- Its farmlands were some of the first to cultivate rice on the Korean peninsula.
- 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.
- To the north: Yangpyeong County (양평군; Yangpyeong-gun).
- To the south: Chungju City (충주시; Chungju-si).
- To the east: Wonju City (원주시; Wongju-si).
- To the west: Icheon City (이천시; Icheon-si).
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.
Yeoju makes its living in the fields. Its 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).
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).
While Yeoju is a small city. But its 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. 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.
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.
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 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 Russia, Japan’s rival.
The murder of Korea’s beloved empress had the opposited 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.
A few historical and modern landmarks pack into Yeoju’s city limits. Let’s explore!
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.
The Royal Tombs
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.
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 an excellent 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). Octagonal lanterns with decorated roofs stand between the headstones.
Twelve stone pillars encircle the mound. Inscribed on each reads one of the twelve zodiac signs.
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 Injo bludgeoned Hyojong to death with a 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
As mentioned above, Empress Myeongseong advocated for Korea’s sovereignty during Japan’s attempt to colonize Korea. Her assassination inspired national 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.
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.
Other Scenic Sights
Check out a few more scenic sights in Yeoju.