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Yeoju City

Tour the history-rich area where rice first grew on the peninsula.

Yeoju City (여주시) lies on the southeastern edge of of Gyeonggi Province (경기도; Gyeonggi-do). South Korea recognizes Yeoju for two things.

  1. Its farmlands were some of the first to cultivate rice on the Korean peninsula.
  2. And the city birthed and holds the tombs for some of Korea’s most important leaders.

In 2013, Yeoju was the last county to ascend to “city status” in South Korea.

The Stats
Yeoju City​
A picture of a Joseon Dynasty era boat anchored in the Han River near the city of Yeoju in South Korea.
Though Yeoju City is one of the smallest in Gyeonggi Province, it's holds some great historical treasures.

Bike Paths

The Hangang Bicycle Path enters Yeoju City via Yangpyeong County (양평군; Yangpyeong-gun) in the north. It follows the South Han River (남한강Namhangang) through the center of the city.

When the bike path exits Yeoju, it leaves Gyeonggi Province and enters North Chungcheong Province (충청북도Chungcheongbuk-do). Chungju City (충주시; Chungju-si) carries the last leg of the Hangang Bicycle Path.

Geography

The South Han River (남한강Namhangang) divides Yeoju in half. While hills and waterways dot the region, a relative flatness spreads over the territory.

Along with its neighbor Icheon (이천시), Yeoju sits in a basin between the Taebaek (태백산맥), Charyeong (차령산맥), and Gwangju (광주산맥) Mountain Ranges.

The southern banks of Yeoju City run flat. Helpful for farmers and bicyclists!

The area south of the river hosts Yeoju’s downtown and most of the flat farmland. Hills and mountains cover the region north of the river, including Dang Mountain (당산; Dangsan), the county’s tallest, reaching a 648-meter peak.

Because of the Han River’s past pollution problems, the area is a water source protection zone. Like all other upstream counties and cities, this restricts development on rivers and restricts harmful farming practices.

Economy

Yeoju makes its living in the fields. It’s farmlands cultivate rice, sweet potatoes, peanuts, peaches, and pears.

What’s the county’s cash crop? Rice. It accounts for fifty-nine percent (59%) of its total output.

Because of Yeoju’s historical claim to be the first region in Korea to grow rice, they promote their rice as the King’s Best (대왕님표).

Small Town

Before ascending to its “city” status, Yeoju was a small town. No movie theater, no high school testing sites. Even its fire department was an offshoot of it’s Icheon’s (이천시).

Though theaters and outlets recently opened, Yeoju’s downtown remains small. How small? It would take just under fifteen (15) minutes to walk down main street (새종로; Saejong-ro).

History

While Yeoju is a small city. But it’s lands birthed both remarkable people and achievements.

Birth of a Staple

Yeoju claims to be the first spot where farmers cultivated rice on the peninsula. They posit during the Neolithic age, around 3,000 BCE, traders crossed the Yellow (West) Sea from China with rice. They sailed down the Han River and planted their stalks near Yeoju.

From Yeoju, rice spread throughout the peninsula. It became the staple food and ancient currency for Korea’s Three Kingdoms.

During the Joseon Dynasty (조선; 1392 ACE ~ 1897 ACE), various kings invested in Yeoju. Why? The area, along with neighboring Icheon, generated the most and best quality rice.

Strategic Position

Around 100 ACE, one of Korea’s three ancient kingdoms built Pasa Fortress (파사성; Pasaseong) two-hundred-and-fifty (250) meters above the South Han River atop Pasa Mountain (파사산; Pasa-san).

(Some believe King Pasa (80-112) of the Silla Kingdom built the fortification. However, Silla didn’t yet control the area.)

Over the next thousand years, various kingdoms used the fortress’s walls to defend against invaders along the Han River.

During the Imjin Wars in 1592, a general in the Joseon Dynasty’s army attempted to use the fortifications to stave off Japan’s rapid ascent towards Hanseong (Seoul).

Today only the low-lying, 943-meter circumference of the fortress’s stone walls remain. Hikers can follow trails up Pasa Mountain and tour their remains.

The tomb of King Sejong in Yeoju, South Korea.
The tomb of Korea's greatest leader, King Sejong (조선세종), lies in Yeoju City.

