01.07.2022 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The End of the “Blue House” and the Beginning of the “Yongsan Era”

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On June 19, 2022, ROK President Yoon Suk-yeol hosted a “housewarming” in the courtyard of the presidential office in central Seoul, inviting some 400 neighbors and others to celebrate the move. Sunday’s event included a flea market and street food with small vendors working around the presidential residence. “I thank you for allowing me and the presidential office staff into Yongsan and giving us a warm welcome,” Yoon said.

Fulfilling his pre-election promise, Yoon moved the presidential headquarters from the Blue House (Korean: Cheong Wa Dae) to the former building of the Ministry of Defense in Yongsan District, and the old complex was opened to the public, with 1 million visitors on June 22. A press release from the presidential administration said the Cheong Wa Dae residence, now in the public domain, would embody history, culture and future.

It’s a good occasion to recall what the Blue House was like and what will come to replace it.

What is the “Blue House”

Since the founding of the Republic of Korea in 1948, the Blue House, located at the foot of Mount Bukak, behind Gyeongbokgung Palace, the main palace of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), has been the residence and office of the ROK presidents for 74 years.

The complex is about 250,000 square meters (3.4 times the size of the White House) and consists of the main office building, the presidential residence, the state reception office, the press room and the secretariat buildings, among others.

However, the history of Cheong Wa Dae goes back more than a thousand years, as it housed the halls of the royal palace during the Koryŏ Dynasty (918-1392).

During the Japanese colonial period from 1910 to 1945, it was partly (in the entire Gyeongbok Palace) the official residence of the Japanese governor-general, in 1945-48 the US military administration; and the first president of the ROK, Syngman Rhee, began to use the place as a presidential office and residence, naming it Gyeong Mu Dae (literally, “vision of the belligerent”). It was renamed Cheong Wa Dae (blue-roofed house) in 1960 after the inauguration of President Yun Po-sun, who succeeded Rhee in the April Revolution, and for the next 62 years Cheong Wa Dae was used as a word to symbolize supreme power, similar to the White House in the United States.

There is a lot to be seen in the complex. There are about 120 different species of trees planted by former presidents in the Nokjiwon garden. The umbrella pine, the garden’s most famous symbol, is over 160 years old and about 17 meters tall.

The stone statue of sitting Buddha, recognized as a national treasure in 2018, is an eye-catcher. It is also worth seeing two traditional Korean houses, classified as cultural heritage by Seoul, and a 740-year-old yew (evergreen) tree.

The two-storey main office building was constructed in the style of a Korean traditional palace. Its roof is covered with around 300,000 Korean-style blue tiles.

Because of its secluded location and considerable distances between the residences of the president, secretaries and press, the Blue House has long been criticized as a legacy of the “imperial presidency”. It is said that in order to report to the president, his/her secretaries had to spend about 10 minutes walking from one building to another. As Yoon Suk-yeol pointed out, it was the architectural style of the Blue House that separated the rooms used by the presidents and their staff instead of connecting them.

Several presidents, including Moon Jae-in, have tried to relocate the presidential headquarters, but these attempts failed – formally because of concerns over presidential security and difficulties in finding a suitable alternative location. That is why Yoon was adamant about his goal of moving the headquarters, wanting to leave the place, which he said enveloped the President-in-Office with a sense of autocracy and hindered effective communication between the country’s leader and his team. According to him, “space dominates consciousness.”

Interestingly, while Moon Jae-in had also made much ado about an “imperial presidency” and promised to move to Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul at the beginning of his rule, he declared Yoon’s project “inappropriate and dangerous”, and in an interview with JTBC noted that “it is a complicated issue that requires careful discussion.” Eventually Moon was reminded of his past and the criticism came to naught.

According to the Cultural Heritage Administration, Cheong Wa Dae will be open to visitors who have made online reservations in advance, from 7am to 7pm every day. Visits will be limited to 6,500 people per two-hour time slot, for a total of 39,000 people per day.

Of course, the complex is opening gradually, and access to the interior of the Cheong Wa Dae buildings is forbidden until all confidential equipment and documents have been removed.

