft, ancient travelers had to cross this treacherous range.

Through the Mountains of Juheul (주흘산; 1,108 m) and Joryeong (조령산; 1,026 m), the Mungyeong Saejae Pass offered the best crossing point.

The eastern view from Ihwa Pass in Mungyeong City, South Korea.
Locals refer to the Ihwa Mountain Pass as Mungyeong Saejae because of its proximity to the historic mountain pass.

This “best crossing point,” however, wasn’t an uphill jaunt. The highest ascent along the cross-country road, the pass’s name, “saejae,” implies “a pass so high, even birds (/sāe/; 새) cannot cross.”

Great Yeongnam Road

During the Joseon Dynasty, the Great Yeongnam Road (영남대로) was the primary route from the capital (Hanyang, 한양; present-day Seoul) to the southeast Yeongnam Region (영남 지방; today’s North (경상북도) and South (경상남도) Gyeongsang Province).

The road started at the gates of Gyeongbok Palace (경복궁; Gyeongbokgung), where the king lived. It passed through the capital city’s gates and sailed down the Han River to the Sobaek Mountains outside Chungju.

Great Yeongnam Road then wound just under Sobaek Range’s Joryeong Mountain (1,026 m) over Mungyeong Saejae Pass (642 m).

Over the mountain range, the route dropped into the Nakdong River and sailed south to the port city of Donghae (동래; Busan), on the southeastern tip of the peninsula.

By “ancient roads,” don’t picture cobblestone Roman paths, speeding chariots vast distances. Think of Great Yeongnam Road as stitched-together hiking trails. Impractical for carts. Perilous for two-leggers.

Weary Travelers

So who traveled Great Yeongnam Road? Scholars and warriors.

Studious Sights

Korea’s Joseon Dynasty era employed a rigid class system. Cheonmin (천민) occupied the bottom rung and performed unsightly jobs like butchering, shoemaking, and tricking. Yangban (양반) were the elites who owned land and served in high-ranking military or bureaucratic positions.

However, unlike Europe, one wasn’t born into this high class. Yangban needed to pass an extensive civil extensive exam known as gwageo (과거), proving they could read and write Hanja (한자, 漢字; Chinese-Korean characters) and recite classic literature.

The Yangban studied for years in private Confucian shrines (slash) preparatory schools known as Seowon (서원). The Yeongnam Region held over 43 of these institutions.

Seonbi

Seonbi (선비) was a venerated subclass of Yangban. Like them, they studied and passed the gwageo to attain seats next to royalty and in elite institutions.

Unlike the Yangban normies, however, Seonbi gave up the material in pursuit of knowledge. They also fought for equality among classes.

In traditional Korean mask dances, you’ll find archetypal representations of the greedy Yangban and benevolent Seonbi. However, both classes needed generational wealth to keep them out of the fields and in the classroom.

Fly Like a Bird

Many Yangban elite traveled from Gyeonggi Province near the capital to Yeongnam Region’s Seowon preparatory schools to study for the gwageo exams. That meant crossing the Mungyeong Saejae Pass.

This treacherous climb came to represent another tribulation for the venerated Seonbi to pass in order to attain their almost divine status. 

Korea’s most famed scholars — Yi Hwang (이황; ₩1,000 bill) and Yi I (이이; ₩5,000 bill) — conquered Mungyeong Saejae Pass in their lifetimes and wrote of its beauty.

The Great Barrier

While Mungyeong Saejae Pass gained fame as a passageway, it also earned infamy as a strategic military pinch point.

Three Kingdom Impasse

During Korea’s Three Kingdoms Period, three kingdoms fought for control of the peninsula.

Goguryeo held the mightiest military and struck first in a centuries-long tussle. They swooped south and conquered the Baekje capital (Wiryeseong; 위례성) and took control of the Han River.

While the Baekje retreated to the Geum River, Goguryeo advanced southeast towards Silla in the Yeongnam Region.

Though Silla’s army stood little chance against their northern aggressors, they had one advantage: geography.

Silla held Goguryeo back by cutting their armies off at the Sobaek Mountain Range’s rugged passes, including the Mungyeong Saejae. This preserved Silla’s autonomy long enough to join up with the reeling Baekje forces and strike back.

Less than a century later, with the help of the Chinese Tang Dynasty, Silla conquered Goguryeo and Baekje, for the first time unifying the Korean peninsula under one banner.

Japanese Invaders

After unifying Japan in 1592, Toyotomi Hideyosh dreamed of “unifying” Korea and large swaths of China under his rule. Thus began the Imjin Wars (1592 ~ 1598).

May 23, 1592, the Japanese military laid siege to Dongnae (Busan) on the southeastern tip of the peninsula. Two days later, they took the port town, killed every two and four-legged creature in sight, then began a 7,000-strong march north to Hanseong (Seoul).

Which road did the troops travel? The Great Yeongnam Road, of course.

By June, the Japanese soldiers scorched every town in their path, hopped over the Mungyeong Saejae Pass, and arrived in Chungju.

There, the famed General Sin Rip (신립), mustered the decimated Korean troops and fought valiantly near Tangeumdae Park.

The battle didn’t last long. Japanese archers wiped out Korea’s troops, and the defeated Sin Rip drowned himself in the South Han River.

Japan continued their conquest north, taking Hanseong and control of the peninsula soon after.

However, China’s Ming Empire joined the fight and a Korean insurgency rose. After years of stalemate, Japan retreated to their home islands.

Three Gates Too Late

Some military experts believe, like Silla a thousand years earlier, if Sin Rip attacked Japanese troops at Mungyeong Saejae Pass, he could have halted their rapid advance. This would have given time for China’s Ming Dynasty troops to rally south and defend the Joseon capital.

So once the Imjin Wars ended, succeeding Joseon Kings installed the Mungyeong Gateways (문경관문) along the Saejae Pass. These three gates include:

These three layers of protection never saw battle, however. When Japan again occupied Korea (1910 ~ 1945), they used coercive diplomacy and assassinations. No invasion.

Provincial Park

In 1981, North Gyeongsang Province dubbed the pass Mungyeong Saejae Provincial Park (문경새재도립공원). Today, the park holds a variety of tourist museums, hiking trails, and landmarks (read more).

In addition, the ancient pass holds such a venerated place in Korea’s history, locals often referred to the road and tunnel on top of nearby Ihwa Pass as Mungyeong Saejae.