Urban exploration is getting a higher profile these days, which is causing all sorts of problems for urban explorers and the places we visit. And yes, it exists in Korea, in that there is a wealth of places to explore, and more and more people are starting to take notice.
I’ve been urbanly exploring Korea since 2005, and for the first several years it was a lonely hobby. Nowadays, abandoned places are getting increasingly heavy foot traffic and photographers are bumping into each other on rooftops. Its inevitable that we will someday hear about a high-profile arrest or death, so if that doesn’t scare you off, here are 10 things you should do and 20 things you shouldn’t do.
Disclaimer: this site and this author do not endorse urban exploration for everyone, for both legal and safety reasons. However, if you’re going to do it anyway, wed much rather you do it right.
search for places to explore
There’s no shortage of abandoned places in Korea. They’re pretty easy to find, especially once you know what to look for. Basically, the more ground you can cover, the more you find. Get used to buses rather than taking the subway everywhere. Or, even better, drive your own scooter, motorcycle, or car. Also, don’t be lazy: walk and explore your own neighbourhood. Always try out different routes. Probably most of my discoveries are accidental due to wandering around or trying out a new route, sometimes even spotted on the way to other abandonments.
Here are some things you should be keeping an eye out for at all times:
-buildings with missing windows or doors, or windows with tangled curtains
-temporary fencing, which will often be plain sheet metal, or green striped blankets
-construction sites, which often have condemned buildings along the perimeter
-cranes, which are a good sign of construction
-poorer neighbourhoods higher up on the slopes of hills and mountains
The most exciting part of urban exploration is new discovery, finding something that hasn’t already been documented online or that you’ve never heard of before. A large part of urban exploring is about research and scouting, which can take a great deal of patience. So, go out and do your own thing and find new places to explore, because new discovery will be more meaningful to you than tracking down the locations of photos someone else took.
Please, please don’t be one of the dozens of people e-mailing me for directions to an abandonment you saw in my pictures. Asking for handouts without having anything to offer in return is considered a faux pas on many urban exploring websites, mainly because were all tired of sites blowing up (i.e. getting too much traffic or being closed up or demolished). Sorry if this all sounds elitist. It admittedly is, but if you want my assistance putting yourself in very dangerous situations, you have to earn your way in.
be noticed entering a place
Generally, people are suspicious of anyone not dressed as a worker entering an abandoned building. And this goes extra for foreigners in Korea. You will probably get yelled at, and more serious authorities might be called if you don’t show signs of compliance.
It’s impossible to guarantee nobody’s watching or about to come around the corner, so sometimes you just have to take your chances. If someone sees you, you just have to hope they don’t care enough to get involved or are too far away to do anything. Also, you should take extra care never to let kids see you entering any place where they might get the idea to go in themselves, because kids are good at dying.
However, being seen exiting gets a lot less attention, because:
-you’re leaving, not entering, so its too late for a witness to prevent whatever you were doing from happening
-you’re no longer confined inside and can easily escape, so it would be a lot more effort to confront you
-you already entered, so maybe you had permission to do that
-you dont need anyones permission to leave somewhere off-limits
As well, being seen inside by people outside is far less likely, mainly because abandoned buildings tend to be invisible to the general public (as I previously mentioned about how ugly striped green blankets seem to turn things invisible here).
scout out a place before entering
So, you’ve found something worth exploring. Before approaching, it’s a good idea to do a bit of preliminary scouting. Even if the front entrance is wide open, it pays to hike around a bit and get a lay of the land, identify the most promising structures, find the best entry points and escape routes, and figure out if there are any people who will be disturbed by your presence (see next entry for more on this).
A lot of places in Korea have security, but very few of them actually do the rounds, instead remaining at their post in the lobby or front gate or whatever. One time I decided to sit on a rooftop and enjoy watching an abandoned military base before entering, which was a good idea because while I was up there I saw a car full of soldiers drive around and do a very thorough search of every corner of the property. So, when there is active security, it makes your job a lot harder. Also, possibly, much more fun.