Home of Fame

Yeoju can claim a few famous sons and daughters as their own, including:

  • King Sejong (조선세종) — Korea’s most famous ruler and 4th King of the Joseon Dynasty.
  • King Hyojong (조선효종) — 17th King of the Joseon Dynasty.
  • Yi Saek (이색) — a Joseon Dynasty scholar.
  • Eight queens of the Joseon Dynasty, including Empress Myeongseong (명성황후).

An Empress’s Birthplace

Yeoju was the birthplace of Empress Myeongseong (명성황후; 1851~1895), the last empress of Korea.

The empress came from a the Yeoheung Min Clan (여흥민씨), known for producing aristocrats and government officials. However, the empress came from humble roots. Her father died at a young age and she only received a basic education.

King Gojong’s (대한제국고종; 1852~1919) father chose the empress to be his son’s wife because she nor her family held strong political influence. She was neutral.

However, during the end of the 18th century, Japan extended its reach into Korea. They bought off officials and fought a war over with China over control of the peninsula.

Empress Myeongseong’s voice grew fervently anti-Japanese. She criticized their influence and advocated stronger ties between Korea and Russian, Japan’s rival.

So In the 1895, Japanese agents infiltrated Gyeongbok Palace (경복궁; Gyeongbokgung) in Seoul and assassinated Myeongseong.

The murder of Korea’s beloved empress had the opposite intended effect, however. Korea’s patriotism swelled..

The Righteous Army

When Japan annexed Korea in 1910, groups of guerilla fighters calling themselves the Righteous Army (의병) assembled..

In Yeoju, guerrilla fighters hid in the hillsides. At opportune moments, they swooped down to attack Japanese officials and sabotage infrastructure.

The locals joined the resistance. They offered rice and shelter to the freedom fighters. Why? They never forgot who murdered their favorite daughter

Highlights

A few historical and modern landmarks pack into Yeoju’s city limits. Let’s explore!

Weirs

The territory under Yeoju holds all three (3) of the Han River’s weirs, built by the Four Rivers Project (4대강 정비 사업).

Not only do the weirs provide flood and drought control along the South Han RIver, you’ll find plenty of recreational and cultural spaces around each: river museums, coffee shops, bike paths, and more.

A picture of a cyclist riding through the snowy and rainy day near the Ipo-bo weir.
Ipo-bo (이포보; Ipo Weir) is one of three built by the Four Rivers Project within Yeoju's borders.

Eight Views of Yeoju

Yeoju designated eight (8) scenic views (여주팔경) in their city limits. They include national monuments and natural scenes.

The Royal Tombs

Just next to downtown Yeoju sits the Royal Tombs of King Sejong and King Hyojong (영녕릉). UNESCO designated them World Heritage Sites.

Why are the tombs in Yeoju? Didn’t the Joseon kings rule from Seoul? Yes. And, King Sejong’s tomb originally lay in the capital. However, in 1469 the royal family moved King Sejong’s grave to his birthplace, Yeoju.

King Sejong and the Magical Alphabet

King Sejong (조선 세종; 1397~1450) is the most famous and transformational ruler in Korean history. Why? The 4th King of the Joseon Dynasty (조선; 1392 ACE ~ 1897 ACE) helped create Hangul (한글), Korea’s written language system.

Why is it transformational? Before Hangul, Korea used Hanja (한자; 漢字). The written system adapted Chinese characters to Korea’s spoken language.

Chinese characters developed from pictures, or logograms. They don’t spell out or mimic human speech. Writers need to draw characters, which number in the tens-of-thousands.

In ancient Korea, only the wealthy sent their offspring to school to learn this complex writing system. And therefore, only the elite could read and write. Only the elite could advanced.

Hangul, however, is phonetic. It sounds like it looks. 아 sounds like “ah.” 보 sounds like “bo,” no matter the context. This simple system tore down the human-made walls of inequity and brought literacy to the masses. Today, around 97.5% of Koreans read and write Hangul.

A picture of the museum and exhibits in near the Tomb of King Sejong in Yeoju, South Korea.
The tomb of King Sejong contains a museum which displays his and his court's contributions to science and technology.
King Sejong and His Cabinet of Curiosities

Visit King Sejong’s Royal Tombs. In the museum’s courtyard, you’ll find a cornucopia of scientific instruments. Why?

