Why Is Itaewon?

Why has Itaewon historically been the village of foreigners? Why was the U.S. military base positioned there? We cover some of Itaewon’s weird and dark secrets that go back hundreds of years.

Joe accidentally said Japanese troops occupied Itaewon during the Gapshin Revolt. He meant to say Chinese troops.

More research after the recording, we’ve found more evidence and arguments that the original Itaewon village didn’t start at what is now Yongsan High School and gradually migrated to where Itaewon is now. It looks more like the original village was where Haebangchon straddles the military base. The Japanese forcibly evicted the original Itaewon village, and they resettled in the Hamilton Hotel area in 1906.

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Map for reference



  • Started in Goryeo times as a transportation hub that lent horses to travelers
    • Good entry point into the capital that was convenient to the river and going south, it connected (via ferry) to the roads to Gwacheon and Suwon–the main roads south
      • Other transportation hubs: Uijeongbu and Wangshimni
    • Early mention of it when King Gongmin (14th century) traveled through there on the way to Andong
      • Mentions of spring waters and a large pine tree (likely the current site of Yongsan High School or in front of it [Chicken Plus]) and that is where the main station site was
  • Joseon Era
    • Became more important because the capital was moved to what is now Seoul
  • Embassies started establishing there
  • Inns popped up, and Itaewon was kind of known as one of the main stops for travelers in and out of the capital
    • Free lodging, meals, and even healthcare (the “won” in Itaewon, like 역원)
      • Other “wons” you may have heard of – Indeogwon (Anyang), Janghowon (Icheon), Jochiwon (Sejong City), Sariwon (North Korea)
    • “Itae” refers to the pear blossoms
    • But it also could refer to placentas (research more) (異胎圓) by combining Dayi (異) and Placenta (胎), meaning that it was the place where the women of Joseon who were unwillingly received the seeds of Waein during the Imjin Invasion.
    • Japanese residence Ita-in
    • Also the name for a woman who gave birth to a Japanese child via rape during the Imjin Wars
    • Generally, over the years, the Chinese name has changed, but it’s always been called “Itaewon”
  • Commercial district because of the transportation
    • Also, unlike other similar sectors, the government didn’t control much of it. It was mostly controlled by the private sector.
  • Foreigners started living there because of the transportation and embassies, mainly Japanese and northern peoples (Khitan and Jurchen)
    • Known because of records of crops of 여뀌 (Water Pepper)
  • First actual village formed around what is now the Itaewon Jugong Apartments
  • King Sejong
    • Poor people started settling around there
  • Post-Imjin Wars
    • Became a refuge for Buddhist nuns who were raped by the Japanese
      • Started its history as a dumping spot for disgraced women
    • 환향녀 – sullied women who returned after being captured in the Imjin Wars (1592) and 병자호란 Qing subjugation (1637)
      • Literally means “woman who returns to her hometown”
      • Failing to maintain chastity was a crime against ancestors
  • Largest cemetery in the city on Itaewon Hill until 1937
    • Tombs couldn’t be built within the four mountains of the city (at least for commoners)
    • Became too full and was moved–but of course haphazardly
    • During residential development, there was no end to the exhumed skeletons
    • When people resettled after the Korean War, they were still finding skulls
  • Colonial Period


  • Japan built Yongsan military base (1906) after beating Russia
    • Qing troops stationed there briefly in the 1880s around the time of the Gapshin Revolt
  • Post-1945
    • 8th U.S. Army was stationed there
      • (2018) ⅔ had moved to Pyeongtaek
    • Haebangchon
      • Used as shooting range by the Japanese
      • Populated by three types of people
        • Returned from exile overseas
        • Fled from the North (Korean War)
        • Fled from other areas during the Korean War
      • Started occupying the shooting range and the buildings until the U.S. government evicted them. They then built huts over the shooting range.

  • (1960s-70s) Became an entertainment and military supply area–a base village
    • (1957) soldiers were allowed to exit the base for entertainment
      • “Texas Village”
      • Big size clothing stores
        • Tailors and shoe shops
        • Intentional — government was promoting its textile industry and exports
      • Clubs that prohibited Koreans, owned by Koreans
        • First jazz club
        • United Nations Club (1957)
      • The MPs were in charge of security more than Korean police
      • Became known as a dangerous area that respectable women would not dare to enter
    • Government built foreigner-only housing in Seobinggo-dong, Hannam-dong, and Ichon-dong 
      • (1970s) New embassies entered, and new luxury houses were built
      • Shopping district started in the 1970s boomed during the 1986 Asian Games and 1988 Olympics



  • Died down in the 1990s due to recession and crackdowns on adult businesses and crime
  • Gangnam, Sinchon, and Hongdae became popular
  • Even the military dared not venture into Itaewon

  • Hamilton Hotel (1973)


  • Halted many times because of financial problems
  • (1974) Assassination attempt on Park Chung-hee made Japanese tourists stay away
  • Popular rooftop pool
  • (2015) Remodeled
  • Seoul Central Mosque (1976)
    • First proposed by Seoul gov’t in 1970s to compete with North Korea diplomatically
    • Built with donations from Islamic countries, mainly Saudi Arabia
    • Over 40 years old and is in disrepair
      • Turkish gov’t has offered to pay 
  • (1990s) African immigration
  • LGBTQ center (1990s)
    • Originally centered around Nagwon-dong but became too slummy
    • (1995 or 1996) Tunnel – First gay bar
  • Hooker Hill
    • Brothels 
      • 1960s
        • (1961) Gov’t made it illegal 
          • Couldn’t enforce it everywhere
          • So informal areas were established to keep an eye on things. This included Yongsan, Yeongdeungpo Station, Yang-dong (in front of Seoul Station), Jongno 3-ga, Cheongnyangni Station
        • Backstreets of HBC and Samgakji Police Box from the entrance of Namsan Tunnel to the entrance of Itaewon
      • (1990s) crackdowns–only Hooker Hill and the Yongsan Station red light districts remained
      • (1999) article about Russian prostitution, saying it started in Sept 1998
        • Economic recession in Russia
        • Gangsterism and territorialism
        • Stabbing death in fight between two Russian women (1999) for crossing territory
    • 양공주 (putting this here to talk more about how women influence the history)
    • Grand Ole Opry
      • Samsook
      • Opened over 40 years ago
      • Held grudges against Korean men
      • Married four times and is a widow
    • Many women who left violent homes
    • These days some are saying they should be honored for bringing in foreign currency during the ‘70s and ‘80s


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