But you don’t scout a location just to identify risks: it might also make your job easier. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve gone to great effort to scale a fence to get in, only to find a much easier way just around the corner, a hole in the fence, or an unlocked door. Fences in Korea seem to mostly be for show, and rarely completely enclose a property, especially when they’re built on a slope (and this being Korea, everything is built on a slope). Even fences with razor or barbwire will have exploits that you can use to get in without having to risk getting cut up climbing over.
If you walk around the perimeter, you might find easier ways in, more concealed ways in, or potential escape routes. Take your time and find the path of least resistance.
disturb people in the area
People who go to abandoned neighbourhoods with me watch me go from hard-drinking lout to humourless mumbler. I keep my voice low in places like this, and I especially avoid laughter. Walk around like you’re not admiring the view, and only bring your camera out for a picture if you’re not being watched. When you’re in an abandoned place, you need to be aware of your presence and try to minimise it. Its best to always act like you’re being watched.
Especially if you’re a foreigner, you’re going to stand out. A common reaction I get in abandoned neighbourhoods is I’m so embarrassed for my country! Most Korean people can’t help being self-conscious under the gaze of westerners. Not to mention, English has a way of carrying extra far here, so its important to be mindful of your volume if you’re the kind of foreigner who takes issue with that, keep in mind the time to stand up for your right to be boorishly loud is not during a bit of recreational trespassing.
In and around many urban renewal zones, there are evictees, former residents, squatters, and so on still around who are struggling through one of the worst times of their lives, and you don’t want to add to their stress. Very few of them are interested in letting random strangers poke around through the ruins of their livelihoods (though in a more removed setting such as a photo exhibition, I think they would generally appreciate what we’re up to in hindsight). Urban exploring is by its nature very intrusive, so its best done with subtlety. Be mindful of the people in these areas and respect their right to privacy. If you’re confronted or caught doing something they don’t like, don’t cause trouble.
Don’t lie about what you’re doing there. It’s better to offer apologies and vague explanations that are hard to disprove (I was looking for a washroom, I was taking a shortcut, I was just hiking on the mountain up there, I was following a cat), while moving quickly toward the nearest exit. Your plausible deniability is a cloak of protection.
On the other hand, don’t give away too much information. Don’t offer ID or your real name unless the cops have you in custody, and even then its probably best playing dumb for a little bit. Don’t even try to explain urban exploring, especially here in Korea, because that wont help.
I’m asked all the time if I ever get caught. What does being caught even mean? Usually its just being seen by the wrong person and being told off for trespassing or taking pictures. The only way there will be consequences is if you’re being detained and you give up personal information. If you’re not, then leave, which either will force their hand to detain you or make them let you go. Don’t stick around, and don’t wait to be given permission to go. Note that I didn’t say Don’t get caught because that’s inevitable the longer you do this. Obviously it’s best not to get caught, but it’s not the end of the world when it happens, and it’s more important you keep your cool and get away cleanly. Yes, you’re probably technically legally allowed to be there, but urban exploration isn’t about what’s legal/illegal: for explorers, law does not dictate morality. The moral thing to do is turn tail.
On the other side of the coin, if you meet someone who doesn’t immediately chase you off, that’s an opportunity to learn more. Once in Ahyeon I ran into the last remaining resident, an elderly man who insisted I take pictures of him and his dogs. More recently, I ran into a guy at a huge pile of old vinyl LPs who was restoring some of the records for his own private collection. That was an interesting conversation.
ask for permission
There’s a saying that’s popular with urban explorers: Its better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission. Asking for permission is a risky gambit. If you ask and are refused, now this limits your future indemnity if you’re caught, because you cant claim ignorance of the rule you violated. The only time you should ever ask for permission is when you’re pretty sure you’ll get it.
get involved in eviction politics
The politics behind urban renewal are deadly, by which I mean people have died. The issue has become very politicised, and it’s been more prominent in Korean politics in recent years. In the struggle against large corporations and the government and police, activist groups have formed and can often be found in redevelopment zones. My heart goes out to them and I generally agree with their cause, but I’ll only get so close. I will continue to take pictures, and if my work helps make sense of their struggle, I’m fine with that.
