Friday, February 19, 2016

Recovering a stone wall walkway around Deoksu Palace that never existed

A few weeks ago articles appeared in the Korea Times about a plan to "restore" a walkway around Deoksugung Palace (here and here):
A narrow walkway along Deoksu Palace in downtown Seoul will be restored 132 years after it was cut off by the construction of the British Embassy in Korea, a Seoul City Council member said Monday.

The council member said the Seoul Metropolitan Government will restore the 170-meter-long sidewalk along the stonewall of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) palace at the embassy compound at the expense of 2.8 billion won (US$2.34 million).

The capital city will finish the 3- to 6-meter-wide walkway, commonly called "doldam-gil" in Korean, by the end of the year after compensating the British Embassy, according to council member Choe Pan-sul.

In 1884, the British Embassy purchased the land site for the soon-to-be restored walkway, cutting it off from the present tree-lined sidewalks, famed for their seasonal beauty.

As if such "tree-lined sidewalks" even existed then! There's much more to say about this, but it has already been written by Jacco Zwetsloot in a letter to the editor published a few days ago, which can be found here. Actually, the letter that appears there was rather heavily edited and differs from the one Jacco sent to the Times, so I asked him for permission to reprint his entire letter, which he graciously granted.
Last Tuesday (26th January, 2016), the Korea Times carried a story titled “Seoul city to restore palace walkway.” It showed a map with a proposed 1.1-kilometer long walkway around Deoksu Palace, following the palace wall. It is apparently the plan of Seoul Metropolitan Government to gain access to a 170-meter-long section of wall that abuts the British Embassy. This would involve pedestrian access through embassy property. The article raised a number of interesting questions: about historical accuracy, “authenticity” of heritage, and journalistic practices.

The article states that the proposed walkway is “interrupted by the British Embassy […] and has been since 1884 when the mission purchased land near the palace.” This idea, and, by extension, that the British and U.S. embassies purchased land around the palace, thereby encroaching upon it, is one I have seen repeatedly over the years. However, it is misleading. Deoksu Palace was not a fully-fledged “beop-gung” (a palace where a monarch resides) before King Gojong issued orders from the Russian Legation in 1896 to construct his new palace.

Why did he choose this area? The answer lies in the history of Jeongdong neighborhood. It was once owned by the Joseon Dynasty’s ruling Yi family. Prince Wolsan (1454-1488), older brother of King Seongjong, 9th king of Joseon, once had his official residence there. Although called Deoksu Palace, it was humbler and smaller than a kingly residence, having no throne hall for instance. During the Imjin Wars (Hideyoshi Invasion) of the 1590s, after King Seonjo had fled to the far north and then returned to the capital, he lived temporarily at this old residence, becoming the first king to do so. This is because Gyeongbok and Changdeok Palaces had been destroyed or made unlivable by the population of Seoul, who were angry at his having deserted them.

Once Changdeok Palace was rebuilt in 1618, King Gwanghaegun moved there, Deoksu was renamed Gyeongun, though it was also known as the “Western Palace”; it served as a lesser auxiliary palace until King Gojong’s time. During the intervening centuries, parts of the land around this residence were sold or given to the powerful Min family, and they sold parcels of it to the first Western legations, whose arrival, beginning with the Americans in 1883, marked the opening of Korea to the non-Chinese world.

In 1894-5, the waxing Japanese and waning Chinese empires fought a war in, and for control of, the Korean peninsula; Japan won. Barely 6 months later, Japanese agents and their Korean henchmen infiltrated Gyeongbok Palace to assassinate Queen Min (later given the posthumous title Empress Myeongseong). This caused King Gojong to flee with Crown Prince Sunjong, never to return again.

By 1896, the year that King Gojong spent boarding with the Russians atop Jeongdong’s highest hill, there were also British, American, French, Austro-Hungarian and German legations nearby. A permanent “safe haven” from both Japanese and Chinese influence would have been attractive, and having a palace in Jeongdong was a very visible way to moved Joseon closer to Western powers. It was at this time that Gojong ordered Deoksu Palace to be expanded, rebuilt, and upgraded. Except for Jeukjo-dang and Seogeo-dang, which had long stood there, all buildings and structures date from that feverish period of construction. Upon King Gojong’s move here in early 1897, he proclaimed the Great Han Empire, had himself crowned Emperor, and Deoksu Palace became Gyeongun again -- now as the first imperial palace in Korean history.

It should be clear, then, that the legations in Jeongdong predate the existence of Deoksu Palace as a fully-fledged royal palace. There can be no sense in which the palace was spoiled by the arrival of Western powers in the late Joseon Dynasty. Indeed, the palace became what it did because of the presence of the legations.

Moving on to look at the question of authenticity of heritage, I note also that last Tuesday’s article used the words “restoration” and “recovery” to talk about the proposed new walkway. It is a common theme of historical sites around the world to claim authenticity and genuineness as virtues, but this is often a fraught and deeply contested idea.

A quick look at the signboard map beside the Deoksu Palace ticket window shows that the original palace perimeter looked very different than it does today. In fact, the complex is today about one third its size in 1897, and most people will be surprised to learn that much of the present wall was built no earlier than the late 1960s.

