SEOUL – South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and its President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol are at loggerheads over the future of the presidential residence – and much else.
The two are expected to dine together on Monday evening for a pre-transition meeting that comes after what is being reported as the longest period in South Korean political history during which an incoming and outgoing administration have not met.
The dinner may be frosty – indeed, the soju glass may fly.
The liberal Moon and conservative Yoon were set to meet on March 16, but that did not happen. Yoon’s spokesperson called the failure to meet “extremely regrettable.”
Yoon was irked that Moon, who leaves office on May 9, had filled several senior civil service positions, including the governorship of the Bank of Korea. It was also reported that Yoon wants Moon to pardon former conservative president Lee Myung-bak, now serving a 15-year jail term for corruption.
Yoon, in the kind of “man of the people” pledge beloved of South Korean presidents as far back as 1987, has vowed to relocate the presidential office and residency from the Blue House compound in downtown Seoul.
That, too, has raised the ire of Moon, who had also promoted a similar plan before being dissuaded. It has been estimated that the shift will cost about $40 million.
On policy, Yoon has vowed to turn tough on North Korea, a reversal of Moon’s engagement policy, to upgrade relations with Japan, which plunged to a nadir under Moon, and to tighten trilateral security cooperation between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington – something Moon refused to countenance.
Since the March 9 election, Moon and Yoon have clashed over other matters, including Moon’s late-term nomination of key figures, such as a new governor of the Bank of Korea. But it is the Blue House relocation – and Yoon says he will not work there from his first day in office on May 10 – that is the talk of the town.
For a president-elect with such a slim mandate, it is a bold first step. Yoon won with 48.56% of the national vote – within 1% of runner-up Lee Jae-myung. And that was despite Yoon benefitting from the number three candidate joining his team one week before the vote.
Moreover, voting patterns in Sejong City, which houses the national bureaucracy, were firmly against Yoon.
If, as is widely alleged by his opponents but hotly denied by his advisers, Yoon is a follower or believer in shamans and shamanism, he could be forgiven for evading the Blue House.
Perhaps no modern leaders on earth have suffered such a succession of dire fates as have the presidents of South Korea. And even if the Blue House is abandoned, Moon, after leaving office, may not evade this curse.
A kingly presidential seat
The grandiose Blue House – it takes its name from its blue roof – is a walled compound of offices, residences, garages, a helipad and gardens set just north of Gwanghwamun, Seoul’s central business district.
It sits directly behind Gyeongbuk Palace, the palace of the dynasty which established Seoul as a capital in the 14th century, and is today the country’s premier tourist attraction.
From 1927, the site of today’s presidential mansion was used by the Japanese governors-general. Post-1945, it was occupied by the general commanding US occupation forces, before being repurposed as a presidential residence when South Korea was founded as a republic in 1948.
Tourists can walk or drive the two-lane road fronting it, though there is heavy armed police presence. Those with sharp eyes may also spot a camouflaged Patriot anti-missile battery to its east.
Its vast interior, complete with a carpeted staircase and reception rooms, is European-style, but its external architecture is neo-Korean. With the imposing, forested slopes of Mt Bugak protecting its rear, and the gentle waters of the restored Cheongyechoen Stream to its front, it boasts near-perfect feng shui (geomancy).
“There is an old stone monument inside the Blue House compound that says the location has the best feng shui in Korea,” said David Mason, a professor of Korean Tourism at Sejong University and an expert on Korean mountains and religions. “The site is excellent for ruling the nation.”
However, its residents have not enjoyed the good fortune the site might be expected to bestow.
The curse of the Blue House
Syngnam Rhee, the first president of South Korea after the country’s founding in 1948, was exiled to Hawaii in disgrace after students demonstrators were gunned down by police. Army general Park Chung-hee took office in 1961 and was assassinated on Blue House grounds by his own intelligence chief in 1979.
His successor Chun Doo-hwan, another ex-general who seized power in 1980, was post-office sentenced to death, which was commuted to life imprisonment for his coup d’etat and brutality in office. Roh Tae-woo, his successor and acolyte, elected in 1987, was sentenced to life imprisonment. Both sentences were later lifted via pardon.
Kim Young-sam took office in 1993 and evaded jail, but his son was jailed for corruption. Ditto Kim Dae-jung, who entered power in 1998, though his post-office reputation was besmirched when it leaked out that he had secretly paid North Korea $500 million for the first inter-Korean summit.