A lot of this article is addressed to foreign readers in particular (when more Korean people start doing this they’ll have the chance to establish their own way of doing things). Most foreigners are on a visa that forbids political activity, so getting involved with an evictee movement could have legal consequences. As a foreigner its generally a bad idea to get involved in local politics for this reason, as well as the fact that you might not understand the issue and their stance well enough, and you might unintentionally work against their interests, or you might discover that you disagree with their overall politics I’ve met a fair share of anarchists in these organisations, so if you’re uncomfortable with that, you should probably stay away.
bring people you can rely on
In Access All Areas, the Holy Bible of urban exploring written by a Toronto explorer who went by the nickname Ninjalicious, he explains what kind of people make good exploring partners.
A lot of people who usually behave well do so because they’re mindlessly obeying rules and laws, not because they’re carefully considering which actions are helpful and right and which are harmful and wrong. People who think laws are more important than ethics are exactly the sorts who will wander into an abandoned area and be so confused by their sudden freedom and lack of supervision that they’ll start breaking windows and urinating on the floor. Law-free zone, right? That means they can do anything they feel like, right? Wrong. From what I’ve seen, people who don’t use the law as a substitute for their own moral compass tend to develop stronger consciences and greater self-discipline simply through greater use
I meet a lot of new friends through urban exploring, but its important to have consensus among everyone on ethics and safety. For this reason I like to know the people I explore with, so Ill have a better idea how they’ll react in unpredictable situations. There is a certain type of person, probably more common than us explorers, who would see a site of old relics and just want to smash the bejesus out of everything. And as Ninjalicious explains, you might be surprised which people turn out to be totally unreliable. Its a good reason to talk everything out ahead and know the person you’re going to risk your life with.
bring too many people
As you can imagine, it’s generally best not to go exploring alone. I think the perfect group size is three, with two and four also being manageable, five starting to get a bit unwieldy, and six being when the group starts to come apart and separate into smaller groups. Anything larger is inappropriate for abandonments, and once you reach a dozen people, the human impact of your group is just too large in terms of noise, safety, and group dynamics. These days there are even a few large group tours, which I highly recommend avoiding, because what the hell is that about?
That said, exceptions may be made for rooftops where authorisation is given or implied, and also tunnels that are large enough to accommodate the group. I much prefer draining in larger groups of 6-10, because you have a better chance of survival in case of CHUD attack.
Urban explorers generally follow the campsite rule: Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints. There are many, many reasons to do that, from respecting locations and avoiding criminal charges to setting the right example for less-experienced explorers and not spoiling it for future explorers who visit the location. And it’ll probably get demolished soon is not a good enough reason to take something, as I’ve seen owners come back on the eve of demolition and remove their remaining property. As a long-term strategy, not taking things is essential to urban exploration.
Some people might be tempted to take souvenirs, but that’s something I almost always discourage. If word gets out (usually if you brag about it online), it could damage your reputation in urban exploring communities and it could even damage the reputation of urban exploration in general.
Anyway, who wants to have a bunch of filthy clutter taking up room inside their home? You should probably just photograph it, put it back, and leave it there. I’m all for recycling, but I also see the value in letting some things lie in state.
You hear a lot of serious discussions among urban explorers about ethics, and the three things that come up the most are keeping proprietary secrets, stealing, and vandalism. Essentially, we practice the first one to prevent others from practicing the other two.
In Korea, there are specialised workers who are paid to terrorise evictees and force them out, using common tactics such as smashing stuff, graffiti, and dumping garbage. We don’t need to do their work for free, so that means no smashing stuff no matter how badly it already is smashed, no graffiti, and no littering. Likewise, there’s a time and a place for graffiti, but its an incompatible hobby with urban exploring, despite some shared activities and skills.
Also, urban explorers generally don’t break anything to get inside. That’s called breaking and entering and is a serious criminal offence. If you cant get in, then just keep looking for an unlocked door or window, and if you cant find one, come back another time. Urban exploring is all about using your wits to get inside, not brute force, and there’s a lot of satisfaction to exploiting and outsmarting security flaws. For this reason, its best also to avoid the term Breaking into which might give others the impression that you caused damage to get in or that its okay for others to do so.
