Wednesday, October 29, 2014

History Behind Seo Taiji's Sogyeokdong

[Cross-posted on Dramabeans]

Dear Korean,

Recently, Seo Taiji released a song called Sogyeokdong. From the music video and my limited Korean skills, I gathered that Sogyeodong must be a historical place. What exactly transpired there and what is the significance of the setting for Seo Taiji's music video? 

Curious person with poor Korean skills :(

Here is a simple rule for AAK!:  if you ask something about the new Seo Taiji song, your question will be published. First, let's listen to the music in question.


나 그대와 둘이 걷던 그 좁은 골목계단을 홀로 걸어요
I walk alone, on that narrow alley stairs that the two of us used to walk
그 옛날의 짙은 향기가 내 옆을 스치죠
The thick scent of the past sweeps by me

널 떠나는 날 사실 난...
On the way I left, actually I...

등 밑 처마 고드름과 참새소리 예쁜 이 마을에 살 거예요
I will live in this pretty village, with icicles on the roof and sparrows chirping
소격동을 기억하나요 지금도 그대로 있죠
Do you remember Sogyeokdong? It still remains the same

아주 늦은 밤 하얀 눈이 왔었죠
On a very late night, the white snow fell
소복이 쌓이니 내 맘도 설렜죠
As they piled on, my heart stirred too
나는 그날 밤 단 한숨도 못 잤죠
I could not sleep that night, not even a wink
잠들면 안돼요 눈을 뜨면 사라지죠
Don't fall asleep; it all disappears when we open our eyes*

어느 날 갑자기 그 많던 냇물이 말라갔죠
The stream that used to be so big suddenly dried up
내 어린 마음도 그 시냇물처럼 그렇게 말랐겠죠
My young heart, like that stream, must have dried up too

너의 모든 걸 두 눈에 담고 있었죠
In my two eyes, I carried everything about you
소소한 하루가 넉넉했던 날
The days when the small days were more than enough
그러던 어느 날 세상이 뒤집혔죠
Then one day, the world turned upside down
다들 꼭 잡아요 잠깐 사이에 사라지죠
Everyone hold on tight; it all disappears in a moment

잊고 싶진 않아요 하지만 나에겐
I do not want to forget; but to me
사진 한 장도 남아있지가 않죠
Not even a single photo remained
그저 되뇌면서 되뇌면서 나 그저 애를 쓸 뿐이죠
I can simply try, repeating to myself, repeating to myself

아주 늦은 밤 하얀 눈이 왔었죠
On a very late night, the white snow fell
소복이 쌓이니 내 맘도 설렜죠
As they piled on, my heart stirred too
나는 그날 밤 단 한숨도 못 잤죠
I could not sleep that night, not even a wink
잠들면 안돼요 눈을 뜨면 사라지죠
Don't fall asleep; it all disappears when we open our eyes*

*Translation note:  Although TK assigned "it all" and "we" as subjects in this sentence, in the original Korean lyrics it is unclear who is opening his/her eyes, and exactly what is disappearing. Because Korean language does not require a subject in a sentence, this type of poetic ambiguity is common.

*                   *                   *

As the questioner gleaned, Sogyeokdong [소격동, pronounced "soh-kyok-dong"] is an actual place in Seoul. Located within Jongno-gu [종로구], it is in the heart of the old Seoul, abutting the Gyeongbokgung [경복궁] palace on the east side. Together with Samcheong-dong [삼청동], Gahoe-dong [가회동], Jae-dong [재동], Gye-dong [계동], etc., it is a part of the neighborhood called Bukchon [북촌]. Because of its quaint narrow alleyways and well-preserved traditional Korean houses, Bukchon today is a popular tourist destination. 

Due to its central location, Sogyeokdong has been at the forefront of Korea's turbulent modern history. However, Seo Taiji did not choose to sing about Sogyeokdong simply for the sake of history. He actually grew up in the neighborhood, having attended the nearby Jaedong Elementary School (which is Korea's oldest elementary school, established in 1895.) In an interview, Seo said that he simply wanted to sing about his childhood, but doing so would have been impossible without touching upon the history he had seen. The result, in TK's estimation, is a more elegant expression of the sinister sense of fear and loss that permeated the experience of Korean children at the time.

Seo Taiji was born in 1972, which means he experienced his Sogyeokdong childhood in the early to mid-1980s. What was going on in Korea in the 1980s?

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

It is important to remember that, until late 1980s-early 1990s, South Korea was under authoritarian dictatorship. To be sure, the situation was better than North Korea's--but not by that much. In December 1979, General Chun Doo-hwan rolled tanks into Seoul, threatened the then-president Choi Gyu-ha at gunpoint, and later appointed himself to be the president. When the citizens of Gwangju protested the coup d'etat, Chun sent paratroopers to the city and murdered more than 600 people.