King Sejong didn’t stop with revolutionizing Korea’s writing system. He believed science could advance Korea and humanity.

So, he supported inventors — including the peasant-born engineer Jang Yeong-sil (장영실) — and their inventions.

Along with a series of social reforms, Sejong the Great ushered in crucial advancements, including:

  • vital inventions, like rain gauges, water clocks, armillary spheres, and sundials.
  • a farmers handbook to improve crop cultivation.
  • reforming the astronomical calendar to better reflect Korea’s longitudinal position.
  • attempts to advance medical knowledge.
King Sejong’s Tomb

King Sejong’s burial grounds are a penultimate representation of a Joseon Dynasty-era royal tomb.

When you approach the site, you’ll find a sacred walking path that leads to a small house. The house holds a kitchen used to prepare sacrifices and a room to present them.

Beyond the house, a spherical hill rises. Centered on top sits a grave mound. Surrounding the mound perches two headstones. One for King Sejong. The other for his consort, Queen Soheon (소헌왕후). An octagonal lantern with decorated roof stands between the headstones.

Twelve stone pillars encircle the mound. Inscribed on each reads one of the twelve zodiac signs.

The tomb of King Sejong in Yeoju, South Korea.
The tomb of King Sejong contains a museum which displays his and his court's contributions to science and technology.
The Brief Rule of King Hyojong

King Hyojong (조선 효종; 1619~1659) ruled for ten years (1649~1659) during the Joseon Dynasty. Though brief, adventure, war, and betrayal highlighted his life and rule.

When Hyojong was seven-years-old, China’s Qing Dynasty invaded Korea. Why? The Joseon Kingdom were tribute states to their rivals, the Ming Dynasty. This removed an ally, trading partner, and source or revenue for the Ming.

What about the Joseon Kingdom? Well, they needed to pay tribute to their new masters. So Joseon’s King Injo (조선 인조; 1595~1649) kowtowed to the Qing emperor and handed over his two sons, seventeen-year-old Princes Hyojong and Sohyeon (소현세자; 1612~1645), the eldest.

For the next ten years, Hyojong and Sohyeon lived in the Qing court. They rode into battle against the old allies, the Ming. And they learned of the outside world.

Many European explorers visited the Qing Dynasty’s palaces. From then, the princes learned of the wider world’s religions, ideas, and technology.

So in 1645, when Sohyeon returned to Korea to ascend to the throne king, his head brimmed with new thoughts and insights. However, those modern sentiments angered his father, King Injo.

Some say father bludgeoned son to death with an Chinese ink slab, a gift from son to father. Others believe poison took the thirty-three (33) prince. Either way, a hasty burial ensued.

When King Injo died in 1649, Hyojong, the second son, returned home to become king. 

During his early years, King Hyojong beefed up his army, vowing to defeat his old captores, the Qing Dynasty.

But by the time his forces assembled, it was too late. The Qing conquered and absorbed the Ming Dynasty. He knew invading the mega-state would lead only to slaughter.

King Hyojong died in 1659 at only thirty-nine (39). His tomb rests in his hometown of Yeoju.

Empress Myeongseong Birthplace

Near the tombs of King Sejong and Hyojong lies the Birth Home of Empress Myeongseong (명성황후생가).

As mentioned above, Empress Myeongseong advocated for Korea’s sovereignty during Japan’s attempt to colonize Korea. Her assassination inspired natinoal pride and resistance.

In Yeoju, you can see her memorial hall, sculpture park, and birth home, which was constructed in 1687 for her aristocratic family. Today a memorial to the princess occupies her childhood study.

Silleuksa Temple

Silleuksa Temple (신륵사) was first constructed during the Silla Dynasty by the Buddhist thinker Wonhyo (원효; 617~686). It holds seven (7) national treasures and one (1) cultural relic.

The most famous artifact is a six-tiered pagoda constructed of bricks. The pagoda earned Silleuksa the nickname the “Wall Temple.”

Also notable, the temple sits directly on the South Han River. Why is that notable? Most Korean Buddhists built temples in the high solitude of mountains.

On Silleuksa’s grounds root six-hundred-year-old (600) juniper and ginkgo trees. Some believe the famous Buddhist monk Naong Hyegeun (1320~1376), who died at the temple, planted the ginkgo tree.

Other Scenic Sights

Check out a few more scenic sights in Yeoju.