What’s the deal with Nodeulseom Island (노들섬)?

Near Yeouido (여의도) in western Seoul (서울), there are three islands located in the Han River (한강): from west-to-east, they are Seonyudo (선유도), Bamseom (밤섬), and Nodeulseom (노들섬). Seonyudo is connected from Yeongdeungpo-gu (영등포구) to Mapo-gu (마포구) via Yanghwa Bridge (양화대교). There is a cute park, ecological center, and café on the island. Bamseom also connects Yeongdeungpo-gu to Mapo-gu, but it uses Seogang Bridge (서강대교). This island is inaccessible and uninhabited.

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The third is Nodeulseom, which connects Dongjak-gu (동작구) to Yongsan-gu (용산구) via Hangang Bridge (한강대교). Unlike the other two islands, I was unable to find much information on Nodeulseom, which peaked my curiosity. I decided to visit on October 29 to see what I could see.

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There are two bus stops on the island on each side of Hangang Bridge: one going in the northeast direction (toward Yongsan-gu), and the other heading southwest (toward Dongjak-gu). I arrived at the bus stop on the northeast direction, which I later found out was important. I would post a photo of the bus stop, but it is right in front of some sort of old military building, which was accompanied by a sign forbidding the taking of photos.

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On foot, I walked in the southwest direction along Hangang Bridge. I was met with a dirt road leading into a construction site and a flight of stairs. The stairs were narrower than what seemed proper for the entrance to a park, but I headed down. They ended up leading to the cement perimeter of the island. There were a lot of old men fishing, with the occasional family or young people walking and enjoying the sites.

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I decided to walk the perimeter by heading west. It was actually quite a nice walk with beautiful views of the Han River. It’s mostly quiet, except when trains pass over the nearby Hangang Railway Bridge (한강철교). During the annual Seoul International Fireworks Festival (서울세계불꽃축제), some websites praised Nodeulseom as a prime viewing location.

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As I continued along the cement perimeter of the island, I kept searching for another set of stairs that would take me to the upper, more central part of the island. A blog post from 2012 highlighted people renting kayaks, so I assumed that some park infrastructure would be present. Yet, whenever I would find stairs leading up, they were always blocked at the top. Not wanting to break any laws–and noticing several CCTV cameras–I did not hop any fences.

The most ridiculous example of this is a set of stairs on the north side of the island underneath Hangang Bridge. The set of stairs should take you to an entrance on the southwest (Dongjak-gu bound) side of the bridge. In fact, Daum Maps lists this as “노들섬 출입구3”, which means, “Nodeulseom Entrance 3.” However, the entrance is sealed off due to a fence! Even stranger, the sidewalk leading up to the entrance appeared new. The Daum Maps “road view” (로드뷰) picture taken in July 2017 even shows a backhoe constructing the path!

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On the west end of the island, there is a dirt clearing with a couple signs warning people not to dump waste here. There was a dirt road that I did not end up taking. While there was nothing telling me not to take the road, the CCTV cameras and signs were intimidating.

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On the east side of the island, I discovered an oddity: there was a helipad. Not only that, but the space looked newly constructed! The helipad definitely seemed out of place. I cannot imagine why one would need to land a helicopter here. My significant other, whom I told about this, guessed that it might have something to do with the aforementioned military installation.

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I had managed to do a full loop around the cement perimeter of island, and I had returned to the same set of narrow stairs I took at first. There were no other stairs leading in or out of the island! In fact, the island was not accessible if you walked on or took the bus to the southwest bound (toward Dongjak-gu) part of the bridge.

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On the northeast bound side of the bridge there is Nodeul Altair Café (노들견우카페) and its counterpart Nodeul Vega Café (노들직녀카페) on the southwest bound side. Despite it being a gorgeous, not-too-hot-and-not-too-cold sunny Saturday, both cafés were empty. It was oddly unnerving. Their names come from a constellation of two stars that appear to be “meeting” on June 7 of the lunar calendar.

As I mentioned above, there is no proper access to Nodeulseom from the southwest bound side of the Hangang Bridge. However, there is a small park memorizing Lee Won-deung (이원등), “an Army master sergeant who died while saving a teammate during a high-altitude parachute training exercise in 1966.”

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From this side of the road, I was able to look onto a clearing on the island. It appeared to be nothing but dirt, aside from a “container box” style small building in the middle of the empty field. It appeared to be two stories tall, with the second story having floor-to-ceiling windows and containing office chairs and desks inside. I presume this is where the previously-mentioned dirt road would have led to.

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When I returned home, I did a little research on the island, but came up surprisingly short. Aside from location information, the Wikipedia article is only two sentences long: “Indo Bridge used to span the River Han, crossing Nodeulseom, but was destroyed by the U.S. military in the Korean War to prevent the North Koreans from using it. The island is to be developed into a large performing arts centre.”

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According to the Seoul Metropolitan Government, the project to turn Nodeulseom into a performing arts center was approved in 2005, but shelved in 2012. According to their website, “Project is postponed until the city becomes financially prepared and obtains the consensus of Seoul citizens(in the meantime, decision made for its temporary use as a public vegetable garden).” According to architecture-focused magazine SPACE, the public vegetable garden only received 22 visitors per day excluding the farmers. The future of Nodeulseom seems to be up in the air. (UPDATE: Maybe the plans aren’t that up in the air?)

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Photographs on the official Nodeulseom website back this up, as does a 2013 article from the Huffington Post, which discussed beekeeping efforts on the island. A Korea Herald article from 2015 provided a bit more history:

Until the Joseon dynasty, Nodeulseom Island was one of the five main ports in the Hangang River basin, named after the neighborhood south of the river, meaning “a stone that white herons play with.” The name of nearby Noryangjin originated from the Chinese characters for “Nodeul naru (port).”

The 150,000-square-meter area, which was once a sandy plain visited by Seoulites for swimming, today supports the Hangang Bridge.

It houses a pedestrian overpass, a 2,000-square-meter landing pad for helicopters and a monument dedicated to Lee Won-deung […]

The oval-shaped island was called Joongjido during the Japanese colonial rule before it gained its current name in 1995.

Although interesting, I was not able to find much information explaining the current state of affairs on the island.

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All in all, I had fun exploring Nodeulseom. If you go, do not expect to be able to rely on map apps to accurately guide you when there. For example, Daum Maps has information about “Entrance 3” (as discussed above, this is inaccessible) and “Entrance 2” (which would require a boat to access). I might even return if I am looking for a quiet place to relax.