IN SEPTEMBER 2019, the Seoul Metropolitan Government announced an indefinite suspension of its redesign project of Gwanghwamun Square, which had aimed to transform the landmark area into a public space for the transportation and recreational needs of municipal residents*. The shelving represents a blow to plans, included within the project, to conduct key historical restorations to restore the environs and edifice of Gyeongbokgung Palace to their forms during the Joseon Dynasty (e.g. the rebuilding of a distinctive elevated platform called the woldae and the linking of the southern palace wall to its original two guard towers destroyed during the Japanese occupation). From a purely historical perspective, I believe that several lessons can be gleaned from this setback in relation to historical sites and the future of restorative projects in Korea.
Historical reconstruction should be an isolated priority
A major problem of the suspended project was that the several historically legitimate restorations outlined above were appended to a host of ambitious development projects that were assessed to be steeped in the excesses of unrealism and promotive profiteering. The latter element is of special concern for historians, as it is not hard to link the appropriating hand of city promotion to the spread of a fictionalized pseudo-history (theme-park history as one of my acquaintances put it). In 2016, restorative projects in Gyeongju, the thousand-year capital of the Silla Dynasty, seemed to affirm this when the reconstruction of a prominent Silla landmark, the Woljeonggyo Bridge, was exposed to have emphasized creative imagination and design motifs from Qing China over actual Korean source materials in fulfilling the city’s promotive priorities**. Such atrocious episodes should necessitate skepticism in the prudency of attaching serious historical restorations to projects primarily dealing with promotion and city development.
Seoul City’s project also included overtly political overtones. For example, the project joined historical restorations to such inflammatory additions as floor engravings commemorating the candlelight protests held against the Park Geun-hye administration in 2016***. Given the political semiotics of modern-day Korea, such a decision has caused a backlash fueled by politics. In addition, opposition groups claim that Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon is using the project as a way to build legitimacy for a potential presidential run in 2022, a charge that gains plausibility when considering the timeline of the project (which was planned to be completed the year before the next presidential election) and the record of past municipal agents who have invested political capital in initiating design projects for the city (e.g. former Seoul mayor Oh Se-hoon’s construction of the current square in 2009 and former President Lee Myung-bak’s politically lucrative redesign of Cheonggyecheon stream).
I believe that the natural antidote to these concerns is to establish a rigorous application of the historical method (i.e. academic peer review and reliance on primary sources) as a precondition of restorative projects in order to establish a cordon-sanitaire between the essential rebuilding of lost history and rushed redesign projects with promotive or political priorities. The decade-long academic debate over the true coloration of Gwanghwamun’s name plate, which was recently concluded following the discovery of new historical sources, demonstrates the seriousness and reverence that should be accorded to the act of resurrecting relics of Korea’s past****. Such sacrosanct projects should not be considered as mere appendages of a pipe dream project to nearly-quadruple the size of the current square within two years (especially since, in terms of recreational spaces, municipal residents already have the benefit of numerous public parks and the whole of the Han River). Restoring historical value should be a goal paramount to and isolated from all other considerations.
Historical legacies: Gyeongbokgung Palace and semiotic capital
Another line of criticism centers around the utility of distorting a major landmark in the name of historical accuracy. Why exactly should a Seoul from a distant era negate a modern square that undoubtedly has its own significance in modern Korean history? Should we be selective in which historical legacies we choose to keep? Does an objective standard for historical reconstruction exist that can answer these questions and provide the requisite consensus needed for the rearrangement of municipal spaces?
I believe that such a consensus should be built on the following concept: projects that deal with historically significant sites should center on restoring the image most representative of the time-period that provides the site in question with historical context. In the case of the square, it is the period of the Joseon Dynasty (not the Republic of Korea) that continues to furnish Gwanghwamun and its surrounding spaces with cultural and historical significance. Therefore, according to the ideational framework above, a project dealing with the square should center on providing the most accurate visual representation of the Gyeongbokgung edifice that existed in the Joseon Dynasty over relics of more recent history.
This, however, still leaves room for questions of utility. Many sites from the Joseon Dynasty have since lost their forms. Should projects be launched to restore all these sites to fit their original historical contexts? In this case, it is important to apply a measured pragmatism and to consider a site’s semiotic value in terms of national identity. In terms of cultural capital and recognition, Gyeongbokgung Palace and its environs surpasses any space in Seoul, indeed perhaps in the whole of modern Korea. Leaving Gyeongbokgung Palace’s main edifice in its current incomplete condition will therefore result in generations of Koreans affirming their national heritage through a quintessential yet incorrect image that was ironically forged through years of colonial distortion. Given the rise of the Korean Wave, it is important to remember that it will not just be Koreans who will reference this historically inaccurate image but also myriad numbers of foreigners across the world.
The historical correction of the palace area will also provide much-needed closure to Korea’s attempts to escape the dark shadows of thirty-five years of colonial oppression. This process will obviously involve making clear choices in consideration of national utility. Few historians would have doubted the utility of the Japanese Government-General Building in glimpsing the early-twentieth century in Korea. However, few Koreans now harbor any regrets regarding the complete deracination of that landmark (that had long disfigured Gyeongbokgung Palace) in 1996. A true recovery, however, will not be achieved through these actions of negation and destruction alone. Considering the current state of the palace, which only retains 40% of its original pre-occupation buildings despite restoration efforts, positive actions of reconstruction are needed as well in order to bring about a full national recovery from a bitter past.
Gwanghwa: A new vision for the Square
The name “Gwanghwa” expressed the wish of the Joseon kings to transmit the brilliance of the dynasty to the entire nation and people. The main title of this piece—an allusion to the Latin phrase “Fiat Lux” or “let there be light”—replaces the Latin word for “light” (lux) with its Sino-Korean counterpart (gwang) in honor of this name and the scintillating vision it represents. The Forbidden City in Beijing (which still maintains its historical form) as well as the old capital city of Kyoto in Japan (which escaped the destruction of the World War II bombing campaigns) have largely weathered the maelstrom of the twentieth century to become national treasures in the twenty-first. It is my personal hope, as a Korean-American and a student of history, to see a Seoul that is able to capitalize on a wealth of cultural capital represented by its historical sites in a way that will similarly elevate Korea to the status of a cultural giant on par with its neighbors. Such a reality would indeed be victory for the exercise of historical reconstruction in Korea and a true manifestation of the vision of “Gwanghwa” for the edification of generations to come.
****Yonhap News Agency
Disclaimer: Andrew Soohwan Kim is an unaffiliated guest reporter. The opinion and writing style are the author’s own.