While were on the topic, lets talk about lockpicks. I’ve gone exploring with people who have lockpicking tools, but at no point have they ever been put to good use; they were either ineffective or there were easier ways. Plus, being caught with lockpicking tools is extra bad. I wouldn’t qualify them as a don’t, but I do think they’re a waste of time for most of us.
Rooftopping is one of the more popular subgenres of urban exploring, and there are currently a lot of people actively rooftopping in Korea. Jason Teale wrote a good introduction to rooftopping in Ulsan, shortly before it became a pretty big trend all around Korea. He does a good job of laying out how to do this responsibly.
A lot of the ethics and precautions of urban exploration talked about here also apply to rooftopping, as its exceptionally easy for security to lock one door and fuck everybody who wants to go up there. As well, infiltration techniques you learn while exploring can literally open doors for you. And remember, you may still be visible to normal people while on a rooftop, so don’t be mistaken for a jumper.
get locked inside/outside
Ever walked through a door and let it shut behind you, only to have it lock behind you? Imagine if that happens to you when you’re on a roof or somewhere deep underground. I’ve had this happen to me both above and below ground, and its no picnic.
I’ve gotten myself locked on the rooftop of a movie theatre in Hongdae in a little room that has also trapped at least one other group. Worse, once I was locked underground in a chamber inside a subway vent. Fortunately I had mobile service and was able to text a nearby friend for rescue. If I wasn’t able to get that one tick of reception, I might still be down there now.
Testing a door to see if it locks requires two people to do it properly. If you’re alone, there’s no accurate way to see if a door will lock, because you wont know for sure until you close it behind you. If you’re with someone else, you can test it out much easier by having one person wait on the safe side to open it again, but make sure you both trust each other not to lock the other down there, The Cask of Amontillado style.
maintain three points of contact
A basic climbing rule is to always maintain three points of contact: two hands and a foot, or two feet and a hand. If you ignore this advice, say hi to Charles Darwin for me. In Hell.
go in storm drains during rain
One of the best-known rules in urban exploring circles is When it rains, no drains. Storm drains can be unpredictable, and flow is often controlled by valves that could open at any point, unleashing a wall of rushing water. This might even happen not during the rain, but shortly after to relieve overflowing reservoirs. Don’t even try going during the rainy season.
A few years ago, there was a party held in the mouth of an underground river feeding into the Han, and the organisers made a point of saying Come rain or shine. Long story short, it ended up raining, the storm drain performed its natural function, and a lot of hipsters got damp. It could have been much worse.
You shouldn’t even try going draining until you’ve read this guide put together by Predator, a member of Australia’s infamous Cave Clan. Yes, its even longer than this one. And there are no pictures. Still, a good read if you’re the kind of person who’s into this sort of thing.
take a bath in a flooded basement
See anything wrong in the picture below? I almost didn’t.
Basement flooding can be very tough to spot, sometimes evading detection until you splash down into an invisible pool of oily stagnant water. Whenever you go into the basement of an abandoned building, go slow, one stair at a time, with flashlight out and on, looking for any trash below you that appears to be levitating or for a water line on the wall. Also, if you’re with others, don’t crowd up on the stairs because you might have to stop suddenly, and that never works as a team effort.
This has happened before in my presence, and I almost ended up getting pulled in too trying to rescue my friend. Fortunately I had a third friend behind me who prevented me from sliding down the slicked stairs into the water.
Of course, because basements are awesome, so if its dry and you are careful, its not to be missed. I’ve found all sorts of cool things down there, from old retro eateries to noraebangs, but I’ve also had to back off due to water damage and flooding.
enter buildings undergoing demolition
Demolition in Korea is a weird process. Implosive demolition is rare. Instead, most buildings get chewed up by excavators over a long period of time. I’ve even seen skyscrapers taken down by a few excavators on the roof, slowly breaking the building apart from the top down. It sometimes offers up an opportunity that is tempting but too dangerous to accept.
