The empty rides of Yongma Land

Written by on December 26, 2013 in Arts

On the eastern mountain slopes of Seoul, hikers climb up to the summit of Yongmasan. But on the way, they may notice a strange sight just off the main path: a dilapidated amusement park, left for years to the cruelty of the elements.

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This is Yongma Land, a small amusement park formerly operating in Jungnang-gu. It’s closed, but hasn’t been forgotten — every day it’s visited by dozens of curious passersby, as well as an increasing number of creative types ranging from amateur photographers and cosplayers to professional production companies and K-pop idols. On weekend days through all seasons, the park is overrun with curious visitors, mystified by the haunting mood of this closed park.

On my first visit to Yongma Land last year, I entered the grounds cautiously, unsure if I was really allowed here. There were a fair amount of other people already there, none of whom were paying me attention. Who were they? Why were there so many of them? Were they there for the same reason I was, just to look around? Did they have permission, or was permission not required?

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There were many hikers wandering through the grounds, probably remembering back to a day that this park was still active (but probably not much more active than it currently is). There were even many young children with them, who all seemed content to play around on the rides despite the lack of electricity to keep them running.

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I gradually began to feel more comfortable, as it was apparent that we weren’t forbidden from exploring this surprising park. The rides were all shut down, but that meant no lineups, no distractions from appreciating them on a pure aesthetic level or taking pictures.

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Well actually, despite the intimidating “NO TRESPASSING” sign out front, property owner Youn Seong-gu openly welcomes visitors. With the help of my friends Jaeun and Jaeeun, I managed to talk to Mr Youn to learn more about his park.

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It turns out, Yongma Land originally closed its gates due to a lack of profitability. But Mr Youn still maintains a business on the property, renting it out to film productions. Individual visitors are also welcomed for a fee of 5000 won.

Mr Youn can be found on most days in his office in the two-storey orangish building in the background in the above picture. Paying visitors may also use the washroom inside the building, which also frequently doubles as a makeup studio/changing room for some of the more elaborate projects going on in the park. Also, be sure not to miss the roof, which has an excellent view of the whole park.

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They still take care of the park, maintaining the grounds and making sure everything’s as safe as possible, but otherwise they allow the rides to succumb to the elements naturally, within reason. They clean rides but do not repaint anything, so you can see entropy in action. Unfortunately the Sailor Moon figure seen above has since broken off and been damaged. Where nature has been allowed to set in, a beautiful effect is created.

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Some of the rides were in better shape than others. I think this disco ride could run again someday. Does it look familiar? It could be that it’s a popular enough attraction at rides in amusement parks across Korea. Or you could be remembering it from the Crayon Pop video “Bar Bar Bar” which was filmed here.

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Yongma Land gets around 80 to 100 visitors per week, with Sunday being their busiest day. Mr Youn says with 40 people in the park, it may feel crowded, but it really isn’t compared to if the park were in actual operation.

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Ever since “Bar Bar Bar,” they’ve had an upswing in visitors to the park, as well as since Baek Ji-young’s ballad “Hate” which was filmed here last fall. The park has also hosted Shinee, Sani, and numerous TV shows and film productions. You can see Yongma Land in the kids’ program Thunderman, and next year it will feature in the movie 표적. One film director even came all the way to Japan to scout the location, although Mr Youn doesn’t know what’s happening with that. Mr Youn maintains his own YouTube channel where you can see some behind-the-scenes footage of various productions.

The grounds of the park, although fairly small, hide a lot of little surprises and interesting photo ops. Yes, you’re allowed to pose for photos on the rides. Mr Youn says he has never stopped anyone from playing on the rides, but if anyone does anything too dangerous he will intervene. They haven’t had any accidents so far, but everyone should be careful in order to maintain this spotless record.

The merry-go-round, despite the canvas roof looking to be in bad shape, can still rotate, and its lights can still be turned on. Mr Youn loosened the chain so that it’s easier to turn with a bit of physical force. Some of the other rides can still spin or swing, so if you want to move one, move it carefully with respect.

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I met the only other two foreigners there on my first visit, a Vietnamese couple living in Seoul who had found out about this site and come to visit it. We toured around the park together before going to one of the many restaurants catering to hikers at the bottom of the path for food and makgeolli. Although the majority of visitors are Koreans, there are more and more foreigners coming to Yongma Land.

Mr Youn says it can be difficult communicating with them, and he’s had trouble explaining at times that there is an entry fee. So I encourage any non-Koreans who go here to take the trouble to track him down, make sure he receives his payment, and thank him kindly. Respect that this is still private property, and not just trash to be broken. And have fun.

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Yongma Land is “open” throughout the year, and it’s interesting to go back and revisit it in a different season to see how it changes. Visitors are welcome early in the morning into the evening, and visiting at night is possible with prior permission. You can also call ahead and pay a bit extra to have them turn on the lights, including the impressive lighting on the merry-go-round which is still operational.

When you arrive, you should go to the side gate, not the one under the big castle entrance. If there is nobody there taking money, you can call the phone number posted at the gate to reach Mr Youn, although be prepared to speak Korean.

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This is a very rare opportunity for Seoul residents to come and witness the strange aesthetics of a closed amusement park left to nature, something you’re not likely to legally find in many other parts of the world. Yongma Land is a good, safe location to explore some very powerful artistic themes, or take goofy pictures of yourself and your friends on old amusement park rides. Just make sure you bring a little bit of money to get in.

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About the Author

Jon Dunbar

Jon Dunbar is a former editor and staff writer for Korea.net. His first visit to Korea was in summer 1996 when he was a teenager, and he returned permanently in December 2003. He is involved in the Korean underground music scene and has supported local musicians through writing, photography, and occasionally planning events. He has been blogging for more than a decade, mainly on music, urban exploration, and his cats