During Chun's dictatorship, the democratically elected National Assembly was no more than a shill. The true, shadow government was located in Sogyeokdong, under the name of the Defense Security Command. Growing up in the neighborhood, Seo Taiji likely could not help but notice the swirl of chaos surrounding the area.

Accordingly, in the music video for Sogyeokdong, one can see a number of historical tropes. The main boy character is wearing a military uniform, which is a standard issue in the 1980s. The dictatorship, in large part, justified its existence by playing up the threat of North Korean invasion. In order to instill constant fear, schoolchildren were required to take "military training" as a subject starting middle school. The boys would learn how to line up, march and handle a mock rifle, while the girls learned how to apply first aid. (Incredibly, "military training" remained as a high school subject until 2007.) 

Another scene of the music video shows the air raid drill: periodically, Koreans had to undergo the nighttime air raid drill, during which people were instructed to turn off all lights so that the incoming North Korean bombers could not see the targets below. (Or so the dictatorship told the people.) A modified version of this drill still goes on to this day in Korea, which tends to alarm tourists and foreign journalists into thinking that a war broke out between South and North Korea.

The Sogyeokdong music video also makes one direct allusion to a historical event. When the boy and the girl sit together on the stairs, one can faintly hear the radio speaking about 학원 녹화사업, or "School Greening Project." Like other dictatorial project names, the School Greening Project had little to do with planting trees around schools--instead, the "greening" was a code word for brainwashing. 

During the School Greening Project, college students who were involved in the democratization movement were forcibly drafted, i.e. randomly arrested and sent to military bases. There, the students were beaten and tortured until they agreed to serve as the government's spies within the democratization movement. It is believed that approximately 1,100 students were forcibly drafted during the School Greening Project; six were killed in the process.

Six college students who were killed during the School Greening Project.
The music video is not clear on what exactly happened, but it appears clear enough that someone in the girl's family is being taken away. One can see soldiers rushing to the girl's house, and there is a struggle. The lyrics of the song also allude to the event, as they repeatedly sing about disappearance, full stream running dry, and being left without even a single photograph.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Very interesting and saddening at the same time...

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. TK, you know you may very well be on a slippery slope, right? Haha. I wonder if more and more people are going to start asking about Seo Taiji songs with his new album having been released. Christmalowin is full of political commentary, and it's a lot more direct than it is in Sogyeokdong.

  4. Oh that's really interesting! I understood some of it and the koreans commenting on the video were trying to help explain it to the influx of confused foreigners's a pretty hard subject to explain/understand if one isn't proficient enough in either english or korean. I can't believe you answered my question though, never thought anything my high-schooler self asked would be academic or advanced enough for you to even look at :P

  5. Thank you for the post, I really enjoyed it. Last Friday a taxi driver, a very very old man, was telling me for half an hour about the central Seoul, its history, buildings and people. He also mentioned the Jaedong Elementary School that he attended. It was a very interesting ride and this article comes in so perfectly! :)

  6. Am I wrong, or should the third line start with "On the day I left you"?
    I like this song and the lyrics, so am happy to see some background from the Korean on the neighborhood.

  7. Thank you very much TK, I love this song so much, when I heard Seotaiji's version I knew this was not a simple song. Amazing job. I love "" too, even when I don't know what it really means. No wonder he is huge in Korea.

  8. is there any reason you didn't mention that 아이유 did this song also and released her version a few days before his?

    1. Because that's irrelevant for this thread, here TK is discusing the real meaning of the song "Sogyeokdong" which is a Seotaiji's song (Seotaiji wrote the music and the lyircs). The other version although good sounds just like a love story, but as you can see this song is not that simple. Both versions are good, but I prefer this one because it's the composer version, and sounds sadder and more desolate just like the history behind it.

  9. I've just watched Seotaiji's performing live this song at
    Incredible sound, incredible song, incredible artist. I could feel the sadness in his singing, the other 2 songs sound incredibly good too, this sounds like synthpop but still different, very unique, specially ''
    Thanks for this post.

  10. "...Sogyeokdong [소격동, pronounced "soh-kyok-dong"] is an actual place in Seoul."

    "Soh-gyeok-dong" (or "Soh-gyuhk-dohng") is the correct pronunciation. The middle syllable vowel is an YUH sound as in YUCK, and not a YOH sound.

  11. Here's a little Seo Taiji fan art

    Thanks for the informative walk through this song, AK.


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