There comes a point where a building is just too dangerous to enter. Once walls or other load-bearing parts of the structure have been knocked out, its just not worth exploring there; this is just a hobby after all, and its not worth the risk of serious injury or death. If there is rubble all around and rebar sticking out, this is not a safe place for a human, no matter how many precautions you may take.
If you enter, the building is going to keep standing or fall down you don’t get to choose.
Way back in 2008, when Hapjeong was in much worse condition, I encountered a bunch of Korean artists in an abandoned neighbourhood. They were moving all through the area, not in one big group. One of them climbed to the top of a half-demolished four-storey building and came out on the roof, at which point he saw me and my Canadian friend. He pointed at us and shouted in surprise at seeing foreigners. We were shouting back at him that he was standing on something unsafe.
Also note, in many abandoned neighbourhoods you’re likely to encounter floors that have been smashed up by scrappers to get at the ondol piping. I’ve yet to have an issue trusting my weight on such a floor. Despite how dangerous it looks, it can still hold a few people safely. Scavengers generally cant do enough damage to make a building into a collapse hazard.
follow vehicle tracks in debris fields
When visiting something undergoing demolition, its always reassuring to see excavators or their tracks, because that’s a sign that this place is safe for workers. Walking across a debris field can be very interesting if unpleasant, and its safer than it looks provided you stick to the paths created by demolition vehicles and beware of avalanche everywhere else.
This goes for debris fields as pictured below, as well as building demolition.
load up on gear
There’s a tendency for urban explorers to overdo it. For every slob with a clown mask, you’ll see one or two uber-elite explorers with big specialised photography backpacks, climbing harnesses and rope, headlamps, bear repellent, Bat-utility belts, rations, and so on. Sure, you can prepare for every possible situation, or you can prepare for three of the more common ones:
-having to make a quick getaway
-having to convince someone you’re not up to anything suspicious
-being able to swim to safety
Okay, that last one may not be so common, but its more likely than needing bear repellent.
The more gear you have to carry, the slower you’ll be. Abandoned places are not the place to play dress-up (says the guy with his own clown mask). You need good footwear and clothes that can afford to get messy or scuffed up. Like I always say, if you’re not getting messy, you’re doing it wrong.
All of my footwear is either thick-soled, steel-capped safety shoes or boots that will protect my feet from broken glass and rusty nails, or lighter shoes that are good for climbing. Don’t go exploring high heels (yes, I’ve seen that in Korea) and don’t wear sandals that won’t protect your toes.
Its best to dress unremarkably, with bland colours and nothing that attracts too much attention, like wild shirts or something showing a lot of skin. Look conservative, because if someones watching you and wondering whether to call the cops, it could be your hairy legs or heavy metal band shirt that sways their decision. Don’t like being judged on what you’re wearing? Then go drinking in Hongdae instead.
bring a tripod
Not that I didn’t have to say anything about bringing a camera, because these days everyone has a camera of some kind, whether you’re talking about a cell phone or a point-and-shoot or a more expensive DSLR. If you plan on using either of the latter two, the one thing that will elevate your photo quality more than anything is a tripod. Abandoned places tend to have challenging light conditions, and a tripod is the best way to hold your camera steady for a 20-second exposure.
It is a huge weight investment, so you’re probably best off bringing one along on a return trip, once you have an idea of what you want to focus on photographically. Its better to carry a tripod and not need it than to leave it at home and end up needing it.
use your flash
It’s rare you’ll ever actually need to use a camera flash. First of all, it makes for bad photos, and secondly, it may give away your position.
I would probably only use my on-camera flash if:
– I’m in a hurry
– I don’t really care about getting a good exposure for some reason
– I’m photographing a flat surface such as a sign, a wall, or a page in a book
– I’m in an absolutely pitch-black room and its daytime outside so I have no expectation that my flash will be seen
If a place really is so dark that there’s no light at all, you’re better off using a flashlight to do some light-painting. Speaking of flashlights
take a flashlight or two
A flashlight is a good light source for both you and your camera. I always carry one with me, in case a random doorway or a hatch or something catches my eye during my regular daily routine. I’ve made good use out of pocket-sized flashlights over the years, sometimes even while not exploring. If I’m going somewhere darker where I’m expecting to use a flashlight, that’s when I bring a second or third one along too. Its better to bring spare flashlights instead of spare batteries, because it sucks changing batteries in darkness or standing in flowing water.
