Seoul, the capital of South Korea, was once a Chinese-style walled city. Doors like Namdaemun (Great South Gate) and the Dongdaemun (Great East Gate) served as the borders that separated the city from outside the castle. The royal palace was, of course, located within the castle grounds, within the city walls.
Even after the period of Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945), when the construction of the modern city progressed, the basic structures remained the same. The official residence of the Japanese governors general was placed behind the former royal palace (Gyeongbokgung Palace). After Korea was liberated from Japanese colonialism, the building was used as the residence of South Korean presidents.
However, it took until the Roh Tae Woo administration (1988-1993) for it to transform into the sprawling palace-style property it is today. The palace was named Blue House after the blue tiles of its main building.
Located deep in the foothills of a mountain, the heavily secured Blue House was not a place the general public could easily approach. The mysterious monument possessed no sense of openness like the White House in the United States.
The enclosed nature of the compound was symbolic of the highly concentrated power situation in South Korea.
Yet the situation was also influenced by the “Blue House Raid” incident, an attempted attack by North Korean guerrilla forces in 1968. This was also a way to protect the presidential residence from the North Korean threat.
Change history in one tap
However, the new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol abandoned the palace and established his offices away from the city center in a former Defense Ministry compound in Yongsan District, which once would have been considered an area to outside the castle walls.
He moved the official presidential office and residence ー in other words, South Korea’s center of power ー “outside the castle walls”.
Politically speaking, this is a significant transformation of Seoul’s traditional power landscape, which spans from the medieval Yi Dynasty to the present day. This means that the new leader has made a historic decision.
The decision stems from the new president’s promise to reject authoritarian politics and the idea that “the new offices will allow for better communication with the public”.
Still, his predecessor, Moon Jae In, and the former ruling party grit their teeth and complain, “The unilateral and hasty decision is outrageous!” This resentment is due to the fact that “abandoning the Blue House” was originally a promise made by the Moon regime, which ultimately failed.
A new opening
No longer serving as a presidential office, the sprawling Blue House complex was immediately opened to the public and has become a new tourist landmark filled with visitors daily.
The old building of the Ministry of Defense, transformed into the new “presidential palace”, houses the offices of the president on the second and fifth floors and the press office on the first floor. The arrangement now allows journalists to witness the President’s comings and goings and talk to him at any time.
This situation is also unprecedented. In the eyes of this Japanese journalist, the new opening seems somewhat inspired by the way the press gathers at the Prime Minister’s official residence in Japan.
Changes inside the castle walls
Incidentally, US forces have already moved their Korean military headquarters to a new site in Yongsan district, where central government power has been transferred. In its place, the United States Embassy, which was inside the castle walls, will move to the former site of the United States Command.
Meanwhile, the reconstruction of the Japanese Embassy located near the United States Embassy has been suspended for some time. The work stoppage was due to anti-Japanese protests and harassment from a statue of comfort women that was installed there.
Some Japanese residents in Korea have suggested that the Japanese Embassy should also leave the old castle complex and move to Yongsan District as the new presidential offices are born.
Yoon Suk-yeol launched his administration with an important and historic decision. I hope the new government will continue to show determination, including normalizing relations between Japan and South Korea, so that the “abandonment of the Blue House” does not go down in history as its last and bigger decision.
(Read the article in Japanese on this link.)
Author: Katsuhiro Kuroda