Seoul, South Korea’s capital, was once a Chinese-styled walled city. Gates like the Namdaemun (Great South Gate) and the Dongdaemun (Great East Gate) served as boundaries that separated the city from the outside of the castle. The royal palace was, of course, located within the castle compound, inside the city walls.
Even after the period of Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945), when modern city building progressed, the basic structures remained the same. The official residence for Japanese governors-general was placed behind the former royal palace (Gyeongbokgung Palace). After Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonialism, the building was used as the residence of South Korean presidents.
However, it was not until the Roh Tae Woo administration (1988-1993) that it transformed into the vast palace-style property that it is today. The palace was named Blue House after its main building’s blue roof tiles.
Located deep on the foothills of a mountain, the heavily secured Blue House was not a place that the general public could easily approach. The mysterious landmark did not possess any sense of openness such as the White House in the United States.
The closed nature of the compound was symbolic of the highly concentrated power situation in South Korea.
Still, the situation was also influenced by the “Blue House Raid” incident, an attempted attack by North Korean guerrilla forces in 1968. It was also meant as a means to protect the presidential residence from the North Korean threat.
Changing History In One Move
However, the new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol abandoned the palace and established his offices away from the city center at a former Defense Ministry compound in the Yongsan District, which in earlier times would have been considered an area outside of the castle walls.
He has relocated the official presidential office and residence ー in other words, South Korea’s center of power ー to “outside the castle walls.”
Politically speaking, this is a significant transformation of Seoul’s traditional power landscape, spanning from the medieval Yi Dynasty to the present day. It means that the new leader has made a historic decision.
The decision stems from the new president’s pledge to reject authoritarian politics and the idea that “the new offices will allow for better communication with the public.”
Yet his predecessor, Moon Jae In, and the former ruling party are gritting their teeth and complaining, “The unilateral and hasty decision is outrageous!” This resentment is because the “Abandoning of the Blue House” was originally a pledge made by the Moon regime, which ultimately failed.
A New Openness
No longer serving as the presidential office, the vast Blue House compound was immediately opened to the public and has become a new tourist landmark packed with visitors on a daily basis.
The former Defense Ministry building, which is transformed into the new “presidential palace,” houses the president’s offices on the second and fifth floors and the press office on the first floor. The arrangement now allows the reporters to witness the president’s comings and goings and the chance to speak to him at all times.
This situation is also unprecedented. In the eyes of this Japanese reporter, the new openness appears to be somewhat inspired by how the press gathers at the official residence of the prime minister in Japan.
Changes inside the Castle Walls
Incidentally, the US forces have already moved their Korean military headquarters to a new site from the Yongsan District, where the central government power shifted. In its place, the US Embassy, which has been inside the castle walls, will move to the former site of the US command.
Meanwhile, the reconstruction of the Japanese Embassy located near the US Embassy has been suspended for a while. The work stoppage is due to the anti-Japanese demonstrations and harassment from a comfort women statue that was put there.
There have been suggestions made by some Japanese residents in Korea that the Embassy of Japan should also leave the former castle compound and relocate to Yongsan District on the occasion of the birth of the new presidential offices.
Yoon Suk-yeol kicked off his administration with a significant and historic decision. I hope the new government will continue to show decisiveness, including the normalization of relations between Japan and South Korea, so that the “Abandoning of the Blue House” does not go down in history as its last and biggest decision.
- President Yoon Show You Really Want Improved Ties With Japan
- Comfort Women Statues Shame, Not Help, Koreans
- Biden Shows South Korea’s President Yoon How to Enhance the Security of Asia
(Read the article in Japanese at this link.)
Author: Katsuhiro Kuroda