Urban exploring is also a good time to try light-painting. Just set up your camera on a tripod for a long exposure (bulb is the best option) and sweep your flashlight over a scene until your cameras sensor has absorbed enough light. If you bring along coloured gels, you can get even more creative, or download a flashlight app to your phone that lets you modify the colour.
Smaller is better; no need for anything like a Maglite in Korea, as the only benefit to the heavy weight of that style of light is self defence.
Some urban explorers nerd out about flashlights way more than necessary. If you get bored sitting through camera gear discussions, just wait until you have to listen to a discussion of whats the best flashlight.
go at night if you don’t have to
The only reason you should go urban exploring at night is because of high human activity (workers, pedestrians) during the daytime at, through, or in the site or its entry point.
And if thats the case, have you considered going at dawn? Because nobodys usually around abandonments first thing in the morning.
Going in daylight is safer and allows for better pictures. Going after dark may get you past a security post or help you avoid people coming out of the subway or whatever, but it opens up a ton of other issues centered around visibility, not to mention safety. You’re much less suspicious casually walking through an abandoned area in the daylight than you are sneaking through at night. Plus, at night you’ll need a flashlight to get around, and that will make you extremely easy to spot unless you’re very good at light discipline.
take taint shots
A friend was telling me about a time he was exploring a hospital or something in the US years ago. He set up his tripod and took a nice picture of something. As he was finishing, his friend began setting up his own tripod right on the same spot, intending to get more or less the same picture.
If you take that shot Ill punch you in the taint, he threatened.
From this anecdote was born the term taint shot, meaning a photo that is basically aping someone elses photo.
I saw a recent Seoul tourism photo contest in which one of the top winners was a shot from a rooftop that had been visited by half the citys rooftop photographers, and there was nothing unique about it. If youre shooting something that everyone has pictures of, you need to do something that stands out or youre just taking another taint shot.
In all honesty you might as well get a taint shot anyway, just as long as you don’t pass it off as more than it is. It diminishes the original image, as well as your own work.
expose yourself to asbestos anymore than you need
Granted, any time you ride the subway, you’re probably exposing yourself to asbestos. Likewise if you live downwind of any demolition sites.
Asbestos is a problem for people who come into regular contact with it, and it can cause health problems down the road. You probably wont get cancer for going urban exploring one time, but its still an unknown and there have been explorers who have reported serious health problems after a few years of exploring. Asbestos is a carcinogenic microscopic filament that when breathed in embeds itself in your lungs and pretty well never leaves. It also gets in your clothes, which means that you may track it back home and expose family or pets to it as well unless you take precautions including changes clothes and showering thoroughly.
Many urban explorers have a respirator for some of the more extreme locations. This is basically a half-face mask that covers your mouth and nose. 3M respirators can be outfitted with a number of filters, but the appropriate one is the pinkish-purple P100. Filters must be replaced after a few months of use. Don’t be silly and assume particle masks or those Korean sick masks will do the same job: they don’t protect against microscopic particles.
Obviously wearing a respirator raises your conspicuous level, so its best to do it when you’re in a sealed building with windows and doors intact, which is where asbestos can be at its worst. I bought my respirator in preparation to get into Dream Cinema, a now-demolished movie theater at Seodaemun Intersection that had asbestos warning signs in the lobby, but when I got further inside with my respirator I discovered that the building was undergoing asbestos abatement, which even a basic respirator is useless against.
overreact to rumours
Years ago I visited Okpo Land, an abandoned amusement park on Geoje Island (now long gone). My online research dug up rumours on a German photographers website that the site closed after two deaths, the latter a six-year-old girl. I passed that on with my own site, and then I couldn’t find the original page again. Who claimed that? Was it even true? We’ve never been able to find any Korean-language information either. But now everyone believes this flimsy, unverifiable story, thanks in part to me.
Its fun to believe wild stories about these places, but the reality is often less exciting (if still interesting on the grounds that its real).
