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JapanFocus
Restoring Seoul's Faded Past
Symbols of the Japanese occupation are being torn down
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
Published 2007-02-25 15:41 (KST)   
The Japanese-built Capital Building in 1948.
©2007 Robert Neff Collection
Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, Seoul, the capital of South Korea, has undergone an unbelievable transformation from a city destroyed by civil war, to one of the world's most modern cities. Nearly 12 million people live in this city of large apartment blocks, towering office buildings, fast and efficient transportation networks, and increasing numbers of parks and green zones. It is a city of dynamic changes for the future.

But not all of Seoul's recent changes have been modernizations; some have been steps into the past. An elevated road that ran through the heart of the city and was once viewed as a symbol of progress was ripped down. Cheonggyechon, the large stream that was once covered by the road, was resurrected. It now serves as an urban park and a reminder of the city's past, when it was the capital of first a kingdom and then an empire.

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In recent years, Korea has begun to remove the symbols of Japan's 40 years of occupation. Gone is the huge Japanese-built capital building that once stood in front of the Royal Palace of Gyeongbok and served as the governor's building during Japan's occupation of Korea (1910-1945).

The building had been built to resemble the Japanese symbol of "nichi," or sun, which is the first character in the Japanese word "Nippon" meaning Japan. Not only did the building block the traditional Korean palace buildings and the royal throne hall from view, it dominated the heart of the city and left no doubt in those who viewed it, who controlled Seoul. The building was destroyed in 1996 and was one of the first steps in restoring the palaces and other historical sites in downtown Seoul. It is the Seoul government's desire to have this area designated as a UNESCO world heritage site.

With the destruction of the Japanese-built capital building, the next project was Gwanghwamun, the gate in front of the palace. In a three-year long project that began in December, the Korean government will spend over 30 million dollars to take down Gwanghwamun, move it about 50 feet, and rebuild it properly -- the former gate was rebuilt the wrong size. Its past and present condition has always been a sensitive issue with many Koreans.

The Korean newspaper, Hankoreyha, described the project as "demolishing [the] royal palace gate to right a historic wrong." It is a sentiment that is shared by many.

"We hereby like to mark this restoration project as a landmark event to continue Korea's history and spirit as Gwanghwamun is a symbolic asset that has been transmuted and deformed during the Japanese colonial occupation," said Yoo Hong-jun, head of the Cultural Heritage Administration.

Another Korean official, Park Wang-hee, expounded on the sentiment:

"It was born along with Seoul as the capital of Joseon 600 years ago, but its fate was twisted and damaged by foreign forces. Now with the restoration underway, it's like an old problem has just been solved."

Gwanghwamun in 1925 -- just prior to being moved.
©2007 Sodangmun
The history of Gwanghwamun is one of destruction and restoration. It was built in 1395 but was destroyed, along with the rest of the palace, during the Japanese invasion in the late 16th century. It was rebuilt in 1865 as part of the Taewon'gun's restoration of the palace. During the Japanese occupation of Korea, the gate was moved because it blocked the view of the governor's (capital) building. During the liberation of Seoul the gate was accidentally bombed and the wooden structure burnt. It was then rebuilt, but incorrectly, in 1968, and is now in the process of again being rebuilt.

Gwanghwamun is just one of many restoration projects underway in Seoul. Last autumn, I had the honor to tour Gyeongbok Palace with Peter Bartholomew, a local Korean architectural historian, who pointed out the many restorations that have been completed. For the most part the restorations have been done accurately and historically, but there are some glaring exceptions.

Hyangwon Pavilion and Pond.
©2007 Robert Neff Collection
Perhaps the most photographed and beloved site by both foreigners and Koreans is Hyangwon Pavilion, which sits on a small island in the middle of a picturesque pond. Its very name emphasizes beauty: "Pavilion of Fragrance from Afar." This pond and pavilion were one of King Gojong's projects for restoring the beauty and dignity of the royal palace, but it also had a more practical use -- a ready supply of water in case of fire.

Hyangwon Pavilion and Pond circa 1900.
©2007 Trinity Collection
Like much of the palace, Hyangwon Pavilion was transformed during the Japanese occupation and the subsequent years of turmoil leading up to and during the Korean War. The lilies that grace the pond are the wrong species, the stone blocks surrounding the pond are incorrect and most telling the bridge leading from the pavilion to the shore is on the wrong side. Evidently, the Japanese made these changes, except for the bridge.

Queen Min's residence being restored.
©2007 Robert Neff Collection
The reconstruction of the canal that runs through the palace is also subject to criticism for its inaccuracies. The stones lining the canal are of the wrong size, and according to Bartholomew, the canal itself is too deep.

Excavation taking place at Gyeongbok Palace in 2006.
©2007 Robert Neff Collection
When I asked his opinion of the destruction of the Japanese-built capital building Bartholomew supported it completely. He described the building as being nothing more than a cheaply built cement building hidden behind a facade of granite-like stone -- worthless. When I pointed out that it seemed a paradox to destroy a historical remnant, regardless of who built it, in order to restore a more cherished past, he merely shook his head and reminded me that all things change and not everything can be saved.

The Reconstructed canal through Gyeongbok Palace.
©2007 Robert Neff Collection
Perhaps Bartholomew is right. History is an ongoing process of discovery and destruction, myths and historical inaccuracies are discovered all the time and then rightly corrected, which often destroys the past as we knew it. Yet, despite the hard feelings that many Koreans rightly hold in regards to the Japanese occupation, perhaps some of the past needs to be protected in order to teach the future.

Peter Bartholomew points out recent restorations.
©2007 Robert Neff Collection
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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