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Hotel witnesses Korea’s tumultuous modern history

Posted May. 09, 2013 04:44,   


On Sept. 20, 1985, families who were separated during the Korean War made historic visits to their hometowns for the first time since Korea was divided. Thirty-five from South Korea went to Pyongyang, and 30 from North Korea came to Seoul. The South Korean venue of the tearful family reunions was the Sheraton Grande Walkerhill hotel. Since then, many other inter-Korean events have taken place at the hotel. Away from downtown areas and on the foot of Mount Acha that overlooks the Han River, the luxury hotel’s location made it an ideal place for security.

The hotel’s villas scattered in the nearby forest were politicians’ favorite places for secret meetings. On July 17, 1999, then President Kim Dae-jung and Prime Minister Kim Jong-pil had a secret meeting at one of the villas. The news of the meeting was belatedly known to the public and made headlines on newspapers. In April 1997, Kim Hyeon-cheol, a son of then President Kim Yeong-sam, also used one of the villas to meet Kwon Yeong-hae, the then spy chief, after testifying at a parliamentary hearing on corruption scandals involving the now defunct Hanbo Group.

The hotel is also famous for its restaurant building in the shape of an inverted triangle. Designed by Kim Soo-geun (1931-1986), one of Korea’s most famous architects, the restaurant is the country’s first exposed concrete building. The “Walkerhill Shows,” which were discontinued late last year, had long been the hotel’s icon. On April 8, 1963, the dinner shows began with U.S. jazz singer Louis Armstrong’s concert marking the hotel’s opening. Blue-eyed dancers in feather dresses performed dazzling dance shows, gaining big popularity until the mid-1990s.

This year, the hotel marks the 50th anniversary of its opening. It was built under a government-led project aimed at attracting U.S. soldiers who used to go to Japan for vacation. The construction project took 18,000 man-days, mobilizing convicts at Army prisons, Navy and Air Force engineers and government bulldozers. The hotel was named after Walton H. Walker, the first the first Eighth Army commanding general who was killed in a car accident during the Korean War. In 1964, Shin Seong-il and Eom Aeng-ran, South Korea’s most popular actor and actress of the time, held their wedding ceremony at the hotel. In 1966, then U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson stayed at the hotel during his visit to South Korea. More than just a hotel, the Walkerhill is a witness of South Korea’s tumultuous modern history.

Editorial Writer Koh Mi-seok (mskoh119@donga.com)