Without my help this time, similar stories have arisen about a well-known abandoned mental hospital, including one that the original owner committed suicide, or that the head doctor was insane and experimented on patients, or blah blah mysterious deaths. And of course it is rumoured to be one of Korea’s most haunted locations. Turns out none of those are true.
According to that link, the hospital is visited by about 1,000 people each year. How they know this is beyond me, but I can verify that the neighbours are agitated by the tourists coming to their area, and I’m even aware of one foreign photographer getting attacked by a neighbour while coming out of the hospital recently.
Oh yeah, and despite the obvious overlap in destinations, urban explorers and ghost hunters have very little in common. Urban explorers tend to be quite good at what we do, but there’s no such thing as a successful ghost hunter even the ones with their own TV shows are total failures. Until they prove that the afterlife consists of incorporeal existence haunting abandoned buildings, I have no respect for their hobby. Ghosts are not a thing, and they can’t hurt you. Better to worry about tangible threats such as security, or health and safety risks.
regret missed opportunities
Ever see something really cool, but you’re in a hurry so you promise yourself you’ll get back to it later, only to put it off until you eventually give it another try, only to find a big pile of rubble? I’m all too familiar with the feeling.
Its always good to approach a location with care, but when the conditions are right and the opportunity presents itself, you cant go wrong with taking advantage of the opportunity.
That door might not always be unlocked, and that building might get knocked down next week, so its best to go when you have the chance.
take advantage of holidays
If you’ve been in Korea at least half a year, you probably know about the two major holidays, Chuseok and Seollal. Although its diminishing, these two holidays see more than half the country return to their hometowns for a few days. This means that every bus and train is booked a month in advance, and the highways are clogged with apocalypse-level traffic heading away from Seoul, then back into Seoul at the end. So, while it might be tempting to travel around the country on a five-day weekend, its going to be hell unless you’re going against the flow.
These holidays are a great time to visit Seoul, when the capital region is a ghost town (figuratively, but literally in some parts). You can also be assured that a large chunk of businesses will be closed, including to some extent construction, demolition, and security companies, but these days efforts are being made to entertain foreigners stuck in Seoul. Some other countries hold doors open events in historic closed buildings; in Korea all we have are Chuseok and Seollal. Plan right and youll have the best opportunities for exploring, especially if you’re able to wake up early on the main day of the holiday.
give away too much information online
Its always tempting to be that one jerk who gives out site information indiscriminately, to capitalise on secrets and gain fans by acting as an information broker. Those people are popular among newcomers who are grateful for the handouts, and despised by more experienced explorers. They make it easy for anyone to find sensitive locations, which often leads to ruin.
I made the mistake once of bringing along a Vice reporter to an abandoned airplane in Namyangju, and he wrote up a big article that got a lot of attention, breaking the cardinal rule of never giving away location details, as well as the other cardinal rule against posting entry information. The sudden interest drew in foreign visitors from as far as Japan. Soon after, the owners who still ran an active restaurant next door felt so ashamed they had the historic 747 (the second ever built) demolished.
So, what information should be considered sensitive in order to preserve a site? Here’s a scale, from least sensitive to most sensitive:
0: Share anything. Everyone’s been, nobody minds if you go. These sites may be busted and old news, or they may have developed into businesses such as art galleries or parks that receive steady foot traffic already, and may benefit from it. Examples include Space Beam, Doha, Dongpirang, Gaemi Maeul, and Yongma Land.
1: Don’t give out entry information. Finding a way inside is part of the explore. If a site isn’t open to the public, this should be the bare minimum level. Everyone who goes there will have to solve the puzzle.
2: Don’t give away exact location/directions. This is not quite the faux pas that giving away entry information is. I try not to expose the exact location of sites, but sometimes its inevitable, such as if its right next door to a national landmark that finds its way into your pictures.
3: Don’t give away the name of the location. In some cases, just the name is enough to alert others to where you are. For instance, if I said Pacific Glass, you’d be able to locate the abandoned factory in Yongin, and if you had a time machine you could even get inside. Instead of names, its fun coming up with nicknames for places (some of mine have included Gangsters Paradise, Double Dragon Alley, and Golden Doghouse), or an overly pretentious phrase that expresses something about the site (which have for me included What Lies in the Shadow of the Statue, Memoirs of a Gisaeng, and Let the Buddhist Temples in this Country Crumble Down).