Construction of the original wall was still ongoing when Gojong moved to the palace, and was not completed until 1900, his fourth year as emperor. During his reign, the palace wall had gates to the British, American and Russian legations, perhaps in case the king needed to flee again. After his abdication in 1907, forced by the Japanese unhappy with his attempts to have Joseon represented at The Hague Peace Conference, Gojong remained in Gyeongun Palace, and the name reverted to Deoksu Palace for the last time. Seonwonjeon, a network of buildings where the sacred portraits of past kings were stored in the northern part of the palace, was dismantled and removed to Changdeok Palace; the site was sold. In 1915, Jungmyeongjeon, once the imperial library and Gojong’s temporary residence after a massive fire in 1904, became the headquarters of the Seoul Club.

Gojong’s death in 1919 led to the March 1st Independence Movement, but also provided the opportunity for the Japanese colonial government to tear down even more palace buildings and sections of wall. Dondeokjeon, a western-style building, was torn down, and the western wall of the palace was moved inwards, in order to build a two-lane road between the palace and the US legation. The eastern palace wall was later also moved inwards for the widening of Taepyeong-ro.

Sadly, destruction did not end with Korea’s Liberation. In the 1960s, the entire eastern wall facing City Hall was demolished and replaced with an iron fence. Taepyeong-ro was widened once more, leaving the Daehan Gate of the palace orphaned in the middle of a busy road, until its removal to its present location in 1970. The iron fence was once more replaced with a stone wall in 1968, except for the north east corner, where a police sub-station was built that stood until 1994. A diplomat formerly stationed in Seoul remembers that the gate between the British Embassy and the palace still stood there in the 1980s, but it was removed sometime later by either Seoul Metropolitan or the Korean Government. Perhaps the only section of wall that is in its original location and (more or less) original condition is the western end of the south wall, where the abutments of a pedestrian bridge that once connected the palace to the Uijeongbu (or State Council of Joseon).

Therefore, the idea of “restoring” the palace wall to its former glory and then putting a walkway all the way around it is a very difficult one, since so much of former palace land is now something else, and most of the wall was built in its current location and form after King Gojong’s death. The erstwhile existence of gates connecting the palace to at least three foreign legations shows further that there never was a pathway for ordinary citizens to walk around the entire palace wall. The authentic historic experience that the city wants to re-create through the construction of the circumferential walkway is in fact a new creation, and a very modern invention, connected to ideas of heritage tourism and universal ownership of national history. Nevertheless, the idea is an appealing one that, if it succeeds, would doubtless attract many visitors to the area and grow the interest in Korea’s early modern history.

The final point I would like to raise is a brief but important one. It was surprising that last Tuesday’s article contained quotations from both Seoul Metropolitan Government’s plan and a current City Council member, but no word from the British Embassy. Most embassies have staff that handle public affairs and media relations, and given that the proposed walkway would enter and exit embassy gates and traverse embassy property, one would imagine that the British government would be keen to have a voice in discussing any such plan, especially given modern-day concerns about diplomatic security, personal safety and privacy, but there was no mention of it in the article. Normally in such circumstances, one would at least expect to see a sentence like, "The embassy was not available for comment," or, "We reached out to the embassy, but did not receive a response by time of press," or even, "The embassy declined to comment for this story." The absence of any such statement could leave a newspaper open to the criticism that not enough had been done to get all sides of the story. I think this is a regrettable editorial decision from your otherwise fine newspaper, to which I have subscribed for over 10 years.
Jacco Zwetsloot
Many thanks to Jacco for permitting me to reprint the full letter. He covers a great deal of history there, and I thought I'd add a few photos to illustrate some of what he wrote about.

Here is a photo of Deoksugung Palace in 1961 after the wall had been torn down and replaced with a fence (also seen in the last photo here), with a gate standing in the northeast corner; this was before Taepyeongno was widened.

(From here.)

Here is a photo of Daehanmun orphaned in the middle of the road after the wall was rebuilt in 1968 but before it was moved westward to its current location in 1970:

From here (where lots of photos can be seen).

Here is Dondeokjeon, which was built in 1901 and destroyed around 1926 to allow the Japanese to punch a road through between the U.S. consulate and Deoksu Palace:

(From here.)

Here it is in relation to Seokjojeon, which still stands today; it likely wasn't necessary to tear it down, but the fact that Sunjeong, the last Korean monarch, was crowned there may have have made its demolition more tempting.

(From here.)

It can also be seen in the background of this photo of Samil protesters in 1919 walking around Deoksu palace (most likely to the US Consulate), which should make clear that one could not walk around the palace back then. (Originally from this post.)

Jacco managed to find a column by Nam Jeong-ho in the Joongang Ilbo which dealt with this issue and in which the UK Embassy was actually contacted, and the Embassy said that due to a number of issues the cost quoted by the city (2.8 billion won) is likely far too low, and it may be closer to 10 billion won. Nam suggests that a way around this would be simply to allow people to walk through the back gate (Podeokmun) of the palace and open the north gate near the British Embassy entrance to allow people to walk "around" the palace. Needless to say, it would certainly be a lot cheaper.

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