Walls are lining up through the west side of the plaza to cover the construction site.
/Photography by Yoo Joon-sang
Last November, the Seoul Metropolitan Government began the restructuring project of Gwanghwamun Square, which plans to change the west side road of the square into a pedestrian-friendly plaza. The construction work began on March 6th starting with blocking the road on the square’s western side. However, on March 18th, during the process of breaking down the existing road, various historical artifacts and ruins such as traces of waterways and buildings of the Joseon Dynasty were discovered. The Seoul Metropolitan Government said that they would complete the excavation as soon as possible so that the public can enjoy the ruins with high historical value.
Gwanghwamun Square has undergone lots of changes over time
The discovery of the remains would not be a huge surprise when looking through the history of Gwanghwamun Square. In the Joseon Dynasty, the place where Gwanghwamun Square is located nowadays was a street called Yukjo Street, where the central government offices of the Joseon Dynasty were located. Therefore, it is estimated that there are still many historical artifacts and remains buried under Gwanghwamun Square. In 1910, after depriving Joseon of its sovereignty, the Japanese Empire destroyed part of Gyeongbokgung Palace and built the Joseon General Government Building to violate the Joseon Dynasty’s ethnicity. During this process, Gwanghwamun was also moved to the eastern side of the palace. After the independence, Gwanghwamun had to go through several restoration projects as it was destroyed during the Korean War. Finally, with the opening of Gwanghwamun Square in 2009, the restored Gwanghwamun was revealed to the public on National Liberation Day of 2010. However, as the plaza is located in the middle of the road, there were some criticism that the plaza lacks accessibility. Also, due to the noise from the roads on each side and frequent protests, Gwanghwamun Square became like an island trapped in the road where people rarely visit except for some foreign tourists.
Discussion of the Gwanghwamun Square reconstruction project began
The reconstruction project of Gwanghwamun Square appeared in 2017 as the candidate for the 19th presidential election Moon Jae-in pledged to move the presidential office from Cheongwadae to Government Complex-Seoul, which is located next to Gwanghwamun Square. The main idea of the pledge was that the President could communicate with the citizens easily and also revitalize depressed Gwanghwamun Square by moving the presidential office to Gwanghwamun. After he got elected as the 19th President, the government revealed a plan to move every road around Gwanghwamun Square underground and make it entirely pedestrian-friendly road and park stretching from Gwanghwamun to Sejong-daero intersection. To restore historicity, they also planned on restoring Woldae, which was a plaza located in front of Gwanghwamun that held various events and ceremonies of the palace in the Joseon Dynasty and moving the statues of Haechi into their original location. However, due to many difficulties such as choosing where the presidential office will be and the President guarding and security leakage problems, it could not come to reality. Nevertheless, the Seoul Metropolitan Government could not give up on revitalizing the plaza. Therefore, they concluded an agreement with the Cultural Heritage Administration, and last November, planned the restructuring of Gwanghwamun Square to change the road on the western side into a plaza.
However, the construction stopped for a while as Oh Se-hoon, a candidate for the Seoul mayoral by-election on April 7th, was elected as the new mayor. Since he asserted that the reconstruction of the plaza is not a good administration. After going through reconsideration, mayor Oh announced that although the reconstruction project was a controversy, it will continue. He explained that as 34 percent of the process has already been done and a huge amount of budget has been put into this project, reexamining the whole project will only give inconvenience to the citizens and cause unnecessary disputes and conflicts. He also announced that restoration of Woldae and reviving the trace of Yukjo Street will be added to the current plan for the restoration of history and will finish up the project as soon as possible.
Various opinions exist surrounding the reconstruction of Gwanghwamun Square
Once the Gwanghwamun Square reconstruction project is completed, it might get a good appraisal as citizens will be able to access the plaza without crossing the road. In addition, by associating it with Sejong-daero Human Forest Road, it forms a huge pedestrian street in the center of the city from Gwanghwamun to Seoul station. However, there are some criticisms that the acting mayor pushed the project urgently when the by-election was only five months away. Also, there are some worries that the poor traffic around the plaza due to frequent protests could get worse as the roads get narrower. Jeong Yun-ho, who has been living in Jongno-gu since he was little, said “Sometimes, Gwanghwamun Square feels just like a place for political events like rallies and protests. Though the traffic around the area might get worse during the reconstruction period, I think renewed Gwanghwamun Square will be a place where citizens can relax and enjoy picnic in the middle of the city.”
Balance between city development and historic preservation is necessary
Although there has been a controversy, the reconstruction was set to continue. What matters now is how the discovered remains will be preserved and revealed to the public and whether the development will be done without lacking historic preservation and changes for the citizen’s convenience. As Seoul is a city where Hanyang, a capital of the Joseon Dynasty for over 500 years, used to be and was developed rapidly over a short period of time, there are many cases that historical sites were found in the process of development. Here are some examples of the city development that preserved the history well.
During the construction of the new Seoul city hall, various old weapons such as cannons and arrow heads were discovered. After the investigation, it turned out that it was the site of Gungisi, a weapon manufacturing organization of the Joseon Dynasty. The Seoul Metropolitan Government decided to preserve the excavation site and opened an exhibition room that displays the excavated artifacts. The exhibition room is on the first basement floor of the new city hall and open to the public for free. Also, when visiting the buffet of the Four Seasons Hotel Seoul, which is one of the five-star hotels located near Gwanghwamun, a unique experience of having a meal above the excavation site preserved with the glass floor is available. During the process of building the hotel, the historical artifacts, including pieces of roof tile, pottery, and remains of structures, were discovered. It might have been an embarrassing situation for the hotel at first. However, they changed it into their special point by deciding to preserve it inside the hotel with a glass floor.
Gwanghwamun Square is not just a plaza for Korean people. When a global sports competition like the World Cup is held, people gather at Gwanghwamun Square and cheer for the victory of Korea. It is also a place that represents the democracy of Korea. When an unfair social issue breaks out, people show that the sovereign power resides with the citizens in a peaceful way by gathering at the square holding candles. Yun-ho said, “One of the most unforgettable experience I had at Gwanghwamun Square is the Summer festival held on 2017 wishing for the success of the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games. It was fun and surprising that I could enjoy various activities such as swimming and bobsledding in the city center. As I have many good memories about Gwanghwamun Square, I hope the reconstruction project to be completed successfully so that it could be welcomed by everyone.”
Yoo Joon-sang firstname.lastname@example.org
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