4: Censor/exclude pictures. Pictures that have signs or names or building names can give away information to someone willing to do the research. If a location is especially secret, I would be careful in posting anything like that. Most of the time, I don’t bother that much, because that information’s not visible to search engines. And I don’t want to totally snub my readers.
5: Don’t give away the name of the city. If a location is that sensitive, even the city name should be considered sensitive. I can tell you that I’ve been to an abandoned Buddhist temple that still had all its shrines and statues, but you wont get to hear which city it was near, because its just too valuable and asking to be looted/smashed. Ill take close friends to an abandoned laboratory that still has well-preserved specimen jars filled with a variety of dead animals, and on the way Ill tell them not even to mention which city were in.
6: Keep it offline. If a place is really, really sensitive, its best to keep it offline until after its status changes, either due to demolition or renovation. This is best done when you could get in serious trouble; the only locations I’ve explored that are in this category are military.
Also, it’s always good to share information about security presence, or health and safety hazards.
set a bad example/ruin it for everyone
My advice wont protect you from all injury or trouble, but as long as your ethics are intact, you cant be criticised for bad luck. You’re protected by having all these rules and ethics to fall back on. Keeping injuries/deaths/arrests down, as well as encouraging good behaviour, will keep us off the authorities and the public’s radar.
The Korean Internet community has a way of taking up causes and going all out against whoevers involved. Some day in our future, a variation of the headline Foreigners act irresponsibly in an abandoned place will exist. It will be bad to be one of those foreigners. It will be almost as bad to be mistaken for one of them. So, dont be the weakest link.
For this reason, I’m always trying to foster urban exploration among Korean people, because I don’t want this to become a white people thing here.
network and share responsibly
By all means don’t let the secrecy and paranoia stop you from sharing. Our ultimate goal is to show off our pictures and stories and entertain people. Doing this responsibly is something everyone needs to learn.
For years my photos were mostly enjoyed by people outside the country, and that was safe because none of them could visit the sites. Then traffic started increasing, mainly at Okpo Land at first, leading to an increase in vandalism. My last visit to the park, certain areas were covered in anti-Korean graffiti.
For anyone serious about urban exploring, I recommend UER.ca, a Canadian-owned but international online community for urban explorers. The site at its best is a resource for urban explorers, and at its worst a circle jerk of vanity and praise. Despite all the weird drama that goes on there, its a great place to get solid information on photography and the tradecraft. Its also a great way to network with explorers all around the world (albeit mostly American and Canadian). So if you’re a foreigner in Korea, you can have the opportunity to network with explorers in your hometown, and when you go back, they’ll be happy to have another experienced explorer around (which you likely will be after a bit of time exploring Korea).
When it comes to sharing your work, its probably best to avoid expat message boards like ESL Cafe and Waygook. The administrator of Waygook told me they’ve decided that they cant support a potentially illegal activity, and they’re probably right. And ESL Cafe is just chronically stupid.
One other place to go is Flickr, where I run a Korean UE group. Flickr is a good place to find info about locations because a lot of non-explorers find abandonments and post a lot of revealing information. Its not quite the community that UER is though.
We also have a Facebook group, but its barely active and doesn’t serve a lot of good, though at least its a place for people with a similar interest to congregate for some unspecified endeavour in the future.
Couchsurfing also is good because many well-travelled couchsurfers have done their fair share of urban exploring. Then again, you might end up with a hippie staying on your couch for a week.
As well as these there’s also 500PX and Google+ and whatever other SNS websites allow photo uploads. Id also love to see more UE pictures on Korean websites.
Urban exploring is not for everybody. Now that you’ve read all this, you might have a better idea about whether its for you and where to get started, and you’re probably better suited for the challenges of Korea’s many forbidden places. Even if you disagree with me on some points, at least you’re aware of the conversation. So, think you have what it takes? Now’s the time to go out there and find out.