South Korea President Yoon’s Blue House move to reshape Seoul

The decision by South Korea’s incoming leader to move the presidential office away from its current address in the north of Seoul to an underdeveloped neighborhood best known for its US military presence could significantly reshape the 600-year-old capital politically and economically.

President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol, who beat out the ruling-party candidate in a closely fought election in March and who will be sworn in on Tuesday (May 10), vowed not to step into the current presidential office known as the Blue House, named for the 150,000 hand-made blue tiles that adorn its roof.

He plans to move his office instead to a Defense Ministry complex in Yongsan district about 5km south, and open the Blue House to the public.

The move would shift the center of power to one of the city's largest districts, where redevelopment has been in fits and starts for two decades due to massive costs and opposition from local residents. It would also take the president out of the central Seoul location that had been the seat of government for six centuries as monumental historical events unfolded around it.

Yoon comes to power as a conservative former prosecutor whose victory marks a hawkish turn in South Korean politics.

He has blasted the Blue House as a “symbol of imperial power” and defended the relocation as a move that presents a more democratic presidency to the public, while also citing security and logistical reasons for moving: the Defense Ministry building houses a military bunker.

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The Blue House complex sits in the northern part of Seoul in the Washington DC-like Jongno district, occupying an area of about 250,000 sq m nestled behind Gyeongbuk Palace. Nearby is the Gwanghwamun Square, the historical locus of mass protests in South Korea including those that brought an end to military dictatorship in the 1980s.

It is also flanked by mountains, which makes it a natural fortress against potential North Korean artillery attacks—even though the regime has still attempted to breach the grounds. In 1968, North Korean commandos disguised as South Koreans climbed those mountains and raided the complex in a foiled attempt to kill then-President Park Chung-hee.

Meanwhile, Yongsan had long been a popular stationing site for foreign troops due to its vantage point over downtown Seoul and its proximity to the Han river. It had been a supply base for invading Japanese samurai in the 16th century, and then home to the Japanese colonial army in the early 20th century.

US forces had been stationed there almost continuously since the end of World War II, but are now in the midst of moving out of the capital.

The new presidential office is a 10-storey building in a larger complex of about 270,000 sq m that also houses various military agencies such as the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Yoon’s office has launched a survey allowing the public to submit ideas to name the building, and the chosen entry will win 6 million won (US$4,800). Yoon has said that in the interim he will call the building "People’s House".

Artmotion Asia

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