Roh Moo-hyun, in power from 2003 to 2008, committed suicide after leaving office, amid a corruption probe into family members. Lee Myung-bak, who served in the Blue House from 2008 to 2013, is now serving a 15-year jail term for corruption.
And Moon’s predecessor Park Geun-hye, the daughter of Park who was assassinated in 1979, was impeached, hurled out of office and jailed for 33 years for corruption and abuse of power. She was pardoned last December, after serving five years.
The Blue House has also been the scene of strife.
In 1968, a platoon of North Korean commandos launched an assault and was mown down at its gates in a firefight. A former presidential bodyguard told Asia Times that a network of tunnels exists underneath the Blue House to permit a swift escape.
A small plaza just south of the mansion is a frequent setting for small demonstrations. And the huge plaza just south of Gyeongbokgung Palace was the site of the huge demonstrations that overthrew Park.
Populist presidents vs imperial premises
Multiple presidents, including Roh Tae-woo – the first to be democratically elected in 1987 – have vowed to be down-to-earth, men of the people rather than “imperial presidents.”
In this light, Yoon, during the election, vowed to exit the Blue House and open it to the public. The executive mansion, walled off and isolated, has a reputation as a forbidden city.
No doubt many citizens would be fascinated to see the offices and residences where great affairs and shadowy intrigues have been conducted. Earlier presidents, aware of this fascination, opened the gates, but only a crack.
Under Roh Moo-hyun, hiking trails behind the Blue House, closed to the public since the 1968 command raid, were opened to the public. Moon, too, toyed with the idea of moving out of the Blue House and moving to the government complex in nearby downtown. He was dissuaded by the logistic inconveniences that would cause.
Yoon’s shift to a new location is, ostensibly, to improve public access and communications. But the sites he is moving to are hardly ideal.
The complex, a nondescript set of mid-rise office blocks, is set in an unlovely, walled compound in the district of Yongsan, some 15-20 minutes from downtown by road. At peak hours, its road networks get seriously congested. The buildings are office blocks, lacking the Blue House’s majesty.
“The area of the Defense Ministry has always been seen as a poor fortune area,” said Mason. “It is not where well-to-do people live.”
In terms of command and communications, Yoon will be at the center of his military, with excellent helicopter access. The ministry compound is in a corner of what use to be the vast US Army base. Today, virtually all the troops have relocated to Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul.
Even so, the land use of the location is disputed between various organizations, including Seoul City Hall, the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Land. Though the US Army vacated the base in 2018, grandiose plans to turn it into a park have gone nowhere, leaving a sprawling, green, walled-off space in the middle of Seoul.
Similarly, plans dating back more than a decade to shift the US embassy, now in the central business district, to Yongsan, remain unfulfilled.
Hannam-dong – where Yoon will reportedly shift his official residence to – is adjacent to Yongsan. It is known for hip nightlife, an upscale residential compound, a “UN Village” home to well-heeled locals and well-remunerated expatriates, and as home to K-pop superstars BTS.
To be sure, there is some support for Yoon’s move.
“Have you been inside the Blue House? It’s terrible!” said Joanne Kim, a writer on Korean culture and folklore. “Space decides human relations, and inside it is not like a palace, it is bigger than a palace inside.”
Indeed, the Blue House has vastly expanded over the years. Kim, whose husband has undertaken architectural work inside, notes that it has become so vast, members of the secretariat drive from location to location inside it. The original governor general’s office is now the site of the presidential secretariat.
“It is fine for a king to sit there safe, with the mountain at his back looking southward,” she said. “But as a human, it is not such a comfortable or healthy place – there are no happy memories there from previous presidents.”
It is not clear if Yoon will use rump segments of the Blue House for ceremonial or diplomatic purposes.
Meanwhile, some wonder if the fast execution of the promise relates to Yoon’s inexperience.
“As a political novice he may be more likely to keep electoral policies than an experienced politician who knows that some promises are just made in the heat of battle,” said Michael Breen, author of The New Koreans.
And the Blue House’s curse may survive beyond the abandonment of the location.
While all indications are that Moon and his family kept clean noses during his constitutionally mandated single term in office, there are most certainly knives being sharpened in right-wing offices, given how many officials from the previous administration were jailed.
Yoon said in a media interview in February that there would be an investigation into the previous administration if he won. Ominously, he used the phrase “deep-rooted evils” – the exact same phrase Moon’s administration used when taking down Park’s government.
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