The Future of South Korea’s Blue House
Veteran K-pop superstar Rain made South Korean history today when he staged a concert at Cheongwadae—the presidential compound commonly known as the Blue House—which opened to the public on May 10.
It’s not the first concert in the Blue House’s 74-year history. National broadcaster KBS claimed that honor with its “KBS Open Concert” on May 22, as part of the Blue House’s opening festivities. But Rain’s gig—which will be taped by Netflix to use for Rain’s upcoming show—marks a tonal shift in how South Korea regards this bastion of power.
While past presidents have traditionally stayed in the compound, newly-elected Yoon Suk-yeol has chosen to relocate the presidential office to a defense ministry complex in Seoul’s Yongsan district, claiming that the Blue House is too secluded and thus “out of touch” with voters. Yoon says moving out of the verdant 62-acre site will help “return presidential power to the people.”
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Officials have since relaunched the Blue House as a “relaxing retreat” for the public, who can book admission tickets online. Inside, visitors will be able to enjoy cultural performances, tours, and even hiking trails that lead to Bugak Mountain, Cheongwadae’s scenic backdrop.
Yoon’s decision to move out has not been a popular one. In March, a survey showed that 58% of South Koreans opposed relocation. However, many people have criticized the decision as it could lead to increased national security risks and increase costs. Others worry about the fact that this issue is being prioritized over other pressing issues, such as increased North Korean nuclear activity and post-pandemic economic recovery.
South Korea will also be liable for $40 million in additional costs. This is at a time of slowing economic growth. In April, South Korea recorded its first deficit in account in two years. Consumer prices rose 5.4% in May and forecasts for growth were cut due to trade difficulties. Environmentalists protested that the relocation is jeopardizing the original plan to create a park at Yongsan, while Yoon’s new neighbors are worried about traffic congestion, state-run Yonhap News Agency reported.
The future of the Blue House is uncertain beyond its current revamp as a cultural venue. Presidents in South Korea are limited to a single five-year term, and Yoon’s successor may choose to go back to the Cheongwadae. However, observers believe this unlikely.
“I do not think future presidents, whoever he or she is, can go back to Cheongwadae. It has already turned out to be a major spot that is fully enjoyed and embraced by the general public,” says Park Cheol-hee, professor of international relations at Seoul National University.
Its status as the seat of national power, however, will not change, at least in the near future. “It’s a legacy that is waiting to be created,” says Remco Breuker, a historian of Korea at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
On June 8, 2022, people gathered to see the Main Office Building for Cheong Wa Dae, Seoul, South Korea. Since May 10, the Blue House, the country’s ex-presidential office Cheong Wa Dae has been open for the public. Visitors were also allowed to see the inside of Cheong Wa Dae facilities on May 26. The Cultural Heritage Administration reports that the compound was visited by approximately 620,000 applicants.
Wang Yiliang/Xinhua via Getty Images
Blue House, a historic seat of power
One thousand years ago, the Blue House location was the home of a royal palace. The site was later used as part of Gyeongbokgung, an expanded royal palace during the Joseon Dynasty (191392-1910). Bugak Mountain was a defense from attack. During Japan’s annexation of Korea, the Japanese governor-general built his official residence on the site, which was eventually called Gyeongmudae.
The first president of South Korea, Rhee Syngman, moved to Gyeongmudae with his wife when the republic of South Korean was founded in 1948. It was named Cheongwadae (or Blue House) in 1960, after the inauguration of President Yun Bo Seon.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol talks during the Korean Memorial Day Ceremony at Seoul National cemetery, June 06th, 2022. Seoul, South Korea. South Korea marks the 67th Anniversary of Memorial Day in honor of those who served in military service during the 1950-53 Korean War.
Chung Sung-Jun–Getty Images
Yoon Suk yeol moved out of Blue House for his office.
Yoon isn’t the first president to contemplate leaving the Blue House. Moon Jae-in previously sought to relocate his office in an effort to distance his presidency from that of his predecessor Park Geun-hye, who had been impeached, but a suitable site wasn’t found.
Victor Cha, senior vice president and Korea chair of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, believes Yoon’s decision to push through with the move establishes him as a doer instead of a talker, defying his many detractors. “The move itself resonates with the very raw spirit of egalitarianism in Korea,” he tells TIME. It marks a break with “imperial presidency,” he says.
But critics say changing the physical location of the presidential office is only symbolic and that Yoon’s decision is autocratic. Kyung Moon Hwang, a Korean historian at the Australian National University denies it is a political stunt. If Yoon were sincere, Hwang believes he should “pursue constitutional change establishing a parliamentary system, in order to further prevent a return to an autocratic presidency.”
Even before his election win in March, the conservative Yoon was stirring controversy, in large part due to his anti-feminist rhetoric and unscientific beliefs—including ties to shamans and a practitioner of the obscure art of anal acupuncture. His critics say he has taken fright at the house’s apparently troubled past and decided to abandon it on the advice of geomancers, setting up in new quarters at the public’s expense. These allegations have been denied by Yoon.
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Many of the Blue House’s previous residents have suffered unkind treatment by their fates. South Korea’s first president Rhee Syng-man and his successor were both forced out of power. In 1979, Park Chung-hee, the dictator of South Korea was assassinated in his home by the head of his spy agency. Park Geun-hye was his daughter and was executed in 2016. Four were jailed for corruption; one died by suicide amid a probe into alleged corruption; and one was saddled with the Asian financial crisis and the country’s economic collapse in the late 1990s.
Breuker, an historian, dismisses it. He points out that all places of power are influenced by their past. “I don’t think there’s any building with a similar history in Seoul that would not have the same kind of background,” he says.
During Yoon Sukyel’s press conference held in Seoul on March 20, 2022, Yoon Sukyel showed a bird’s-eye view during which he announced his plan to move the president-elect. Yoon announced his decision to move the presidential office to the defense ministry compound in Seoul’s central district of Yongsan immediately after his inauguration on May 10. The Presidential Blue House in Seoul will open its doors to all on that day.
Jung Yeon-Je – Pool/Getty Images
Is national security at stake?
Yoon has defended his decision to transfer the presidential office to the defense ministry compound in Yongsan, saying the location’s past, as a former home for U.S. military bases, has equipped it with enough “national security command facilities” to protect his administration.
It is unlikely to be more secure than the Blue House. The facility was the scene of an egregious attempt by 31 North Korean commandos to assassinate President Park Chunghee. Although he died 11 years later from the bullet, he survived this attack. Cheongwadae was within one hundred metres of the raiders, however.
Yonhap has quoted security officers who said that security was better in the new location. This is because it’s not overshadowed by tall buildings. Also, it is easier to defend militarily. The underground bunker can also double as an emergency room and serves as another source of defense in times of national crisis.
Blue House is now a cultural attraction, but it will continue to be an unwelcome role. The change is not opposed by all South Koreans, as evident from the more than 770,000 tourists who visited between opening and June 6. Besides the Rain concert, the Cultural Heritage Administration says there will be a soap bubble extravaganza this month—even a circus. You can bet that Blue House has been around for the former.
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