How a former Korean CIA building became Seoul's most underrated accommodations
In the 1970s into the 1980s, there used to be a saying about Namsan, the 262-meter mountain in central Seoul now known for its scenic date spots and “love locks.”
In those days of heightened paranoia about activist shenanigans and North Korean espionage, “going to Namsan” was a euphemism for being dragged into the Korean CIA headquarters for questioning. Rumors abounded that the interrogation led to torture, and possibly death.
Even after its most notorious years, the building continued to be an office building for the KCIA, now called the National Intelligence Service, and was bought by the Seoul government in 1995 as part of a campaign aimed at “reverting Namsan back to its original state.”
The ₩7 billion (US$6,323,114) conversion from what was arguably the country’s most feared building into the friendly budget accommodations that it is today was the result of a civil campaign to give Namsan an image makeover.
“In 2004, citizen groups asked the Seoul government to turn the former KCIA building, which was being used as a Seoul government office building, into a more accessible facility befitting its location in the middle of the Namsan Park,” says Kwon Ko-eun of the Seoul government’s children and youth division.
The result? The 67-room International Seoul Youth Hostel, which opened in 2006 and can accommodate a total of 383 guests per night.
More on CNN: The crazy wonderland of Seoul's party motels
Numbers and details
Despite its rather obscure location and the lack of public awareness, Seoul Youth Hostel enjoys an average 80 percent occupancy rate. However, only 15 percent are foreign travelers, a rather surprising statistic given the noted shortage of reasonably priced accommodations in Seoul for foreign tourists these days.
"I think the percentage of foreigners coming to the youth hostel is low due to its lack of promotion and marketing," says Lauren Suk from the Seoul government's press relations division.
"We truly hope to see the number going up in the future and think that it could turn out to be like the YMCA of Hong Kong by accommodating large number of tourists who can benefit from its location and low costs."
Currently, most of the guests are Korean school groups from the provinces.
“We do get foreign business travelers from time to time," says manager Kyung-Seop Park.
The sleeping quarters are startlingly clean and nice, especially given the low rates and the variety of rooms.
“The furniture is updated every few years,” says manager Park.
Indeed, all the furniture does look extremely new -- not from the most expensive of collections, of course, but much nicer than what one would expect for a starting rate of ₩19,000 a night.
The rooftop garden and the family rooms are also surprising.
The garden has one of the prettiest views in the city and comes with a cooking area and patio sets; and the family accommodation comprises two-bedroom (five beds) mini apartments with fully equipped kitchens.
More on CNN: 50 beautiful places to visit in Korea
The only real drawback to the hostel seems to be accessibility.
It's difficult to find even with the address punched into a GPS navigation system, due to its location in the middle of the park where vehicles generally don’t approach. The nearest subway station is approximately 20 minutes' walk away. And it’s a bit of a hike.
But even regardless of the fact that it may take several calls to try to get a cab to pick you up from the hostel, the building's reputation is a big negative factor -- for older Koreans anyway.
“Who knows what happened behind those doors?” muses one Korean man in his early 70s. “Why would you want to stay there?”
But the rumors are groundless, says a former KCIA employee who used to work in the building.
“So we did have a few investigative squads based in the building, but it was certainly nothing close to what the rumors make of it,” says the ex-spook, who naturally declined to give his name for this article.
“Anyone who says anything else about it is just being silly. It was just a regular office building."
International Seoul Youth Hostel, 서울시 중구 예장동 산4-5 (San 4-5 Yejang-dong Jung-gu, Seoul, Korea); +82 2 319 1318; Dormitory room (one bunk): ₩19,000; Business room: ₩60,000; Family room: ₩120,000; www.seoulyh.go.kr
More on CNN: It's official: Korea's 50 'most unique' hotels