First published in Groove Korea magazine June 2014
The go-to setting when films show junkies shooting up or blonde babes getting axe murdered, abandoned buildings have a bad rep. And while many try to avoid the graffiti-ridden spots that litter cities and towns around the world, others actively hunt them down for exploration, documentation and appreciation.
One such urban explorer is Korean-American Joseph Jung, a New York City native who has been living in Korea since 2011. Armed with a camera and an ultra-wide lens, Jung captures the innards of abandoned schools, institutions, amusement parks and other decaying or forgotten structures across the peninsula, and then shares these powerful images on his site Abandoned Korea.
Groove Korea caught up with Jung to find out more about this intriguing hobby.
Groove Korea: When did you get into urban exploration (urbex)?
Joseph Jung: During university, a friend told me about an abandoned tunnel with a bunch of graffiti that he had explored. He invited me to join him, but I didn’t really understand it the way he described it; I thought it was some graffiti gallery of sorts and turned down his offer. It wasn’t until he showed me the pictures that he took there that I was like, “I need to go there.” Since then I’ve been hooked.
What about the hobby keeps you hooked and gets you up early on the weekends?
A variety of reasons. For one, some of these places are just plain cool. A disused Cold War missile base? Heck yes. An entire abandoned university campus? Sign me up. Secondly, there’s a certain thrill when it comes to exploring and photographing some of the more dangerous or hard-to-get-to places.
Did the photography come before or after your explorations?
Definitely before. My dad was a photographer, so I remember helping him carry and move equipment from the car for as long I could remember. It wasn’t until university, though, when I cofounded a photography club, that I really took a strong interest in photography. But at the time I didn’t have any focus, so I was just shooting anything and everywhere.
Outside of Korea, where else have you explored?
I’m originally from NYC, so I’ve spent a few years there exploring everything I could, from the underground Amtrak tunnels to decommissioned Cold War missile bases. In Tokyo, I was able to check out a burned down student dormitory, and in Hong Kong, I met up with a group of explorers there to explore a large hybrid factory of sorts. I also managed to find my way into an abandoned Hakka village island out in the Outer Territories.
What are some of the similarities and differences you have noticed between the countries?
New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong all have a pretty visible urbex scene, and even those who don’t enjoy the hobby can understand why someone may want to photograph these abandoned places. Not so in Korea. There’s a sense of shame here when it comes to anything that doesn’t help market the country in a positive and vibrant light.
What is the urbex community like in Korea?
It’s mainly foreigners. There are people spread out across the peninsula, so we’ll post and share photographs of new places we find, but we don’t really meet up that much, except a few times a year like Chuseok or Seollal, which are prime times for exploring as half the city is empty.
What are some of your best finds in Korea?
My favorite location was the local middle school out in the countryside where I taught my first year in Korea. I was alone out on this remote island itching to make the four-hour ride up to Seoul to explore something when I discovered there was an awesome abandoned school literally 10 minutes from me. I used to go down there every few months, and it was my own personal place for a while. Unfortunately, it has since been demolished.
Another favorite location was a neighborhood in Seoul, which was slowly being demolished in parts. From the outside, many of the old smaller houses looked the same, but when I entered this one house, man, it really didn’t deserve to be gone. It exists only in a photograph now.
How do you usually find these spots?
I know some guys who hit the road on their bikes with their eyes peeled for possible new locations, but I personally scour around the web through both English and Korean sites as well as mapping street views. We also share reports and new locations amongst ourselves.
You must come across a ton of weird stuff on your explorations. Can you share any stories?
In Hong Kong, we went out exploring to what we assumed was just an abandoned factory. We walked up a few flights of stairs until we reached the first open floor and all the windows and exits were sealed up with vinyl sheets and tape. Naturally, we cut open the sheets with a key, and on each successive floor we found ourselves on, we found something completely different. On one section we found rooms with padded walls and straitjackets. On another, a morgue, and at another, several prison cells. When we got to the basement we ventured through a hallway and another small space. As we were roaming around, several voices started shouting out at us so we bolted back. Unfortunately, two in our party were cornered by a giant guy with a screwdriver and they had to negotiate their way out.
Are most of these sites you explore no trespassing zones?
Unless you have permission to be somewhere, you’ll always be trespassing. Even a crumbling house that has been vacant for many years still belongs to someone or some authority. With that said, the mantra in the urbex community is, “It’s always easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.”
Do you have a favorite photograph that you’ve taken on an urbex mission?
The picture of an underground ammunition magazine is probably one of my favorite pictures. As it’s a popular spot among a lot of graffiti artists, the art on the walls is constantly changing. Though it attracts a lot of photographers, I like to think that there are no other pictures out there that show the tunnels exactly the same as I saw them that day I took the photo.
Find out more about Jung’s adventures on his site Abandoned Korea, abandonedkorea.com. And while he probably won’t hand out the GPS coordinates of the spots he’s visited, he might point you in the right direction to find your own.