The listing of Cheong Wa Dae as a cultural heritage site is currently under consideration. According to a spokesperson for the Administration, “a preliminary check is required before we make a decision on whether to grant the site the status of a cultural site of modern history.”

What does the ROK President’s New Workplace Look Like

The new presidential headquarters of the ROK is a ten-storey building that formerly housed the Ministry of Defense (which moved to the adjacent Joint Chiefs of Staff building).

The first floor is reserved for the press covering the president’s activities, while the second floor houses Yoon’s main office and a large hall suitable for events for up to 200 guests. It is about half the size of the existing state reception hall located in the Blue House. The third floor will be allocated to the five presidential secretaries, the fifth to Yoon’s auxiliary office, while security, presidential administration and other officials will be on floors four to ten.

According to rumors, to “dismantle the existing organization and working styles within the presidential administration”, Yoon said he wanted to work closely with his aides around the clock and without spatial obstacles.  He even gave up his personal elevator to stay close to the presidential administration staff. It will also be easy for Yoon to walk down from his office on the second floor to the press room on the first floor and hold frequent briefings.

The new presidential office will be open for all to see, in line with Yoon’s preference for communication and openness. The right side and south façade of the new presidential office will be turned into a public park, and the brick wall that surrounds the border of the Ministry of Defense complex is planned to be replaced by an iron fence to minimize the physical barrier between the presidential office and the public park. The iron fence will be similar to the one surrounding the White House in Washington and will be about 2.4 meters high, just like the one surrounding the Blue House. Security around the area will also be less visible to the public, as plainclothes security personnel will be deployed and fences with artificial intelligence systems, thermal imaging cameras and metal detectors will be installed around the area.

The president, meanwhile, lives in the former residence of the Foreign Minister in Hannam-dong, at the foot of Mount Namsan in central Seoul. Earlier, the mansion of the Army Chief of Staff was considered as Yoon’s residence, but it turned out that the house of the Army Chief of Staff was too outdated and dilapidated, while the residence of the Foreign Minister had undergone renovation last year.

The total area of the residence is about 1,386 square meters. It consists of a 528-square-meter residential building and an 858-square-meter office building, which was previously used as a reception and banquet hall for the Foreign Minister. The new building is about half the size of the former presidential residence in Cheong Wa Dae, which occupied about 2,680 square meters.

And what will it be called

Yoon himself told the newspaper that he had come up with the name “People’s House” for the new presidential office, but a month-long vote was eventually called. Out of 30,000 applications submitted by the public, five were selected:

  • The People’s House
  • Itaewon-ro 22, the street on which the building is located and the year of the move.
  • The People’s Government Office
  • Mineum Government Office (literally, “voice of the people”)
  • Bareunnuri (literally, “right or righteous world”)

On June 14, the presidential spokesperson said that “after a final meeting and nearly two hours of discussion, the committee decided not to recommend a new name for the presidential office,” as all five names were deemed unsuitable. “Instead of making a hasty choice, we decided to spend more time until a suitable name emerges naturally,” and for an indefinite time the current name “Yongsan Presidential Office” will be used.

Why does the author attribute such importance to this event? Because it demonstrates well the new president’s desire not to go the way of the previous one. And also that Yoon has significantly lowered his personal comfort level, not wanting to “sit on that enchanted throne from the fairy tale that turns the dragon’s vanquisher into a new dragon.” He could, for example, have pushed through his own version of the name, but for some reason he didn’t.

Besides, ROK politics is full of such symbols.  In 1997, the Governor-General’s Office building, which had been built in front of Gyeongbok Palace, was demolished to the ground. It had allegedly been erected to cut the geomantic lines and weaken the national spirit, according to the nationalists. Although in 1948 the ROK was proclaimed on its steps, and the building housed the National Assembly, then the national museum, when the new President felt the urge to “symbolically restore national history”, the building was dismantled.

As for the new name, a symbolic name like “White House” or “Kremlin” looks good, but the quality of governance is more important than the symbol.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

 


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